White Noise in Nashville

Just noise

White noise

The "principled" guitarist plays a concert at the country club for the white mayoral candidate, even though he supports the black mayor, who is his sponsor. This makes "support" a funny word for him to use. He's "only doing it," he irritably stipulates, as a "favor" for star of the show and of the concert, who is also the candidate's wife.

Trouble was on my tail

He followed me like a hound

'Til I moved that one step on to glory

And off of that changing ground.

You pull my strings one by one

Until you get me onto one.

Pulling someone's strings until they get onto one is not a bad metaphor for the show. It's not a musical, and characters don't spill their guts in song, exactly. They do, but there is a tantalizing uncertainty in the relation between plot and song, character and performance. An uncertainty that is sometimes invoked by the performers themselves. ("It's acting, you idiot!") The drama is about whom is singing, writing, or touring with whom, all of which are heavily libidinal with varying levels of explicitness.

Although, while the equation is clearly chemistry = creativity, "libidinal" isn't specific enough. The basic musical element is the duet and songs come almost exclusively out of the sexual charge between a woman and a man. Which of course is why the two female stars (Rayna and Juliette, who are locked in a generational conflict) getting on stage together is "a big event," as the the head of their label puts it with exploitative relish.

To write is to sit together with a guitar between you, which is the man's. When the youngest musical couple first write, it is at his encouraging insistence. Encouragement requires a certain benevolent dementia. Of the poems she wrote he declares "these are songs!" Her book in his hand, he begins strumming chords--"tell me when it sounds like what you heard when you wrote it." Words between a woman with "heartache" and a man who wears snappy shirts are never just lyrical; they are always lyrics.

I’m hearing static

You’re like an automatic

You just wanna keep me on repeat and hear me crying

This genre origin story has an automation both productive and seductive, the two feeding each other, until they don't. It's not sex that "just happens"--it's music.

So when Rayna and Juliette write together, it's work. "Let's just be professional and get this done," says Rayna. Work in the sense that their writing is not leavened by heterosexual tension, and in the sense that this scene works on the gendered logic of the show's scenes of writing--scenes that have not had to do much work, like the characters who breeze along on waves of seduction.

However dramatic the relationship between a picking man and a singing woman can get, it's along romantic lines. When they don't get along, they don't write. Unlike Rayna and Juliette, who write "The Wrong Song" through what sounds like nothing but abrasion.

It's a long, long road to independence

But I'm leaving you for Tennessee

I got demons riding shotgun

Telling me not to go

But what they don't know

Is I'm already gone

These are the very first lyrics of the show, sung by a woman (Rayna) whose daughter just asked her dad "why does she have to go to work?"

31 January 2013

Focus

Sarah Lund's new partner, Borch, is always telling her to focus, and, jarringly, he calls her Sarah. There was, if not onomatopoeia, a consonance of sound and emotion in the exasperated exclamation "Lund!" Her boss, Brix (a patronym that seems to encompass his whole character), still says "Lund." The trainee investigator has taken after Borch, as if he's he and Lund's child. This appears to be a role he enjoys, sitting in the back seat as the three of them drive off to The End of Civilization, aka Jutland. It must be because of this infectiousness of names that in some nuclear families the mother and father actually call each other "mom" and "dad."

Danish is full of what to an American ear are wonderfully curt expressions. Even "thanks," despite having only one syllable, is padded forgivingly with sound in comparison to "tak," and next to "tak for kaffe" (silent e), "thanks for the coffee" is a windy drawl fit only for a Western. However, "Sarah" uttered by a Dane is even windier than by an American--that short A is long.

As you're probably wanting to tell me by now, breathy sibilance is hardly the point. That Borch uses her first name shows his familiarity, or his presumption of familiarity, because they once knew each other. "In the academy. We were in the same year," Lund explains to the kid in the back seat, and happily does not get a chance to answer his next question: "was he your boyfriend?" They're interrupted by the "mand" in question waking up in the passenger seat.

