Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Polanski/Brown Corollary

Continuing the discussion of dirtball artists for just a bit longer, Jonah Weiner wrote in Slate this past week…
If your stomach turns a little at the thought of ever hearing Chris Brown’s voice again—or, for that matter, his name—get ready for one nauseous winter. The R&B singer, who pleaded guilty in June to beating his ex-girlfriend Rihanna during a February argument, is set to release his third album, Graffiti, in December. Last month, the lead single, “I Can Transform Ya,” hit radio, and the follow-up, “Crawl,” came out last week. There’s something audacious about Brown’s return, and not just because it took a scant three months for him to slide back into album-promo mode after entering his guilty plea. Brown has been exposed in the Rihanna saga, after all, as more than an abusive boyfriend. Promising affection and pleasure in his music but brutish and violent in real life, his love oil turned out to be snake oil: An R&B loverman best known for a domestic-violence conviction is an insupportable contradiction…

But Brown is also a major star (his first two albums have sold more than 4 million records combined in the United States), and he clearly isn’t ready to give that up…He may not know how to nail a contrite interview, but he does know how to deliver a first-rate pop song
[the aforementioned “I Can Transform Ya”]

The song raises an old question with no easy answer: What do we do when a bad person makes good art?
Let’s set aside for a moment the notion that Chris Brown makes good art. Weiner does ask an interesting question. Since the end of WWII, with the birth of teenage culture and rock and roll and the rise of television and all of the rest of it, the idea of celebrity has become practically inseparable from popular art—combine the two and you have the foundation for pop culture. And until the last decade or so, celebrity was so effective because it was easily manipulated and controlled by the artist and his/her backers (agents, studio execs, producers, etc.). The salacious details were always kept under wraps, leaving public consumers with glossy puff-pieces in the pages of Teen People (or its antecedents) or music videos that controlled all aspects of the artist’s visual image and personality. This type of control not only bred financial success; it also made questions about the artist’s actual personal character irrelevant.

But along came new media and TMZ and Twitter and the E! Channel. Now the celebrity dirt that once only kept grocery store tabloids alive has become big business. The demand for the type of material that, in the past, would have destroyed an artist’s career now competes with the artist’s actual output (see reality television). The old adage “Any press is good press” now reaches grotesque extremes. It’s often important for an artist to maintain some sort of scandalous side in order to justify their status as a celebrity.

Bringing this back around to Chris Brown, what are we, the listening public, supposed to make of his new music? Weiner avoids a straight answer, first broaching the idea that listeners compartmentalize their knowledge of Chris Brown-as-woman-beater so they enjoy “I Can Transform Ya” as a guilty pleasure, only toss out this idea with the hope that maybe a remix of the song will eventually see release, one that scrubs Brown’s vocals from the track altogether.

It’s a cute little dance, but seeing Weiner refuse to answer the relatively important question he poses is disappointing. I get it—to honestly answer this question is very difficult. It involves introducing ethical arguments into what is supposed to be the most mindless and easy form of enjoyment we have—the consumption of popular entertainment. Who wants to complicate things like that?

I could sympathize more with people who feel this way if I were more convinced that the “art” Chris Brown produces is, as Weiner ranks it, good. If there were some objective criteria, some transcendent quality that elevated the grating rhythm and lyrics of “I Can Transform Ya” to the status of art (not even good art, just art), maybe then I could entertain the setting aside of ethical questions about Chris Brown’s character. But Chris Brown and his collaborators and producers make a specific type of music for a specific type of musical demand. To put another way, Chris Brown and company would not have produced “I Can Transform Ya” if this musical demand did not exist. By every available definition, Chris Brown does not produce art. He produces Top-40 R&B/hip-hop that will exist and slide out of the pop culture canon relatively quickly. Using this criterion, I think it’s self-evident that Chris Brown-as-woman-beater in no way merits exclusion from value judgments about his work. The guy is a misogynist scumbag and, really, his music is an exploitative extension of his personality.

