The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: April, 2014

The Wind Rises

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Apologies for the lack of work being put into this blog in the past week or so. I have been dealing both with my own sickness and that of a person dear to me. As such, I haven’t had the energy or will to write anything I hope this will rectify any concerns.

Though Miyazaki is a committed pacifist and environmentalist, he has often depicted industrial machinery and even war machines with a kind of awed reverence. His films refrain from luddite moralizing, and rather combine a sense of historical inevitability combined with bursts of optimism. The visual and narrative core of The Wind Rises is the airplane, often described within the film as a “beautiful dream.” Miyazaki dedicates much of the running time his protagonist’s dreams, obsessed with the wonders of freedom and flight. At the same time, this idealistic vision evaporates in reality. Realizing his “beautiful dream,” what becomes the Mitsubishi Zero, takes protagonist Jiro Horikoshi years of painstaking work. When he does complete it, Japan uses it to bring nightmares into the world. By itself, the plane is a work of art, a “castle in the sky,” but the film shows how this pure, even escapist fiction becomes a horrifying reality.

Of course, Jiro is not the sole creator of the Zero. In a critical scene near the beginning of the film, he strides into his new employment at Mitsubishi with a proud stride, happy to perform whatever tasks his boss demands of him as long as he has the resources to realize his ambitions. At the Mitsubishi facility, he is just another cog in the machine, his art a mere means of fulfilling army and navy contracts. His idol, German aeronautical engineer Junkers, finds himself in a similar conundrum doing metal and blood work for the Nazis. This idea, that one’s work exists in a social and material world that is going to use your work in ways you did not intend, probably carries special poignance for Miyazaki, since this film is being accused of essentially that. Indeed, critics have pointed out that the workers who actually built Horikoshi’s planes were Korean and Chinese, that his designs contributed to mass slaughter around the world, and that his idealized view of the man’s work is just as blind as Horikoshi was. In the Japanese dub, anime director Hideaki Anno plays Jiro, adding yet another artist whose own work has taken on the very monstrous dimensions he intended to criticize. Even the idealists are not blameless because their work is affected by gravity. No one owns their work; they are merely producers in a much larger artistic and economic machine.

German film director Werner Herzog contributes a performance to the English dub as Castorp, an outside observer who plays a mean piano and wisely intones that Germany and Japan are going to burn for their militaristic ways. Miyazaki thus positions Japan’s “victimhood,” its wartime destruction by American planes, as penance for the sins it committed in starting the war. While this is certainly a step up from the aggressive, self-pitying nationalism of the Japanese right, it’s still excessively idealistic. When you look closer at the film, you could come to the conclusion that Japan’s primary “sin” was sending such beautiful machines to their destruction. Consider how Horikoshi’s life’s work lies immortalized in overgrown graves in the final scene. As he walks through this vivid dream, he notices his dead wife running at him, telling him to cling to life, to continue living even in the face of such abominations.

That makes for a perfect segue to the secondary plot of the film, the romantic relationship between Horikoshi and Naoko Satomi, the daughter of a wealthy resort owner whom he helps during the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. After years of separation, the two of them agree to get engaged and eventually marry despite her tuberculosis. The two of them live together for a short while before she succumbs to the disease. The parallels between Naoko and the Zero are fairly overtly drawn. Both of them are beautiful dreams that are worth pursuing even if their ends are terrible. Both of them are defined purely in their relationship to Jiro, and even Naoko’s final decision to leave him and retire to a sanatorium is made not for her own health but for his benefit, to spare  him from seeing another of his beautiful dreams come to naught. I won’t say that Naoko’s character is reduced to an object or plot convenience; Miyazaki depicts her with enough verve and nuance to make her compelling in her own right. But she is not the focus, and as such plays a secondary role to Jiro at all times. Like the workers who built Jiro’s planes, she gets short shrift even in her own story.

The Wind Rises is not as much a story about the bloody story of Japanese imperialism as it is a personal story about the tragic ambitions of a brilliant young man. Indeed, in dedicating so much time to subjective dream space, Miyazaki tips his hand in that direction. At the same time, the narrative suffers for being so tight-fistedly centered on Jiro Horikoshi. Though we see hints all around that the world we are being shown has more depth and complexity than we are being shown, this film, unlike Princess Mononoke, never explores those dimensions. The Wind Rises is a beautiful, elegiac film, a fitting (probable) end to a mostly stellar career, but falls short of being the most valuable or insightful film he has ever made. I’m biased, but I suspect if Miyazaki had been more of a materialist and less of a romantic, we could have gotten the beauty of the machine and its rampant destruction in a more compelling, less airy narrative.

