In Transition/Under Construction Part 3

Autostraddle is running a multipart series about perspectives on queer feminism, so I figured it would be a good time to present mine. I'm also going to throw my hat in the ring to join in for the next part if they're interested in adding a trans perspective to the mix.

Looking back on it now with my spiffy hindsight goggles, I think I was being steered towards becoming a feminist since around the time I was born. Stretched out along a timeline it really feels like part a long and difficult process that went from taking women as a whole off of a lofty pedestal to figuring out just what a woman- especially a strong one- really was and finally realizing that she is what I’d been striving my whole life to become despite that pesky penis of mine. Because of that it feels a little bit wrong to place the emphasis on the tipping point that pushed me into taking up the mantle of feminism, but I’ll get over it because I’m sure that as I continue to sort through the tangle of my identity as a transwoman and my feminist ideology I’ll get around to writing about all those little fits and starts at some point.

Growing up, my impression of feminism as an institution was split very decisively between past and present. What I didn’t understand until later was that it’s the line between first and second wave feminism. Women who fought for the vote and put lead weights in their parasols to defend themselves against the vile minions of the patriarchy were the epitome of cool because they didn’t take shit from anyone. They were never in short supply either because Canadian broadcasting has this really weird fetish for producing period dramas that take place in the Maritimes between the turn of the century and the Great Depression. They also produced “Heritage Minutes” that lionized pioneering feminists in Canadian history like the first female doctors and educators, which lead me to the naive conclusion that oppressing women went out with chamber pots and the bubonic plague.

My mother graduated from UVM and moved up to Canada to pursue a career as a dental hygienist. She enjoys her work and went back to it once my sister and I were school age and could be left with a babysitter for a couple hours a day. What I didn’t know until years later was that my mother had strongly considered joining the airforce, but changed her mind based on the terrifyingly high incidences of rape that women were subjected to by their fellow airmen.

I was raised to respect women, use a condom, and understand that abortion is not a difficult issue at all; it’s the woman’s body so it’s ultimately her decision. It was pretty much just baseline behaviors with no real stance one way or another on proactive feminism. Contemporary feminism had a really bad rep where I’m from- Calgary- at the time somewhat owing to none other than K.D. Lang, the barefoot vegan lesbian who kind of looked like a dude and was harshing the local cattle industry. I was mostly bewildered and vaguely hostile to the idea of her at the time because it seemed to be the prevailing attitude at the time and I wasn’t old enough yet to really understand. Somewhere around a decade later I’m kind of out as a transgendered vegetarian, so it turned out okay.

I was very geeky and ostracized as a teen, so every chance I got was spent escaping into comics and video games where more often than not I was following or controlling the exploits of a badass chick with big guns both real and metaphorical. There was always a definite sexual attraction there in the case of someone like Lara Croft, but I’m convinced now that I was also acting out my fantasies of leaving my boring awkward male body behind for a curvy and far superior female vessel. I drew reams of fan art of Lara back then, posting what I thought were the best bits in my locker and protesting vehemently when my classmates called it out as fap material. “It’s not that! Lara’s more than just hot, she’s awesome!” I would shout down the halls at them.

But it all came crashing down one night in 2004 when the curtain was pulled back and I finally understood the horrible truth. My gun toting heroines were a humbug, and a cruel one at that. I was directed to Gail Simone’s notorious Women in the Refrigerator polemic by a wise friend who understood very well that my notions of equal opportunity Nazi bashing were a far cry from an accurate indicator of female progress inside or outside of comics and the like.

The site, and the well known trope by the same name gets it’s name from an incident in Green Lantern where the eponymous hero- civilian name Kyle Rayner- came home from heroing to find a note from an enemy saying “I left you something in the fridge.” That something was the dismembered corpse of his girlfriend. A true fridging in the parlance of the scene occurs when a female character- usually a love interest- is maimed or killed solely to advance or add pathos to a male protagonist. It’s a widely used plot device in all manner of other media, but the combination of it’s startling ubiquity and Gail’s passion have for better or worse tied it to comics.

I thought I had done well by steering clear of the testosterone overloaded 90s antiheroes that made me dry heave at the sight of their inexplicably glowing eyes and proliferation of useless pouches and yet I was almost worse off. But despondency soon turned to hope as I discovered that female and queer comic fans- almost as a consequence of their marginalization- seem to have the best taste. Or at least the tight circle who took me in and rehabilitated me with a steady diet of provocative and intelligent material, did. Those comics in turn awakened a growing curiosity and passion for feminist and queer theory that exploded out of comics and into my entire worldview with the power of a thousand exploding suns. It was either that or the time that I was at the drug store as a kid trying to reach a copy of Mad Magazine and was bitten by the radioactive copy of Bitch that was lying in wait behind it.

Tony Stark Addresses Harvard Engineering Class of 2010

I used to hate doing these things, getting up here and giving the last compulsory speech to kids like you about to experience real freedom for the first time in your lives. It always seemed a little insane and condescending for someone like me who came up breaking all the rules and doing everything I could to exploit my position of privilege to lecture to kids who fought tooth and nail just to get the chance to tug at the collar of a hideous robe in sweltering heat with a flask of vodka strapped to your chest that you just cannot wait to break open. I never used to write these speeches either because I never had a single honest thing to tell kids like you before today. I had Cornell grads for that.

That didn’t matter in the Clinton years either. I was here to smile, wave, and wish you well in a world that was eager to hand you money. I saw David Simon earlier, who’s here to talk to some journalism grads. I have no idea what he could possibly tell them. Ten years ago he would make them laugh and then get real serious and you know do something like make it clear that if they gave up a source or pulled a Stephen Glass, he would find them and murder a pet or family member. That was the extent of our concerns about journalism. Now, he has to get up there and explain to them how it could possibly have been worth it to do incredibly reckless things in the name of their GPAs like take amphetamines to cram before an exam when all they’re going to have tomorrow morning is a hangover, a piece of paper, and a crushing debt load in a world that is not only in steep decline, but has jettisoned journalism as an institution almost entirely.

You’re the spawn of the Clinton years, that great little era when we still thought we could sustain the hologram America for as long as we wanted. Move the jobs overseas, borrow heavily, and create entire industries around moving money that does not even exist yet. When you were coming up, engineering was being thrust on you as the next best thing based on the Segway. Dean Kamen is a great role model, educators thought. Well, I’m here to tell you that Dean Kamen is an asshole. I punched him at a party one time, but I’m fairly certain it had nothing to do with the Segway. He did some great things like invent the first insulin pump, but no one knows that. Mention the name Dean Kamen and the only thing you hear about is the Segway, the biggest blight on engineering the world has ever seen. Smart people like Steve Jobs once said that it would revolutionize society, and to this day I have no idea why anyone would think that.

Everyone who's seen Highlander 2 raise your hand. Right, okay, I'm getting old then. Now keep that hand raised if you can tell me how a Segway is of any use to anyone in that world. Just to be clear here since maybe fifty of you even raised your hands in the first place, Highlander 2 takes place in a so called future where the sky is completely black and it’s just basically a broken shit hole. There’s no sun light to speak of and it’s just a miserable place in general. Now how would a Segway improve your life in the slightest in that time and place?

