Saturday, January 27, 2007

Kylie Minogue and Aural Transvestitism

I use an iPod on a daily basis. Mine is one of the early video incarnations of the device, though I have yet to purchase any features or music videos, even. With the exception of the video pieces of mine which I have uploaded onto the device, the only visuals it ever displays are the album covers for the tracks which it currently plays.

In my day to day, I ride the subway to work, music, all the while, plays in my ears. There’s a peculiar tendency which I have noticed when, above ground – and without the scrutiny of my fellow subway passengers – I begin to imitate the gestures of the song to which I am listening. This behavior has been most notable in my recent and exhaustive listening to Kylie Minogue. Not that this phenomenon is in any way isolated to the Aussie Pop songstress. I imagine it could be claimed for Pop music, at large – or vocally based music, period, with its infectious identification. Yet Pop is the avenue which most prolifically perpetuates the visual cues to its aural basis. The formulaically mechanical and glistening sheen of the Pop video, in a great many ways mirrors my iPod. Sleek, shiny, minimal – the sound, unbearable by technical standards (a step back in our step forward?) much like Pop’s role as lesser genre when approached critically. It does, however, yield the greatest revenue in the industry. My tastes tend to steer rather clear of most Pop top 40 sensations – not that I think ill of them – and writing this article here, in the United States, alienates the greater mainstream associations to Kylie who is still, surprisingly, not a household name. Across the oceans, a gaggle of other countries feel very differently about Minogue; there, she is a force to be reckoned with. She’s certainly been on my mind lately – probably more than any healthy person would care to admit to.

I’ve watched all of the DVDs – and there are many: Live In Sydney, Live In Manchester, Live at the Apollo in London, Ultimate Kylie: The Videos… All of this supplies me with a vast visual repertoire to associatively marry to the music. So, when I hear the single, “Come Into My World,” not only do I conjure Michel Gondry’s lovely video that finds Kylie circling the same few city blocks, perpetually stumbling upon a multitude of other selves, who all seems to absent-mindedly drop their purses as they exit the dry cleaners (but, don’t worry, prior Kylie always retrieves the former’s goods), I also see RoboKylie being brought to life upon the stage of her 2002 Fever tour and the Showgirl Tour's torch song Kylie, taking it down a notch, while the glittering crescent moon on which she’s perched is lifted “up, up, high up on your love.”

I see these images in my mind, replay them to their audio counterparts. Sound and image are inextricably wed – so much so that a particular enigma occurs when I walk down the street, music thumping. So steeped am I in the tracks visual cues, and so interior is the act of listening to the iPod’s closed circuit sphere (or, literally, pod) of a headphone inserted in each ear, that, in effect, the video becomes the basis for the stage onto which I cast myself. The iPod’s implied pod (that interior which separates myself from the world around me) sets the aural scene and my visual world, unmediated/unproduced, reels in competition. ‘Where,’ my eyes wonder, ‘are my robotic dancers to exorcise these beats?’ This music floods my mind, becomes my thoughts – for don’t thoughts occupy that same bit of matter which is trapped between each headphone, blare with the same interiority as that music? If it rests in that same space as my thoughts, am I not correctly mistaking these songs as my own, of my own imagining? I, in a sense, authorize this music. So misguided, my ears fulfilled, were we to follow this thought to its logical end, I engage in a covert form of transvestitism. I, for the tracks’ duration, allow myself to become Kylie Minogue. With the knowledge of the videos' gestures – but stronger still, with their burning absence – I assume their step. I throw my hip like the white-clad Kylie in the “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” promo. I pale in comparison, of course, but the potency of this performance is most critical in its outward view from within.

It is a similar concept to the bedroom-singing-into-the-hairbrush paradigm, though the inner sanctum of the bedroom has been further inverted to within the body itself (to the furthest possible interior) while the concrete locale has become public. Interestingly, the private becomes (literally) the interior of the self. What’s more, the ubiquitous threat of discovery (the daring and nervy end of the performance – the sanctum being violated and you, caught mid note) and the humiliation which results of this impersonation are so totally magnified because of their publicity. Humiliation is almost assured as your location drifts from private to public. Interior conflict becomes: to perform (yield to your performative desires) or conform (to public, read social, codes of conduct).

Is walking down the street, traipsing as Kylie, then, a socially rebellious gesture? On the one hand, this enigma could be viewed as the digital ideal of those ladies documented in Jennifer Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning. “Passing,” there, meant a gender transformation so complete and undetected of its malleability, that they fit in to the world at large. Livingston’s ladies were part of the scene at the Harlem Drag balls. The Drag ball, which is foremost a theatrical world, reached its apex when the voguer would be indiscernible as the opposite gender from which they performed. Here, we are presented with an anomaly where the masquerade as opposite gender may be interiorized – met aurally – unfettered by the need for physical transformation. One may "pass" on the street as male, yet because of this aural interiority, the assumption of the opposite sex is covertly enacted. (Of course, this is as it pertains to drag’s theatrical desires. The shift from male to female for people of the transgender community is a far more complicated one – one which cannot be exacted through a mere iPod!)