 

Some Thoughts on the Death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Wonderful tribute by my comrade at Hello.Lenin! I need to read more of Marquez’s work, clearly.

Bombard the Headquarters!

Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Fidel Castro. Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Fidel Castro.

I was reading the final pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons when I learned the news of his death.

In this brief novel of just over a hundred pages we meet the daughter of a plantation owner. Growing up with the black and mulatto slaves in his father’s mansion, she acquires their culture and is promptly sent to a convent for exorcism shortly after she is bitten by a dog with rabies.

On the other side we meet a priest assigned to exorcise the girl but instead fall madly in love with her. He immediately sees through the farce of demonic possession as a code for the possession of a lower class culture incomprehensible to the guardians of spiritual order and private property.

Of Love and Other Demons is, as usual, a very beautiful book, a testament to Marquez’s conviction…

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Concerning Little Inferno

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I’ve got these old toys
I’ve got this box of memories
We’ll shove them in the fire
And breathe in the flaming potpourri
It’s little inferno just for me

“But I thought playing with fire was dangerous.”
“Well you’re right
But up out of your chimney
Way up in the sky
It’s been snowing for years
And we just don’t know why
Our world is getting colder
But there’s no need for alarm
Just sit by your fire
Burn all of your toys
And stay warm.”

Little Inferno’s cleverness is to a great extent summarized in the eerie advertising jingle you see above. I should probably give the game a more thorough introduction before getting too far ahead of myself. Playing the game is simple enough. A fireplace rests in front of you. You browse a catalog of items, buy the items, and burn them in the fire. Every item takes a certain amount of time to ship, and burning an object will give you more money than it originally cost to order. You take these profits and invest them in more stuff to burn. The upshot is that you stay nice and warm while getting cheap, digital, pyromaniacal thrills. Inside the fireplace cynicism rules without question. Everything from family photos, personal letters (your only contact with the outside world, at least at first), and ragged toys to modern lamps and cheap thriller novels are fodder for the fire. And if your house burns down? Well, let no one say that you weren’t warned. Besides, everything just floats up the chimney into the cold world outside. What makes you any different?

At a certain point, even a hardened predator like myself felt almost sickened by the sheer amount of wreckage I created in the fire. All of it seemed empty and pointless, and indeed the game tips its hand in this regard. The fire is pointless. Before its ravenous mouth all things are equal. It is only once you complete most of the game’s objectives that the world outside the fireplace begins to open up, and that world is an utterly different place. Out there, the world is slowing down and freezing over, the victim of some environmental catastrophe. The rich can escape for real, while the poor have to subsist on the Little Inferno, keeping their children unaware and warm in their houses. That is, until the houses burn down one by one. At that point, what is a child to do? The game’s answer to this question is not entirely satisfactory. Resonances with Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax abound, but Little Inferno lacks most of that work’s didactic punch. Most of its narrative power derives from the absolute contradiction between the world inside the fireplace and the world outside of it. Inside, nothing matters. Outside, everything matters a great deal. Though most of what you do in this game turns out to be utterly frivolous, it serves as a mere prelude to game with far more on its mind than throwing plastic consumer crap on the fire.

Part of the game’s genius is how closely it connects the apparently opposite poles of sentimentality and cynicism. Don’t mistake me: I am not saying that the outside world is a sentimental one. Rather, the sentimental world of kitsch and manufactured pleasures–the catalogues, the bouncy mall music, the shiny–generate and sustain cynicism. Everything is interchangeable for everything else, just different means of earning more money to burn more stuff. It’s through constant repetition that the game insinuates its larger points for the player. The first dozen products are entertaining enough when burned, but after awhile pursuit of gold and little stamps that make shipping go faster become all-consuming drives. Nothing feels real, and it’s not until the world outside appears that you might begin to grasp the consequences of all the smoke you’re pushing into the air. It’s primarily a pretty nifty toy for burning things, but it manages to overturn its own frivolity by calling attention to it. Not bad for a glorified fireplace.

Stealth Class Warfare: A Marxist Critique of Dishonored

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Introduction: this is a paper I wrote for a class, which will explain its relative lack of tigerly finesse, that certain indecipherable dash of special I add to all the work I publish here. All the same, I think it’s worth sharing since there are a few paragraphs in there describing Marxist criticism in general, and those might be useful for anyone looking for an introduction to that topic. The other reason I decided to post this on the blog is that its genesis lies in a short little piece I wrote awhile ago, which can be found here. Consider the article through that link portal a TLl;DR version of what you see below. Enjoy, if that’s how you roll.


