Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Watching the Watchers

As of this post I’ll have broke out of my recent tie with my globe-trotting friend, the recent historicist and the red-haired poet. Competitive as I may be, that isn’t the sole reason for writing. However, as I am vaulting into first place post-wise (I have a lot of catching up to do in the replies, which I have loved reading and especially loved seeing some new names attached to them) I suppose I should begin by apologizing. With this post, I will become the lead contributor, which means that with this post there will be way too much TV being discussed on this fine web-based experiment.

I don’t want to apologize too much. Our instigator did write in his mission statement that we are “here” to, among other things, share our “musings on culture,” and as it should have it, recently my muse has found amusement therein (and in puns, evidently).

But with any luck, this post will do a little bit more than critique one specific show. Maybe with a little luck, patience and attention (and, as Focault said, as long as the “courage” does not desert me) I can do a little better, and perhaps even start to muse about, as our instigator put it, examine a portion of the “diverse elements of our community’s collective imagination.”

There’s been a trend of late, it seems to me (and to someone else who wrote about this first: I think it was about the show “Smith”, which I’ll discuss later, and it appeared in The Boston Globe) that lots of TV and some movies have tried very hard to romanticize suburban life. For the sake of argument, I’ll start the trend at “American Beauty” (it doesn’t really start here): in “AB”, Chris Cooper’s ex-Marine is a closet homosexual, his son Wes Bentley famously finds beauty in filming a plastic bag (and everything else), Annette Bening has an affair with the guy with the huge eyebrows on “The OC”, etc.. As normal and predictably yuppy/suburban as almost everyone seems, there’s always something dramatic happening behind closed doors. There’s a degree of romance to it: something special, something hidden, buried deep within the mundane.

But the ‘special’ in “American Beauty” doesn’t seem so special when it’s compared to the romantics of its descendents. Now we have Zach Braff and Natalie Portman trekking through the woods in garbage bags, destined for a ship hanging precipitously over a rock quarry, or peering through pin-holes in a hotel. Some of “Garden State”, I think, says that there’s more to the homes that we’ve left than we thought.

There’s also “Desperate Housewives.” “DH” loves showing us the back-stabbing, two-faced nature of suburbia (if anything, that’s not Romanization, its reality). But in order to flush out the narrative of niceness and normalcy (and to keep us watching), there’s always a layer of the truly bizarre waiting just beneath the suburban and everyday (Betty Applewhite locking up her son in the basement is probably at once both the best and worst example of this, and also probably bears some further examination).

There was “Sleeper Cell” and its movie-cousin “Arlington Road,” both about terrorists living next door to us. There’s “Smith”, the recently-cancelled Ray Liotta drama wherein the Goodfella played suburban dad by day, master-thief by night. And, hey, speaking of cancelled shows dealing with the same premise, there was even “Thief.” There might even be an element of Tyler Durden in there as well.

It’s not in everything that’s out there: “Lost” doesn’t romanticize everyday suburban life at all. “Heroes” takes us to the city, not the suburbs. And there’s “CSI” and its cousins, “House,” “Grey’s”, etc..

But there’s some sort of pattern here, some sort of general movement that these shows have either created or been pulled in to. I want to ask why: why this sudden urge to not just show how the difference between the performed public and the reserved private, but also to romanticize the everyday.

An uninteresting answer is that there’s a market for it. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, but I should note it: obviously, Hollywood feeds on itself. There’s a reason why there’s fifteen “CSI’s”: TV has found a formula that works and wants to make the most of it. Relatedly, there might be a demographic pattern that TV is following to the suburbs. I don’t have any stats that say this is even a phenomenon, and I realize that suburbanization has been going on since the close of World War II, but maybe there’s been a recent surge, and maybe people want to watch what they identify with.

Certainly possible, certainly plausible. And certainly, I should recall these plausibilities as I start to get a little more interesting as I wonder why.

Why feel this maybe recent need to tell stories about ourselves in this manner? Why coat the everyday with the extraordinary? Entertainment, not just television, has always returned to examine its audience and their shared world. Sometimes it’s showed the audience in the happy-go-lucky way it saw itself (think “Leave it to Beaver”) and sometimes it tried to do just the opposite (“The Crucible”, etc.).

What might be at issue, what might cause today’s writers to apply the romantic ‘veneer’, is what they’re trying to show us (in the same way that Miller wanted his audience to do the work for him: he didn’t want to put Cotton Mather on the Supreme Court, instead he put 50s America side by side with Salem and let the audience draw their own conclusions). Maybe TV needs this gild to hide the audience from itself, from what is beneath their shared world, from what is inevitably beneath a gilded veneer: nothing.