But say this is wrong; say Chris Brown is a producer of good art. In other words, let’s put Chris Brown in the same class as Roman Polanski. What now? This is where being an appreciator of good art in the twenty-first century becomes fraught with complication. It would be so nice if all great artists remained veiled in anonymity the way Stanley Kubrick was and Thomas Pynchon still is. But that is not the case with either Polanski or Brown. We know their dirty laundry just as well as we know their creative output. The two are forever intertwined.

Now I really see why Weiner danced around a clear answer. In my case, I really admire much of Polanski’s work. Chinatown and The Pianist are both incredible works of art. How can I reconcile my enjoyment and appreciation of these films with my knowledge that their creator was, at least for one night in 1977, a pedophilic rapist?

Great art is often so powerful that we forget that art itself exists as a form of human expression. Humans, in other words, come before the art that they produce. A thirteen-year-old girl in 1977 Los Angeles and Rhianna in 2009 Los Angeles come before a handful of great films and a few albums worth of forgettable R&B tracks.

So to answer Jonah Weiner: no, it’s not okay to like this stuff. But how can I un-like films like Chinatown and The Pianist? What if I lived a life of willing ignorance of pop culture? What if I knew nothing of Chris Brown’s and Roman Polanski’s personal lives? I think this is a conversation worth having and would love to hear other’s opinions, thoughts and comments.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Roman Polanski and Manhattan

The Swiss government’s recent arrest and potential extradition of Roman Polanski has rekindled public interest in the events that caused the director to flee the United States in 1977, and rightfully so. For those unfamiliar with the case, it’s really a simple one that can be summed up quickly: while in Los Angeles in March of 1977, Polanski gave a thirteen-year-old girl a combination of champagne and quaaludes and raped her. It’s pretty cut-and-dry. Polanski should have been sent to prison for the maximum amount of time afforded to rapists, but his lawyers and celebrity status combined to get his sentence reduced to a paltry forty-two days. This was too much for Polanski and he fled to France. He has not returned to the United States since.

Polanski’s case often brings out the hypocritical sides of fans and/or appreciators of art. It’s pretty tough for any person to claim that Polanski is not a dirtball. He’s a dirtball of the highest order. But unlike most rapists, Polanski’s public image is complicated by the undisputable fact that the man is one of the most talented living film directors. One really shouldn’t have anything to do with the other. But, as we all know, when it comes to artists (or, really, celebrities in general) people tend to make excuses in a way that goes against their usual best judgment. Yeah, he may have assaulted that girl, but that was a long time ago. And The Pianist is such a great movie. In a way, this type of conflicted thinking is a testament to the power of art. But that’s just an excuse.

Recently in The New York Times, Michael Cieply discussed how “[m]anners, mores and law enforcement have become far less forgiving of sex crimes involving minors in the 31 years since Mr. Polanski was charged with both rape and sodomy involving drugs.” While, in a general sense, this is a true statement (Cieply cites multiple news articles from 1977 that treat Polanski sympathetically), Cieply takes the obvious and easy (and unnecessary) step of analogizing Roman Polanski circa 1977 to Isaac Davis, Woody Allen’s character from Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan: “Mr. Polanski was treated by the authorities, including Judge Laurence J. Rittenband, not so much as a sexual assailant but…as a normally responsible person who had shown terrible judgment by having sex with a very young, but sophisticated, girl.”

On the surface, making the Woody Allen connection seems like a prudent choice giving Allen’s recent support for Roman Polanski and Allen’s own history with young women. Allen, in the eyes of many, is just as much a dirtball as Polanski. Allen married his then-partners’s adopted daughter, after all. And, yes, in Manhattan—a movie that Allen co-wrote, directed and starred in—a fortysomething Isaac Davis dates seventeen-year-old high school senior Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Clearly, Allen and Polanski are cut from the same cloth, right?

The answer to this is an indisputable no. Without delving deeply into the history of Woody Allen’s personal affairs, let it suffice that Allen in no way conducted himself around Soon-Yi Previn (his former adopted stepdaughter and now wife) the way Polanski did around his victim in 1977. Allen began his affair with Soon-Yi when she was twenty-one years old and the relationship, from all prevailing evidence, was always consensual. I’m not an Allen apologist, but in reality he is guilty of bad taste and tactlessness, both of which are a far cry from the drugging and raping of a thirteen-year-old.