 

Dishonored, a stealth action video game developed by Arkane Studios and published in 2012, demonstrates perhaps better than any mainstream commercial video game the Marxist conceptions of ideology and class conflict. Set in a fantasy city of Dunwall, heavily based on nineteenth-century Great Britain, the game plunges players into the human suffering unleashed by an industrial revolution. The player spends the majority of the game navigating power politics and trudging through Dunwall’s slums in the wake of a rat-borne epidemic. Casting the player as the empress’ bodyguard turned assassin-for-hire, the game exposes the economic and social basis of power in Dunwall, showing how shifting cadres of aristocrats and military men seize power while leaving the class structure of exploitation intact. While its plot apparently indicts violence and greed in politics, it ultimately reproduces capitalist ideology through its valorization of the heroic individual at the expense of any real changes in the society it depicts. This is evident in the structure of its narrative, the ways in which the game restricts player freedom, and a formal reliance on (capitalist) power fantasy common to most video games.

In order to understand how Marxist criticism illuminates various contradictions within Dishonored, the theory deserves a brief introduction. At the basis of all Marxist theory is the philosophy of materialism. That is, “everything belonging to the world of ideas or concepts…grows from material conditions and practices” (Brummett 151). Though Marxist critical methods analyze the same texts as other forms of analysis, it distinguishes itself because it centers what Anatoly Lunacharsky calls “the decisive role…played by the most natural and material economic relationships,” and especially “forms of labour” (Lunacharsky 1928). In other words, Marxist criticism understands literature not as the freestanding creation of transcendent individuals but as the product of social forces. Terry Eagleton summarizes the task of Marxist criticism as understanding “the complex, indirect relations between those works and the ideological worlds they inhabit,” the ways in which objects of daily life, including video games, films, literature, and even web pages interact produce and are produced by the society in which they are born (Eagleton 6). When analyzing Dishonored, therefore, the critic must not only consider the internal logic of the work––its plot, characters, symbolism, etc.––but also the way that logic emerges from capitalist societies and helps to either reinforce or undermine capitalist hegemony.

Another vital aspect of Marxist critical theory and its application to Dishonored is how the game (re)produces capitalist ideology in the people who are meant to read, or, in this case, play them. Video games are not only passive products of capitalist social forces but also active participants in society. Though Marx distinguished between an economic “base” and an ideological “superstructure” for society, the former does not mechanically determine the latter in a straightforward fashion. Rather, the superstructure has what Althusser calls “the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base,” or the ability of ideological products, like video games and books, to reinforce or change the base (Althusser 1970). Though the material base remains the final determinant of the structure erected on top of it, products like Dishonored are not merely symptoms but actively help to shape the world. They accomplish this by imparting ideological messages to the people consuming them. As Eagleton notes, “Books [and video games] are not just structures of meaning, they are also commodities produced by publishers and sold on the market at a profit” (Eagleton 59). Therefore, video games and other cultural artifacts reproduce class structures at both an ideological level, influencing those who consume, and at an economic level by padding capitalist profits. Both of these factors place necessary limits on the ability of a corporate product like Dishonored to subvert or overthrow the powers that produced it.

Dishonored’s remarkably organic and developed setting sets it apart from most action video games and also reveals the sharp class distinctions of any capitalist society. At the top are Corvo’s, and by proxy the player’s, masters, who include a religious hierarch, an admiral, and an aristocrat. Their rooms are stocked with books, recording machines, fine wines, and fancy luggage. At one point, the player must assassinate or otherwise neutralize the tyrannical Lord Regent’s mistress at a party in her mansion. Before this mission, the player wanders through working class slums and brothels, witnessing the plague’s devastation. Buildings crumble, factories lie dormant, and victims scavenge for food in a daze while gangs sell black market elixirs to those who can pay. It eerily replicates Friedrich Engels’ description of urban conditions in the nineteenth century:

“In [slums], the germs hardly ever die out completely…[they] spread beyond their breeding places also into the more airy and healthy parts of the town inhabited by the capitalists. Capitalist rule cannot allow itself the pleasure of creating epidemic diseases among the working class with impunity; the consequences fall back on it and the angel of death rages in its ranks as ruthlessly as in the ranks of the workers” (Engels 1872).