It wouldn’t, and the reason for that is that the Segway is a solution desperately seeking a problem. We lived in a world that was so sure that it had all the problems licked that it had to start inventing solutions that didn’t have problems to solve. It’s the Bush Doctrine for engineering, I suppose. Look at where we are right now. Do we need Segways with the barbarians at the gates and Rome in flames? What I want to impress upon you here today is that the paradigm of engineering that you were raised on- making things just because you can- is dead.

Engineering- true engineering and not this phony business of creating things that nobody needs or coming up with pie in the sky let’s put a tinfoil dome over the North Pole nonsense- is the fine art of problem solving. Specifically it’s making things with your hands to solve the major problems of life. For much of my early life, I made things just because I could, and the world loved me for it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I had an epiphany that changed my outlook on engineering forever.

As I’m sure you know, I was was kidnapped a few years ago by terrorists and held in a cave for weeks. Myself and another captured colleague were presented with the first real engineering problem of our lives. There was a piece of shrapnel from a mine that detonated near me lodged deep in my chest and working it’s way towards my heart. Lacking the necessary tools to extract it surgically, we created a magnetic apparatus that repulsed it powered by a car battery. That’s when I stopped building things to destroy and started building things towards more productive goals.

Being reactive, solving problems as they come along is a fine thing, but it’s not what is going to see us through what is going to probably be an awful decade. It’s our ability to identify the problems we are going to face in the future and begin developing solutions for them now. We don’t have time to sit around drawing up plans for massive geo-engineering projects that require technology and money we don’t have. We need to learn to use what we have now to solve tomorrow’s problems by yesterday. We cannot rely on politicians to sustain us on a diet of hope and change. They will not deliver us because they are cheerleaders, people who are very good at delivering very bad news and not much else.

Only us, the engineers can save the world now. But we have to stop dicking around and act like real engineers to do it. Stop tinkering on some bullshit new take on the Segway that you think will make you more money than I could spend in ten years, because it won’t happen. Go outside and look at how people are living and what they’re saying. I do that a lot. I go out and I put on a bunch of ugly shit I bought at Eddie Bauer and I buy a bowl of soup at the kind of diner where you stand up to eat. It’s not civilized or particularly dignified, but it’s what you learn to live with when you live elbow to elbow and hand to mouth in New York.

That’s the kind of place you go to find the real problems that need solving, you go to where the real people, the end users, are and you listen. The minute we stop doing that, paying attention to what the world really needed and how a product would function in the real world is the minute we become redundant. I remember hearing this one story about a kid that built some kind of portable shelter for homeless people and a few media outlets made a big deal out of what kind of a genius he must be. What they didn’t cover was that the damn thing didn’t last a day because the kid failed to account for the assholes who kicked it down just to mess with the poor bastard trying to sleep in it.

We have this tendency as Americans to get addicted to grand narratives, as if we need to be given a role in some giant stage production in order to get anything of note done. If you feel like you really need one, I’ll give you all one for free here today because you are not going to be getting one anywhere else. Your grand narrative is that you need to start making things for a world that looks like Highlander 2. Sure, you’re being undercut now by cheap third world shit because people do not want to pay for quality, but as we circle closer and closer to the drain, it is going to become critical at an equally fast rate. You need to do more than just make America spend it’s money inside it’s own shores again, you need to make America believe in quality for the first time in fifty years. This is your moment. Go out and seize it because if you don’t, there probably won’t be anyone left to pick up the pieces.

In Transition/Under Construction Part 2

Gender in the 21st century is a pretty contentious thing, which is one of the few things that most people can agree on when the topic comes up. Of course it gets even more contentious where transgender issues are concerned. If I say that gender is largely a social construction, then in some quarters it must mean that being transgendered is somehow irrelevant or counterproductive. Why would I say that I want to look and act like a woman? Isn't that supporting the idea of women and men having specific codified roles in society?

Depends on your perspective. On the one hand, referring to a certain set of qualities or characteristics as being specifically masculine or feminine does appear to support the concept of a binary gender system. However, the implementation of those characteristics and qualities by the sex opposite to that usually associated with them suggests that while they may be a specific set of tropes, they are far more modular than generally assumed. That is to say that while the traits we generally refer to as being feminine or masculine based on social expectations of heteronormativity do typically manifest themselves more or less as cohesive wholes, they do not require the corresponding sex organs. Hence the butch/femme diagnostic employed by the LGBT community.

This point- while having always been hovering somewhere in my subconscious- never made it into my conscious thought patterns until I was reading a relationship advice column in the local LGBT free newspaper Xtra West. The article was written by someone you'd generally refer to as being a "butch lesbian;" a woman attracted to other women who espouses and exalts traditionally masculine traits over feminine ones. What was interesting about the article is that it was advice for those of the butch persuasion on how to get over a bad break up. Because of the lack of male/female or sexual orientation connotations, the article was easily accessible and equally relatable to men and women both gay and straight given that they have more of an interest in building things and being stoic than buying a new pair of shoes and eating a lot of ice cream.

That modularity is what makes the butch/femme diagnostic the most useful and accurate description of contemporary gender. While it would probably be preferable to use tags that are completely free of association with the sexes, the nomenclature must remain understandable and relatable to the general public if there is to be any widespread recognition or adoption of it. Butch women and femme men may face a bigger share of discrimination and ridicule for stepping outside of the expected gender norm, but accurately describing how they express themselves is the only way forward. You cannot collapse a false dichotomy without first proving that it is false.

Just as important as removing gender from the context of sex is removing it from sexual orientation. No matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise, we do still live in a world where if you are homosexual, you are assumed to emulate the qualities of the opposite sex and visa versa. I can't say I'm aware of what the prevailing FTM stereotypes are in terms of orientation but it's rather safe to say that if you are transwoman, you are assumed to be homosexual or perhaps more accurately; androphilic. As if it is unthinkable that you could be born a man, feel more comfortable as a woman, and be sexually attracted to women all at the same time. There are, of course, a great many androphilic transwomen but gynophilic transwomen exist as well which is of course how I identify myself in that context. It's an excellent illustration of just how intrinsically linked sex, gender, and orientation are in everyday life, which is truly unfortunate given the truth of the situation.

One of the more laudable things that substituting traditional gender labels with the butch/femme diagnostic is that it breaks down barriers between the different elements of the queer community as well as those between the queer and straight communities. It provides common ground for traditionally segregated or oppositional groups. The clearest usage of the butch/femme diagnostic to break down barriers between fundamentally different groups is the propensity for straight women and (femme) gay men to socialize, something that by comparison rarely happens between straight men and (butch) lesbians.

The key here is that we are still a long ways away from being able to retire an essentially binary diagnostic tool for gender, but there is still a great deal of progress that can be made by detaching the language we use for defining gender from sex and orientation to become something completely modular. Real change occurs incrementally, after all.