Distracted focus has always been a theme of the show--it is about an obsessive detective, after all--but none of her previous male partners have been as explicit or taken her obsessiveness so personally. She has always run off and disobeyed orders to pursue the investigation (or as her frustrated boss and partner might call it, her investigation), but here it has become a problem of fate. The kidnapper keeps setting up payoffs, asking specifically for Lund to make the exchange, and she keeps disobeying what the kidnapper and the police department tell her to do, which are almost the same at this point. When the exchange fails, it appears that the kidnapper may not have intended it to succeed. Brix always insists, because he is beholden to higher offices and regulations, that if Lund hadn't interfered, everything would have gone as planned. Lund insists that her derailing of the exchange was the best hope of being a step ahead of the kidnapper. The second time this happens, she rushes off to get a woman's testimony before it's too late, which it is, because the kidnapper kills her before Lund gets there. If he was trying to distract her by scheduling the exchange, he must not know her very well. On the other hand, it worked because she went along with it up until the last minute. It worked because she is part of the department, not a free agent. She gets briefly distracted by what to the department is the focus.

Borch accuses her of pulling the same last-minute stunts emotionally. "When it comes to emotions, you tend to run away." His comment alludes to the end of their previous relationship, but he's also trying to provide the emotional intelligence (like a gross Mulder, as we always knew he was) to her relationship with her son, Mark (who may also, unbeknownst to him, be genetically his son). It's hard not to notice the conflation of "your emotions" with him, Borch. More generally, her emotions are conflated with prescriptions. It's unfortunate that she and her son are not full of loving kindness for each other, I guess, but Borch has a (common) notion that because she ought to demonstrate more love, she therefore has it inside of her, she just needs to find it.

This notion is confronted again and again in her interactions with others, most awkwardly in speaking with Mark's girlfriend, Eva, who might be said to be "full" of sociable talk in the same way Sarah is "full" of feeling for her son. Eva is in fact pregnant, which is what distracts Lund from making the first exchange with the kidnapper (she glimpses Eva and Mark in the subway station). When Eva meets her, Eva tries to include her in enthusiastic talk about how the baby (her grandchild) kicks. She doesn't respond to this, though it instills a nervousness that plays out on her face throughout the conversation. They're mutually bewildered. Eva doesn't know how to be sociable with a woman who can't say the things one says, and Sarah doesn't know how to convincingly simulate the expected response, or, indeed how to be "Sarah." Both are responding to an anxiety of responsiveness. One lets loose a stream of verbiage; the other says almost nothing. The former not only provides all the material, but sets up a solipsistically hopeful world in which the other's lack of response means only that the shape demanded by her conversational material is present in the other but unexpressed. While this is very much what Borch is doing, too, he angers when Lund does not conform to his imagination, whereas Eva never outwardly acknowledges it. Her difficulty in staying within either of these two frames is one explanation of the antisocial behavior of which her difficulty is supposedly a symptom.

She comes to the hospital with Eva for an ultrasound, and Eva turns to her and says "I'm really glad you're here with me. You might just be doing it for Mark, but I'm really glad you're here." This may be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to her, while at the same time it expects her to be the person Eva is glad to have there. She smiles, weakly. Then, seeing the fetus on the ultrasound, goes out into the hall to cry.

Borch repeatedly chides her to focus, and ever since they slept together, he repeatedly tells her that "it meant something to me." This is an obvious vie for mirrored response ("oh yes, it meant something to me, too!"), but because it's a show of vulnerability, he thinks she's evading her emotions. His pushes for reciprocation eventually intensify to the point that he says "no, Sarah, I won't let you just run away again!" Which she responds to, or doesn't, by finding and going down the stairs into the basement of the warehouse they're checking out.