Do we need this kind of romantic TV? Not just as a means of entertainingly exploring the public versus the private, but to substitute for something (I hate to say it) existentially missing? Do we have to have this possibility for the extraordinary? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m really asking: is it that bad?

Maybe it’s something else entirely. Is that lacquer slapped on top of normal life as a further means of self-delusion, or does it represent instead something optimistic, some attempt to beautify, improve or even dislodge the ordinary? Maybe these shows try to deregulate the sensible, or at the very leas suggest that we are all far more interesting than we ever let on. Maybe they’re suggesting that we should do away with whatever institutions encourage such insecurities in one another so that we may discover just how worthy we are of each others’ attention. Paradoxically, if this is the case, then the message is being conducted through the very institution of insecurities, like a secret code reverberating against the walls of a prison cell, sent by a desperate inmate tapping out against the walls of his own cell, praying that his neighbor will listen and understand. These show might be meant as encouragement (again, might be), but they themselves are not the answer to whatever root dissatisfaction we might feel. Instead, they only locate the problem and identify a possible point of rupture.

(Whether you believe our esteemed TV writers are covering something hollow (the pessimists) or encouraging better behavior (obviously the optimists; I really don’t want to suggest one or the other, or to even limit this to an either/or issue) I think that at the root of this (at least the present either/or issue) is dissatisfaction: with life, with suburbia, with normalcy, with our jobs, with what we have compared to what we wanted, to what have you. This root dissatisfaction, endemic of something bigger than how TV writers are feeling (because TV audiences are watching) might result in these shows I’ve been discussing. And our interpretation of these effects (i.e., whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist) might say more about how likely you imagine a satisfactory resolution to this ‘root dissatisfaction (if indeed we’re willing to admit that such a thing exists) than the effects themselves.)

Even “Heroes” and “Lost,” shows that aren’t located in the suburbs and have more admittedly fantastical elements still contain bits of this romantic salvation. On TV ordinary people wake up one day and find out they can fly and that the world suddenly needs them, or the island that they’re trapped on is paradoxically connected to the rest of the world—and maybe that's the only chance we get.


Anonymous said...

Haha, I love how you make like you watch Lost. =b

I know that you alluded to it a bit, but I think that one striking case study is the appeal of the Fight Club. I don't just mean its cinematic appeal, with the Sixth-sense-esque catch at the end and the famous names in the main roles. Countless teenagers are drawn to Fight Club, Palahniuk novel, before or after the movie, as much for its content as for its readible, snappy prose. It's got some great lines, but it's neither what I would call great literature nor what I would call Dan Brown-esque pop-lit.

It does, however, have this... romanticized... situation. It's a bit different than most of the examples you cite because it has a "damn the man" rebellion as its overarching conflict (hence its appeal particularly to angry teenagers); as opposed to suggesting some hidden appeal to suburbia, it is a direct attack on the middle class life, -a la- Ben Folds' "Rocking the Suburbs." Is it merely more didactic? In a sense, it takes the same premise that The Stepford Wives or Pleasantville and works more within shades of grey. However, I believe it is something other than merely more didactic.

Our generation has failed to unify around a single cause. Now, I will certainly admit no primary contact with past generations in their youth, and I will admit that history is the narrative that clarifies situations that were at the time unclear: in other words, I know that it may be delusional ascribe any particular causes to any particular generations. However, I would say that our generation has a marked lack of cause. This does not seem to be pure apathy; there is no reason to believe young people are moreso than in the past. More likely it is due to a world that is increasingly global, increasingly complex, and increasingly peopled.

Nevertheless - and I guess this is my point - the desire to rebel is still omnipresent, particularly in the young. On top of that, personal identity is assuming primacy in many western cultures (if you think we're bad, check out teenagers in France)--to the extent that some young people assert things if only to assert something. In "AB," we saw a teenager who was petrified of being "ordinary" in a world where, we notice, no one is truly ordinary. Many viewers of the film, however, are, unconsciously or otherwise, more like this young cheerleader than in any of the other characters. The desire to escape "normalcy" and to assume a collective identity with middle-class suburbia was, quite likely, the drive to create the film. It was quite likely one of the primary causes for the creation of most of the movies and shows that you cite.

The truth is that there are too many Edward Norton characters out there wishing for a little bit of the Tyler Durden in themselves. After all, the alternative is normalcy.

John A. Atchley III said...

Be forewarned: this comment moves quickly into untenable abstractions but hopefully resolves in the specificity of the original post.

Allow me to begin with a transposition of sorts.

Oscar Wilde assessed 19th century aesthetic disinclinations as follows:

"The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass."