Being Kylie could be too specific. So rooted is my metamorphosis in a(nother’s) projected (and mediated) image of “self.” And I do not, for a moment, think Kylie to be an actual person – at least, not the Kylie I know. There are far too many factors determining her for there to truly be a her. She is a role. For an apt analogy, she is a costume to be donned and discarded (by the “real” Kylie, or from my outward vantage, by myself). I am, in truth, being fed a very traditional, one might even venture to argue misogynistic, icon of femininity. Girl next door and sex pot are not the most progressive roles for a woman (or myself) to embody. But drag has always found its purpose in both extremes and the exaggeration of stereotypes. The ladies of Paris Is Burning are almost absurdly feminine.

And, ultimately, the headphones are removed from my ears, the player is paused, the spell is broken. The traipse is an escape and the world still goes on around us. However brashly one might criticize escapism, though, the politically charged gender play is, at least at some level, insurmountable. It’s there, and certainly a determining factor in contemporary pop music. I’m glad I don’t have videos on my iPod. If I did, I would only be able to watch little digital Kylie walk in her circles. For these short moments, I would not be able to come into her world.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Because We Are Your Friends*

*You'll Never Be Alone Again.

So I've not really been as negligent as it may appear. For the past couple months I've been culling together a selection of writings which I'll self-publish earlier this year (stay tuned) called Bad: Critical Musings on Film's Faultier Gems - hence the lack of recent posts. But it's not that I haven't been thinking. Over the past week, during a moment of great fiscal famine, I resigned to my apartment, armed with season one of Melrose Place to fill the time which I could not allot to more socially driven exercises.

Now we're talking 24 hours of entertainment (excluding the special features, of course) packed onto 8 discs. Though I'm still three eps shy of completion, it's already got my mind churning on a far more complicated structural phenomenon which, not only assured Melrose Place its steady audience, but is one of the greater determining factors of filmic/televisual viewing. From soulless Hollywood pictures to obscure foreign cinema, serial use of the star is something which, though analyzed indepth as it pertains to individual studies (biography, development, genre tropes), is not something frequently ruminated upon in contemporary film studies. Why, for instance, do I shriek with glee when Amanda (Heather Locklear) finally assumes her role as Queen Bitch and proclaim "Oh, Sammy Jo"?

Has Melrose Place ever laid claim to her bitch heritage, explicitly? Has there been a direct meta moment in which even the word "Dynasty" or title "Sammy Jo" uttered? No. And yet, we bring to these actors an understanding of their role within a larger narrative framework. Of course, a great joy arrives when an actor place against type - think Kristin Davis' transformation from Melrose maven to Sex and the City's sheltered Charlotte, or, more decorously, Barbara Stanwyck's fluid shifting from Double Indemnity to Christmas in Connecticut - but, more often than not, a great determinant to Pop success lies in its conduit's familiarity. I know Heather Locklear. I know she's a bitch - at least, that is how I understand her from her previous roles. When she appears in Melrose Place as Alison's chummy work partner, we bide our time, safe in knowing that soon the dragon shall be unleashed. It's easy, but positively rewarding.

That authoritative understanding of character (how I know Amanda before she shows her true colors) is key to the way we approach any given work - be it art, film or literature. Preconceptions are always great determining factors in how and what we choose to consume. It's the drive which makes my mother (and perhaps, secretly, myself) eager to see Words and Music even though the plot matters nil to the fact that it stars romantic regulars Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. But there is a more affirmative, even authoritative gesture in serial character recognition.

It's one which German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder understood fabulously. Branching out in film from theater, he brought along his troupe and seldom made a film without an assortment from his wealth of "regulars." Each actor typically imbued a certain genre type: Margit Carstensen was his neurotic spinster; Briggite Mira his elder, put-upon worker; Hanna Shygulla, his tabula rasa en route to corruption; Irm Hermann, alien. It was a structure he would coyly exploit. Following her sincere performances in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, with Chinese Roulette, Briggite Mira is cast again as a woman of labor, but a decidedly more viscous one who takes sips from the liquor cabinet and longs for the death of her employers. Carstensen, made famous by her appearance as the title character of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, appears in Fassbinder's critique of bourgeois politiciality, The Third Generation, as a character smugly named Petra. And yes, when Carstensen hits the screen, however dramatic or calculating the film, I indiscriminately shriek "oh Margit!"