She goes down, and the girl they're searching for, Emilie, once had a habit of going up. Amid the show's process of dispersing evidence among its three dramatic arenas (the police, the politicians, and the family), Emilie's brother reveals to his mother that "when she got sick of hearing you and dad fighting, she went to the in-between room," which turns out to be the attic of her dad's mansion. An attic is less a room than an inevitable effect of a structure's roof and ceiling. Not to be inhabited, it is a necessary space mostly ignored by a house's inhabitants, designed to be outside the life layed out by the house's interior. In this context of a child escaping her parent's fights, "running away" takes on a valence of victimhood rather than frgidity. But what troubles Lund's talk and makes it impossible to respond to Borch seems in part to be the inevitability and limitedness of valences. Borch's wife comes to the police station to drop off her husband's stuff--"which I assume is your fault," she tells Lund. As the wife's fit of angry speech towards Lund builds, she stands there agitatedly not speaking. "What do you want from him?!" She has become a home wrecker. Frustrated, she says "I don't want any part of this," and walks off. Admittedly, it's even more troubling to be a something for a detective, for whom the world is ideally more detectable than the self.

In the eyes of everyone else, her investigation becomes distracted by an interest in what the kidnapper thinks he's avenging. Geographically, it takes the investigators all the way to what is apparently referred to as "peripheral Denmark" by Copenhagen politicians. The show itself forks into several distracting obsessions. The Prime Minister becomes distracted from his reelection campaign by an obsession with his dead son (for him Emilie is a proxy for this loss). Emilie's parents are obsessed with finding her, distracting the father from running the Zeeland corporation, and distracting the mother from her relationship with her boyfriend. Sarah Lund becomes obsessed with solving the murder of the kidnapper's daughter years ago. Which case is the distraction from the other is a matter of ideology. The police are predictably interested only in finding the kidnap victim and punishing the kidnapper. Lund's interest is, at least symbolically, in the cause of which the kidnapping is an effect.

Emilie's life is a token traded among politicians and their constituents. As well as the parallel to losing his son, the PM is interested in her fate because if she's not found alive before the election, people will blame him for it, lose faith in the government, and he'll lose. The country's feeling toward their government is invested in her: The police's competence in finding her reveals the government's decency, not its self-interest. What manifests as a sentimental issue is a political one. The PM finds himself on the negative side of this logic in the death of his son. When Lund and Borch question him about his son, they try to draw connections between his son's suicide and his trip to Jutland, where they suspect him of murdering the kidnapper's daughter. "No," he says, "they're not connected. He was depressed." His acceptance of his son's apparent feeling as the ultimate explanation ends up concealing the politics of his son's death, which was not suicide, but occurred because of a concealed effort to conceal the indicting evidence he saw while in Jutland. He is initially furious when he finds this out, but in the end, the PM accepts the lame explanation that his son died because of an accident--an explanation more meaningless than deceitful--and goes on politicking.

With similarly glazed eyes, the police has no interest in investigating the death of the kidnapper's daughter beyond appeasing him enough to lead them to Emilie. It would destroy, rather than bolster confidence. Because the murderer is the assistant of the CEO of a corporation that the the Danish economy is said to depend upon, uncovering him would be counterproductive in more than one sense.

The spectacular rescue of a female victim restores the government, the nation, the family, and the economy. The PM is no longer distracted from victory by his dead son, the nation is no longer distracted by the thought of sexual violence, Emilie's mother is no longer distracted by her problems with Emilie's father, and nobody is distracted anymore by the economically disastrous possibility of the Zeeland corporation leaving Denmark, nor by the coercion that such a union is bound by. In short, Emilie may now return to the attic.

As the kidnapper once did, the man who raped and murdered the kidnapper's daughter confidently dictates fate to Lund: he will never be held responsible. Lund kills him, gets on a plane, and leaves Denmark. Which is more than but also exactly what she has ever done--the most "distracted," the most "obsessive," the most "unfeeling" she has been, and the farthest she has "run."