In Transition/Under Construction Part 1

I’ve mostly tried to use this particular blog to talk about narratives; either my own developing ones or extant ones and how they interact with the basic fabric of our lives. An extended attempt at vindicating myself for “thinking too much” about what some of the cumulative effects on modern society the prevalent themes in the pop we digest have. Or at least that’s the self deprecating log line.

I’m going to try to steer the ship in a different direction for a while, or maybe just send out a dingy to explore an island for a bit while the ship weighs anchor off the coast. The island is the transgendered aspect of my personality. It’s something I generally avoid in most of my communication, only ever usually referring to it in passing to a select few confidants. I want to try to organize a few pieces to explore all the facets of the issue as they relate to me directly and other perspectives as well and hopefully come to terms with it as I do.

In my experience, I can only speak for myself on this, realizing that I was in fact transgendered was a slow process of questioning and awakening. One that I believe based on the testaments of my homosexual friends is not very far removed from discovering and coming to terms with your sexual orientation if it differs from societal norms. For the longest time I really knew that I did not fit in with most other guys, and of course that doesn’t mean that feeling alienated by your gender peers means that you’re trans. That’s one of the key things that anyone grappling with their gender identity has to deal with; going from the idea that they don’t want to be what they are to actively wanting to be the other thing.

It isn’t healthy or productive to define yourself as what you are not or do not want to be, despite the fact that most changes we make to our looks and how we present ourselves to the outside world are born from dissatisfaction with one thing or another. I’m too fat so I want to lose weight would be the simplest iteration to use as an example. The first thing to be thinking about is not how you can lose weight. The first thing to be thinking about is what gave you the idea that you are fat and why you feel driven to lose that weight. If you can’t fit into your favorite pants anymore and would like to fix that, you’re on the right track. It stops being about not being fat and starts being about wanting to fit into those pants again. Of course you then have to determine how much weight you should be losing and whose standards you’re working to conform to.

Gender identity works very similarly. Like I alluded to before, feeling uncomfortable in your body does not make you trans, and being trans does not necessarily mean that you should be investigating gender reassignment surgery. For me it started off with a “I’m too fat,” train of thought. General feelings of malaise and dissatisfaction with being male. But what really pushed me over the top was the positive experiences that I had either while in drag or in social contexts where I was completely free and encouraged to indulge what I would refer to as being my more feminine side. Being a guy isn’t all bad and I don’t entirely hate it. There will probably be a few things that I’ll miss about it if I do go through with transitioning- which I intend to- but at the same time my experiences that allowed me to tap into femininity in both a physical and metaphorical context were so liberating and rewarding that it seems downright masochistic not to pursue it further.

I guess from here I’ll try to pick apart the different components of the transgendered experience and try to provide some insight into how becoming cognizant of it has changed my perspective on a lot of things.

Let's Make a Sandwich

The internet is abuzz, Lady Gaga has a new video out and it is nine minutes long. That's pretty stunning in and of itself. The whole thing takes a few viewings to properly digest because it's incredibly dense for something so seemingly shallow. I want to attack this thing from about a dozen angles, so apologies if it loses coherency for the sake of completeness.

The first and most remarkable thing about the Telephone video is how queer it is. Gaga's talked about being bisexual in the media before but until The Fame Monster, it hadn't even shown itself except subtly in her lyrics. If it wasn't for the Rolling Stone interview, a lot of people including myself wouldn't have figured out that Poker Face is about distracting a guy to get with his girlfriend. By contrast, the only time anything hetero appears in the Telephone video it's Tyrese's cameo and he's really just there to be sacrificed on the altar of Beyonce and Gaga's girl-love.

It's not particularly notable for having girl-on-girl sequences, but it is very notable for how they're portrayed as this run down of Music Videos With Content of a Lesbian Nature by the ladies at Autostraddle makes very clear. Probably the biggest thing to mention is that it's Gaga herself who is making out with the ladies in the prison yard and not a proxy of some kind as is usually the case. The amount of self-possession it takes to break that kind of ground in the mainstreamiest of the mainstream is truly laudable. But it doesn't stop there. The women in the jail sequences of Telephone are not tarted up hetero girls put there to please the boys in the audience, they're a wide range of butch and femme with the butch end of the spectrum getting the most play. One of the most socially marginalized demographics in North America is African-American lesbians. To wit, recent articles have alerted me to the fact that they face wildly disproportionate discharges under the DADT act and African-American women in general (in the US) have reported a median wealth of five dollars. Despite that, it's a black leatherdyke who is given the honour of flashing Lady Gaga's own headphones in the more obvious instances of product placement in the video.

After comments about the appearance of the infamous Pussy Wagon, "Let's Make a Sandwich," and "Told you she doesn't have a dick," the product placement is one of the most discussed things about the video. What a lot of people are missing is- again- the context of that product placement. Yes, someone is on a laptop accessing Plenty of Fish and the screen brightness is magnified so that you can't possibly miss it but who is that at the keyboard but the muscly, masculine in bearing dominatrix prison guard. That's a seriously ballsy way to promote your dating site because after all this is not a Teagan and Sarah video where you could conceivably tailor a spot to appeal to a niche market sight unseen by the mainstream. The Virgin Mobile plug happens right in the middle of what was shaping up to be a jail yard lesbian threesome during which Lady Gaga is wearing sunglasses that are decorated with lit cigarettes. The sheer amount of things that offend contemporary mores and prejudices is mind boggling and any one of them would usually be enough to send any advertiser running for the hills, but Gaga's appeal seems to be making the risks involved for the firms palatable which is why she's so goddamn important.

One of the more tragic reminders of the very narrow appreciation for film- and I suppose culture in general- that my generation has is how often and to what extent Quentin Tarantino is mentioned in reference to Telephone. The reason that an artifact typing itself explicitly to Tarantino was required in order for Ackerland and Gaga to express their love for his work is that his aesthetic is very difficult to invoke without attribution because of how referential it is. The irony of course is that a very large portion of his audience has no direct experience of his influences and thus conflate anything that uses the grindhouse aesthetic with him despite the fact that he is quite vigilant in crediting his influences through his dialogue. What all too frequently gets missed is that Paparazzi of which Telephone is the narrative sequel has the shadow of Frederico Fellini looming over it just as heavily as Tarantino (his contemporaries and influences inclusive) does Telephone. Beyond evoking Fellini's life long fascination with the Italian elite- be it aristocracy or movie stars- the very name has it's genesis in his most famous film (La Dolce Vita) which is a derivation of the Italian word for "sewer rat."

Now begins speculation of which iconic film director Gaga and Ackerland will pattern their next outing after. My money is on David Lynch based on his indelible imprint on pop culture, love of Woman in Trouble narratives, and reputation for being impenetrable and "weird." After Telephone, it's hard not to hunger for their take on Mulholland Drive or Wild At Heart. Another brilliant subversion would be to take on film's most notorious and unapologetic misogynist, Lars Von Trier.

