17 July 2008

Bastard Images, Adopted Words

So last night on Charlie Rose - David Remnick (ed. of The New Yorker) and David Simon (creator of the Wire).

First of all, this whole cartoon cover business, briefly. You know, as a subscriber, I would not have thought twice about that cover ... maybe given it the faintest of chuckles (they still haven't sent it to me yet, btw). But the popmedia uproar raises tougher questions than it asks. A thought experiment courtesy of CNN's Campbell Brown:

Editor of the conservative Weekly Standard: We should put [blah blah blah, something about Madonna and A-Rod] on the cover.
CAMPBELL BROWN: You should put the New Yorker cover on the cover.

I don't watch Anderson Cooper 360 (or the Situation Room or whatever pundit-infested show that is set-designed to look like it takes place IN the internet) expecting to get my mind blown, but there it is. "You should put the New Yorker cover on the cover." And that's what this is really about. Context - the promiscuity and malleability of images let loose. Circulating. Questions of intent, mediation, and reception that are particularly volatile with satire.

I tend to think that suggesting the cover is tasteless and offensive (per the Obama campaign itself) is tantamount to someone quoting this very sentence you are reading in this way: "the cover is tasteless and offensive." (We brings it metatextually, son, what?)

It's the duck AND the rabbit, of course. The beautiful young woman AND the old maid.

The saddest thing, ultimately, about watching people talk about this is the sinking feeling that NONE OF THEM (Blitzer, Bennett, Carville, Obama) are saying anything they really think about it, but rather just positioning themselves with regard to their individual (or party) ends. Even Remnick on Rose was very political about the thing, saying first that what angers him most is the suggestion that "I get it, but these people OUT THERE won't get it" and then going on to make what seemed to be arguements that hinged on that very same point in earnest for much of the remainder of the interview.

As for David Simon - our cantankerous, cynical, arrogant hero - well, he's got this new series on HBO about the Iraq war called "Generation Kill." So he's on Rose preaching about the virtues of verisimilitude in much the same way he spoke about the Wire. But I don't really want to talk too much about Generation Kill. I really want to talk about an interview I heard on the podcast The Sound of Young America with Wire actors Wendell Pierce (Bunk) and Andre Royo (Bubbles). In the interview, Jesse Thorn brought up a quote from Charles S. Dutton in a New York Times Article entitled "Who Gets To Tell a Black Story" about the making of the HBO miniseries "The Corner" that preceded The Wire and is, like the Wire, about life in inner city Baltimore. You might remember Dutton from his starring role as "Roc" on Fox in the early nineties. Dutton is from Baltimore and honed his acting craft during a decade-long prison stint. He worked as a director on The Corner. He and Simon has a rocky relationship:

'I know that David Simon can visit and sit with as many black folks in this city as he wants to,'' Mr. Dutton said one day in late September, standing on a crumbling stretch of sidewalk in the rain. ''They can pay the families to get the stories. They can listen and walk around with dope fiends. They can write about murders, and they still won't know a damn thing about black people. Not this, you know. Not this. I know the pulse of this. I know what people think the minute they walk out them doors. I know what mothers feel when their sons and daughters walk out of the house to go to school. I know what it feels like to kill somebody. I know what it feels like to get shot. I know what it feels like that people be looking to kill me. I don't have to show up as a crime journalist after the fact.''

In the interview, Wendell Pierce, who is as smooth as the detective he plays on the Wire, handled the question of writing and race with aplomb, saying that people need to preserve their ability to be offended so as to keep the debate moving. This is something I've thought about, we've talked about. It's a bucket of syrup for sure. And it certainly does matter who is writing the stories. But one thing I do know is that Simon writes exceptionally sophisticated and human stories and the good has got to outweigh the bad when narrative makes connections across race like that.

14 July 2008

Anthropomorbid - The Charcoal Murders

Did you hear about this? It happened last year in Virunga National Park in the Congo - six mountain gorillas (seven if you count the pregnant one) were murdered execution style in the Congo, to make a political point. One year later now, the reasons for the killings are being explored on a special for the National Geographic Channel, NPR's Fresh Air, and PBS Charlie Rose. [Incidentally, the photojournalist who took the initial pictures and has become the face of the story here, is a sexy, swashbuckling South African guy named Brent Stirton].
[NOTE: Please do not take my word for this. Facts probably not exactly right and this is an infinitely complicated story of power and politics in a region I don't have any pretense of understanding]

Part of the trouble begins with the Rwandan genocide, as Hutu militia groups fled Rwanda for Congo and the Virunga park. Now, apparently, some of these Hutu guys run an illegal charcoal operation, in league with certain corrupt members of the Congolese army and the guy who runs Virunga National Park. Charcoal is a crucial to cooking and heating in the region. When certain Park Rangers caught wind of the goings on and objected, the gorilla executions were a message sent to prospective do-gooders.