Military oppression is omnipresent, with armed guards and electrified fences barricading the streets. By contrast, the mission in the mansion is a picture of luxury and indulgence. Food overflows the tables, the player, in disguise, can mingle with the industrial barons and landowners who form the real basis of power in society. Even here, however, someone needs to prepare the food and keep the alcoholic cider flowing as the upper crust attempts to forget that disease respects no social distinctions. The player encounters servants, maids, and soldiers as well as merchants and lords, who in their own way embody and support their rulers’ hegemony, albeit in different ways. The game poignantly demonstrates Marx’s notion of capital as a “coercive relation” that subordinates workers and forces them to sell their ability to work to survive (Marx 424-425). Through exploration and talking to various people, the player begins to understand the extent of economic exploitation in the society, as the wealthy extract profit from the labor of others and only feel anxiety when the plague begins to dry up their labor supply. As the player experiences the setting of Dunwall in Dishonored, therefore, s/he sees a society riven with divisions and injustice, and the narrative explicitly makes righting these injustices part of his/her mission. The game’s narrator, a strange disembodied heart that gives the player exposition, speaks a string of moral condemnations of various people in the world, especially those whom the player has to assassinate. “Such corruption! Such hypocrisy! Make it last no more,” it implores the player, thus setting up the plot as a story about justice in society and not merely a naked exercise of violence by an avatar at the player’s behest (Arkane Studios).

Though it belongs to the action game genre, Dishonored encourages players to win using nonlethal means. After each mission, the game evaluates the player’s performance, indicating whether his or her actions improved or destroyed the city. In “high chaos,” Dunwall is progressively swarmed by rats and plague victims. After making crucial decisions, the player receives a visit from “the Outsider,” a spectral figure who passes judgment on him or her. This “morality system” allows the player to embody the society itself, as his or her personal choices determine the fates of an entire civilization. Developer Harvey Smith, creative director for the game, writes that “the game is definitely built around the appeal of being very powerful in different ways…You can play the game like guns blazing [sic] and kicking in the door…then there’s even a further approach to our game where…you ca literally finish the game without killing anyone” (Nutt 2012). Arkane Studios encourages players to choose their own path through the game, and the morality mechanic only enhances the player’s sense of agency. This conflation of individual action and social forces simultaneously reinforces and subverts the power fantasy of the game, giving the player more control while also giving negative feedback (i.e. making the game more difficult) to punish “excessive” aggression.

The game’s most pointed illustration of this idea is in a confrontation with another assassin named Daud, who notes that, though Corvo imagines that he is serving the cause of justice, he is actually just killing one group of aristocrats on behalf of another group. At the end of the game, depending on whether the player has acted morally according to the game’s criteria, the city is either overcome by plague and plunged into chaos or the rightful heir is put back on the throne and all is well, with a few subtle graded possibilities in between. Though the game allows the player to kill or be merciful, this morality system is circumscribed by the class society in which the game takes place and the ideology of the society that created it. Though the player’s is meant to consider his or her motivations and actions, he or she can only salvage the existing society, not create a new one. Even in the best ending, where scientists cure the plague and order is restored under a noble monarch, the game leaves the lives of the vast majority untouched. Doubtless the toilers in the factories continue to toil, and though the “bad” aristocrats have been removed through violence or intrigue, democracy and social equality remain inaccessible.

Marxist critic Theodor Adorno describes this phenomenon this way: “[F]reedom to choose an ideology–since ideology always reflects economic coercion–everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same” (Adorno 167). Thus Dishonored, though it attempts and often succeeds in bringing a living world to life and giving the player “freedom to choose” remains firmly embedded in capitalist ideology. A just ruler, not a just society, solves the narrative’s problems. Given that the game’s publisher is part of a capitalist monopoly system, just “business…made into an ideology,” creating a narrative and interactive systems that allow the player to feel a sense of accomplishment when she or he has changed very little. Though it responds to contemporary social concerns about rising inequality and class struggle over wealth and power, it “merely reflects the despair and ennui of late bourgeois society” without “revealing positive possibilities behind it” (Eagleton 52). Within the world of the game, it is easier to bring the extinction of Dunwall than to overturn the bosses and landowners. Given that the game alerts the player to this idea, it opens the possibility for a more subversive reading of the material, but there is no room to attempt such a reading here.

Dishonored, therefore, creates one of the most complex and comprehensive pictures of capitalist society in video games. With its rich setting that includes all social classes––not only military elites or princes as in many games––it exposes some of the inherent barbarism of early industrial capitalism and urban life. Although it recognizes these problems, and gives the player the power to act morally in order to restore peace and sanity to society, it restricts the player from making fundamental changes to society. Dishonored is socially conscious, but its consciousness reflects the prevailing capitalist ideology without presenting any real alternative. Though this does not diminish its enjoyability as a power fantasy, it shows the stark limitations of how far a cultural artifact produced in a capitalist culture industry can go in criticizing the existing order.

 

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. 167.

