The Aesthetics of Stupidity (1)
This is the first in a series of posts in which I outline a certain aesthetic fixation on what I am simply calling ‘stupidity,’ which seemed to be at the front of my brain when considering this passing decade. I make no claim as to its ubiquity, dominance, or even frequency.
The prophecy was first heard in 2006 , but by then it was mere journalism. America is dumb and getting dumber. Mike Judge’s dystopian Idiocracy assumes the logical outcome of consumer society is cognitive and cultural retardation, encapsulated in an infamous montage where the Fuddrucker’s logo gradually morphs into:
That the film was made a martyr by its distributor 20th Century Fox probably has less to do with its vision of cultural decline (buttressed by the eugenicist argument that the greater popularity of breeding among the lower classes is mass stupidity’s efficient cause) than with this montage sequence, along with the other spoofs on mass market brands — ‘Brawndo’ energy drinks, Pepsi and Carls Jr. as government sponsors, Starbucks gives handjobs, characters are named after brands — crossing the line of acceptability.
These corporate defacements are the best thing about an otherwise unremarkable and poorly conceived comedy, such that it’s perhaps better thought of as an Adbusters-style toolkit for ‘culture jamming’ (sort of how it’s used in the above link) than an actual film.
That said, it was one of the few satires the American film industry managed to produce in the ’00s, and probably the most effective in the traditional sense of the genre. One could comment here on the failure of narrative to capture the complete and total travesty that was American life in the first decade of the new millennium, that only the most fragmentary and/or ad-drenched forms of media (television, the Internet) managed to say anything coherent about the present as a historical moment that didn’t consist of 100% recycled material.
Or one could just watch Southland Tales. Released in 2007 and set in an alternate 2008, also a ‘satire’ of sorts, it attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of media ubiquity: a digital interface that handles cutting between different narrative threads (complete with news ticker), an ‘ironic’ cast of B-list celebrities, the cinematography of a music video or luxury car ad (when not via handicam), bad sketch comedy, old-fashioned metafiction, comic book tie-ins, and lots of stuff happening all the time. Yet as packed as it is, and despite the literally apocalyptic buildup, the film is oddly boring. Maybe because the End Times are already here — the reality the film assumes from the beginning. Director Richard Kelly attempts to provide structure via Justin Timberlake’s interminable voice-over narration (added after its panning at Cannes) and a pointlessly complicated plot that tries to disguise the fact that it has nothing to do with anything and could in fact have been plagiarized from a ’90s postmodern conspiracy novel (itself ripped off of Robert Anton Wilson and/or Thomas Pynchon). As Gerry and I discussed in conversation, it collapses three historical moments into the same ‘present’ — its references are contemporary, its aesthetic sensibility is ’90s, and its nostalgia (as with Kelly’s earlier Donnie Darko) is for the late ’80s, just prior to the End of History. Though perhaps tempting, it’s hard to deny that the film tries to be, now and again, a satire, even a political satire. The attempt fails catastrophically.
It is of course a film that was ‘too big to not fail,’ so all appropriate slack should be cut. And its failure is an interesting one. Steven Shaviro gives a more positive take here, in what is overall one of his best pieces of online writing:
Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles.
Toning down this hyperbolic praise, I would say that, at its best and worst, Southland Tales is ‘about’ a very specific sort of stupidity, albeit one that has been building for quite some time, a kind of apocalyptic cognitive failure, what would happen if we lived in Jean Baudrillard’s alternate universe but with his transcendent, guiding intelligence replaced by the 24/7 cliche flow of a comic book nerd. Because, insofar as the media world of absolute commodification really does ‘map’ reality, then that is exactly what has happened to ‘critical discourse on culture’ in this decade, in which I include satirical and ‘serious’ films, novels, visual art, etc. as well as niche genres like academic monographs. If we were to grant all the absurdities assumed by those who have been making such claims since the ’80s (?), it would be even more of a misreading to try to label Southland Tales as creative ‘genius’ or a ‘masterpiece.’ In order to read its intelligence failure as a virtue instead of a symptom — to read it as ‘naive,’ as an epic instead of a failed satire — one paradoxically has to ignore its own botched attempts at distinguishing parodic frame from parodied content. One has to decontextualize it from itself. Analogous to the way that vital bit of postmodern folklore, “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is so often taken as the beginning of analysis rather than its dead end. All this leads me to hypothesize an identifiable strategy of misreading emergent in this decade, one perhaps necessary for the application of traditional aesthetic criticism to certain new kinds of material, and again not limited to academic or intellectual critique.
UPDATE BEGINS: An update, if I can call it that, of camp:
55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.
As a completed, reified product, Southland Tales is more clearly looked at as a bigger (and thus more ‘epic’) enclosure and/or recapitulation of media forms and stereotypes than would be possible for entry-level users like you and me, its sublime (yet context-minimal) moments no more or less so than any available on the myriad Internet video networks into which they’ve already been displaced. A chunk of media time, regurgitated. And then, (seamlessly) reintegrated.