Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Squonk: Part 1

Please forgive the splitting of my recent blog entries into parts, but I have a number of writing projects going on at the moment and as you know usually what I’m writing about on these blogs demands a rather time-consuming, detailed exposition.

The Squonk, an imaginary being whose existence was first written about in a book of American regional folklore published in 1910 titled Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by William T. Cox, became popularly known in the late 1960s after the English language publication of Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (E. P. Dutton, 1969; co-authored with Margarita Guerrero). I’ve always believed the word is a portmanteau comprised of “squawk” and “honk,” both onomatopoeic words (that is, derived from a primarily oral culture) the squawk associated with a chicken and the honk with a goose. But the Squonk is described by William T. Cox not as a fantastic, bird-like creature but rather as a four-legged beast having “a very retiring disposition” and having “misfitting skin . . . covered with warts and moles” (pictured, image courtesy of the online edition of Cox's book).

The first edition of Borges’ and Guerrero’s book, containing 82 pieces about mythical creatures, was published in Mexico in 1957, titled Manual de zoologia fantastica (Handbook of Fantastic Zoology). A second edition, re-titled El libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings) was published in Buenos Aires a decade later (Editorial Kier, S. A., Buenos Aires, 1967), with thirty-four additional articles (now totaling 116 pieces). For the English-language edition, several of the original articles were corrected, emended, and/or revised with four new ones added. Thus the E. P. Dutton edition, published in 1969, contains 120 entries about fantastical creatures.

I do not know the year of the Italian translation of Borges' book, but so far as I know the Squonk was first referred to in the popular arts in Mario Bava’s film Ecologia del delitto (Ecology of Murder, 1971), released in the U. S. in 1972 first as Carnage and subsequently as Twitch of the Death Nerve. According to Tim Lucas, in his IPPY Award-winning Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (2007), the Squonk was, rather interestingly, first popularly invoked in the context of post-coital pillow talk, when the character Frank asks his sex partner Laura, "Can't you hear it calling? It was a squonk." When asked by Laura what a Squonk is, Frank says the Squonk is a "dark-colored creature...covered with moles...And do you know what it does when it's captured? It dissolves into tears. Some of its peculiar qualities are sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness" (864). Tim subsequently observes that the Squonk is a figurative substitution for the figure of the female (Laura), who also has the traits of "sulkiness, diffidence, and possessiveness." Hence, early in its popular usage, the Squonk serves as a heteroclite, figurative displacement for a sexualized human being.

The Squonk soon reappeared in Steely Dan's song “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” included on the album Pretzel Logic, recorded late in 1973 and released in March 1974. One wonders whether Walter Becker and Donald Fagen learned of the Squonk through Mario Bava’s horror film or through the 1969 English-language version of Borges’ book. Given the lyrics it is hard to tell.

I never seen you looking so bad my funky one
You tell me that your super fine mind has come undone

Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you
Any major dude will tell you

Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? Well, look at mine
The people on the street have all seen better times


I can tell you all I know, the where to go, the what to do
You can try to run but you can't hide from what’s inside of you


Although Borges placed the Squonk in the category of fantastic creatures, I prefer to say that the Squonk is a cryptozoological creature. I know this is not precisely the correct usage of the word cryptozoological, but the reason I prefer this term is that carries the meaning of “hidden” or “hidden away" or even “secluded,” all behavioral characteristics associated with the Squonk, a solitary, acutely self-conscious, innately morbid creature that lurks in the woods, avoiding civilization and hence human beings, preferring to keep its own company. The Squonk hides itself away during the day, preferring, according to Borges (and his source, William Cox), the twilight and dusk.

