What is style?

I miss the sort of stable relationship I used to have with nihilsentimentalgia. I love it here, but doing a doctorate has managed to mess with everything that’s dear to me. My closest family is still tolerating the commitment-turned-obsession, but I myself am close to reaching the point of not being able to hear me thinking about authenticity. In the near future, I may develop a sort of repulsion strategy towards everyone who speaks about authenticity. I know this aversion is necessary, at first, for then I’m sure I will remember why doing this doctorate was important and how it helped put me on the right track towards authentic being (or so I like to believe).

Because the thesis proposes an aesthetic register for an authentic doing of art, there’s a lot of thinking about the aesthetic values, qualities or elements, whatever one might call it. The other day, I ended up discussing the meaning of style with my tutor. Because I resist seeing style in a positive way, my tutor tried to explain why it is a sign of artistic maturity and technical achievement, but bad examples of style-as-value keep coming to mind.

If we understand style as the creation of an original and singular strategic approach to all that goes into an art work – matter, content, materials, gesture, etc. – we will see it in a positive way. Image-makers aim at creating a language that they’ll be recognized for and that is, I guess, their style. But it often happens that authors get fooled in that process. Sometimes they think they reached their style to soon and they fall back on what’s easy and comfortable to them, ceasing to potentiate what is essencial about the making of art. Sometimes they think style is the highest value of a work of art (as many aesthetes do), and then the works fail to potentiate the new. Of course this is complex, but here I am simplifying it after having seen another bad example of style.

I see it happen with directors a lot. In one movie they excel at the strategies applied to visual story telling and then they keep repeating it, failing to let each movie have its own inner dynamics, its own life, its own matter. For the purpose of this post, I’ll just choose the last work that left me with such an impression about the meaning of style: The Neon Demon, by Nicolas Winding Refn. The reason for having watched this work is quite clear, its name is Drive, NWR hypnotic movie that brings the 80’s aesthetics into contemporary storytelling. So I admit there were expectations, even if I couldn’t bare 10 minutes of the movie that followed Drive: Only God Forgives. I figured that he had made bad choices, trying to ride the successful wave of Drive, but that by now he had found “his voice”.

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Well I guess there’s no clear answer. His voice may be in Drive as in The Neon Demon, and he clearly has a style, but some other elements that make Drive a good work fail to be present in his latest attempt at art. The neon, the vibrancy of the colors, the obsessive focus on auratic characters, the costumes that match the walls,  the seductive nature of the timid gestures of the bodily creatures depicted, the dynamics that arise from the silent tone of the seductiveness played by the characters and the cool vibe of the music that accompanies them, the pauses – the constant pauses – reminiscent of some 80’s music videos (the Modern Talking vibe),* the eulogy of the grotesque, the promotion of a sort of virginal beauty and more. This is, as far as I see it, part of NWR style and if this is style, then this strategic approach is the mark of an inauthentic doing, meaning: the mark of an approach to art that is not truthful and sincere, that puts the work at the service of some external purpose, and not their inner dynamics.

The Neon Demon is a gratuitous work, made with poor taste. It lacks originality, in the sense that is misses the mark of the authors singularity, that which is his own. The movie is the sum of clichés about the gluttonous hunger that surrounds the beauty industry, but then (as if that wasn’t bad enough), NWR tried to put a kitsch spin on it, make it a parody, with girls eating girls and regurgitating  eyeballs, making a symbolic turn with the repetition of mirrors and geometric figures that just hasn’t got the place. Can any work of art be supported by the numerous circular metaphors it is supposed to entail? What is the meaning of those regurgitated eyes, I wonder? Are they the mark of a parody? Are they the sign of guilt? Or are they just difficult to digest ?

*

Have you seen this?

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The poster for The Wolfpack documentary © The Sundance Institute.

I confess: as soon as I heard about this project I was sold. The history is so special, so out of the ordinary, that it would be impossible for whatever projects that went in contact with it not to acquire some of that originality, depth and playfulness.