Arkane Studios. Dishonored. Bethesda Softworks, 2012. PlayStation 3.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Marxists.org., 1970. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm>.

Brummett, Barry. Rhetoric in Popular Culture. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. 151.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976. 6-59. Print.

Engels, Friedrich. “Conditions of the Working Class in England.” Marxists.org. N.p., 1845. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx//works/1845/condition-working-class/>.

Lunacharsky, Anatoly. “Theses on Problems in Marxist Criticism.” Marxists.org. 1928. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lunachar/1928/criticism.htm>

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: Penguin, 1976. 425. 3 vols.

Nutt, Christian. Gamasutra. Gamasutra, 20 July 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/174450/not_really_artists_the_creative_.php?page=2>.

Latin American Film: El Agua Del Fin Del Mundo

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Directed with an awkward conviction by Paula Siero, this Argentine film played at the Grand Rapids Latin American Film Festival. It tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Adriana, who live in urban Argentina. Adriana is terminally ill, though we don’t learn much about her illness other than that it is incurable and she has only months to live. Hoping to have one final adventure before her short life comes to an end, she persuades her sister to take them both on a vacation to Tierra Del Fuego. Most of the film is concerned with the sisters’ attempts to earn money for the trip, assisted and sometimes afflicted by a musician named Martín along the way. In one scene, Martín, who is otherwise portrayed as a sympathetic character, refuses to let go of Laura despite her protestations, ignoring her obvious discomfort. It has incredibly uncomfortable overtones of sexual assault, and undoes much of Martín’s characterization as a helpful outsider. After that scene, he seems more interested in exploiting the situation for his own gain, though he continues to lend his accordion skills to the cause. Shot mainly in handheld closeups and lacking wide establishing shots, the film immerses the viewer in an urban environment while keeping the characters at the centre. While the technique of the film is lacking (and my showing was interrupted several times by shoddy projection) and the pacing sometimes awkward, it still makes for an engaging piece of social realism. By situating the story about the sisters in a wider milieu and making the story about economic struggle, it lends a different nuance to what could otherwise have been a clichéd story.

Latin American Film: No

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No, which screened at the Grand Rapids Latin American Film Festival, is a fictionalized account of the plebiscite that finally ended Augusto Pinochet’s rightist dictatorship in Chile. It takes an unusual angle on the story by focusing on the efforts of an advertising executive, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), to rally popular support for the anti-Pinochet movement with a slick 1980s-style advertising campaign. The film is shot on 1980s video, creating an almost surreal color palette that heightens the reality of the film without obscuring some of its more dramatic moments, such as when Saavedra and his son are caught in an attack by riot police against demonstrators. By combining moments of visceral terror and some brooding suspense with a generally upbeat tone, the film captures the strangeness of the No campaign’s advertising strategy and its success. It’s a valuable historical film that shows how the media can be used for oppressive and subversive purposes and honors the courage of those who contributed to creating less repressive societies in Latin America. At the same time, it has strong limitations owing to its approach, and should not be taken as a definitive account of Chilean history.

In particular, it treats the leftist political parties and their leaders as unenlightened, backward chumps who don’t have the market savvy this brash young upstart has. Not to mention his good looks. By celebrating commercialism’s contribution to “freedom” it, unwittingly or not, undermines its commitment to democratic ideals and instead celebrates the benevolence of Western capitalism. I would still call the film an overall success, but it is far from perfect in its treatment of political matters.

Indie Rock Case Study 1: The National

New sitcom coming with Matt Berninger as socially crippled straight man and Tom as his wacky brother.

New sitcom coming with Matt Berninger as socially challenged straight man and Tom as his wacky brother.

My readers should, by now, be accustomed to this tiger being a tad curmudgeonly about indie rock. I’ve gone after the nebulous category before in my attempted indictment against Arcade Fire. Though I brought my charges of musical irrelevance and complacency before a grand jury, my legal case was going nowhere fast; Montréal’s elite cabal of indie sympathizers made mincemeat of my case. Had it been literal mincemeat, I would have had things to lick other than my own wounds, but alas. A writer can only deal with reality, whether tiger or human. Though the grand jury aroused my predatory instincts, it would have prevented me from turning my critical ire toward a target like The National.