As I read them, Fassbinder's films become an elongated, schizophrenic soap opera. It's apt that the pinnacle of his artistic production was Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 13 1/2 hour, fourteen episode television miniseries. Unleashing his plethoric crew of actors on this mammoth production, regulars in typical roles earned the time for the Soapy episodic development only hinted at in their prior, internarrative character plays. Your familiarity initially informs them, but they are allowed a development alienated by feature structure. Fassbinder, a famous Sirk enthusiast, would have culled (and expanded) this approach from Sirk's use of actors like Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, who would be perennially recast as the same figure - however differing their settings and situations. Fassbinder celebrates and subverts this in his meta-recognition, but it is the viewer who must ultimately make the associative links which create his films as one epic, genre-weaving saga.

It's a wide chasm, but a wholly similar one which instills the giddy recognition at play in Melrose Place. Here, we are, of course, given full and linear character development - though it is not one without its exterior influences. In discussing my marathon with friends, people were endlessly referring to Andrew Shue, not by his name, but as "Elizabeth Shue's brother." Daphne Zuniga to was cooed with people's prior affectations to her. It's no new claim to understand the appeal of Soap actors (or just actors in general) as viewer's familiars or "friends." Finding comfort in the recognizable is common. I just find the amount of meta-narrative associations rather fascinating when they come into play - particularly as it pertains to Genre - and the Soap is nothing more than a logical evolution of the Women's picture.

>Fassbinder's films, however searing, were ultimately Women's films. Though it would be totally daft to claim this a phenomenon exclusive to the Ladies' movies. Think of all of the outside sources at play within Action cinema - from Stallone to Die Hard to Crank and back to Jean Claude Van Damme. I'm constantly claiming, to much initial consternation, that there is little difference between a Women's Film and the most sensational Shoot-Em-Up fare. It is, in part, evidenced by this inter-role play. Part confiding, part reassuring, these are figures who have not only marked a prior moment in our lives (and thus function as a sort of nostalgic aphrodisiac) but are dependable to reappear and remind us of their consistency, so that we may shriek once more, "Oh, Sammy Jo!"

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Best of 2006!

So, I've been waiting to write my "best of 2006" list (which is sort of the best begrudging chore of a critic - best, as one must sift, sort and prioritize, rehashing a year spent in springy seats - and worst if, like this year, the product most ready for viewing left a great deal to be desired) until I have seen everything available. And though there are a few key pictures which I would like to see and consider, as of this very moment in time, I have not yet indulged. One might chastise me for writing this before seeing something like The Departed, but alas... there are only so many hours in the day, and I'd rather watch a Spanish musical about a narcoleptic pre-op tranny with a 10" dick than watch Jack do his schtick. Call me closed minded. Whateve.

Because all of the sure-fires were sure-stinkers (Superman Returns, The Black Dahlia, All the King's Men) this is the year of the sleeper. With a couple exceptions, I found the only pictures worthy of any sort of best of acknowledgement were slimly budgeted foreign or indie fare - not because I am totally pretentious mind you (though one could argue I am plenty that), but because these sweet little pictures had a great deal more to say than their verbose and bulbous counterparts.

1. Shortbus - This utopian tale of troubled sexuality ranked top today because of its capacity to throw caution to the wind in its distinct brand of idealism. Resulting in a wholly vivacious and rambunctious offering, Shortbus shines with more heart than I can think of in any picture that I've seen in recent years. Oh, the film is flawed in a good many ways, but its decision to work against the grain of Hollywood's fashionable nihilism, instead creating a sexual fairytale landscape (though one not naive to its bleak surroundings), is truly compelling.

2. Shadowboxer - Brilliant for its inadequacies, Shadowboxer proved my most memorable theatrical outing of the year. I'm hard pressed to think of a single moment of the film which could be read as plausible. The film follows Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as an assassin duo of lovers. Mirren's dying of cancer, and when, on what is to be her final hit, an opportunity at religious redemption lands in her lap, she accepts it with that straight face only Mirren is capable of. Gracious support is to be found in one of the most varied motley crew of actors: Monique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Dorff and the inimitable Macy Gray make the film an absolute delight as they stumble about, all too game, and unsure of their purpose in the film at hand.

3. Little Miss Sunshine - Perhaps the only major studio offering which didn't purport more than it could possibly deliver, Little Miss Sunshine's existential slightness worked to its best advantage. For what other fun summer romps can you think of which take stabs at Proust, Nietzsche, 12 Step Programs, adolescent beauty pageantry and sexuality in America without seeming heavy handed? Taking its quiet cues from perhaps more complicated 70's fare, Little Miss Sunshine is no grand work of cinema, but is so much the better for never masquerading as such. Though the perfect cast (what's more, with perfect chemistry) is rounded out by a comic great like Alan Arkin and an underused Toni Colette (reminding the world of her impeccable comedic chops), introducing Abigail Breslin and giving Paul Dano a first mature moment in the sun, the real show-stealer is the agonizing downfall of Steve Carrell as the suicidal number one... oops, make that number two Proust scholar in America. Now that's comedy.