Cieply wisely avoided discussions of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi for these reasons. But he did make the Manhattan connection. This troubled me enough to write this post because I, like many fans of Allen’s films and American cinema in general, love the film Manhattan. And in all the times I’ve viewed this film I have never once seen Isaac Davis as “a normally responsible person who had shown terrible judgment by having sex with a very young, but sophisticated, girl.” In fact, to me, Isaac’s relationship with Tracy is the emotional core of the film.

Has the joke been on me this entire time? By enjoying Manhattan, and having never seen pedophilic flaws in Isaac Davis’s character, have I really been an inattentive and insensitive viewer. And, worse, have I subconsciously known all along that Isaac is a dirtball but let my own masculine side create artificial justifications for liking this guy?

In short, is it okay for guys to like Manhattan without feeling a requisite amount of guilt and/or shame?

There are two ways to go about answering these questions. The first and most direct route is to look at New York state statutory rape law. It’s a cold, clinical way to do film analysis, but in this case it’s probably normal for viewers to wonder if Isaac was actually breaking the law. After all, in the film’s first scene he is out in the open on an actual date with Tracy and another couple—at Elaine’s no less, a very non-secluded place. Likewise, in the film’s closing scene, Tracy tells Isaac (in a quote that Cieply also cites), “Guess what, I turned eighteen the other day. I’m legal, but I’m still a kid.” As it turns out, the age of consent in New York is seventeen. So Tracy was “legal” the entire time. But with eighteen being the US’s canonized age in which a teen becomes an adult, Tracy’s statement makes for a great movie line.

But that seems too easy, which is why the second and more difficult route is unavoidable. How did Allen frame and develop Isaac and Tracy’s relationship? This is where a catch-22 snags modern, forward-thinking men. Isaac and Tracy are Manhattan’s most nuanced couple. Their connection seems the most real. Even while Isaac spends most of his scenes with Tracy trying to convince her that she’s better off with someone her own age, it’s tough for a viewer not to want their relationship to work out. Tracy offers Isaac a relief from the self-absorbed women that populate his social circles; while Isaac offers Tracy unique (I won’t say more mature) forms of support and desire that she clearly lacks from her male peers. And Allen’s and Hemingway’s performances are fantastic. It’s really one of the more wonderful and enigmatic film relationships.

But one cannot forget that the relationship is Woody Allen’s construction. When one thinks about it this way, of course Isaac and Tracy are great together. Isn’t this a male fantasy, to be a fortysomething guy who develops the best relationship of his life with a beautiful, intelligent, mature seventeen-year-old? Looking across Allen’s body of work, his characters (as in, the characters Allen plays in his own movies) always tend to end up in the bed of women that are seemingly way too beautiful or young or just plain out-of-his-league. That, after all, is part of the charm of Allen’s films. In Manhattan specifically, though, age cannot help but rear its head. Are we watching Woody Allen’s most accomplished film relationship? Or are we watching a narcissist’s most accomplished male fantasy?

These are interesting questions in large part because, when looking at Manhattan from a storytelling perspective, Tracy’s age is not necessarily an integral piece of her character. This makes the male fantasy argument somewhat valid. But then again, what is the male fantasy—hooking up with a girl who’s not quite “legal,” or is it having a fulfilling relationship with a woman half your age after two failed marriages? There’s a legitimate difference between these two situations. The former is despicable; the latter is, well, a different story. And the former, I feel, aligns more closely with Manhattan. In the film, I feel Woody Allen uses Tracy’s age both for ironic and character purposes. The teenager, in being her non-cynical self, becomes the most honest and engaging woman in the film.

Turning one’s take on a film into Hegelian thought progressions or Socratic dialogues kind of saps the fun out of things, I know. After all, a large part of enjoying movies is taking in the visceral, in-the-moment experience that comes with watching a film for the first time. But great films must be given this type of extra thought as they become ingrained in our culture. I still like Manhattan. I still see Isaac and Tracy’s relationship as accomplished in its non-cynical view of modern romance. But I recognize that my conclusion is not the definitive conclusion. So while I call bullshit on Cieply’s analogizing Roman Polanski and Isaac Davis, I cannot fault Cieply for making the connection.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We're Not Alone

Trigger warning: the video clip, included in the article linked to below contains hurtful, derogatory, and offensive language toward the gay community and more.