The singer of “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” asks “you”—the unnamed person that would seem to be in the midst of some personal crisis—the rhetorical question, Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears? assuming that the answer has to be no: since the Squonk is a very retiring creature that leads a solitary lifestyle and is rarely seen by people, the singer assumes you has never seen a Squonk, let alone a Squonk’s tears. “Well, look at mine,” the singer says, the point of which is to tell you that while the singer may not be a Squonk, he is figuratively much like a Squonk, and perhaps even strongly identifies with a Squonk—an unhappy creature with a misfitting skin covered in warts and moles—that is, a highly singular, solitary species given to a morbid personality which, as the result of a certain genetic birthright, not a curse as such, simply a matter of genetics, has a rather unattractive, if not ugly, appearance (hence the self-consciousness). Moreover, the unnamed you can “try to run” but cannot “hide from what’s inside” of himself, meaning despite himself he must be acutely aware of his real self, his true identity, the ineluctable reality that you wants to run away from, to hide from, to deny—but cannot. He—you—cannot escape what he is; like the Squonk he cannot escape his own freakishness. The singer speaks to you as one can do only when one is like the one to whom one speaks. They are two of the same kind, equals: I and Thou. The same. Hence the Squonk is used here, figuratively, as a creature with whom one can identify that is not like other people, one that is different because of genetics, a certain ugliness as perceived by others.

Steely Dan likes such singular, solitary creatures, especially crepuscular ones—those who come out when the sun sets, like the Squonk. A bat is a crepuscular creature, as is the rather ungainly, awkward creature known the opossum, the closest actual living analogue to the Squonk, I think. Steely Dan likes such crepuscular figures; take, for instance, the figure of Deacon Blues, a figure that likens himself to a snake (viper), a creature that comes out at night. He tells us:

I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet
I’ll rise when the sun goes down
Cover every game in town
A world of my own
I’ll make it my home sweet home

The next appearance of the Squonk was in the eponymously named song by Genesis, on the album A Trick of the Tail (1976), where the text of Cox's 1910 depiction of the Squonk was more or less re-told in narrative form. As in Steely Dan's song, there is a figure referred to as "you" to whom the lyrics are presumably addressed, but "you" is a much different kind of figure than the one in Steely Dan, the latter the one that interests me the most.

Part 2: "Timothy," Cannibalism, and the Queering of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"

Friday, May 23, 2008

What Lies Beneath

In yesterday's mail I received the copy of Ed Sanders' 2002 update of The Family (Thunder's Mouth Press) I'd ordered, and last night I had the chance to (re)read it, looking specifically for references to any mention of bodies being buried at the Barker Ranch. I'm getting too old to sit up reading late in the night, especially when accompanied by a bottle of good red wine. But I did so, against my better judgment, but I'm happy to report that I did find the information about the Barker Ranch that I was looking for.

Apparently in late March 1971 Sanders flew from New York to California for what he says was his final visit of the year: his publisher, E. P. Dutton, was pushing him to finish the book as soon as possible (it was published in the fall of 1971). On March 31, he and a fellow investigator, Larry Larsen, met in Berkeley with an individual claiming to have "access to Family films made as far back as 1967" (462), taping the conversation. Among the assertions made at that meeting by this unnamed informant was the following:

Vern Plumlee [a Manson associate] had told him, he said, that there were three people who got killed in Death Valley. He said they were buried "in back of the main house--maybe fifty feet in back of it. He said they were buried about eight feet deep." The informant also claimed that he had been up in Death Valley that fall of 1969, a claim difficult to verify because he was not on any arrest record up there. "I have six I.D.'s," he told us, and then rattled off the names. (463)

I'd speculated, based on the news articles published on the L. A. Times website, that perhaps the existence of these graves had only recently come to light, but that is obviously not so--their possible existence has been known about by law enforcement officials for the past 37 years. One wonders, then, whether this week's forensic dig at the Barker Ranch was prompted by other (unpublicized) information emerging that corroborated the decades-old rumor, or whether, more cynically, the dig was prompted simply in order to test the reliability of new forensic technology, as one can infer from this article. One also wonders, if the possible existence of these graves has been known for over three decades, why a serious forensic investigation took so long to occur--unless the possibility was never taken especially seriously by the authorities. Although I've visited Death Valley three times, I've never been to the Goler Wash area. Nonetheless, I doubt seriously whether Manson and his "Family" members had the wherewithal to dig graves eight feet deep in such difficult terrain comprised of such rocky soil. Even if the figure of eight feet is an exaggeration, I suspect the digging of graves in that area would be something of a formidable task. Perhaps for the same reason law enforcement officials thought the graves would be relatively shallow, and hence easier to locate--if there at all.