Of course this whole thing ultimately traces it's way back to Michael Jackson who is largely responsible for the music video as an art form and most definitely the progenitor of the long form version of it. Witness the side to side clawing the air look at me I am homaging Thriller dance move that Gaga has been using since Beautiful Dirty Rich or the everything but a crotch grab little dance she does on her release from prison in Telephone. Until her first splashy foray into the long form video, it was a dying art form that had become little more than a plug for the single with rapidly declining time share on the cable channels that were birthed to showcase them. When was the last time people were talking this much about a music video? Probably Marilyn Manson's Coma White video that portrayed him as JFK being shot in the head, literally over ten years ago. Of course Paparazzi- if not so much Telephone- shares a lot of themes and statements about fame and media martyrdom with Coma White and the corresponding Manson album. No wonder Gaga and Manson are BFFs.

Love her or hate her, Lady Gaga is dominating the pop culture discourse and she understands precisely how to weaponize it. She's doing the counter culture's work from within the mainstream. Infiltrate, subvert, destroy.

Ask me anything


I think that I need to finish my first novel- that vampire thing I always talk about- pretty soon. I'm always switching gears and trying to take on new perspectives thanks to that pesky hypervirus that infected my brain a few years back, but I'm feeling a growing distance forming between the me that conceived of bloodampersandink and the direction that I'm rapidly heading into. Back then, I was the fish out of water naive wannabe artist grappling with the whole falling for the bad girl thing and adjusting to life out here on the coast, and those are the goggles through which the protagonist sees the world. There's some decent sized chunks of my budding feminist dialectic in it and perhaps the early seeds of my confusion, guilt, and recriminations about my gender identity but there's no room for my full blown transgenderism or the other trappings of the rapid queering of my worldview over the last two years in the novel. I think I was trying to light the way for a contemporary brand of enlightened (post) feminist compatible masculinity, but I've fled so far and so fast from heteronormativity that I'm not sure that I can see it without squinting anymore.

It's becoming a retrospective, a eulogy of sorts I guess. This is my Dear John letter to heteronormativity, to accepting my life as a man. I'm occupying a strange kind of space right now that is completely outside the binary gender system. I've been kind of shocked at how easily and readily my friends have adapted to my... well I'm not sure if I should call it queerness or eccentricity or even if I ought to make a distinction there. For most of my life Mark has been a signifier of some kind of oddness because I've almost always been seen as an eccentric in one way or another but it's really reached it's apotheosis in my gender identity. To several, I'm Mark as if saying my name in italics is enough to define my otherness (which is just peachy with me). To some I'm one of the girls. I also have three separate nicknames integrating the word "Dyke." At some point I'll talk a bit more about the butch/femme paradigm and how it became a cornerstone of my queer informed perspective on gender and sexuality.

I was feeling pretty anxious and confused about the whole thing when I started writing this, and then I saw an article over at the Huffington Post about how Lady Gaga has posed for a magazine cover topless in leather pants, pointy Edward Scissorhands gloves, and a strap on. She's out there doing that so that I can be here doing this. Thank you Lady Gaga for reminding me that it's my responsibility and duty to go flat out. I'll be a Little Monster until the day I die.

Taylor Swift is not one of us, one of us, one of us.

I've been thinking lately that a lot of people these days have lost their sense of what it means to be subversive and dangerous. Not even subversive, I guess. The essential issue is that you can't just go by what turns your gut when you're trying to figure out what's out there having a noxious effect on the general state of affairs. It's like people are standing knee deep in sirloin talking about how there's beef in the streets a good five blocks down. To a degree, that's what got me all riled up about that site that spends its time digging for symbolism and conspiracy where there almost certainly is none. People want their conspiracies and degenerate behaviour to take on familiar forms that they can recognize and denounce. The problem is that life is not a Dan Brown novel. Symbolism in the information age is a complicated beast, and human behavior is even more complex.

I'm a student of the occult. It's fascinating, fun, and useful but as with all things you can't rely on it or a singular version of it to make sense of the whole world for you. That's when you start getting bent out of shape about a Jay-Z video and miss the real and far more serious things going on in pop culture. Beyond being distracting, conspiracy theories- especially ones that focus on occult oriented ur-groups like the Illuminati- promote a really poisonous world view. Conspiracies run by globe spanning monolithic entities are by their very nature unstoppable. Ascribing them objective reality does precisely nothing but promote defeatism, apathy, and paranoia. But I covered that on the last episode.

This morning I got an article passed my way called Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos. I'm all three, so I got ready to be offended. I'll be honest here; I've never knowingly heard one of her songs. The first I'd seen of her after having vaguely heard her name here and there was the incident with Kanye West. I don't put any stock in music award shows whatsoever, so all I really got out of it were the internet memes and the like. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Taylor Swift is in fact everything I hate. I'm not really going to get into it from the perspective of her being an incredibly regressive figure when it comes to femininity and sex. I'd rather you read the original article for that, because it's done quite well.

The thing that really angers me about her is how she is allowed to blatantly front like she's some kind of social outcast and moans on endlessly in her songs about how the pretty boys don't go for her. You'll notice a brilliant side by side comparison in the Autostraddle article of Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga expressing their perceived freakishness. Taylor is staring out the window wearing massive framed glasses and some absurd t-shirt. The Lady Gaga shot is from the Bad Romance video with the frizzy pink hair and giant iris contact lenses. The implication is that Swift's glasses are a poorly staged affectation while Gaga's appearance is the product of a far more febrile and thus genuinely unconventional mind.

I didn't immediately glom onto Lady Gaga the way that I did Shirley Manson or Pink. It took constant immersion on the dance floor during a year that was superheated with club anthems for her to catch a toehold with me. Even so it wasn't until I began curiously peeling back the layers and slowly realizing how self constructed she was that I started down the road to becoming a Little Monster. The Rolling Stone interview was when my adoration reached critical mass. Perhaps bits and pieces of it had to do with her elucidation of her origins, intent, and dialectic but it was the revelation that she is good friends with Marilyn Manson that changed everything for me. Suddenly it all slid into focus and I realized that she is in many ways the Anti-Christ Pop Star. The aesthetic similarities between her current oeuvre and Manson's Mechanical Animals phase didn't begin to surface overtly until the premiere of the Paparazzi video and has only just barely seen it's most dizzying heights with the release of the Fame Monster. Compare the videos for Bad Romance and The Dope Show if you're still skeptical.

Real geeks, the crazy visionary ones who sat in the bleachers pining for adoration and understanding of the seemingly tyrannical masses did sit in the bleachers and probably at one point or another wore glasses and stared out the window. But they never, ever let their drama stay that small. It took on truly cosmic proportions that transformed them into avatars of their dreams, nightmares, and insecurities. They built new identities, new mythologies in their little dark corners. Strapping on a pair of frames and doing your best to look meek doesn't make you an outsider, it doesn't validate you as an artist. It just outs you as a cynical predator, or a stooge for cynical predators looking to make money off teenage malaise.