Believe me when I say that The National is, even more than Arcade Fire, a deserving target for scorn. Even if we’ve sunk into a period of fallow traditionalism in rock music, we should not use this as an excuse to lower our collective standards. Sadly, The National, a band utterly bankrupt of imagination, a band that churns out rote songs that lack even Arcade Fire’s bombastic panache, has arrived. In more ways than one. Not only has the band achieved some commercial success, but they are bringing their sad-faced dog and pony show to the local college. Therefore, while I am usually able to ignore it, The National will be a popular conversation topic in my locale for the foreseeable future.  Time to abandon my petty scorn and outline what I hope is a credible justification for my contempt. By no means do I want to suggest the band has not earned its distinction, only that its distinction is “popular but milquetoast indie rock band,” and that is hardly an achievement in my book/blahwg.

Weirdly enough, Pitchfork’s positive review of the band’s 2010 album High Violet provided me with quite a bit of ammunition for this takedown. The reviewer calls them “boilerplate indie,” “men’s magazine rock,” (??) a “reassuring” “salve” for our neuroses, etc. Turn the tone dial too much in the wrong direction, and the review could be a vicious pan. Like the band, it bends like a pretzel apologizing for the band’s lack of distinguishing features (by turning that very lack into a distinguishing feature, of course) more than saying anything substantive. Berninger’s lyrics, the review politely notes, dwell on the stresses of upper-class privilege, pre-middle-age angst, and aimless guilt. It’s no wonder the band strikes such a chord with today’s youth. Where Arcade Fire and some of its more enjoyable Montréal ilk (Spencer Krug’s projects, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, etc.) often scald the listener with musical hyperbole, The National is understated. The band has a fussy, cryptic naturalism about it, creating a false sense of intimacy with soft-rock string arrangements and mid-ranged tempos. Tedium sets in, and when the band injects more energy the result is just tedium on a more monumental scale.

While singer and songwriter Berninger can be alternately sardonic and just sad, the music around his words shows a paucity of daring and insight. Pitchfork calls songs like “Sorrow” (!) a “jog,” though “slog” seems more appropriate. Rather than sounding pretty, the orchestral arrangements the band uses makes them seem self-absorbed. Which they are, though that’s not entirely a bad thing in the realm of reflective songwriting. It’s not a noble kind of subtlety, the kind that complicates a simple surface or adds nuance. It’s a subtlety that subtracts meaning, making Berninger’s literal mumbling sounds more like a nervous, fidgety inability to communicate than the result of genuine troubles. Perhaps that should be “unwillingness.” Like Arcade Fire, the restraint comes across as a lack of gravitas, a deficit of charisma, wit, and imagination. (Note: seeing the band work in the film Mistaken For Strangers did nothing to change this impression, as it shows a very workmanlike group of individuals committed to their craft but never seeming enthusiastic about anything in particular. Contrast this with the almost manically creative Tom Berninger, the documentarian. We see few frames of his horror-schlock B movies and find they have more heart and beauty in them than hundreds of minutes of The National’s music.)

“Of course you hate this music, sir,” an astute, delicious-looking human will say, “because you love sensation and empty drama and delight in all kinds of gimmicks like in prog rock and silly dance music.” I will state the objection more clearly than this delectable bit of meat. My objection to The National has nothing to do with its mastery of the style they have adopted. At this, they are studied masters. From a sympathetic view, they seem like jewelers comparable to even more studious bands like Grizzly Bear. And where a performer like Spencer Krug will shift between 1970s rock, strange experiments with looping organs, solo piano albums, and God knows what else, The National appears immune to any creative itchiness or impatience whatsoever. Their songs focus on swathing lyrics in prettiness to make them go down easier. From a sympathetic view, this looks like commitment to an identity or a dedication to refinement and sobriety (well, the former anyway) rather than enthusiastic experimentation. Indeed, if you consider such meticulous refinement a virtue in music, I see no reason to devour you messily. All the same, I find myself implacably opposed to The National and the genre of which it is the apotheosis. I am not sympathetic, and for that reason I find The National the blandest kind of disposable “alternative” music. Plenty of bands taste worse in my mouth, but few stick so persistently in my throat on the way down.

Coming in part two, a look at Spencer Krug as the patron saint of good indie rock.

Wes Anderson’s Literary Retreat

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“Most professional humanists…are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of practices such as slavery, colonialist, and racial oppression, and imperial subjection on one hand, and the poetry, fiction, philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other.

“Culture conceived in this way can become a protective enclosure: check your politics at the door before you enter it.”

–Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, xiv.

The Grand Budapest Hotel proves beyond doubt that, though many film artists are more evasive, obscure, and intellectual, none are more literary than Wes Anderson. His latest works begins with a series of nested frames. In the present day, a woman in a dilapidated Eastern European country we later learn is called Zubrowka lays a key on a gravestone, commemorating the titular hotel. She opens a book, a memoir written by The Author, portrayed as an old man by Tom Wilkinson. Jude Law, playing The Author as a young man, serves as our narrator. He received most of our story from one Zero Moustaffa, the aging owner of the once-great Grand Budapest Hotel, while visiting the establishment in 1968.