Given that the possible existence of graves at the Barker Ranch is now revealed to be nothing but sheer legerdemain, it necessarily calls into question the veracity of other testimony by the informant with whom Sanders spoke on 31 March 1971. I'm thinking specifically of the existence of the so-called "snuff" films alluded to by this informant, what Sanders calls in this latest, 2002 edition of his book "hemic films," hemic an adjective meaning "of or relating to the blood." Is his use of "hemic," rather than "snuff" (the term he used in the 1971 edition), a tacit admission that he no longer believes in the existence of so-called "snuff" films? During the same interview I alluded to above, the unnamed individual also reported the following information:

Then he spoke about some short films he claimed to have viewed, one of which he claimed to have stolen from a house not far from the Spahn Ranch inhabited by cultists and bikers. He said he'd seen two movies filmed in a beach locale. One, he volunteered, was on a beach near the Los Angeles and Ventura county lines. (464)

I'll spare you the gruesome details, but essentially the subject of these putative films were, 1) the killing and subsequent dismemberment of a dog, followed by the dog's blood being poured over two naked girls who then engaged in orgiastic sex; 2) "orgy films" with Charles Manson and the members of his "Family"; 3) a cat blown to pieces by an explosive; and 4) a film about five minutes in length "of a woman dead on a beach" (464). Sanders goes on to write that he believed this individual making these claims was involved in making sleazy films in the Berkeley area, and also writes that his associate, Larry Larsen, subsequently interviewed someone who claimed that the said informant had recently made a pornographic film featuring a thirteen year-old girl.

It is a well-known fact that the FBI has been seeking to verify the existence of snuff films for the past several decades, and has never discovered any evidence to verify their existence. I've contended in previous blog entries that the theoretical existence of the snuff film is made possible by photography's automatism, but even if we allow for the possibility that they were actually made, there's an additional, more practical problem: developing the exposed film. Assuming this footage was shot (at the time) on an easily accessible, 8mm home movie camera, how was this footage developed? By whom? If one says that the footage could be developed at the same locations as, say, pornographic films, then suddenly the number of conspirators has grown larger, making the possibility of containment of the conspiracy even more difficult to maintain. Two individuals might be able to keep a secret (although law enforcement officials use the "prisoner's dilemma" tactic, in which two conspirators are separated and then given false information about what the other one said or claimed), but three individuals compounds the problem, four makes it more difficult, five even more so, and so on. In other words, the greater the number of individuals involved, the more precarious the conspiracy becomes to contain. Indeed, the Manson "Family" itself, a rather large group of mercurial individuals, was incriminated by an off-hand remark by Susan Atkins to a fellow cellmate. (As Sanders notes, Inyo County officials had rather flimsy evidence to justify holding Charles Manson following his October 1969 arrest at the Barker Ranch; if things hadn't unraveled quickly in Los Angeles, he might well have had to be set free.)

It is this principle that makes the existence of snuff--or even hemic--films unlikely. Certainly there are films in which animals are killed on camera--Cannibal Holocaust (1980) immediately comes to mind--but if Manson "Family" members had made such films--call them what you will--where would they have been developed? And if shot using 35mm film rather than 8mm, the problem of developing the exposed film is even more daunting. Of course, videotape is a different matter entirely, not requiring development as does camera negative. But in 1968-69, video cameras were rather daunting pieces of equipment--heavy, awkward, and cumbersome, and while portable cameras existed, they were quite unwieldy. Moreover, the only way one could see the footage one had shot with the camera was either to have the proper playback equipment, or the necessary cables to play the footage through a television set (monitor) directly from the camera. Certainly none of this could have taken place at the Barker Ranch, which didn't even have electricity--meaning no television, and no way to recharge the portable batteries. Assuming the "Family" had video equipment at all, the equipment therefore could have been more easily used at the Spahn Ranch, which had electricity, but again, whatever sort of events, how terrible, took place, there still must be some degree of coordination between the camera operator and the action being recorded, the instantaneous reaction that is second nature to a trained cameraman. Would any of these individuals have had the technical skill to film rapidly unfolding events with cumbersome video equipment?