The Wolfpack, i.e., the Crystal Moselle‘s documentary, follows the lives of six brothers who spent 14 years locked away from society in a Lower East Side housing project. Their paranoid father forbade them, along with their mother and sister, from leaving the apartment. Movies provided their only window to the outside world: they learned almost everything they knew from obsessively watching films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Dark Knight, and they spent their days reenacting scenes and violent, movie-inspired fantasies.

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Family archive (the parents: Oscar and Susanne) © Susanne Reisenbichler.
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Family archive (the brothers) © Susanne Reisenbichler.

The photographic project (Wolves Like Us),  by Dan Martensen, follows the Angulo‘s brothers as they come in contact with the outside world. Martensen started photographing them in 2010. The photographs and the movie are quite different approaches to the same reality. In Moselle‘s documentary we see the ambiance of fear in which the brothers lived for a big part of their lives and the resentment towards their father becomes almost a forth dimension. In Martensen‘s photographs we see the brother’s potential, their creativity, their joy, their will to live out their lives in the outside world, in the midst of nature and other human beings.

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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.
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© Dan Martensen’s, Wolves Like Us.

At one point in Moselle‘s documentary, the mother explains how they (she and her husband) feel about interacting with other people and she comments that her socialization in school was not very positive, so they decided to keep their distance. The story is much more complex and Moselle‘s documentary gives us an insight into how dangerous it is to make such a decision, i.e., to keep your kids imprisoned in a house for reasons that have to do with your own fear of the world. No doubt this story would have had a tragic end if the kids hadn’t started to rebel against their father. In the brothers’ discourse hanger is almost at the point of turning into hate.

About the moment when they started to leave the house, their mother comments that it was their way into “normalcy”. It’s complex. Their mother, Susanne Reisenbichler, it’s a central figure in all of this. Apparently, she fell in love for Oscar‘s open spirit, but latter realized it was all but free and that they had to live by his rules (the Angulos’ parents met when hippie Susanne was on the Machu Picchu trail, in Peru, where she met Oscar, a Hare Krishna follower. They gave their children ancient Indian names. How come the pair settled in New York? “They didn’t mean to stay there,” says Govinda, “but because Dad didn’t believe in working for a living, our options were limited.”) She cries, she laments their upbringing and we are left wondering what really went on behind those walls. When we hear Oscar, the father, stating that “[his] power is influencing everybody” I shiver. No doubt, a lot is left in the dark. What do these kids mean when they say that “sometimes there are things that you just…you just don’t for… you just don’t get over, you just don’t forgive”?

When Moselle‘s documentary won the Sundance Grand Prize Jury Award the brothers’ story was put on display. So much so that it was appropriated by the art market, as an example of was a mix between ‘pop art’ and ‘primitivism’. Of course this is the critical perspective, not theirs. No doubt their intentions are honest, to share their creative view of the world, to help change their lives, etc, etc, but what will this amount to? Apparently, they are all doing great.

The Wolfpack Show is an exhibition hosted by Jeffrey Deitch, showcasing the elaborate homemade movie props, costumes, and scripts created by Mukunda, Govinda, Narayana, Jagadisa, Bhagavan, and Krisna for their recreations of blockbuster films.

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The Wolfpack Show invitation.
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Installation view © Daniel Maurer.
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Installation view © Daniel Maurer.

٠ a critique about a movie I’ll never watch ٠

Today I found a new good place on the www – NATIVE APPROPRIATIONS – and having enjoyed a good amount of readings there I decided to bring it here. What follows is a brief preview of a series of posts by Adrienne K. about the latest Hollywood extravaganza featuring Johnny Depp as Tonto. Yes, I’m obviously going to follow Adrienne’s advice and am not going to watch it (not that it had ever crossed my mind to do otherwise).

marty_two_bulls_110208-615x615Why Tonto Matters

We need to demand more. We can’t be complacent with just going to that “excited-happy-place” every time we see any representation of an Indian on screen. We can’t be thankful that 50 Native actors are able to ride around bareback in the background of a film, or be psyched that a big name Hollywood actor put a crow on his head to “honor” us–talk about ongoing colonization of the mind. Our community is so much better than that. We are worth so much more than background roles and misrepresentations.

Ryan [McMahon]also said something that resonated with me beyond this issue alone, quoting his grandmother:

Everything you do, grandson, is going to be political because you’re Anishinabe.

