Sunday, September 28, 2008

Salò and the banality of evil

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." --Benito Mussolini

"Smedley Butler helped destroy a corporate Fascist Putsch in the mid-1930's, but how long did that last? In the 1960's, all four primary liberal leaders were assassinated. In the mid-'90s, a so called Democrat President turned back the Bill of Rights and Constitution with a multitude of crime bills. And in the year 2000, Jim Crow laws were revived, and a Presidential election was swayed by disallowing over 50,000 eligible African-Americans to vote in the state of Florida. Corporations will not be denied their sway and profit." --Adam Parfrey, introduction to Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler's WAR IS A RACKET

"...what we're seeing is a tidal pull exerted on the will of almost everyone in a country – or in this case, a chateau – to fulfill the wishes of a minor but powerful few." --Noel Vera on Salò

Politically, in terms of power and (non-sexual) exploitation, there are a few ways to look at Pasolini's Salò. Traditionally it is seen as a condemnation of Fascism; more specifically, the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler through which Pasolini lived. Personally I'm not sure this is even worth talking about since there is so little to learn from it: Fascism is bad, power corrupts. We don't need art to show us this so I find it disappointing that so many viewers boil the film down to this simple truth. Salò is much more interesting if we see it as a work of art that lifts the veil of our everyday reality so that we can more easily see the true nature of the exploitative systems in place.

According to Pasolini the coprophilia in the film is meant to represent the toxins we are force fed by corporations and manufacturers. This can refer to the processed foods, the high fructose corn syrup, the GMO tomatoes and the myriad other atrocities which Pasolini could not have predicted, but it is as easy to apply Salò more generally to all of modern civilization. Each day we are fed the idea that the road we are on is the one, true, God-given path, and toward that end we consume a lot of shit. The Libertines who feed it to us are the privileged few who run this world. We spend the best years of our lives running their businesses in exchange for a fraction of what they make off our labor, we consume their tasteless, poisonous food, we grease their wheels and fuel their fire - all so their "Chateau" is kept running in a way that pleases them. And we allow all of this to happen with complete passivity.

But the real horror of Pasolini's vision is that it may not be disturbed enough. We in the Western world are privileged beyond all measure of belief despite being buggered often by a copiously well-endowed system. The true horror is reserved for those a step below us, those who sew our cheap sweaters for almost no pay, those who are forced to live with agent orange and depleted uranium, those killed in Iraq who are called 'collateral damage', those in the Niger Delta whose water and land are being destroyed for oil, those in West Virginia who exchange cheap American energy for cancer and dirty water. The State does its best to make sure that all of these people remain hidden away so we don't have to see or think about this process of which we are all a part, but even in those rare glimpses when we do see it we are loathe to do anything about it. Having been fed shit for so long, we are anxious for a chance to feed shit to others, to bring us closer to the shining example of the Libertines we long to be. We are passive, and our passivity empowers them.

People who criticize Salò as being too simplistic miss the point that Fascism isn't always some obvious system that can be easily opposed or even recognized. It sometimes exists behind the curtain, and, with Salò, Pasolini gives us a glimpse of the gears at work there.

The sexual politics presented in Salò comprise what is probably the most interesting aspects of the film, but I ignored them altogether because of something I saw on the news recently that reminded me of the film:

ben bernanke bailout beard pasolini salo
christopher cox pasolini salo
treasury secretary henry paulson
salo pasolini sheila bair

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Forgotten Giants: Marguerite Eymery aka Rachilde

A century ago Rachilde's pivotal role among the parisian intelligentsia was undisputed. Rachilde was a successful, widely read author and a critical conduit and mediator of the aesthetic and intellectual ideas of the time. While her salon brought together aspiring fin de siècle writers and artists, her husband, Alfred Vallette, edited the highly influential literary review Le Mercure de France, and she was active in the cirlce around him. As the only woman writer to contribute to Anatole Baju's journal Le Décadent, alongside Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Adam, she seemed to have secured her place in literary history. But by the time of her death a half century later, in 1953, her work had slipped into obscurity.

When she was young, in order to overcome her parents distaste for having a writer in the family, Marguerite Eymery would pretend to channel spirits. She used one of the voices -- that of a Swedish nobleman named Rachilde -- to dictate stories during her seances. "Rachilde" soon became her persona and she could sometimes be seen walking the city streets dressed as a man...