Hence I think the probable existence of these so-called hemic films is very, very near zero, not only for reasons I've explained, but because I also have deep hesitations about the trustworthiness of the informant who claimed to have seen these short films.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Snuff, Reality TV, and the Issue of the "Too Real": Part 2

I concluded yesterday’s blog with the observation that although its existence has never been proven, the theoretical existence of the “snuff film” was made thinkable because of photographic technology’s automatism, its vulnerability to intrusions of the too real. The intrusion of the too real marks the limit of representation; to go beyond this limit is to be “obscene,” “pornographic,” to be subject to prosecution, and so on. While the proscribed limit is popularly understood as restrictions on the representation of sexual acts, the other side of the same token, of course, is the representation of death.

An example that immediately comes to mind to illustrate the vulnerability of which I speak is Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, this in 1963, long before the invention of “Reality TV.” And a non-televised example is, of course, the 8mm “home movie” footage of President Kennedy’s assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder—the famous “Zapruder film.”

In a sense, the vulnerability of photography to intrusions of the too real always threatens to put the viewer in the same situation as Abraham Zapruder: eye-witness to disaster. There is an infamous short film by Stan Brakhage that was shot in a morgue, consisting of the dissection and study of cadavers, titled “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes,” the title of Brakhage’s film a pun derived from the dictionary definition of the word autopsy: “Seeing with one’s own eyes, eye-witnessing; personal observation or inspection” (OED). The word autopsy is an example of an interdisciplinary homonym, the locus where two or more fields converge at a single set of terms. While autopsy literally translated means, “seeing with one’s own eyes,” it is also defined in the OED in the more common understanding of the word, as “dissection of a dead body; so as to ascertain by actual inspection its internal structure, and esp. to find out the cause or seat of disease; post-mortem examination.”

Brakhage’s film thus links the discipline of cinematography with that of coroner: the eye-witnessing of the camera and the “I witness” of the coroner. Brakhage’s film is an act of revelation (Andre Bazin’s privileged mode of mimesis) of the hidden mystery of the body’s dead end, similar to the disassembly of a machine. In a cold, clinical fashion, he showed how faces are peeled off the skull, how the top of the cranium is sawed off in order to allow access to the brain beneath (which is subsequently removed), how the blood is washed out of an eviscerated torso—the truth, as Godard once said, twenty-four frames per second. Jorge Luis Borges, in a short story, once linked death and the compass; Brakhage’s film links death and the camera.

The ability to record cold, implacable death is an illustration of the revenge effect of photography’s automatism. Indeed, the clinical recording of death is almost as old as the cinema itself. The title of the Thomas Edison short, Electrocuting an Elephant (1903; pictured) blatantly names its diegetic action; although the electrocution of the elephant was staged for the camera to demonstrate to onlookers the dangers of electricity, the film nonetheless recorded an actual event: the electrocution of an elephant named Topsy. Did Thomas Edison make the first snuff film?

Of course, “Reality TV” is not premised on the capturing of atrocity, but that is precisely its vulnerability. In order to reveal just how vulnerable the medium is to intrusions of the too real, an example is in order. For my example, I’m going to refer to an event that occurred over thirty years ago, doing so in hope that the event will be largely unknown to a majority of present-day readers. In the years since, similar events have occurred, but my example serves as an illustration of the sort of vulnerabilities of the medium I wish to identify. It was sufficiently sensational to have influenced the medium since, and inspired at least one motion picture.

