Sunday, January 21, 2007

Notes on two recently released films...

[I saw these back in December (or was it November?) but never got around to posting some comments on them.]

1. There's a scene maybe two-thirds of the way through 'Running With Scissors' where the protagonist, Augusten, realizes that he dislikes his life for its seeming randomness and utter unpredictablility. It was at that moment that I recognized why I hated the film - it was one of those bitterly ironic moments where a character so perfectly describes everything that's wrong the film in which s/he stars. (would that make it a performative utterance, I wonder?) Staggering from scene to scene with little sense of time or sensitivity to narrative sequence and character, there's virtually no way to anticipate the plot or make sense of its progression. This might be all well and good for the episodic 'real life story' promised by literary biography - this was an adaptation - but it makes for a terribly unsatisfying cinematic experience where certain expectations accompany the demands of inescapably linear, 2-hour long dramatic narratives.

2. 'Stranger Than Fiction' could have been just as hopelessly lost in its own wit, but managed to break free by having fun with itself and the thin line between mainstream affectation and indie aesthetics. The almost-too-clever meta-fictional conceit underlying the film features a self-aware character (Harold Crick) who's learned he's going to die - only he's not simply a character, but also a real live person, and so is able to seach for his writer in order to convince her to not kill him. But changing the ending to one where Harold lives presents a whole different set of problems. Dustin Hoffman's lit professor reads the book with the tragic ending and deems it a classic - but the alternate ending leaves him cold. He begs Harold to read it for himself and tells him that he needs to die for the sake of art, an opinion which Harold eventually comes to appreciate and even agree with. What keeps the film from being too heady and self-indulgent is the way it handles this joke - the way it navigates the difference between the brilliant tragedy where Harold dies or the sappy and less worthy comedy where he lives. Harold eventually lives, but the film itself is presented as the success that follows in the wake of the book's failure - while the story of Harold's survival only makes for a good book, the story of how he survived makes for a great film.

Thoughts on Springsteen, on the re-release of 'Born to Run', and more

During the round-the-room-introductions for one of my new classes this term, I was asked who the 'new' Springsteen is. (The question didn't simply come from out of the blue - I said that I study 'white masculinity', so Shannon asked who had inherited the mantle of white masculine folk-hero) It occurred to me later that, since Springsteen has been undergoing a latter-career renaissance (a new album in 2005, cover album in 2006), that the new Springsteen might be... Springsteen. Combined with numerous abortive attempts by other artists to assume the Springsteen role as voice of a white working-class generation, it seems reasonable that we'd cast our glance backward and simply embrace young Springsteen. Since his classic 'Born To Run' album was recently re-released as a special edition and a live album pulled from that tour's shows was also released last year, it seems a reasonable guess.

What gets glossed over, though, in this re-appropriation of Springsteen is just how ambivalent and angry 'Born To Run' was: in this nostalgic revisiting of young Springsteen, the anger and disaffection of working-class youth has been fully romanticized. (Not to say that this is new - Springsteen has been made out to be something of a joyful rebel from three decades now. His least successful albums have invariably been those that do the most to resist optimistic listening experiences.)

For instance: 'Backstreets', a song that's as much about the abandonment that the singer feels over being left behind by his childhood friend as it is resentment over not being able to escape 'the backstreets' himself, has become something of an anthem for growing up poor and making good. The 'Terry' that he addresses is one of many gender-ambiguous characters, a curious lyrical habit that gets far too little attention and Springsteen uses to increase the anxiety. However, like most pop music gestures of defamiliarization, the music critic/fan's canonical explanation has long been that Terry is a guy and that Springsteen's first lyrical descriptor - 'friends' - should be taken at face value. Lines like 'soft infested summer', 'Valentino drag', and, of course, 'an angel on my chest/Just another tramp of hearts/Crying tears
of faithlessness' are somehow forgotten when people now take up young Springsteen.

But now that I've poked holes in the iconicity of the Boss's image, I think it's also worth noting how Springsteen eventually came to reinforce his own reception as an unproblematically straight white masculine middle-class hero.

Two brief examples: 'Born in the USA', of course, is a scathing critique of Vietnam War-era foreign policy that is overwhelmed by its anthem-rock aesthetic and totally loses its trajectory under a great synth-line and booming beat. When Bruce yells between lines in 'Born to Run', the pain is undeniable; when he screams the chorus to 'Born in the USA', the anger is easily mistaken for enthusiasm. The rhetorical shift in the titles is also important. While 1975's Springsteen is a man without a home - and since he is born to 'run', we can expect that he'll never find one - 1984's is, at the very least, willing to commit to one that he feels uneasy about.

This movement meets its completion in the final song of the '84 album, 'My Hometown', and it's here that Springsteen embraces his folk hero status with little reservation. Though a lot of his lyrical content is the same, his voice is curiously distanced and the song's ending, while hinting at a cylical narrative and so potentially disruptive of a happy ending, seems bizarrely optimistic in its soft and wistful delivery. Where the first song growled angrily about racism, Springsteen sounds almost nostalgic for it in the final one. Or, perhaps, defeated. Fashioned by the media to be somehow emblematic of an American identity category that he himself resisted and criticized, Springsteen relents at the close of the song. Through repetition, 'Your hometown' comes to be less about the characters in the narrative and more of a universalizing gesture that links Springsteen and his listeners. Without a 'Terry' to disrupt an easy identification, the fan and the Boss become interchangeable subject positions and Springsteen allows himself to be the universal subject that people always wanted him to be. 'Born in the USA', remember, was used by Reagan to campaign for the presidency later that year. In this light, it's no wonder that people can forget how 'Born To Run' was a big "fuck you".