Since there is so little information about Rachilde available online I'm going to quote liberally from Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable's introduction to Monsieur Vénus:

"In Paris of the 1880's, Rachilde quickly became one of the only women writers in a series of avant-garde literary circles dominated by young rebels reminiscent of their Romantic predecessors of the 1830's, whose exuberance and excesses had prompted Théophile Gautier's satirical account in Les Jeunes-France (1833). Grouped in ephemeral clubs with provocative names--the Hydopaths, the Hirsutes, the Zutistes (zut means "damn"), the Jemenfoutistes (je m'en fous means "I don't give a damn"), and the Incohérents--they explored paths to alternative realities through altered states of consciousness, linguistic experimentation, and erotic transgressions. In rejecting the positivistic and naturalistic tendencies in contemporary aesthetic movements, they searched instead for metaphysical ideals inspired by various forms of mysticism: Baudelairean correspondances, occultism, hypnotism, and spiritualism. From these diverse factions emerged the writers associated with decadence and symbolism at the turn of the century."

According to her original (and likely false) explanation of its origin, Rachilde's most famous work, Monsieur Vénus (1884), was written when an unrequited infatuation left her legs paralyzed for two months.

"By the mid-twentieth century Monsieur Vénus had fallen out of print and was known only to a few specialists of fin de siècle literature. One symptom of its neglect is that, although Simone de Beauvoir refers to it in The Second Sex, when cuts were made for the English translation, the reference to Rachilde was deemed expendable. By contrast, Huysmans A rebours, also published in 1884, had attained the status of decadent classic by the mid-twentieth century. Both novels contain many of the same decadent topoi: a blurring of distinction among the senses through Baudelairean synesthesia; the confusion between aesthetic taste (art) and culinary taste (cooking) and between taking in abstract concepts and eating food; the collapse of apparent opposites such as disgust and desire, good and bad taste; the relocation of biblical myths of Edenic creation in decadent hothouses of artifice; and finally, a rewriting of narratives of creativity itself."

"She followed the success of Monsieur Vénus with a series of novels that drew on similar themes of nonconformist, nonreproductive sexual practices, novels that raised questions about the multiple possible relations among the sex category assigned at birth, gender expression, and erotic desires."

* * *

A few drops of Monsieur Vénus to give a taste of the overall tone:

"At last!" she said, when the brocade dress with chaste higlights had fallen at her impatient feet. She took a small copper key, opened a closet hidden among the draperies, and took out a black evening suit, complete from the patent leather boots to the embroidered formal shirt. In front of the mirror, which returned to her the image of a man as handsome as all the heroes of novels girls dream about, she slid her hand, with the shining wedding ring, through her short curly hair. A bitter smile played on her lips, blurred by an imperceptible brownish down."

"Then he sighed, 'I'm sleepy,' as he put the pointy heels of Raoule's shoes on his forehead."

"A tear whose wet brightness seemed to have stolen its light from Eden of long ago rolled down Raoule's cheek."

"...they were plunging toward bottomless pits and thought they were safe in each other's arms."

* * *

Monsieur Vénus is only available in English through the Modern Language Association: HERE (the one Amazon carries is French)

As far as I know, the only other novel available in English by Rachilde is The Juggler -- the story of a woman who forsakes all men and chooses a Greek vase as her obscure object of desire.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Debate on Self Interest: Milton Friedman vs. Student

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Friedman makes valid points in the first two examples, and the student does a good job of standing up to him; however, in the third example, the student allows Friedman to convolute the argument to a completely different, unwarranted concept, where Friedman is able to slyly avoid being pinned down. The weakness of Friedman's points lie in his total committal to a very specific analytic worldview that is a little too black and white (which is the same thing he charges the student with), but it's largely just a fundamental disagreement in philosophies. He sees the issue regarding the exploding gas-tanks as "the consumer should be free to decide how much they want to pay to reduce the chance of their death." To him, it's that cut and dry. If the consumer doesn't know that the gas tank will likely explode upon collision because the corporation deliberately withheld information, then the remedy for this is for the government to hold the corporations accountable in court. Fine. That sounds reasonable1. But what does this have to do with the student's original point: Friedman's concept of "self interest" applied to corporations and business can (and often will) create situations that not only cause people to "run away" but situations that kill them? Did Ford really think fewer people would buy their car if they installed the safety block in front of the gas tank and charged 13$ more? Of course not. The issue is not whether or not the consumer is willing to use their freedom to decide if they want to pay extra for their safety; the issue is that Ford knew they could make more profit if the pieces weren't installed at all which is what Friedman is arguing for: self interest. For this to be true, the truth must be hidden, and deceit is indirectly promoted in the name of self-interest. This is where our worldviews collide. Friedman's view might be valid within a system that isn't monopolized by a handful of corporations controlling what the public knows, but within the system we have now, a corporation doesn't always have to assess certain risks -- losing money due to lawsuits for withholding public information or losing customers because of something that gives their company a bad name -- because the government and corporations are basically the same entity. (Look at the reduction of Exxon's oil spill fees by the Supreme Court. Look at the fact that Monsanto still exists2. Look at the recent bailouts. There is no real accountability.) In a different system the idea of self-interest applied to business makes sense, but in our current reality, those with the most money will always have the most say.