On Monday, 15 July 1974, a 29 year-old anchorwoman for Sarasota, Florida TV station WXLT, named Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide while delivering the station’s morning newscast. (In the years since she seems to have been transformed into a sort of folk hero, as witnessed by the number of websites devoted to her; there's even footage of her on youtube. Whether there's a link to her theatricalized suicide and later events such as Columbine is a subject for further research.) The following account comes from a UPI report filed by Sally Quinn, dated August 4, 1974.

Christine Chubbuck flicked her long dark hair back away from her face, swallowed, twitched her lips only slightly and reached with her left hand to turn the next page of her script. Looking down on the anchor desk she began to read: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in”—she looked up from the script, directly into the camera and smiled a tentative smile. Her voice took on a sarcastic tone as she emphasized “blood and guts…and in living color.” She looked back down at her script, her left hand shook almost unnoticeably.

Her right arm stiffened. “We bring you another first.” Her voice was steady. She looked up again into the camera. Her eyes were dark, direct and challenging. “An attempted suicide.” Her right hand came up from under the anchor desk. In it was a .38 caliber revolver. She pointed it at the lower back of her head and pulled the trigger. A loud crack was heard. A puff of smoke blew out from the gun and her hair flew up around her face as though a sudden gust of wind had caught it. Her face took on a fierce, contorted look, her mouth wrenched downward, her head shook. Then her body fell forward with a resounding thud against the anchor desk and slowly slipped out of sight.

She died roughly fourteen hours later at a local hospital. Predictably, the story was soon reported on radio and television, and on front pages of newspapers around the world: “TV Star Kills Self,” “TV Personality Takes Own Life on Air,” “On Camera Suicide,” and so on. The event was immediately likened to similar intrusions of the too real which had preceded it: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of George Wallace in 1972, Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of the execution of the Viet Cong prisoner, yet, “Never in history had anyone deliberately killed herself on live television,” Sally Quinn wrote. “It was a first.”

Christine Chubbuck’s suicide prompted Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay Network (1976), and is intertextually related to films such as Videodrome (1983). Directed by Sidney Lumet, Network stars Peter Finch (who won an Academy Award for his performance), William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall. Although her suicide was the inspiration for Chayefsky’s screenplay, the line in which her suicide is alluded to is not actually in included in the released version of the film. However, Sam Hedrin’s novelization (Pocket Books, 1976) of the screenplay contains the allusion: protagonist Howard Beale (the character played by Peter Finch in the film), during a drunken conversation, says, “I’m going to blow my brains out right on the air, right in the middle of the seven o’clock news, like that girl in Florida a couple of months ago” (8).

Christine Chubbuck’s suicide is one of many instances of the intrusion of the too real in television, suggesting that if indeed television is a window to the world, that window better be made of bullet-proof glass. Hers was not the only such event. A similar event occurred on 22 January 1987, when, again on live television, R. Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania state treasurer then under criminal investigation, during a press conference placed a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, committing suicide. In yet another example, during an episode of 60 Minutes that aired on 22 November 1998, footage of Dr. Jack Kevorkian euthanizing Thomas Youk was shown on national television, prompting great outrage: viewers compared the footage of Kevorkian’s assisted suicide to a “snuff film”—the limits of representation had been exceeded, prompting public outcry. Exploiting photography's automatism, Kevorkian videotaped the entire procedure and made the tape available for broadcast on 60 Minutes. Subsequently, he was charged with first-degree murder and convicted of second-degree murder, and was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison—was he actually guilty of murder, or was he punished for violating the limit of the representation of death?

I could provide many, many other examples of the too real intruding on the little theater called television—a device the function of which obviously is not to show us the world, but rather to shield us from it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Death Valley Days: Two (Over And Out)

The L. A. Times reported late this afternoon (4:58 PDT) that the two areas near the Barker Ranch site where bodies were suspected of being buried yielded nothing but a shell casing, ash and small animal bones. According to the latest report, Inyo County sheriff's investigators today apparently called off their search for human remains at the site. Lt. Jim Jones of the Inyo Country Sheriff's office is quoted as saying, "forensic testing indicates that there were no human remains in or around that site." Whether Charles Manson and his "Family" committed murders heretofore unaccounted for thus remains unconfirmed.