So, it turns out we’re not the only ones following the emergence of a new masculinity. As you’ll see here, the very conservatives who continue to make feminism relevant and necessary have conducted a panel on ‘The New Masculinism’ at the Value Voters Summit. As Tracy Clark-Flory reported, the VVF
focused on how “feminism has wreaked havoc on marriage, women, children and men" and discussed the need to get "the principles and ideals for a new ‘masculinism’ right.”
The punchline of this article, “Boys beware: Porn turns you gay!” brings up one of the panel’s methods for fostering their ‘new masculinism’: telling boys that straight porn is ‘homosexual’ and will turn them gay. (The logic of which is based on so many false assumptions that would require a catalogue of encyclopedic proportions to account for all of them…or lots of comments…) Now, this raises some questions, which I hope you’ll help me expand on through your comments.

Question #1: Is it just me, or does the panel’s ‘New Masculinism’ sound a lot like the Old Masculinism? The only new additions to this new masculinism that I can see are hatreds that have been updated for today’s conservative insecurities. Pornographers, move over! Make some room for feminists and gays!

Question #2: Do they realize that feminists derive as much power from our accomplishments as from the power given to us by groups like the VVF? They’re basically saying without question that we have the power to have an impact on issues like marriage, women, children, men, and gender. Thanks, gentlemen, for the recognition and your unwavering faith in our social powers!

Question #3: Aren’t these the same people who generally like to say that feminism is irrelevant? That there’s no longer a need for feminism? But if feminists can no longer make a difference, how is it that we’ve made such a noticeable dent in ‘marriage, women, children and men’ that our work needs to be reversed? Can the VVF fight the very same power they themselves give to us? And wouldn’t that sort of be like they’re fighting with themselves?

Question #4: So how does your run-of-the-mill straight male porn not fall into traditional masculinity? Doesn’t the very porn they’re talking about rely on antiquated attitudes and tropes regarding how men and women relate to one another?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Amplification Through Simplification"

I was so excited after watching the first episode of Glee a month ago that I immediately started brainstorming for reasons or excuses I could use to justify writing about it. Needless to say, Glee is my favorite new show of the season. It’s off to the most promising start of any major network show since Friday Night Lights debuted a handful of years ago. Luckily for me, only five episodes into its run (six if you count the pilot episode that aired early in the summer), Glee has given me numerous reasons – so many, in fact, that I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about it (or so I tell myself).

Glee’s main strength is that it is an effective pastiche. The show mixes and mashes generic teenage television show and movie conventions (and the stereotypical stock characters that populate these shows and movies) with musical theater tropes like characters bursting into song during moments of spontaneous emotional expression.

But unlike the High School Musical’s of the world, Glee refuses to downplay dark undercurrents that affect both the teenage characters and the adults that surround and influence them. In fact, the show revels in its darker elements in a unique way. The more edgy and serious a moment becomes, the more likely bits of wry, pointed humor will be layered in, at once undermining the drama of the moment and, interestingly, enhancing it. When Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron)—captain of McKinley High School’s Cheerios cheerleading squad and the leader of the school’s Celibacy Club—becomes pregnant and is confronted by the father, Puck (Mark Salling), she tells him matter-of-factly, “I only slept with you because you got me drunk on wine coolers and I felt fat that day.” It’s a funny moment, and it’s played that way. But it’s also heartbreaking because, with all melodrama and lofty explanations removed, the fact that the honest truth as to why Quinn slept with Puck (and thus severely altered the course of her life) can be whittled down to one line is brutally clear. Quinn really did sleep with Puck because she got drunk and felt insecure. It’s really that simple, that sad.

In the second chapter of his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes how abstract cartoons are often better able to focus a viewer’s attention on an idea than, say, realistic presentations like photographs or live-action films:
Why would anyone, young or old, respond to a cartoon as much or more than a realistic image? Why is our culture so in thrall to the simplified reality of the cartoon? … When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t. … Cartooning isn’t just a way of drawing, it’s a way of seeing! The ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power…
“Amplification through simplification” is how McCloud sums up the power of cartooning. It’s a brilliant deduction and one that is clearly at work in Glee.