I'm sure that there are people out there that are worried that there are millions of little budding maladroits out there being hoodwinked by Taylor Swift's driving in cars while crying about boys who look like sunshine at two in the morning. The real maladroits are the ones crouching in corners cursing her attempts at co-opting their suffering while the truly wretched self styled Bellas wander through life listlessly waiting for their Edwards to appear. Probably while driving in a truck while crying at two in the morning. Taylor Swift is the kind of thing that conservative parents foist on their children when they catch them with purloined copies of The Fame Monster. It's a sad state of affairs that leads to inventions like the artificial hymen, but there are now and always will be dark forces trying to hold us back. Taylor Swift might be getting her moment in the sun right now, but it really seems that the culture is not primed to be wrapped up in a regressive throwback response to the excesses of the teen idols of Five Years Ago. MTV can hand out statues to whoever they want, it won't change the fact that the people spoke long before Kanye West rushed the stage; Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to pop since Madonna and she isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and she's there precisely because she's a freak. Welcome to 2010, it's a beautiful time to be a Little Monster.

I've got 99 Problems but the Illuminati ain't one

I have the tendency to ask people this one rhetorical question; “You know what I hate?” The problem is that question never comes off as rhetorical because I hate a lot of things and people actually want to guess what’s bugging me this time even though it’s usually something brand new when I say that. I might even start a new tag called “TIH” or “things I hate” in long form. In a tag cloud it would be the size of your face.

I’m pretty sure in that last entry I meant to talk about the decontextualization of imagery in the information age, but it got lost in the shuffle of Everything I Wrote in the Last Five Years. In a certain way, the Internet experience is frequently one where people take slices of non-native media and either present them naked of their original context or present them in a new context that reconfigures their meaning. Typically this phenomenon spawns “memes” which result in “lulz.” But it also has to do with what I was talking about in reference to Fight Club where people actively refuse to look beneath the surface of the act being presented or write off the symbolic as being arbitrary. In recent years, the word “random” has been repurposed to refer to anything allegorical, symbolic, or surreal that the speaker cannot account for or understand without further investigation which is not likely to be forthcoming. It’s a close relative to “tl;dr.”

Disastrously, a second phenomenon has risen into prominence on around the same timeline that is perhaps even more insidious, although occasionally useful for clever, subversive minds such as my own. I don’t have a neologism for it yet, but it will likely involve an unsubtle reference to Dan Brown. The way it works is that someone of at least and usually not much more than average intelligence makes a ridiculous postulation somewhere on the Internet that seems legitimate because they cited a few sources that look like they could be credible because they got printed somewhere off the Internet on actual paper with a solid binding. The most well known incidents include that one time that Dan Brown stole a bunch of half baked conspiracy theories and joined them together with a few action verbs and called it a novel and a rather bizarre and quickly forgotten flash video about how google and amazon were going to take over the world with friendster being the lynchpin of their awesome scheme. No, I did not make up the word friendster, someone actually owns a copyright on it and allegedly had a service by that name at some indeterminate point in the past.

I don’t mind laughing about people who buy into idiotic conspiracy theories, but what I do mind is people who use lazy scholarship and selective application of it to poison the well for those of us who are actually in it to win it, especially when it comes to so called occult analyses of pop culture. I’m no slouch when it comes to this shit. Today I’m calling out “The Vigilant Citizen” because they’ve caught press not only from my favourite screwball corner of the net- Coilhouse- but The Huffington Post on a slow news day for their kooky suggestions that everyone from Lady Gaga to Jay-Z are fronting for the Illuminati. You know guys, I read the Illuminatus! trilogy too. It was diverting and an interesting variation on Catch-22, but it’s derivatives like The Invisibles really showed it up. Stop fronting like you’re legit when you’re tilting at windmills like a motherfucker while I break it down like an instructional Ikea video on rewind.

First of all. There is no such thing as a “semi-subliminal.” Either you’re subliminal or you are not. Next up, occult symbolism does not work like “that kinda sorta looks a bit like that, so it must not only mean that but it’s also a perfectly functioning symbol.” Symbols are charged images that point the way to powerful concepts. You don’t half ass it in the occult, especially if you’re biting from the OTO, which is one rigid fucking organization no matter what kind of dirt old man Crowley was up to back in the day. Which doesn’t really explain how Satanism, the OTO, the Illuminati, and the Knights Templar all come together into one ur-group. I’m fairly certain that both the Illuminatus! trilogy and Foucault’s Pendulum are both found in the fiction section of your local library. The whole thing about the spontaneous manifestation of the ur-group in Foucault’s Pendulum was an extended shout out from Umberto Eco to his hero Jorge Luis Borges who wrote some pretty nifty shit about the interplay between fiction and reality, the creator and the created. It was not an expose of the secret chiefs of Lemuria or wherever.

As far as that skull in the video goes, it’s fairly simple. For the Love of God is the world’s most expensive piece of artwork, the product of a cynical ploy by alleged artist Damian Hirst. When art critics referred to it as the kind of thing that only a third world dictator would want to own, the hip hop world seized on it. One of 50 Cent’s video games was all about murdering a country full of Arabs to get it back. I’m sure there’s some stealthy narrative in there about how Fiddy is actually one of the Merovingians or something. Look how easy that was. Anyway, pouring a viscous black liquid over it has nothing to do with drinking blood out of a skull, especially since there is no drinking of anything in the video. Essentially, it’s just HOVA stunting. He’s telling you that he’s so far ahead of the game that he can trash the world’s most expensive art without blinking. In fact, in that video, and at least one other for a Blueprint 3 single feature him trashing and insulting traditional symbols of wealth either as a measure of how wealthy he is or as a way of disassociating himself with what he sees as juvenile street culture in favour of a more mature and sophisticated vision of wealth. Kind of when Denzel threw the pimp coat in the fire then went skeet shooting in a really naff jacket with elbow patches in American Gangster.

The whole video is about Jay-Z abandoning the common tropes of gangster rap and going “onto the next one,” which is clearly inspired by high fashion. An institution well known for shallow and frequently less than accurate appropriations of various cultural symbols. Dragging The Crow and The Dark Knight into the mess was just goddamn stupid. I mean seriously, Heath Ledger was not wearing skull make up in that movie. It was a sinister interpretation of classic clown face paint. “Deeply occult” my ass. A title riffing off Saint John of the Cross with a central theme evocative of gnosticism and Frederick Nietzsche does not qualify as “deeply occult.” Kenneth Anger films are “deeply occult.” Asshole.

As for The Crow, gangsters the world over are obsessed with it for the simple reason that it looks slick and they typically come from places where they do not expect to live past the age of around twenty five. These two clearly tamed and non threatening death figures, especially the one that keeps fucking up his make up, represent Jay-Z’s triumph over death if it represents anything at all. It also suggests that the halo is telegraphing that he’s reached the status of being a hip hop saint, a position he has confirmed numerous times from The Black Album to the present by placing himself in the exclusive company of the Notorious BIG and Tupac Shakur.

Here’s how it breaks down. Symbols do not have occult power on their own, removed of context. They only function in a magical capacity when manipulated as a part of a ritual made irrelevant by the fact that HOVA himself is never seen in the video to be taking part in any of the ritual acts that the imagery is supposedly referring to. If you want to know why he puts that creepy pyramid you see on money on his clothing line, then go read The Secret. It’s called The Law of Attraction and it’s about as secret as the fact that The White Stripes are not a brother-sister duo.

