Saturday, October 24, 2009

Throat Culture

Having mulled over the issue for the past couple of days, I’ve concluded that those collections of bad cover versions of pop songs performed by celebrities included in the Golden Throats series (4 volumes) are perhaps best understood as examples of travesty rather than burlesque. The difference between the terms resides in intentionality. A burlesque is any work purposefully designed “to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity).” Burlesque is a form of derisive imitation achieved by exaggeration. In contrast, a travesty is any novel, play, poem, film, opera, or other creative work that reveals the incompetence of its author/performer. A travesty trivializes a serious subject or composition. “Generally, a travesty achieves its effect through broad humor and through incongruous or distorted language and situations.” Unlike a parody or burlesque, the purpose of which is intentional mockery, a travesty is any work in literature, music, or art that is “so poorly done” that it fails to meet “even the minimum standards” for style, technique, form, and so on.

I used “perhaps” in the first sentence because we no longer adhere to notions of art’s autonomy—any formalist evaluation of the remarkable cover versions included in the Golden Throats series (I say remarkable because they’ve been collected and hence been “distinguished”) is bound to fail, as exemplified, for instance, in those art historians who tried to explain Duchamp’s Fountain (pictured) by appealing to the (traditional) aesthetic category of “beauty.” Duchamp was one of those artists who enabled the transfer from modernism to postmodernism—from art as “work” to art as “text.” Because it is impossible to list the properties of those works susceptible to Duchampian “remotivation” (what he did by placing a urinal in an art gallery), it’s no longer possible to refer comfortably to Golden Throats’ cover versions of rock and country songs as “camp.” In the 1964 essay “On Camp,” Susan Sontag argued, “not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder” (Against Interpretation, p. 277). The trouble is, of course, it is. What sort of text (or event) cannot be radically re-read, that is, transformed into a travesty? Think of Duchamp’s goateed version of the Mona Lisa, or Mel Brooks films such as The Producers or his remake of To Be Or Not To Be, which send-up Nazism.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Books and Pictures

The Picture of Dorian Gray—the picture acts as a “magic mirror” (as in the story of Snow White), absorbing Dorian Gray’s spiritual ugliness while he remains young and handsome. “In Godard’s A Bout de Souffle Jean Seberg pretends to be happy and insouciant, but, pinned to the wall, just behind her head, life-size photographs of herself looking sad and thoughtful give the game away,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings). Thus pictures, rather like so-called “Freudian slips”—slips of the tongue—give a person away, betraying the actual reality hidden behind the mask, the disjunction between image and reality. It is also possible for pictures within movies to attack characters in a similar fashion: in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, for instance, a laughing clown points his finger at Anny Ondra as she, knife in hand, backs away from a corpse. While pictures can incite the imagination (as in The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” or the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”), pictures can also hide or conceal actuality: in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex attacks the cat lady with a large plastic sculpture of male genitalia, crushing her skull with it as the camera cuts away to the garish contemporary paintings on the walls. But pictures of the lost object of desire also serve up painful memories of loss, serving as a constant reminder of one’s current singular situation—the Reality Principle. A picture of one’s self can function merely to increase one’s own intense loneliness and isolation, as in George Jones’s romantic ballad, “A Picture of Me (Without You).”

“Who wrote the Book of Love?” a famous song wants to know, and, of course, there is no answer. Books, archives of wisdom and repositories of cultural knowledge, cannot be read—it’s as if they were written in a foreign language. Proclaiming to make the world legible, books, paradoxically, are often indecipherable. “Tell me where the answer lies,” sings Neil Young in “Speakin’ Out.” “Is it in the notebook behind your eyes?” Books also supplement one’s memory—they are the place where things are written down, where lists are compiled, where experiential narratives are recorded, serving as reminders of what to do—or warning of behaviors to avoid. Thousands of words have been written about pictures, and books contain thousands of words; the lyrics to songs about books and pictures are frequently about both the failure of language and of the discrepancy between thought and action.