Though it is a live-action program, Glee works in cartoon-esque contexts. Much like the MTV cartoon series Daria, the Cheerios in Glee are always dressed in their cheerleading outfits and the football players look and behave like the simpleton jocks we remember from ’80s teen films. Similarly, the glee club is a collection of misfits, openly mocked and ostracized, the lowest of the low. But rather than parade around such stereotypical characters only to thrust them in predictable and contrived situations—in other words, rather than do what nearly all teen-driven television dramas do—the producers of Glee amplify the show’s emotional resonance by making conscious use of the simplicity of these stereotypes.

Using this method, the show’s take on teenage masculinity is fresh, moving and, yes, accurate. The two males lead characters I find particularly interesting and, well, just damn awesome are Finn (Cory Monteith), the stud quarterback and budding glee star, and Kurt (Chris Colfer), a gay glee club member and fashionista who lacks the confidence to come out to all but a couple of people. Both Finn and Kurt embody well-established teenage stock roles: Finn the time-tested jock, Kurt the twenty-first century flamboyant gay teen. As well, both are subjected to the obstacles and anxieties offered up by the modern American high school.

But beyond the clichés, the producers of Glee ratchet up the depth of each of these characters by exploiting the stereotypical, one-dimensional facades that seemingly define them. Kurt, for example, flaunts a stunning array of designer outfits, showing up in Marc Jacobs one day, Dolce & Gabbana the next. His manner of speech and use of make-up, as well, leave absolutely nothing to question: this guy is gay. The interesting twist here is that Kurt exists in world of (for the most part) acceptance. It is clear that nearly everyone at McKinley High knows that Kurt is gay. And the surrounding high school environment is not hostile about this fact. Really and truly, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. This set of circumstances amplifies Kurt’s internal struggle, his own coming-to-terms with his sexuality. When Kurt asks Finn for a favor during glee rehearsal and Finn says “Thanks, but I already have a date to the prom. But I’m flattered. I know how important dances are to teen gays,” Kurt immediately and instinctively responds, “I’m not gay,” which leaves Finn with a confused ‘Huh?’-look on his face. This simple use of stereotypes highlights the struggles of gay teens like Kurt. Even in safe environments of acceptance—Finn is Kurt’s friend, as is all of glee—Kurt still is unable to come out. Kurt’s apparent one-dimensionality is actually crucial to his pathos.

Finn, like Kurt, has hard time reaching a comfortable level of self-definition. He negotiates the customary struggles of the high school star being pulled in various directions—is he a football jock or a glee star or both? In many ways, Finn is like the Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) character from Alexander Payne’s film Election: hard-working, naïve, heart-of-gold, almost too good to be true. Finn, unlike Paul Metzler, is not spared his fair share of faults, be they hilarious, devious or a combination of both. He may date the cheerleader, but he has a very real problem with premature ejaculation. He may truly like Rachel (Lea Michele), the glee club’s resident star and erstwhile diva, but he’s not above manipulating her talents to help him potentially earn a scholarship.

The point is that the producers of Glee thrive on locating chinks in Finn’s armor. And by exploiting these flaws in comedic ways, Finn takes on a very human, very sympathetic character. He’s not the hypermasculine jock with “a problem” that exists solely for purposes of moving a plot forward. While Glee does not deny that Finn is a football star, that he is a male who embodies masculinity in a very traditional sense, the show successfully humanizes him by keeping him so aligned with the stereotype.

I feel bad not speaking about the girls of Glee, especially the wonderful and complex Rachel. That analysis will be coming shortly, I’m sure. Suffice it to say, Glee is a breath of fresh air for network television which, at least at the moment, lacks in programming that attempts to explore emotional ambiguities and resonances of American high school life honestly. By successfully applying the “amplification through simplification” edict, Glee adds a little heart to the predictable lives of its teenage characters and a little bit of flavor to the predicable social, gender and sexual dynamics of high school.