Adios. I’m- wait for it- On To The Next One.

Five Years, One Post

I talk about altered states of consciousness a lot, but it’s not all that often that I really dig in and talk about the mechanics of it or the magical perspective on it. I hate to really rehash what smarter, more experienced magicians have elucidated elsewhere so I’ll be brief here. One of the underpinnings of the school of thought generally referred to as postmodern magic (whose most famous iteration is probably my native Chaos Magic) is the concept of gnosis as a kind of magical fissile material. Traditional magic uses ritual to raise energy to apply towards whatever change the magician is trying to effect. You see that principle in pop culture whenever someone say sacrifices a person or an animal to achieve a specific end like Low Shoulder attempting to sacrifice Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body, or the latin incantations in the Harry Potter world.

English artist Austin Osman Spare however, developed a highly influential paradigm that hinged on his understanding of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind. He basically posited that in order to achieve your goal, you have to interrupt normal consciousness and embed the desire in the unconscious. Variations on this theme crop up frequently in the contemporary new age movement and seems to have achieved some measure of validation in the murkiest depths of theoretical quantum physics (more like hypothetical quantum physics, but i digress), but it’s the derivative of Spare’s work that post modern magic pioneers in the burgeoning UK scene in the eighties employed that is of interest here.

In order to achieve the necessary interruption of conscious thought necessary to fire the desired intent into the subconscious, authors such as Peter J Carroll and Phil Hine advocate the achievement of altered states of consciousness achieved by dancing, ingestion of certain drugs, intense fear, fatigue, orgasm, meditation and other such activities. In my five years of sporadic use of this paradigm, I’ve come to look at extreme emotion and altered states of consciousness as not being the products of certain thought processes or the arbitrary results of related stimulus, but as tools that can be manipulated and applied towards a number of effects in both magical and more prosaic pursuits which has lead me down some very interesting trains of thought as a writer and nascent film critic.

Almost every day I’m in a venue where not just the merits of individual films (which we can broaden to really include all narrative) are debated, but the merits of different critical paradigms as well. It’s really soggy earth that you tread on when you start trying to define what objective metrics you have at your disposal in judging something as mercurial and divisive as film. There is one objective metric that cuts across all art though, and that metric is emotion.

Discussion of The Notebook for example, will always skew towards it’s ability to make the audience cry to the point where it will almost be inevitably classified as having been engineered specifically to make the audience cry just as deliberately as the Jackass franchise was engineered to provoke unease and disgust. It’s hardly a mystery or a scandal that filmmakers from screenwriters through to producers, directors, actors, and art directors make a great many of their creative decisions based on the expected emotional response of the audience, sometimes to the exclusion of all other considerations. The sociologist and psychologist are drawn to questioning why we are drawn to these communal evocations of emotion. The magician (and the politician) are drawn to pondering to what ends the emotions evoked (or energy raised, to use the ritual magic vernacular) can be applied.

Basically, most films without an overt political or religious agenda that are engineered to provoke a specific (and usually intense) emotional response seen from a magical perspective are spells lacking a purpose. Equations lacking a result. You could of course posit that it’s all one big money spell, but I want to narrow the scope here to films that were produced with the overriding goal of producing an extreme emotional response, to the exclusion of profit. Generally speaking, writers and directors considered to be at the top of their craft working in the horror genre for example are enjoying the fact that they are making money at what they do but their passion lies in scaring or disturbing their audience. Money is not the primary artistic (which is interchangeable with magical) goal in terms of the phenomenon I want to explore.

I first found the outer edges of this territory when I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and happened upon a specific passage that I’ve come back to countless times in my writing. In a conventional three act screenplay it’s what’s called “plot point two,” the point at which the protagonist is at his lowest point and he is forced to- in the words of Zombieland’s Tallahassee- “nut up or shut up.” The dark night of the soul (which is the wordplay at the heart of that one movie’s title) in a microcosm.

In an uncharacteristically poetic moment, Hunter describes being able to see the high water mark of the zeitgeist of the 1960s and goes on to explain the root of it’s failure, which in his estimation (and a notion shared by many other observers), was that success was implied, assured. In terms approaching the occult he states that the general attitude was that their energy would simply prevail. My head was in a very strange place when I originally read the passage as around the same time I had been reading about the ill fated free concert at Altamonte, an essay on the occult potential inherent in raves, and The Invisibles among other things, and slowly a picture started to sew itself together in my head.

I wondered- from a magical perspective- about Woodstock as a mass ritual given the constant refrain of energy, consciousness raising, and vague occult principles surrounding it. The problem- as Hunter pointed out- wasn’t that there was a lack of energy raised, it was the lack of a direction for it. An equation without a result. An incomplete spell. Interestingly enough, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea tapped into that principle in the climax of their Illuminatus! trilogy, resulting in an apocalyptic struggle for control of the energy raised between the forces of absolute control and absolute chaos.

Without delving too far into occult theories of etheric energies, we can still say that emotional responses can be used to inform and contextualize rational thought, sometimes to the point of overthrowing reason. In the context of film, the easiest example is the religious fervor whipped up by Passion of the Christ or the polarizing political effect of Michael Moore’s filmography.

Violence in film is an interestingly complicated issue though. You can’t simply wield it like a club and expect to get a uniform, lazer like response directed at the target of your choice. Prior to the release of Saving Private Ryan, the Second World War- and the Normandy invasion in specific- was a vague specter in the collective unconscious. It was a valiant victory far away from the visceral horror of Vietnam until Spielberg left the most indelible mark on cinematic violence since The Wild Bunch. At the time of production, he mused that it had been rather difficult to capture a level of violence that exceeded what contemporary audiences were used to processing without trouble. In a particularly inspired move, he used video (rather than film) cameras on an unprecedented scale in the opening invasion sequence to capture the invasion from a disarming first person perspective. It went on to become possibly the most critically lauded war film in history.

Less than ten years later, Fight Club was vilified in the mass media ostensibly because it celebrated violence, when in reality it was a deeply misunderstood film that ruthlessly criticized the rapid desensitization of western audiences to glamorized violence in film by using the very same techniques as Spielberg to portray young men so lost that they had to resort to violence in order to feel something genuine. It was further criticized for intentionally and deeply disturbing audiences with it’s portrayal of violence, much like what Spielberg was celebrated for but quite unlike the widespread praise lavished on The Exorcist for driving audiences to flee theaters if they were able to escape them before fainting, with no apparent justification or reasoning behind the offending content than to produce that exact response.

What I’ve come to recognize about violence in film is that you are essentially free to provoke as extreme an emotional response to it as you want as long as the content and it’s context do not provoke uncomfortable questions in the social and political power structure. Over the past year, I’ve explored film to a depth and breadth far surpassing anything I’ve ever been capable of before and I’ve run across what seems like an ever increasing amount of extreme content in film from a whole host of countries ranging from Japan (Ichi The Killer, Audition) to France (Martyrs, Irreversible), Russia (Cargo 200), and Sweden (Millennium The Film).