The way we represent ourselves is, therefore, inherently political. These “trivial” issues are representative of deeper, darker, larger issues within Indian Country. For those who live in predominantly Native communities, fighting against cultural appropriation and misrepresentation may seem like the cause of a privileged few who can sit in their ivory towers and point fingers all day, ignoring the “real” issues in Indian Country. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it as many times as I can until it sticks:

Yes, unequivocally, we have big things to tackle in Indian Country. We have pressing and dire issues that are taking the lives of our men and women everyday, and I am in absolutely no way minimizing this reality. But we also live in a state of active colonialism. In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

the-lone-ranger-johnny-depp-600x337I saw The Lone Ranger so you don’t have to

The very first scene we are presented with an image of a Native person, in a museum–which presumably we’re supposed to critique, but there’s no questioning of Tonto’s position there. To me it reinforces the idea that all the Indians are dead, relics of the past, which is actually a theme throughout. […]

Finally we come to the end of the story. Tonto finishes telling it all to the little boy in the museum, and we see that he has put on a suit, holds a suitcase, and places a bowler hat over his crow (which he has continued to “feed” throughout the film). The boy gets momentarily distracted, turns back, and OMG again, Tonto’s gone! In return, a (live) crow flies out of the exhibit and at the screen. Then we cut to credits. Then, a few minutes later, we see Tonto wandering off into the vastness of Monument Valley, hobbling along, carrying his suitcase. He continues to walk, back to the camera, for the next 10 minutes as the credits go on, and on, and on. I guess we’re to assume his time as a “Noble Savage” has passed, and he’s returning to his unbridled wilderness, alone–but dressed as a white guy this time? This, like most of the movie, didn’t make any sense.

The-Lone-Ranger-2013-Johnny-DeppJohnny Depp as Cultural Appropriation Jack Sparrow…I mean Tonto.

The Tonto costume is a mish-mash of stereotypical Indian garb, a Plains-style breastplate with a southwest-style headband (minus the effing bird), random feathers and beads–but the face paint that makes him look evil, forlorn, and angry all at once is a nice touch. Then, the fact that the publicity photo shows the “wild” and “unruly” (ok, I’ll say it, “savage”) Tonto behind the clean, polished, (and white) Lone Ranger is a great “honoring” to Native people too, and shows how much agency Tonto has, right? (/sarcasm)”

iamcrow75procent3Johnny Depp as Tonto: I’m still not feeling “honored”

Johnny Depp decided to “honor” Native peoples and “reinvent” our role in hollywood by relying on the most tired and stereotypical tropes imaginable. On his “inspiration” for Tonto’s makeup:

«I’d actually seen a painting by an artist named Kirby Sattler, and looked at the face of this warrior and thought: That’s it. The stripes down the face and across the eyes … it seemed to me like you could almost see the separate sections of the individual, if you know what I mean.»

Though that quote makes absolutely no sense (“separate sections of the individual?), the picture in reference is below. The connection between the Sattler painting and Depp’s costuming was actually caught quickly in March by some fans of the Native Appropriations facebook page, one of whom even took the time to call Sattler’s studio. The PR rep on the phone assured her to wait until the movie came out and that she was certain “everything would be done in an appropriate manner.” I guess “appropriate” is relative?

Armie Hammer apparently talked to some Natives who love Lone Ranger

Do I wish we lived in a society where Natives were more visible and it wasn’t such a freaking novelty that someone wants to make a movie with us? Do I wish we the resources and publicity to get the same amount of attention on our own media? Do I wish that we had other economic ventures on our reservations that could provide jobs without having to become a Hollywood stereotype? yes, yes, and yes. I think we deserve much more.

┐ Object on Screen └

mtstill from Untamed Heart, 1993

II. Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form
A. The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia. There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at. Originally. in his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones. At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to controlling and curious gaze. His particular examples center around the voyeuristic activities of children, their desire to see and make sure of the private and the forbidden (curiosity about other people’s genital and bodily functions, about the presence or absence of the penis and, retrospectively, about the primal scene). In this analysis scopophilia is essentially active. (Later, in Instincts and their Vicissitudes, Freud developed his theory of scopophilia further, attaching it initially to pre-genital auto-eroticism, after which the pleasure of the look is transferred to others by analogy. There is a close working here of the relationship between the active instinct and its further development in a narcissistic form.) Although the instinct is modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object. At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.