Law recounts, in wistful tones, the fanciful tale of Moustaffa’s friendship with the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave H, a heavily perfumed dandy and benevolent tyrant to the staff who beds old aristocratic women because they are insecure and needy for attention. The rest of the cast is filled out with Wes Anderson’s repertory company, from relative newcomers like Edward Norton to veterans Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. All of the characters are literary in skin and bone, embodied with the precision and finesse Anderson is known for. His works have long been known as enthusiastic flourishes of refined wit, and everything here, gunfights, prison escapes, fascist thugs, and decapitations included, is communicated with flair. Brisk and dense, it bounces from one scene to another, portraying all kinds of macabre scenes with either deadpan melancholy or deadpan mirth. Its themes of glory in decline, bonds between generations, the difficulties of family and love, and youthful ingenuity, all work in tandem. Anchored by visual motifs that stand out but don’t become intrusive, these themes are integral to the film and not mere set dressing, though because they emerge from such a refined surface it is tempting to dismiss the whole film as patrician kitsch or nostalgic comfort food for wannabe aristocrats.

Believe me, if it were that easy to dismiss or dislike The Grand Budapest Hotel, I would have taken that route. Anderson, however, is well-armoured against such blitheness. Like Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane he consciously recalls in the voice over narration, the palatial settings, and the story of terminal decline, Anderson has cinematic mastery on his side. His skill at manipulating not just actors and settings but whole worlds gives his work a remarkable integrity and a resilience against criticism. This manifests in the way people talk about his films. You are either “a fan” or not. Accept all of it or none of it. There are those who have a more difficult relationship with his work, but those people have never set the tone for the conversations around him.

What undoes The Grand Budapest Hotel, and all of Anderson’s work to one degree or another, is that its world is just the sort of protective enclosure to which Said alludes. It is a world without politics, cosmopolitan not only in a geographical but also a temporal sense. Here the cast speaks English in a soup of accents, none of which are Slavic. It comes closest to evoking the decadent multi-national character of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in a most anachronistic way. One could object that this film is quite political indeed, since it is a fable dramatizing the crushing of European grandeur and tolerant liberalism under fascist boots. Watching the film, though, it becomes apparent that, to Anderson, the greatest crimes of the fascists are their lack of any fashion sense. Since style is so tightly knitted to the themes of the film, one could interpret the black and grey uniforms the fascists and the police wear in this film as sophisticated cinematic ways of suggesting fascism’s terrible crimes. We also have Willem Dafoe playing at a Nosferatu impression in his role as a Zigzag thug (Zigzag being the film’s clever way of alluding to Nazis without having to engage actual history). He’s the only truly monstrous character, and also the only one doing the brutal killing until the very end. Suffice to say that, with its fairy tale setting and fond feelings for the time of dukes and barons, or at least their wardrobes, the film has a tendency to do the impossible. It wants to evoke the emotions of decline and despair that attended the beginning of the Second World War without naming names, keeping everything at a remove so that we can laugh when someone throws a lawyer’s cat out the window or thrill at a merry ski chase down the Zubrowkian Alps.

Some of Anderson’s critics claim that the distancing inherent in his approach to filmmaking dampens the emotions of his work. A more immediate, “naturalistic” approach to characters seems to suit such people better. Though there is a problem with the artifice of Wes Anderson’s films, for me it has never been a lack of emotion. To me, his films are almost entirely acts of feeling, and his overt stylization is an attempt to bring those emotions out of the subtext and into the texture of the film itself. He’s fond of a more literary style, where colors, objects, and facial expressions (etc.) are tools utterly at his disposal. He is not interested in representing the world as it is, but rather, through these fantastic inventions of his, representing these characters’ emotions and states of mind with absolute clarity. No, his problem has never been emotional austerity, but rather a total lack of understanding of how power works in the world.

Don’t mistake me; I don’t mean to say that he lacks a sense of morality or right and wrong. On the contrary, his work is highly moral, even moralistic, in its enshrining of families and communal traditions–no matter how idiosyncratic–as sacred. Cosmopolitan, ocean-hopping aesthete that he is, he produces films that mourn the loss of extraordinary individuals. He looks back at the past as a time of daring adventure and discovery, magnificent books, and more interesting people. To compare M.Gustave with M. Anderson is not a big stretch. Both are, or feel they are, living memories of a past era, trying to give people the perfect experience in a luxury package. The Grand Budapest Hotel is too big to be compared to a confection or expensive jewelry. It’s more like the vast old hotel from which it gets its name: intricate, stunning, and populated with the kinds of people Wes Anderson probably wishes he could meet more often.