Initial reports indicated the investigation would continue through Thursday, but apparently the investigation was ended today given the complete absence of any promising evidence. As I noted in an early blog entry, there was a similar kind of search at the ranch a couple of months ago, which also turned up nothing. The claim that there were bodies buried there was never entirely believable, but now, in any case, the matter can be laid to rest in the absence of any leads.

And that, as they say, is that. The question remains as to why investigators found the assertion "within the realm of probability." I should add that I have no idea how often Ed Sanders (author of The Family) updates his website, but I noticed no comment on the investigation on his website, which could be interpreted as an indication of his skepticism regarding the recent endeavor. I have ordered a copy of his 2002 update of The Family; if there is any information in it that can shed light on this recent activity, I will certainly let you know.

Snuff, Reality TV, and the Issue of the "Too Real": Part 1

The question of Charles Manson and the “snuff film” has preoccupied my thoughts the past few days, prompted, of course, by the forensic investigation currently going on at the Barker Ranch (see my recent blog entries on the subject, below).

It occurs to me that the controversy surrounding the possible existence of the “snuff film” (never proven) is in fact no longer relevant—if the issue is simply one of transgression, the exhibition of content that is putatively considered “obscene”: this is merely a question of propriety, what ought to be shown and not shown. In a culture such as ours that is so preoccupied with the technology of war, we are able to see snuff film, in the sense of the filming of murder and the recording of death, just about every night on the national news, comprised as it is of video footage of missiles striking enemy strongholds, rockets raining down on “insurgents” hiding behind city walls or within buildings, the aftermath of car bombs with bodies littering the street, and numerous other atrocities.

The issue of televised snuff reveals that the so-called problem or controversy surrounding the snuff film exists because of photographic technology. In his essay on the art of the cinema, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), André Bazin argued that photography had a privileged access to truth because it was the result of a mechanical, reproductive process over which human agency had no control. He thus regarded the cinema primarily as a vehicle of revelation, rather than transformation, of reality. “For the first time,” he wrote, “an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative invention of man.” Bazin’s idea of an image being formed “automatically” is called the principle of automatism. Historically considered, Bazin privileges the form of mimesis known as aletheia (revelation), in contrast to adaequatio (correspondence). But in both of these modes of truth, the act of representation brings into appearance the physis (essence of life) of that which is imitated.

The history of photography reveals that automatism, the potential for revelation, became one of its primary attractions. A marketing campaign by Kodak once touted the importance of photography’s automatism—there was a camera nicknamed the “Kodak Automatic”—by its ability to capture “precious moments”—weddings, births, anniversaries, graduations, award ceremonies, family reunions and the like, all of those “once in a lifetime” events upon which so much of our modern memory is formed. By the same token, photography’s automatism has enabled some catastrophic historic moments to be captured on film: the explosion of the Hindenburg, for instance, on May 6, 1937, at the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey (pictured), or the stark truth of the Nazi death camps. There’s the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by photojournalist Eddie Adams in Saigon in 1968, capturing the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. Most Americans, I imagine, have the images of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers indelibly etched in their memory—I certainly do—an event made possible by the automatism of photography and the ubiquity of the inexpensive video camera.

Thus the principle of automatism allows photographic technology to capture atrocity as well. Considered strictly as a form of technology, photography illustrates what Edward Tenner calls the “revenge effect” of all technology: a process designed for one purpose turns out not only to subvert that purpose but to achieve its opposite.