At first glance, the cinema would seem to be remote from the undercover world of the surreptitious observation of an unknowing and unwilling victim. What is seen of the screen is so manifestly shown. But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy. Moreover, the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation. Although the fiIm is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world. Among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantIy one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer.

mjstill from La meglio gioventù, 2003

B. The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking, but it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect. The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world. Jacques Lacan has described how the moment when a child recognises its own image in the mirror is crucial for rhe constitution of the ego. Several aspects of this analysis are relevant here. The mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with misrecognition: the image recognised is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject. which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others. This mirror-moment predates language for the child.

Important for this article is the fact that it is an image that constitutes the matrix of the imaginary, of recognition/misrecognition and identification, and hence of the first articulation of the ‘I’ of subjectivity. This is a moment when an older fascination with looking (at the mother’s face, for an obvious example) collides with the initial inklings of self-awareness. Hence it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience. Ouite apart from the extraneous similarities between screen and mirror (the framing of the human form in its surroundings, for instance), the cinema has structures of fascination strong enough to allow temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing the ego. The sense of forgetting the world as the ego has subsequently come to perceive it (I forgot who I am and where I was) is nostagically reminiscent of that pre-subjective moment of image recognition. At the same time the cinema has distinguished itself in the production of ego ideals as expressed in particular in the star system, the stars centering both screen presence and screen story as they act out a complex process of likeness and difference (the glamorous impersonates the ordinary).

C. Sections II. A and B have set out two contradictory aspects of the pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation. The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, comes from identification with the image seen. Thus, in film terms, one implies a separation of the erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen (active scopophilia), the other demands identification of the ego with the object on the screen through the spectator’s fascination with and recognition of his like. The first is a function of the sexual instincts, the second of ego libido. This dichotomy was crucial for Freud. Although he saw the two as interacting and overlaying each other, the tension between instinctual drives and self-preservation continues to be a dramatic polarisation in terms of pleasure. Both are formative structures, mechanisms not meaning. In themselves they have no signification, they have to be attached to an idealisation. Both pursue aims in indifference to perceptual reality, creating the imagised, eroticised concept of the world that forms the perception of the subject and makes a mockery of empirical objectivity. During its history, the cinema seems to have evolved a particularization of reality in which this contradiction between libido and ego has found a beautifully complementary phantasy world. In reality the phantasy world of the screen is subject to the law which produces it. Sexual instincts and identification processes have a meaning within the symbolic order which articulates desire. Desire, born with language, allows the possibility of transcending the instinctual and the imaginary, but its point of reference continually returns to the traumatic moment of irs birth: the castration complex. Hence the look, pleasurable in form, can be threatening in content, and it is woman as representation/image that crystallises this paradox.

excerpt of Laura Mulvey‘s seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, originally published in Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18

┐ The hard issue of innocence after Vinterberg └

In the last couple of months I’ve come across the issue of paedophilia for different reasons, all related to my research on art theory and artists’ work. It’s not an easy issue and I’ve found it very difficult to discuss with friends. This post comes about after watching the latest Vinterberg‘s movie The Hunt and feeling that I should try to bring together all those threads that have been on my mind for the last couple of days. There are no answers here, just loose thoughts.

stereotype© Charming Baker, Stereotype Is In The Eye of The Beholder, 2008

It all started with an article about Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) and his alleged use of anarchist philosophy to cover his love for kids and so to justify adults sexually taking advantage of children. The article, “Leaving out the ugly part” at Libcom.org, meant to be an exposé by researcher Robert P. Helms. I’m not even going to go there because it is impossible to have anything objective to say about the accusations stated without access to those “alleged facts”. Furthermost, I am one of his readers, very fond of TAZ and his thoughts on new technology and immediacy. For me, the only thing this controversial article does is to highlight the questions of Authority and Autonomy, in all their complexity, and bring forth the unclear lines separating paedophilia, incest, child abuse and the classic homosexual adoration and sexual attraction for boys. Somehow, everyone seems to have amazingly high moral standards and a lot of judgements to make about all this, though it’s clear a lot of people just repeat things they’ve heard throughout their life, without second guessing.