I wouldn’t say that I’m drawn to that kind of content, but I’ve long been curious about it and why it’s there. I don’t have any blanket answers, but I can safely say that the one that got me thinking the most was oddly enough Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. Far from being a cartoonish slaughterfest like it’s predecessor House of a Thousand Corpses, it was one of the decade’s most haunting and well constructed films that balanced the inhuman sadism of it’s protagonists with jarring scenes of innocent joy and familial love. It wasn’t so much that people who could cut a man’s face off and force his wife to wear it like a mask could then drive off down the road eating ice cream; it was that they seemed completely well adjusted and even endearing while arguing about the ice cream.
Again, and by complete admission by Zombie himself, The Devil’s Rejects is essentially an answerless equation. He created a portrait of extreme villainy so deft in it’s subtle strokes that it’s lack of statement or agenda becomes almost maddening. It did get me thinking though. About how if I could learn how to create something that unsettling and aim it in the right direction, it could take a kneecap off. Until it got that whole ball of yarn unrolling- which brought together the threads of all the most persistent topics I’ve covered in the five years I’ve been throwing words at the Internet- I didn’t really have a coherent answer for why I should elect to dig as deep as I could into disturbing content in my narratives as I was considering. It wasn’t so much that I was toying with arbitrary violence, but that I was unsure what the final point might be that would vindicate it’s usage until I was contemplating the brutal efficacy of The Devil’s Rejects and how envious I was of Zombie’s ability to make the audience feel something that intensely and arguably did it most effectively in a sequence in which not a single drop of blood was spilled. Emotion, especially extreme emotion- as I reminded myself- is a tool and in this case a tool that I could use like a whetstone to sharpen my narrative’s dialectic into a knife point.

New Name, Same Great Taste

You know what I love the most about these so called Tea Bag Conservatives? They claim to be some kind of brand new arch conservative that is going to save the country when in reality, the Tea Bag Way essentially works out to mean "study the excesses and ludicrous missteps of the ordinary neo-cons, then out do it!" Witness Republican congressional candidate Joe Walsh react petulantly for coming under legal attack from the Eagles' Joe Walsh for doing the same thing John McCain repeatedly got in trouble for during his presidential campaign. Of course Tea Bag Joe Walsh is blaming "Hollywood liberals" for attacking his "right to parody" for playing The Eagles' song without permission in his campaign ad. Because if you play it yourself, it's not theft; it's parody. These are the people who flock to Glenn Beck and claim some arcane right to rule the United States through a selective, contradictory reading of it's history.

News round-up 012810

- Jimmy Choo wears heels to the club. But are they his design?
- Hulk Hogan claims to have fought in PRIDE. Twenty years before it existed.
- JCVD signs up for a real kickboxing match against an Olympian to hype his new movie.
- The psychic from Poltergeist died. Now you've only got those assholes from Supernatural to protect you.
- A Tesco in Cardiff has banned shopping in sleep wear. Welsh sleepwalkers are naturally incensed at the decision.

Uncle Hugh

Sometimes, Playboy is hilarious. Especially when they come off as that uncle of yours who tries to stay hip and with it, yet are perpetually a week behind everyone else. Courtney Cruz and her girls doing a Star Wars burlesque show (NSFW) was great water cooler material. When everyone's favourite San Francisco bar owner posted it ten days previous. Or accidentally discovering ur-fetish model Apnea through Tumblr (still NSFW) years after she rose to prominence at Suicide Girls and her acrimonious departure was splashed from one end of the net to the other. What's most funny about it is a feature on the Playboy site featuring precisely the kind of model they've ignored on the magazine side of things for ages. I guess the moral of the story is that you can't rely on Playboy to stay current on anything in the crazy world of naked women that doesn't involve Lindsay Lohan.

Whip It

It's pretty rare that you get a movie whose ultimate charms lurk far below the surface and are realized several hours after viewing at the soonest, or at least that's what it's been feeling like. Most big movies from this year really wore not just their log lines, but their entire heart and soul on their sleeves, and that goes just as much for Up In The Air as it does Inglorious Basterds or District 9. Against all odds, Whip It is the film that carries it off.

At first it rolls up to you as the John Hughes formula dolled up in the Fuck Off charm of the Suicide Girl roller derby fantasy, an uncomfortable but compelling shotgun wedding of classic teen movie tropes and the edgy underworld of forbidden female aggression represented by the roller derby circuit. We've seen the idea before; teenage girl eager to rebel against mother signs up for something that she is not old enough to do, finds out that she is awesome at it and gets all the respect she ever dreamed of until she gets found out by her mom which causes act three falling out and a heartwarming resolution at the climax. I'm not going to lie, all of that happens in Whip It, and you will probably be able to guess when it is coming.

But the first thing that really separates Whip It from the rest of it's genre is the strength that the roller derby angle gives the entire narrative. Bliss isn't out there moonlighting as a fashion designer or being a model or a figure skater or something, she's getting the crap beat out of her learning to assert herself as a woman in a sport that is somewhere half way between fight club and ice hockey. It's promoting a very different kind of self image that expands beyond the flat track and even learning to party like a rock star, it's about engendering a physical and social independence that extends to all facets of life. You get the obvious moment where Bliss hipchecks the school bully off a railing, but there's far more rewarding scenes to be had such as her proud father proudly displaying a sign with her team name and number on their front lawn to show up his neighbour's similar posting of his sons' football accomplishments, but Whip It shines best in it's understated romantic subplot.

It's almost compulsory that a film in this genre have a romantic subplot, but the script deftly avoids what would have otherwise sold out the film's entire dialectic. Bliss' pursuit of an indie rocker isn't the objective, inspiration, or purpose of her joining the Hurl Scouts as it would have been in the John Hughes formula, it's a well deserved fringe benefit that frequently veers towards cliche land at several points but veers out just in time at every turn. Whip It's romantic subplot demands mention because of how refreshing it is in a scene dominated by insincere patriarchal nonsense peddled by the likes of Twilight.

I'm not much of a fan of sports movies, but then most sports are not roller derby. Unsurprisingly I first ran across it in it's current feminist reclamation fueled incarnation at a tattoo convention and declared it to be brilliant. It seems to carry with it that same unique cachet that the UFC has, that it's unpolished presentation, unpredictability, and sanctioned violence lend it a unique character that speaks to the generations furthest down the alphabet more convincingly than any of it's mainstream counterparts, which Whip It preserves commendably with a complete lack of irony. Verily, the sporting elements of Whip It most resemble Slapshot complete with a pair of ultra violent side characters known as the Manson Sisters.

Far from being all stars, Bliss' team the Hurl Scouts compete convincingly for disfunctionality with the Chiefs with an eclectic cast of Generation Xers from Barrymore herself as the obnoxious stoner Smashley Simpson to Deathproof's Zoe Bell and rapper turned actress Eve with the legendary Juliette Lewis appearing as Bliss' chief rival from the nigh unbeatable Holy Rollers.

All in all Whip It is for the teen movie what Star Trek XI was for science fiction this year, the klarion call to wake up, modernize, and be awesome. It doesn't appeal to girls by exclusion and it doesn't appeal to guys by pandering. It appeals to all because it's fun, fresh, and unapologetic.