1 I'm no law expert, but it seems like obscuring the information to the realm of nonexistence would be an easy loop-hole here, but that's another issue.
2 "Former Monsanto employees currently hold positions in US government agencies such as the FDA and EPA and even the Supreme Court."

Something Friedman says that I really like: "Don't attribute to me your conventional views of what "a conservative" believes 'cause I'm not a conservative. I'm a believer in freedom." I've talked to my friends about this concept before. So many people you encounter (liberal or conservative) won't actually listen to what you say; they'll just pause until you're finished talking and then respond to the cliche response they assume you used, simplifying everything you said into banalities.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recipe: How to make The Fabulous Stains

The Fabulous Stains

2 quarts all purpose Teen Angst
2 tablespoons dried Sex Pistols
1 teaspoon Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge
6 Ray Winstone smirks, undiluted
2 teaspoons Penelope Spheeris' Suburbia
1/4 cup The Runaways
2 cups Peter Watkins' Privilege
3 1/2 cups Legend of Billie Jean
1/2 teaspoon Derek Jarman's Jubilee, diced
1 pinch of Black Randy and the Metro Squad


Mix thoroughly while listening to The Germs "Forming", bring to a boil, bake until you're 16 again, and behold: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains!

The Fabulous Stains
* * *

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains
is finally available on DVD. Shelved in 1982 by Paramount after a poor test screening and later shown a few times on late night television, The Fabulous Stains is one of the best teen angst films of the 80's. It even manages to step outside its borders of alienated youth and rebellion to take jabs at hero-worship, the media, gender roles, commercialization, and consumerism. No, it's not expertly made, and it contains a good bit of poor acting, but judging a film like this on those grounds misses the point: it's a film about attitudes.

The Stains are an all girl punk rock band formed by three young teenagers. They exist more as a symbol of discontent than as a musical outlet, going on tour before they've had much (or any?) practice, reminiscent of The Germs who, while wearing their homemade Germs shirts, went around advertising their band before they even had one, and who played their first gig without having written a single song. When The Stains finally get around to their first performance, the music they play actually sounds like a band that had only a few hours to put something together. The lyrics are also spot on and sound like they were written by alienated teenagers and not a scriptwriter. Punk attitude perfectly captured. I was surprised how right the movie got this.

As for the tacked on ending... Yes, the film would probably be better without it, but it's only bad if you take it literally. When Corinne looks over at the teens who have adopted her look, the final sequence can easily be imagined as her fantasy, her "what might have been" moment. And even taken literally the end can be used to suggest the transient nature of subcultures and how they are all eventually assimilated into the mainstream, diluted into something meaningless that is easily consumable and marketed to the masses.

After watching The Stains, I started to wonder: When was the last rebellion film made in America? They used to crank them out in the 80's... Aren't teen films now either ridiculous comedies or superficial romance dramas? Why? I guess boredom is less intrusive when we're surrounded by gadgets and parents who are never home. Or is it because every subculture that's ever existed has been assimilated into the mainstream and turned into someone else's profit? Or because it's better to just feed us a steady diet of fluff? Does anything still feel dangerous? Does anything feel as though it could have a larger point behind it? Perhaps the current economic crisis will get really bad and people will realize that a life of comfort and security is not a guarantee. Perhaps young people will realize that every preceding generation has been eating their future and that this will really have a consequence one day. But I think we already know all of these things; for some reason we just ignore them. We're pretty, pretty vacant now, and we don't care.

This reminds me of something Paul Schrader said in an interview recently:

GK: Is the need to provide a voice of opposition still the thing that drives you to decide on a particular project?

PS: There’s always been something adversarial and evangelical about my interest in film. It really began that way as a kid. Being interested in film was a measure of revolt. It was a measure of confronting the status quo, the machinery of the community you lived in. It doesn’t seem like much of a revolt in today’s eyes, but it was back then ... And my love of film, even before it was a love of film, was probably a love of troublemaking first. The films I fell in love with were troublemaking films. We showed Viridiana on campus. What is this film but an act of aggression? It’s pretty undisguised.

GK: Do you think films still offer young people that?

PS: No, no. In fact, precious little does, you know, which is unfortunate...

GK: Music, perhaps, which was also something that you were very interested in.

PS: There are so few rules left. I mean, it’s getting harder and harder to break the rules. You really almost have to self-destruct to break the rules. Certainly, all the sort of traditional things like sex or deportment or language are pretty hard to get to offend much of anybody anymore.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

How I spent my time away:

The Yellow Scale by Franz KupkaHere I am reading my special gold leaf edition of João Guimarães Rosa's tall tale. In the background Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just's severed head can be heard proclaiming victory to the wallpaper, re-animated by electrical currents and three tiny goldfish swimming in circles. Images from the Pleasure Dome dance before me, drawing my eyes toward sublimity.