The principle of photography’s automatism enables “Reality TV” as a form of representation but, paradoxically, creates a problem it must simultaneously overcome: there is the real, but there is also the too real. Reality TV must disclose (reveal) but also occlude (shut off, hide) at the same time. For instance, the subject of a "Reality TV" may use the toilet, but the camera doesn't intrude on the subject's privacy. In order to illustrate the nature of this dilemma, an anecdote is in order. Some years ago, I read a letter in Ann Landers’ column from a woman who, while snooping through her teenage daughter’s purse, had discovered birth control pills. She was writing to Ann Landers for advice on how to best handle her dilemma: she wanted to talk to her daughter about the daughter’s presumed promiscuity, but to do so she would have to admit to her daughter that she had been snooping through her daughter’s purse. (In her reply, Ann Landers suggested the problem originated with the mother’s lack of trust in her daughter, which is precisely why the daughter kept the pills hidden away.) The moral of the story is that in her remorseless, voyeuristic search for what was real, the mother became an eye-witness to something she didn’t wish to see—to know (knowledge as seeing). The mother should have been more familiar with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The makers of “Reality TV” programs face the same daunting problem that the nosy mother did while rummaging through her daughter’s purse: how to reveal the truth, but not to go too far, not to pass a certain proscribed limit. The problem isn't so much what you can show as what you can't show. If you go too far, for example, you find yourself confronting the outrage caused by the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show (2004)—the problem of the intrusion of the real, which gets you into trouble. On the other hand, if you don’t show (reveal) enough, you can’t claim to be presenting “reality.”

The Lacanian critic Slavoj Zizek conveniently addresses this problem by using as an illustration a love scene in a Hollywood film:

Let us take an old-fashioned, nostalgic melodrama like Out of Africa and let us assume that the film is precisely the one shown in cinemas, except for an additional ten minutes. When Robert Redford and Meryl Streep have their first love encounter, the scene—in this slightly longer version of the film—is not interrupted, the camera “shows it all,” details of their aroused sexual organs, penetration, orgasm, etc. Then, after the act, the story goes on as usual, we return to the film we all know. The problem is that such a movie is structurally impossible. Even if it were to be shot, it simply “would not function”; the additional ten minutes would derail us, for the rest of the movie we would be unable to regain our balance and follow the narration with the usual disavowed belief in the diegetic reality. The sexual act would function as an intrusion of the real undermining the consistency of this diegetic reality. (Looking Awry, MIT Press, 1992, p. 111)

Stated another way, movies are commercially successful only to the extent that they are magical, that they enchant the viewer. They cease to enchant or enthrall when brute fact intrudes on the theatrical frame: dreary fact is rather like a spoilsport who destroys the illusory world of the game. To “show it all” is to go way too far, to dispel the illusion, that is, to allow the real to intrude—just ask Janet Jackson. The revenge effect of photography’s automatism is the vulnerability of the photographic medium to the too real. For his example, Zizek uses sex; in my subsequent blog, I will use death—flip side of the same token. While its existence has never been proven, the theoretical existence of the "snuff film" was made thinkable in the first place because of the potential for photographic technology to so easily—automatically—record the too real.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Death Valley Days: 1.1

The current dig at the Barker Ranch is promising to become the equivalent of Geraldo Rivera's opening of Al Capone's vault. Here are excerpts from this afternoon’s Los Angeles Times website report, filed by Louis Sahagun at 4:36 p.m. PDT (updates may supplant this initial report):

A day’s work in 100-degree heat at a remote ranch once used as a hangout for the notorious Charles Manson family yielded only a .38-caliber shell casing today. But a posse of Inyo County sheriff’s investigators was expected to continue the dig in Death Valley National Park.


Of particular interest today were two sites where cadaver dogs and analyses of soil samples produced mixed but somewhat encouraging results that could possibly support lingering rumors that bodies may be buried at Barker Ranch. The collection of sheds and a rock-and-plaster ranch house are five miles up a rugged black rock canyon at the park’s southwestern boundary.

Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze has said a total of five sites may be excavated over the next few days amid temperatures forecast to hover near 110 degrees. Sheriff’s authorities were expected to provide reporters with a progress report later today.

To reiterate: we shall see. Aside from the allegation, without source, by a former Manson "Family" member that there are bodies buried at the Barker Ranch, there may be other motivations for the dig that are, in fact, unrelated to the Mansion "Family."