Sunday, January 03, 2010

My Own Private Idaho, Synecdoche NY, Kitsch and "Community"

In the past couple of days I watched Gus Van Zandt's My Own Private Idaho from the 1990s and the more recent Synecdoche, NY by Charlie Kaufman, and today I've been thinking about how similar their concerns are, although they ultimately seem to come up with nearly opposite takes on things. And those things are strangely relevant to things I've been writing about on this blog: queerness (in both a specific and particular definition), foreignness, disability and how these all come together in a concern with aesteticism, or the kind of blurring of the supposed life/art boundary that Ranciere characterizes as "kistsch" in his essay "Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed"(and which Bobby Baird tied to "hipsters" a while back on the Digital Emunction Blog). In both movies, kitsch and aestheticism seem to be the result of the threats/promises of queerness and foreignness.

The similarity of the titles of these movies is important, or at least a starting point. These are movies about a space, a space that starts out being geographic space, connoting a social community, but then becomes something more metaphorical. That metaphorical space is an aestheticist space not that different from what Ranciere talks about: the fear of art and life blurring.

Both movies seem to come out of disability: Idaho begins with River Phoenix's character swooning in a fit of narcolepsy, while Synecdoche begins with the main character suffering a blow to the head. In both cases, the results are movies that are "unreliable" - movies in which what is "real" is undermined. These guys are mentally askew; they are distracted; they are not able to make a coherent reality (not to be confused with the Real, which is what can't be brought into reality).

The similarity of the titles of these movies is important. These are movies about a space, a space that starts out being geographic space, connoting a social community, but then becomes something more metaphorical. That metaphorical space is an aestheticist space not that different from what Ranciere talks about: the fear of art and life blurring.

But the two takes on this blurring could not be different. It seems in Idaho, the narcoleptic fit is seen as something like the swoon of Decadence: it's the source of art. Or perhaps more interestingly what Catherine Clement calls attention to in her book Syncope, the swoon, the gap, the blackout as a subversive step out of logic and chronology:

“Surprisingly, this glaring weakness contains a raging force. This frustration is creative; from its disorders, unknown energies are often born… the world in which I have lived until now idolized power and force, muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it leads to new rebellions.”

[Read this against Ron Silliman’s vigorous dismissal of “soft surrealism”]. As in that book, Idaho merges orgasm, blackout and narcoleptic fits. Idaho could in fact be seen as a kind of code-word for this swoon/orgasm.

In Idaho, the blending between different registers of “realness” seems part of the community of hustlers and vagabonds that make up the nomadic coreless core of the movie. The film goes from interviews with actual Portland hustlers to restagings of Shakespeare's Henry IV in an abandoned hotel full of young hustler boys. But none is given higher status as more real and/or less artificial (Todd Haynes makes a big deal of the strange naturalnessof the Shakespeare talk in the interview that comes with the New Criterion version of the film).

There are tons of these kinds of shifts; plots exhaust themselves and new plots are grafted onto old ones (which apparently was actually the method of writing the script, according to the special feature interview between Van Zandt and Todd Haynes). We might even say that the continual exhaustion of little narratives is related to the swoon, or structured like swoons.

[This same exhaustion of plot is similar to my favorite Wong Kar Wai movie "Days of Being Wild", a comparison I might write about later. Or one can say that the various narratives (Henry IV most notably) exist as a constant state of parasitism – not a parasite on the original text, but a flux of parasitism, much like Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, in which pregnancy narratives, sci fi, horror and string theory all mingle across linguistic borders. (See my comment-reply to Mark under the Joyelle talk about “future.”)]

The orgasm-swoon-exhaustion angle also suggests the importance of homosexuality. It's a movie about homosexual boys. Often these boys are so stylized, beautiful that the movie certainly opens itself up the charge of kitsch, shallowness, fashion, hipsterism. (As any readers of this blog knows – especially Max – I am drawn precisely to those qualities that are rejected in this way, the negative affects.)

The film hinges on a central plot development - based on Henry IV - of Scott (Keannu Reeves) rejecting his homosexuality and prostitutional life in favor of heterosexuality and social and economic elite life. This shift seems to result in two deaths: the death of the obscene queer father and the death of the mayor of Portland, Scott’s biological father. These deaths facilitate Scott’s rise to his new position as king of the social order.

One of the most interesting scenes in the movie takes place at the dual funeral of these two fathers: there's the high-falutin funeral of the mayor, where everyone's dressed up etc, but Scott can also see the weird funeral taking place outside the cemetary gates: where the queer boys are screaming pointlessly and wrestling maniacally, exuding ecstatic jouissance.