18 January 2013

Across the Living Room and Other Distances

Why does anyone watch anything? Sometimes I really don't know why I do. I watched this youtube video demonstrating a program that creates moveable, resizeable previews of windows. He was watching "Family Guy," which is unerringly awful, but the way he put a preview of it in the corner of his screen while doing other things was like leaving the TV on in the room, which was appealing, somehow.

I sometimes don't watch what I'm watching. If I say that I don't remember what I watch, it doesn't mean that I wasn't watching. It might point to a particular kind of watching, which is lost to the memory. It could also mean that the kinds of things that count as "memory of" do not include the things I do remember. For example, I might not remember what I watched, but it might still have had an effect on me, which may or may not be a kind of memory.

The obscurity of what I remember watching is related to the obscurity of why I watch something. Off-hand I remember very little of The Lord of the Rings, and I remembered even less--plot, images, characters--when I wanted to rewatch those movies a year ago. I didn't care much about the lore, the languages, or the CGI battles. In fact, I had amnesia about all of that. I remembered the feeling--the sense of doom. True, this memory had images associated with it--driving to the movie theater in a winter rainstorm, and driving back in the fog, or the other way around, or neither. There was a lot of moonlight, I think. The remembered feeling also had something to do with the introduction. Maybe just Cate Blanchett's voice, or the tone of it.

Maybe I just wanted the movie to give me foreboding strings to make the dark still rather than its usual restlessness. I couldn't say, exactly, but the movie didn't have whatever I wanted. That was apparent early on, but I kept watching. The movie neared what I had imagined, and I waited for it to near it again, which it did. I was in a kind of orbit. I was disappointed, but sometimes very close to not disappointed. Which might be close to the feeling the movie approached--of things falling away, of a destination infinitely far away. But then, unfortunately, things would come into grasp, and that heroism of having acheived things would return. Comic relief would butt in. Swinging swords would connect. Things not already dead would get in the way.

And if "excitement" did not interdict?

12 January 2013

Peter Jackson at his most memorable

Reading(,) Faces

At the beginning of Temple Grandin, the eponymous addresses us to say that she isn't like other people--she thinks "in pictures." If thinking in pictures does not seem especially peculiar, the movie does not hold back in demonstrating. It does so with a kind of HUD of sketched diagrams animating over real objects, and by cutting to extradiegetic images--especially photographs and television and movie clips. One point of these brash cinematic maneuvers, I suppose, is that these are diegetic for her. Maybe I should be thankful that it did not treat her mind as a transcendental that may only be hinted at. It's also not strange that a filmmaker would display such gushing admiration for someone who thinks in pictures. It's not strange, though some would eroticize the strange rather than the familiar mind--a poet, a musician, a scientist, an idiot.

While pointing toward something grander than can be represented has been avoided, nonetheless, a kind of apotheosis occurs when montage tries to show all the images that run through her consciousness. There is a horse. It turns out she identifies with and loves large hoofed animals more than any human, projecting onto them all of her troubles and comforts. When this horse dies, she asks her closest friend (who happens to be her teacher) "where did it go?" He tells her that the dead live on in our memories. She proceeds to list all of her memories of the horse, which are pictures, which flash on the screen as rapidly as she speaks.

The movie seems to regard this as a supernatural ability. A french teacher asks her testily if she understood what she claims to have read by glancing down at the textbook page for a second. Grandin Glass brings up the image of the textbook page, and she reads aloud from it. There is one of those moments when the people in the movie see what the viewer has seen this whole time. The teacher and the rest of the class are agape.

For someone with such a capacious photographic memory, however, she reports difficulty interpreting images. For such a crassly representative film, its inadvertant representation of the filmic principle is exactly the opposite.

Her upbringing is a struggle between two mothers--­her mother who wants her to be normal, and her aunt who wants her to be happy. In frustration, she reports to her aunt that girls at school "say things like 'why are you so grumpy when I'm happy?' and I say 'but I'm happy!' and they say 'well you don't look happy' and they say 'can't you see I'm faking it? can't you see I'm sad?' I don't know what they're talkin about."