Zero, the film’s ostensible protagonist, is a refugee from India and often the victim of the precarity of his position. He is instantly suspicious traveling on trains and even his dear friend M. Gustave can’t help but unleash a racist tirade at him. Though Gustave repents immediately, and Zero forgives him, a few sticking points lead me to believe that this film, like the old British novels Edward Said talks about in Culture and Imperialism, carries an unspoken dependence on imperialism.

Though broadly humanistic, it not only transforms Zero from an Indian into the much whiter F. Murray Abraham (who is of Syrian-American descent) in only a few decades, but fails to recognize fascism for what it truly is. It seems to despise fascism while embracing the old aristocracy, missing that fascism is a creature of the old world Anderson loves. Just as the colonialism that paid for The Grand Budapest’s striking coat of paint destroyed Zero’s life and turned him into a refugee, its logic infests Europe itself in the form of Nazism. After all, what is Nazism but European Manifest Destiny extended to “lower” forms of European life along with black and brown people? What Said, Frantz Fanon, and many Marxist critics and historians, including Domenico Losurdo, understand is that the Western “humanist” liberal project is corrupt at its roots. Driven by an acquisitive drive and a disregard for life despite protests otherwise, it is an inherently violent ideology of dispossession and exploitation. Zero’s salvation ultimately derives from his friendship with Gustave, who wills him the hotel. It’s hereditary hospitality, and The Grand Budapest Hotel loves it.

On its own terms, The Grand Budapest Hotel is brilliant. I think it’s imperative, however, to question and reject its terms whenever it trips over from historical fantasy into sheer historical ignorance. Sadly, that happens all too often, and the entire logic of the film, its politics if you will, depend on nostalgia for a time that meant death and deprivation for the vast majority of the world’s people. It’s gentrified “cupcake fascism,” a comfortable, slightly sad reminder to its privileged audience of a grander time that obscures its violent underpinnings with so much confetti and spectacle. That doesn’t make it unenjoyable, but it certainly vaporizes any of the film’s attempts to communicate a more explicit message to its audience. Wes Anderson’s lack of political imagination and his devotion to visual sumptuousness are not necessarily connected, and the former is a blight on the work of one of the most skillful directors and screenwriters America has produced in the last few decades.

Brief Notes on Oculus and Facebook

oculus-rift-inside

For background on this issue, see Ars Technica’s report.

1. Gadget freak and gamer identity tends to be a mix of amour and a rapacious acquisitive tendency. Otaku subculture in Japan is, similarly but in its own context, based around creating identity and meaning through commodity ownership. It’s the ultimate capitulation to not just the economic logic of decadent late capitalism but also its aesthetics and rhetoric. Independent entrepreneurs (read: future failures or monopolists) become objects of intense attachment, and even larger corporations with the right marketing can make their sterile branding feel like a comfortable presence in a family home rather than a blatant ideological intrusion.

2. The Kickstarter backers who are angry because they missed the gravy train are also symptomatic of American capitalist ideology. The pernicious belief that because America is a “free country” that all people are either rich or rich in larval form creates a frenzied pursuit of wealth and engenders the false belief that social class is a fantasy rather than the basis of political (and all other kinds of) power in the country.

3. As put forward by Lenin in a text I love to cite, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalismthe imperialist and last phase of capitalism is characterized by monopolistic tendencies. Corporations tend to be either voracious predators or hapless prey as whole industries are consolidated under a few vast trusts.

Free competition is the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally; monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes, creating large-scale industry and forcing out small industry, replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions.

The question was not, therefore, whether Oculus would either be bought or become a vast corporation, but which one and how soon. It’s not as though its founders are or ever were altruists.

Of course, one cannot neglect the fact that all of this is founded on the imperialist exploitation of cheap Asian labour by the entire tech industry. Not to mention the protection of such exploitation by the American state and its vast reserves of military and economic power. Companies like Apple would not be making their enormous profits without the existing contradictions between the imperialist center and so-called “developing nations” from which super-profitable labour can be extracted.

The whole affair is just one especially prominent example of how the tech industry works. Indeed, it’s how it’s supposed to work. All of the heartache and concern being poured over this issue looks fairly ridiculous when seen from anything but an overheated enthusiast’s perspective. In that view, squabbles between most undifferentiated and faceless corporations over tiny market niches become life and death struggles. There are aspects of bourgeois ideology that are far more destructive, but few that are more annoying.

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