4. Somersault - Doing a theatrical run in the United States practically undetected, Somersault is a whisper-quiet Australian coming of age film. Perhaps best known as introducing Miss Abby I-Broke-Up-Reese-and-Ryan Cornish, it should be better recognized as a sensitive and lyrical portrait of an aimless girl. Having been caught kissing her mother's boyfriend, Heidi escapes to an off season ski resort and takes a job as a gas station clerk. Of course there's all sorts of teenage anguish brewing, but its rendered in the most exquisite and sensitive of lights. Somersault achieves the absurdly rare feat of depicting character development and maturity at its most painfully plausible. If Cornish will just stay out of the tabloids long enough to make a picture, we might have a shining future starting here...

5. Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth - Both films herald the same dystopic distrust of humanity, yet are still absolutely enamored with mankind's potential for good. Where Pan's Labyrinth locates its macabre fairytale in the recent past of Franco's occupation, Children of Men finds itself ruminating on the end of fertility in the not-too-distant future. Both take great care in showing man's potential for absolute devastation (with the most unwavering depiction of brutality) yet nurture the same dream that we might become selfless and devote ourselves to a greater good. Where Children of Men's optimism is a tad syrupy, Pan's Labyrinth is necessarily steeped in it. Both must also be applauded for their sobriety in the face of their escapist genre trappings. These are the best examples of social commentary around.

6. Volver - Will Pedro ever stop? Of course, the answer Should be 'Please, God, no!' But really, what other director churns out such cohesive gems with such regularity? This time around, we are treated to a world which has completely washed its hands of the male sex. This sturdy understanding which Almodovar has for the Women's Movie is as reifying yet as dismantling as, say, Altman's approach to the Western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. His direction of Cruz is nothing short of majestic - yet the real pleasure here is watching Almadovar and Carmen Maura play off one another. Her's is a subdued character, but never has subdued been so alive and fulfilling.

7. Brothers Of The Head - Another picture which slunk by the general public in theaters, earning IFC films a mortifying mere $44,000, this alleged documentary is one of the last great loveletters to Film as a medium. Like last year's Last Days, Brothers works with the quality of film itself, considering its materiality aesthetically. In the best of moments, its pure bliss; like early photography's movement of Pictorialism, the grainy filmstock, which presents itself as having been plucked from the seventies, captures its surprisingly complex subjects (which are two conjoined twins, signed to a novelty label, who rebel and record a Punk record) with a sumptuous ambiguity. The film oscillates from remarkably complex to dangerously simplistic, yet ultimately comes out on top - thanks to spot-on performances by the twin leads.

8. Heading South (Vers Le Sud) - Nothing short of nasty, this vicious account of sexual vacationing states best its intentions in its female leads' voracious glances. A battle of wills is set into place when Brenda (Karen Young) vies for more amorous affections with a particular Haitian native than the mere sexual ones which the other women so desire. Her arch rival is the implacable Charlotte Rampling, who is not willing to give up her favorite "boy" without a fight. And though the other women claim mere sexual want, as the film progresses, their predatory demeanors begin to crumble and the social implications came plainfully into broad daylight. Vers Le Sud says quite beautifully what Lars Von Trier aimed to force in this year's (mostly)disappointing Manderlay.

9. Time To Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste) - Where it might live in the shadow of his masterpiece, Under The Sand (Sous Le Sable), his second installment in a trilogy of coping with death, François Ozon's appreciation of the melodrama infuses weight and lyricism where there might have only been melancholy. The film's great stroke is its treatment of memory which comes in waves - equal parts reassurance and regret. Romain (Melvil Poupaud) is a successful fashion photographer who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jeanne Moreau arrives to lend an assured hand as Romain's grandmother and the magnificent Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi lends her mysterious and humbly sexual charisma. It is Ozon's now refined understanding of mise en scene and timing which lift the film above maudlin-fest 2006.

10. The Descent - Women. Cave. Not the subtlest of analogies, its true. But I've been itching for a good ol' horror movie for quite some time. Hyped out the ass, it arrived this year in the form of The Descent. This time, however, the film lived up to its claim, though not because of the nasty beasties who are to be the film's primary horror, but for (a) the film's first half of beasty-free harrowing spelunking and (b) director Neil Marshall's fear of female deception. Our 6 sporty ladies dip into an uncharted cave and become trapped in the oh-so-tight crevices. For anyone even remotely claustrophobic (me) the film is a nightmare. But wait, there's a whole backstory of marital deception and petty competition. Even when the beasties do show up, the insane use of frantic editing during the girls-fight-back sequences is positively squirm inducing in its confused torture of who's maming who?

And a few for the shortlist: The Intruder, 20 Centimeters and Gabrielle.