The silverback here is Senkwekwe.
Now these are some truly arresting images. I certainly don't want to make light of them - animal cruelty is offensive to us all, but isn't the anthropomorphic quality of these another turn of the screw? You may know that the one true love of my life to this point is Koko, the gorilla who knows sign language (pictured in my gallery right and also here, with pet kitten Smokey): The PBS documentary about Koko is available from the Criterion collection and her paintings, along with buddy Michael's are available here:http://www.koko.org/friends/kokomart_art.koko.html#

Koko facts:
- Attempts were made for Koko to select a mate via videos of potential suitors. She declined Michael because they grew up together.
- Some of Koko's female handlers filed sexual harassment suits due to Koko's constant requests to see people's nipples
- Koko was a fan of Mr. Rogers and when she met him in person, she immediately tried to take off his shoes, as she'd seen him do so many times.

07 July 2008

Last Blog on Earth - Us as Detritus

Last night I saw Pixar's new Wall-E. This week I write the entry for Kevin Brockmeier's Brief History of the Dead for the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Fiction. Roughly four years ago I delivered a presentation on David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress to my Introduction to Theory class. Today I revive my blog in earnest. These things are connected; let me tell you how.

You probably have seen or heard about Wall-E, but you may not be familiar with the two novels. Briefly: Brief History of the Dead is split in two - one part set in "The City," an afterlife limbo where people go and 'live' normal lives as long as there are people alive on earth who remember them. When the last person who remembers you dies, you go on to you-don't-know-where. The other part is set in Antartica, where we follow the struggles of Laura Byrd, stranded on a mission for the Coca-Cola Co. and cut off from any other living soul because, it turns out, she is the last living soul (everyone else has bought it via pandemic). Thus, interestingly, everyone in The City knows Laura Byrd one way or another. Wittgenstein's Mistress is about the supposed Last Woman on Earth, who wanders through the Colosseum and the Louvre and WRITES a memoir for no one to read.

Wall-E is the last robot on earth. He collects, compacts, and stacks trash (keeping some trinkets for himself). He knows nothing but this work, but he pines for company, inspired by his prized VHS copy of Hello Dolly! The junkaesthetic is rendered beautifully by the animators. I'll get back to the film, which is great, in a minute, BUT FIRST: What of this LAST ON EARTH thing - it's long been a space for working out the hypotheticals generated by both serious and pop philosophy (from Hobbes to Mad Max) - by subtracting civilization, we can see INTO nature. Wall-E and Brockmeier's Laura and Markson's Kate inhabit an inverted/perverted Eden (a palindrome Eden - Madam I'm Adam - and naturally Wall-E's eventual love interest is EVE) - the myth of what it means to come last. They are also the stranded - like Cruesoe, like Simon and Piggy, Tom Hanks' volleyball, those people on Lost (a show I've never seen but I've read uses "John Locke" and "Rousseau" as character names).

So this post has two folds, outward: 1) What of this LAST ON EARTH thing? What does it mean? What are some other versions (I know I am Legend)?

2). Wall-E is a remarkable 'kids' film. As is much-remarked upon, the majority of it contains no dialogue but the robot is so endearing that you don't miss it at all. Wall-E is postapocalyptic Chaplin and Keaton - a well meaning bumbler pratfalling through life. Speechless, Chaplin's body often ticked and sputtered like a haywire robot ... but it's not just the physicality - like Keaton, Wall-E is heartsick and smitten - wide-eyed, well-intentioned, sexless ... an underdog in love. He is also out of place and outdated. When EVE arrives and later when we see the digidystopia aboard the spaceship AXIOM, where fat humans live in a megastore planet of ubiquitous screens and instant gratification, we see that WALL-E is an analog anamoly, tracking dirt into the grimly pristine future.

The are many nods here to the history of cinema past the silents. We have 2001 present in the red-eyed HAL called AUTO and in the signature tune Thus Spake Zarathustra (that other one as well). One of the more interesting bits, to me, was that there is a contingent of psych ward misfit malfunctioning robots that join WALL-E and EVE's mini-insurgency against the fascist forces of order. The echoes here are of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cool Hand Luke. And this is the embrace of difference that seems to thread through the best of kid films. A goodhearted liberalism that promises (white lie or not) that we can remake the world. The credit sequence of WALL-E tracks the recivilization of Earth through a history of art from hieroglyph to Van Gogh.

SO I WANT TO KNOW: check the dustbin of your own history. We are made of these narrative artifacts. What are the kids films that meant the most to you then, or now? I go to the Henson hippie mysticism of The Dark Crystal or the folksy musicality of Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas (those muppets EMOTE), the tender critique of The Secret of NIMH (in which humans are mere voices and body parts, the forces of ignorance). What about the sad center of NEMO, or the you-can-be-anything of BABE. And I was with SHREK's allegory of interspecies romance until she had to be an ogre, too. From when I was a kid there are bits of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, dander from the Aristocats. What else?