Books And Pictures A-Z:
ABC – The Look Of Love
The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Everyday I Write The Book
Deep Purple – The Book of Taliesyn
Echo and the Bunnymen – Pictures On My Wall/Read It In Books
Filter – Take A Picture
The J. Geils Band – Centerfold
Hüsker Dü – Books About UFOs
The Incredible String Band – Antoine
George Jones – A Picture of Me (Without You)
The Kinks – Picture Book
Love – My Little Red Book
The Monotones – The Book of Love
Nazareth – Why Don’t You Read the Book
Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
? and the Mysterians – Ten O’Clock
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story
Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
Talking Heads – The Book I Read
U2 – When I Look At the World
Son Volt – Out of the Picture
The Who – Pictures of Lily
XTC – Books Are Burning
Neil Young – Southern Man
The Zombies – Imagine The Swan

Monday, October 19, 2009


Vergeltungswaffen—German for “vengeance weapon,” as in V-2 rocket, a weapon of revenge, retribution, and reprisal. Prompted by the box-office success of the Gerard Butler-starring vigilante movie Law Abiding Citizen this past weekend, an article in today’s L. A. Times explores the link between vigilantism and vengeance in American movies. The link is indisputably true—the vigilante is as old as D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which a rogue terrorist organization, the Klan, is depicted heroically—but vigilantism (the act of operating outside the law) should not always be equated with vengeance (retribution). Revenge is a force that crosses film genres, as the article observes, and it is true that there are indeed “affinities between vigilantes and superheroes”—the character of Batman, for instance, whose traumatic origin was in witnessing the cold-blooded murder of his parents. The character’s origin is, of course, a conceit, revealing more about the logic of entertainment than about the motives for vigilantism.

Vengeance, retribution, reprisal—getting even—is a powerful motivating force, and the cinema seems to be the ideal medium in which to enact its violent display. The reason seems obvious: justice is an abstraction, and because it often unfolds slowly, it makes a poor subject for drama. Moreover, stories of vengeance ideally fit the Modernist paradigm, the individual pitted against (corrupt) society. Since the justice system is an incalculably complex bureaucracy, and filled with corrupt officials, the individual necessarily operates outside the system, as a rogue (vigilante), often using a gun as his or her vergeltungswaffen. The American vigilante descends from the gunslinger, the streets of the big city analogous to the lawless frontier. Although the gun is the vigilante’s preferred weapon, I’ve always found figures such as Dr. Phibes and the Crypt Keeper much more imaginative in the way they enact a form of poetic justice.

V For Vengeance (x13):
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Tales From the Crypt (1972)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
Walking Tall (1973)
Death Wish (1974)
The Exterminator (1980)
An Eye For An Eye (1981)
Vigilante (1983)
The Brave One (2007)
Taken (2009)
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How The West Was Won

In the chapter of Tristes Tropiques entitled “A Little Glass of Rum,” Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that anthropology is born of remorse. In Of Grammatology, the now famous deconstruction of Tristes Tropiques, Jacques Derrida observed that Lévi-Strauss’s critique of ethnocentricism had the function of “constituting the other as a model of original and natural goodness,” by engaging in the act of “accusing and humiliating oneself. The impulse behind such reverse ethnocentricism is romantic and, ultimately, racist. Like Rousseaus Confessions, it imagines non-European peoples as the index to a hidden good Nature, as a native soil recovered, of a 'zero degree' with reference to which one could outline the structure, the growth, and above all the degradation of our society and our culture.

Several years prior to the 1967 publication of Derrida’s book, Theodora Kroeber, wife of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, published Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), “A Biography of the Last Wild Indian of North America,” which explores the degradation of Ishi’s tribe and culture. A few years later, Kroeber issued a partially fictionalized version of Ishi’s story under the title Ishi: Last of His Tribe (1964). (Recently, in 2003, her sons Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber co-edited a book on the Ishi affair, Ishi in Three Centuries, the first scholarly book on the subject to contain essays by Indians.) There were popular songs about Indians before the publication of Theodora Kroeber’s first book on Ishi in 1961, of course—“Indian Love Call,” “Oklahoma Hills,” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga”—but beginning in the Sixties, many songs were written celebrating the Indian as an emblem of natural goodness, mightily sinned against. They might be understood as songs expressing remorse, but by engaging in self-accusation and self-humiliation.

Songs About The Indian:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
Brooks & Dunn – Indian Summer
The Cowsills – Indian Lake
Elton John – Indian Sunset
Merle Haggard – Cherokee Maiden
The Holy Modal Rounders – Indian War Whoop
Johnny Horton – Comanche (The Brave Horse)
Johnny Horton – Jim Bridger
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – Indian Love Call
Tim McGraw – Indian Outlaw
John Mellencamp – Hot Dogs and Hamburgers
Johnny Preston – Running Bear
Paul Revere & The Raiders – Indian Reservation
Hank Thompson – Oklahoma Hills
Hank Williams – Kaw-Liga