A re-imagining of this representational anxiety in the present might yield a grossly exaggerated version of Wilde's original binary which I suggest to you as: the tension between postmodern and more properly modernist systems of representation.

If we accept the characterization of postmodernism lifted from the more vicious critics of the same, then we can think of it as a form of hyperbolic realism, in which the symbol merges with and then becomes indistinguishable from the original, thereby propelling the viewer, supposedly, into an infinite, shifting world of apolitical, plural non-meaning and untruth.

Opposed to this most iconoclastic of aesthetic forms is that of modernism or, to be more specific, avant-garde modernism, a representational impulse that takes as its genesis the dystopic moment of the present and uses modes of art to re-imagine the world in the language and brushstrokes of private utopias. This is a romanticism that contains its historical context within itself, a revolutionary art system that depends upon the epistemological gaps between the present it imagines the very content of this imagining.

Where then to locate Caliban's rage with each?

In the former, it is the same horror of seeing the self reflected. Especially if we can accept the assessment of the present as even partially dystopic, then to lok at postmodern art is to be confronted brutally with the reality of the present, is to witness the dystopia and our own positioning within it. Art as revulsion and art that paradoxically risks the enthronement of the present. Revulsed from art, where can we retreat but to the present necessarily stigmatizing the work of art as Other and drawing the present in our delusional, Utopian brushstrokes as a means of preserving ourselves as whole. We flee from infinity to a self-constructed reality in which change or progress becomes synonymous with self-annihilation.

In the latter, Caliban's rage is a feeling of exclusion, a feeling of being left behind, of being somehow outside the romantic imagination, of being unable to speak the private languages contained within modernism's revolutionary visions.

Postmodern art perpetuates modernist responses. And modernist art fails to articulate a viable form of social progress.

And now, where a resolution? With both modes insufficient and bound up with one another, where to turn?

I think what you, Ben, identify aptly in your post, is the politically impotent tertiary option - an option that, in an effort to resolve frustrations, castrates what is dynamic about both systems of representation to create a synthetic mode, one that is tiresome, bland, tepid. Shows like Desperate Housewives employ a tepid version of realism, one that eludes the revulsion of the postmodern art object by choosing a narrow swath of reality and willfully excluding that which exists beyond it. The suburbs in DH pretend reality by enthroning its own narrative as an alternative reality. That is, DH represents a romantic gesture, while appealing to those parts of us that desire realism.

It is a fixed, narrow reality in which all fanciful and fantastical plots, all crises and drama, have resolutions, have fixed origins and telos. DH and similar shows are what result from the revulsion inspired by the contemporary world. Instead of seizing the instant of revulsion as a site of revolutionary energy, DH just shits out the parts of reality it doesn't like, chooses only to look at what it wants to. Its imagination is so localized as to be insignificant and ephemeral. It is a retreat from the future and a cowardly defense of the present that actively ignores dystopia and thuse perpetuates an insular and ignorant social consciousness.

(This all being said-oh, how I love Desperate Housewives. It should also be examined how succesful it operates as parody, and whether it is responded to as if it is parody. I would suggest that, like Sex and the City, audiences typically accept it as reasonable in some way, or even oddly desirable, missing the parodic impulse behind it all. Nevertheless...)

This being said: what's dynamic about postmodernism? I think its the erasure of boundaries between art and society and its dissolution of absolutes and Truths.

What's dynamic about modernism? Its revolutionary energy and its desire to imagine something better?

I've always thought postmodernism, whatever it means, becomes a convenient means of paralysis and excuse for apathy. Its too easy to undercut everything, deconstruct all belief systems and stand back crying "but we can't act if there's no meaning."

Which is why I agree with Diana. Our generation seems to lack a unifying cause, a galvanizing issue or moment. And I think this is partly because of the increasing skepticism towards ideas of unity and meaning in general.

And certainly, if nothing is truth, if everything is contingent, then "unity" in one conventional sense is largely eroded.

But the evaporation of truth just internalizes the need to create truth, to create systems of meaning. If truth evaporates then the honus shifts to us to invent it.

And here we are at a moment in history in which the dystopia seems more palpable. Our duty must be to use this dystopia, to make everyone, like Caliban, stare at themselves in a glass. But the revolt cannot be allowed to ferment into the infantile protections of modernism: we must be there with a strategy for the future, a narrative that bridges the gap between the present and what we desire.

What was so appealing about Tyler Durden was his ability to insert himself into disaffection of others and create a narrative around which entire groups of people could organize.

What we need is a Desperate Housewives that means what we want it to.

Apologies for length, (but I don't have a job).