It is clearly farfetched to suggest that Bey/Wilson is advocating sex with pre-pubescent children, as there is nothing in the texts to suggest this. Regarding pederasty, and regardless of one’s own views on the moral legitimacy of such sexual desire, it should also be recognized that Bey is not the first high-profile writer to admit to a sexual attraction towards adolescent boys. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg made no secret of it, yet by and large their readers do not seem to be able to have trouble separating this from their consumption of the work. Instead, the question of sexuality within Bey’s work should be analyzed within the framework of the academic writing Wilson has published under his real name, such as his non-TAZ overview of early pirate utopias.

tumblr_mh3ivmovoP1qzytgqo1_1280© Otto Mühl, perfroming Mama and Papa, in 1964

The next episode happened while researching about the Vienna Action Group, particularly because of Otto Mühl’s history: his beliefs and his practice, following the principles of free sexuality and liberation of the drives, got him arrested several times. In 1991, the Friedrichshof Commune broke up and Otto was sentenced to seven years in prison for “criminal acts against morality” and offenses against the illegal drugs act. He rejects the verdict. Six and a half years later, suffering from Parkinson, Otto was released and moved to the south of Portugal, where he still lives, in a small community.

There’s a curious article about Otto in Frieze, written by Theo Altenberg, that ends up like this: “As a person, Mühl failed spectacularly. But as an artist and visionary, he made an important contribution to widening our concept of freedom.” It makes me smile, for these words are so contradictory. Otto, as Nitsch, Schwarzkogler and Brus, rejected the idea that life and art were separated acts of life, so how come could one fail at one and succeed at another if not because of our narrow judgmental views of what one is or should be and how one should behave. We tend to put ourselves in the place of normality and because the gaze of a defiant countenance confronts us with our fragility, we tend to reject it and find ways to condemn its attitudes. In Otto’s case, his “moral infringements” consisted of unusual sexual behaviors, that is, fucking a lot. He was very successful at challenging notions of art and its commodities, and trying to stage cathartic moments, almost psychoanalytic live acts, questioning liberty, sexual desire, moral beliefs, etc. In his own life, he seemed to do the same. Challenging oneself means you will never be successful. Who would want that anyway, if it’s just a pure aesthetic argument for a superficial lifestyle.

The Huntstill from The Hunt (Jagten), 2012

stoeckel_eekholt_7© Frank Stöckel, Eekholt, 2003-05

We now come to Vinterber’s movie about a man who is accused of harassing his best friend’s young daughter. It’s the kid’s lie and soon after she claims she made it up, but it’s too late. The adults are already caught up it the drama. The movie is called The Hunt, which is a pretty explicit definition of what the main character goes through but is also a metaphor, since it refers to the portrayed ritual of haunting that is “offered” to a boy once he reaches adulthood. In this case, Deers are the preys and their “image” appears both at the beginning and at the end of the movie. I believe this appearance is quite symbolic. Amidst some indigenous cultures, such as the Apange and some Amerindians, the deer is a sacred animal, a sort of primordial element of life. They believe once dead, the human soul passes through them, as if to regenerate itself.

Vinterberg, who lived in a community and is used to having a mind of his own “explains that the idea had been seeded years before by some notes handed to him by a child psychiatrist and that the film’s central interrogation scene (which initially struck me as over-egged and unconvincing) is actually a cleaned-up version of a real transcript. The result, he says, is a film about a witch-hunt and its victims; a story that identifies a new strain of wickedness. Of course abuse happens – I made a film about that already. But I think that there’s this other danger and it demands new sacrifices, new victims. These victims are not only the men – and sometimes women – who are accused of something they haven’t done. But they are also the children who grow up believing they are victims. Those children operate under the grand illusion that something bad has happened to them; they grow up with similar experiences to the children who really did experience it. He draws a breath. It’s rotten, rotten territory.

Morality, is not only subjective as it is abstract. And rightly so. If that wasn’t the case we would go through life overwhelmed by guilt and with zero chance of being free…