On one hand there's the vision of growing up, becoming a productive member of society, replacing the father. On the other, you have a bunch of people who refuse to grow up, who insist on their own teenagerness, their own asocialness. This I see as the kind of jouissance Lee Edelman talks about in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive; it's a joy not from optimism about the future but from a total disregard for futurity, productivity.

The one place one could argue that Idaho fails my easy binary between queer and anti-queer movie is in the depiction of Hans, the German gay former singer. This character is somewhat ridiculed, but in the end I think he’s kind of a cool-ridiculous guy. In some ways, he harkens back to the gay criminal guy in Blue Velvet (he does a lip-synch dance with a lamp as a microphone), but this movie redeems Lynch’s homophobia, just as the Falstaff character could be said to redeem Frank (from monster to down-and-out gay guy).

Synecdoche seems to be almost the opposite of Idaho. In Synecdoche, a married guy hits his head, which leads to some kind of mental disability, which in turn leads to the end of his marriage. After the dissolution of his marriage, he begins a vast play that blurs life/art (in a cavernous space not unlike the abandoned hotel where the gang hangs out in Idaho), but which never gets an audience only proliferates copies of himself and the various objects of his desire. Meanwhile, his ex-wife embarks on a lesbian liason in Germany, which results in his 4-year-old daughter becoming tattooed, becoming a stripper, and dying (from wilting tattoos – these three seem connected). To make matters worse, she also begins to speak with a German accents, and on her deathbed forces her dad to admit to a gay sexual tryst. The threat of homosexuality seems to both effect the plot in direct ways (the wife) and hovers behind the plot (the possible homosexuality of the main guy). Basically, disability leads to homosexuality, which breaks up the family and leads to a blurring of life and art (in his life as play, in wife’s constant lurid art exhibition, in his daughter’s evolving German diary). That is to say the “queerness’ of the foreigner, the homosexual, the disabled replaces the reproductive community of the nuclear family with a pointless community of life as art – pointless because it leads to no reproductive relationship (only the proliferation of fake copies), because the lack of audience, and because it’s a kind of madness that ultimately ruins and kills the main character.

As in Ranciere’s view of Madame Bovary in “Why Emma Bovary Had to be Killed,” Synecdoche can be seen as an anti-kitsch manifesto (as well as homophobic, xenophobic etc).

I’ve long been thinking about the valorization of “community” in contemporary American poetry discussions. And it seems that questions about community is central to both of these works. In Idaho: the community as a restless, fainting, nomadic, in flux – ie not community, not productive. In Synecdoche: fear of exactly this state, fear that it will replace the natural, productive, heterosexual community.


Blogger Unknown said...

[oops, left this in the wrong place--serves me right]

enjoyed this, Johannes.

the spelling police report:
it's gus van *sant*

the name police wonder:
you mean *catherine* clement, no?

7:36 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Ugh. Yes, you're right. I always mess up names.


7:41 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

One thing I left out of this entry is that parts of Synecdoche are quite startling and striking: For example, the girlfriend living in a house on fire, or the main character being hired as the maid of his ex-wife. Very Strindbergian moments of brilliance.


8:41 AM  
Blogger R. Sanford said...

The two elements / scenes you mentioned in your comment, Johannes, were the most interesting points in Synecdoche, to me. I feel like I could unpack the burning house (and related obliviousness) for hours.

I never thought to consider the movie with the notion of 'community' as you have at the end here, but I think that's an intriguing perspective to take. There might seem to be some commentary mixed up in there, then, as my memory weakly serves, of the roles in community, how they might move around, ideas of collaboration and what it can / cannot mean, the momentum of a creative 'work' once it gets out and under its own steam...

I'd love more discussion about this 'valorization' (great term) of community in poetry / writing at large. It's an issue I feel undecided on, which is to say I don't feel right to say 'it's bullshit' but when I bump up against it out in the field it always makes me uncomfortable; just curious at more of your thoughts on it.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Phanero Noemikon said...

first of all, why are heterosexuals always identified with babymakers.
and secondly

I don't identify with any group
or how they choose to act or pliddle ther yollops.

I am a genius.

I am "me-identified"..


is just just kitchen, buddy.

You are a pseudo-pod
of grotesque intelligence.

add a little salt.

I'd cook it awhile longer,


The Hipster.

3:09 PM  
Blogger John Dermot Woods said...

Johannes - really glad you brought up the burning house in Synedoche. I started watching that movie months ago and was pulled away for some reason, and have yet to sit down with it again. But that burning house sticks with me. I'd like more attention paid to this movies, and, as such, I think I'll go and watch it all the way through.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Dear Hipster,

That's kind of my point. The "queer" in a movie like Idaho seems to stand for an unstable community, rather tha some kind of group pride.

And if you go down and read Joyelle's talk, you'll see a gay artist associated with baby-making.


5:54 PM  

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