Brand Me

My customers tell me I should write reviews, that I should blog. I find this to be ironically hilarious because allegedly, I do. Except that as all three of you can see, I pretty much never do. I guess sometimes I get tired of building my "brand" up again. I did it once back at Gaia and that built to the fever pitch that got me to Binary Culture, which is the gig that I really get wistful for these days, no matter how unsustainable that little bubble was.

I guess the thing is that despite you know, my reluctance to do this as often as I should, people like the things I do with words so I should give them more of my words. You've got to market /yourself/ these days is what a lot of industry people are saying right now. If you want to get your masterpiece script slash manuscript or whatever published, you have to be able to sell yourself. I remember back in like two thousand and six I was hearing out of the Engine from various indie comic book types that the publishers were wanting you to come to them with a built in audience. Have a web presence like a DA page with a legion of followers or a successful web comic or something. Now I'm hearing that the slush pile slash spec script business is starting to look the same. You've got to establish yourself, and they mean /yourself/. Producers are optioning blogs of all things, apparently.

So now comes me posting regularly and mediating on how to build an audience from scratch for the third or fourth time. Must summon clever shouty words and fling them at twitter.

Thank You For Smoking

Practically since I've started working at the video store I've been trying to fill the sizable gaps in my movie watching. Apparently it shocks and confuses people that I have gaps at all, as if I project some kind of image of a movie expert. Maybe it's because I've been reading about film since before my balls dropped, or maybe it's just because I know how talk with an air of authority on the subject.

Which is probably what first attracted me to the protagonist of my latest in remedial viewing, Thank You For Smoking. Nick Naylor may be a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, but he's also man who knows how to weaponize the spoken word. In his own words "I get paid to talk. I don't have an MD or a law degree, I have a bachelor's in kicking ass and taking names." Obviously it isn't a terribly deep movie, but it certainly is clever and insightful in terms of it's discourse about what it means to be media savvy, which is the bulk of the plot.

Without ascribing any specific political context to the film- which I hadn't seriously considered until after I finished the film- it's a fairly straight forward critique of western media driven culture. What Nick shows us most convincingly is that it really doesn't matter what you're backing as long as you're able to back it effectively. If this seems somehow cynical, you've really got to wonder where the cynicism is coming from. Is it Nick, who gleefully works the system to his advantage, or is it the system itself and our willing participation in it which is built with the expressed purpose of being manipulated by Nick and his cohorts? Interestingly enough, in the DVD extras director Jason Reitman mentions being decried by an audience member at a Berkley screening for not attacking the corporations and tobacco companies within the film, for which she was widely booed.

Reitman was more surprised that she seemed to be the one dissenting voice in the audience of what he described as being a libertarian minded film. It's a fairly widespread problem, that young film audiences since the sixties- and Canadian audiences in general- not only demand a clearly liberal world view in their films, they will complain loudly in it's absence. I'm not conservative in any of my politics in the least, but it's counterproductive and narrow minded to expect to be mollycoddled by facile political parables. Keep watching guilt ridden latter day science fiction schmaltz like Avatar and you'll start to think that the world is changing around your torpid rear end, that because you're seeing some unrealistic strawman fueled whinge fest on the big screen it must mean that's what's going on in the halls of power.

One of the most basic attributes and powers of fiction is the potential to represent a multiplicity of concerns and perspectives, the very principle which totalitarian concerns assault first. The greatest strength of Thank You For Smoking is that it presents a world with no easy answers in which the binary forces of opposition at work look disturbingly similar when you hold them up to a magnifying glass. Perhaps Nick is only putting on airs of requesting that the American people be able to retain an admittedly dangerous amount of liberty and self determination, but then isn't the Senator putting on airs of acting in the best interest of the public for political capital while accepting the money and influence of people just like Nick catering to other, potentially just as dangerous concerns?

Say what you will, but when his son grows up he'll be making his own decisions on his own terms because he learned to think for himself from the best. Whether he buys that pack of cigarettes or not is rather moot.

The Hurt Locker

If I asked you how many bombs you've seen diffused on film and television in your life time, I'm sure you wouldn't have an answer, it's incalculable. A better question would be to ask when the last time you genuinely felt like the result was in question, that you were less than certain that the bomb would be diffused and the hero walk away unscathed. I'm pretty sure that for me it was X-Files: Fight the Future, but that's because the guy who sat in front of the bomb in the pop machine had pretty much no intention of stopping the bomb whatsoever.

That principle is probably the key to figuring out the success of The Hurt Locker, a film that despite being about the biggest action movie cliche in history, is practically guaranteed a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and jockeying for the top spot on end of the year lists with the likes of Inglorious Basterds, Avatar, and Up in the Air.

I remember quite clearly the moment I first got excited about The Hurt Locker, back when it's trailer debuted over at Apple. It wasn't that they were trying to defuse bombs, or that they were doing it in Iraq. It was that shot of the dust and debris on the roof of a car being flung into the air from the shockwave of a blast. You can't describe the way that Kathryn Bigelow and her DP Barry Ackroyd capture an explosion, it's shockwave, and how they edit them together but it creates an intensely unique viewing experience. Not only does it bring you into much more intimate contact than anything since Blackhawk Down and perhaps even before that if ever, it creates- or at least for me- a bizarre ambivalence. Every time Sgt. James and his team got called out to an incident, I wanted them back behind the wire safely at the end of it, but at the same time I would think good goddamn, I want another one of those explosions.

Watching Jeremy Renner's cavalier Sgt. James at work and you'd have to think he'd agree with you and at times without the qualifier of making it back behind the wire in one piece. Sgt. James is routinely described by reviewers and even director Kathryn Bigelow as being addicted to combat, and when he first appears flouting all the procedure and protocol of his (very dead) predecessor the label seems all too accurate, but as the film progresses it seemed clear to me that he wasn't out there to push himself as close to death as he could or to feel a spike of adrenaline, but to find a purpose, to see life staring back at him in the face of death. He certainly doesn't see it in the cereal aisle at the grocery store back home.

While The Hurt Locker is an electrifyingly tense film that goes well beyond the specter of a hidden bomb to stop the audience's breath in nearly every scene, it feels entirely sordid and wrongheaded to use the kind of superlative nonsense usually reserved for spectacle driven farces like G.I. Joe that I've seen floated around. Certainly the tension and suspense in The Hurt Locker is equal to anything Inglorious Basterds or Paranormal Activity had to offer, but it's in service to something far more profound, recalling Kurosawa in it's deft touches (as does Inglorious Basterds, but that's beside the point).

Francis Ford Coppola famously claimed "Apocalypse Now isn't about Vietnam, it is Vietnam." Kathryn Bigelow lacks the hubris necessary for such a statement, but I'm comfortable in saying that in so far as a film could capture the experience- the nature of a particular conflict- The Hurt Locker does just that, and on a far more visceral, literal level than Coppola's masterpiece.



Welcome to it.

These are my ramblings. Have a go if you think you're hard.