"What do you look like when you're happy?"

"Like this." She shows a blank face.

In response to this crisis of face-reading, her aunt gives her a pile of photographs of her face, which they use as flash cards. Her aunt tells her what emotion is on her face in each photo, and she writes it on the photo in permanent marker.

When the french teacher solicits her understanding, she responds with comprehension; rather than say what the passage says, she just says what the passage says. When the horse dies, she recalls all the images of the horse and reports what she sees, but says nothing of the horse. When she learns to read faces, she transposes one image (the name of the emotion, written in marker) onto another (the photograph of her face). This, I gather, is what is meant by thinking in pictures. But while its material might be peculiar, its referenciality is not. Reading faces is mundane and intuitive, but it depends upon referents. Grandin's autistic outsiderness to things usually taken for granted makes the character a screen on which to explore the philosophic anxieties of these automatic, learned fluencies. Can you tell if a face is faking? What is reading besides reciting the words on the page? Where do the dead go?

Of course, she's just as much used to tie these problems up neatly, sentimentally, and messily to the degree the solutions are neat: Yes Faces Contain Emotions That Can Be Read Right Off Them, The Dead Live On In Our Minds. (As for how reading does or does not become understanding, it's never addressed again, just hangs there.)

Despite not being able to interpret the nuances of others' faces, her face is transparent enough to compile the labelled photographic index of her expressions. This kind of transparency is what Claire Danes says she relies upon. In a recent interview she's asked

"Her face--your face--changes four or five times, smiling radiantly, and then she's frowning and anxious, and then she smiles again, and then she frowns again. It's happening so quickly. It's really impressive and I wonder did you consciously do that?"

"No, there's no way that I could be conscious of that. I focus on the intention of the character and whatever thoughts and feelings she's having, and they seem to kind of naturally communicate themselves on the face."

But for thoughts and feelings to naturally communicate themselves, she has to train herself. For her role as Carrie Mathison, she says she did a lot of ressearch--she watched "manic confessionals" on youtube. Only after consuming enough of these mannerisms, overlaying images upon images, does anything become natural. Implicitly she's denying that there is any theatricality in her reproductions of mannerisms. In the same interview she tells us how at an early age she didn't take a job acting in a soap, because "I didn't want to develop bad habits." Acting that relies on conventions to communicate emotion is second-grade for her, so she takes her material from non-actors. It's true that plenty of mannerisms do not make it to television, but I know my repertoire of mannerisms includes no small share of television characters.

Of course, Danes' mannerisms are as particular to her as they are to her sources, like speaking a second langauge with an accent. After long enough watching her--or anyone--her mannerisms begin to lose their import, and I'm back to a semblance of Grandin's assembled problem of assembly: what's behind a face?

6 January 2013

Les Miserables

I was kindly given a vegan chocolate cup filled with raspberry sorbet. The chocolate had cayenne and cinnamon, and the whole thing tasted of freezer burn--two interchangeable statements, both to be expected from self-conscious vegan food. But I did eat it. I even ate it when its provider wasn't in the room.

Still, it rankled. Couldn't I just enjoy something? I had just fled faces that fill the screen, contort with feeling like a lemon being squeezed of every drop, and never look into the camera, and the only semblance of release I can get is an equally misdirected dessert? That's the trouble with leaving--it just haunts you. I wouldn't say that I kept thinking about it. More that the anxiety of Hugh Jackman or Russel Crowe's imminent and unrelenting voices would not let up. It was as if I might turn around, and there in the corridor one of them would be, warbling and belting the least lyrical lyrics. "My name is Javert and you will not forget me," barks Crowe, looking somewhere in the sky, is his chest bulgy as ever but seemingly not in the service of his vocal chords. If they're not not-singing flat exposition, they're unloading hyperbolic sentiments to a contextless plane of full-frame faces. Faces faces faces faces. Cinema could be regarded as an elaborate apparatus to facilitate our fascination with faces, so there may be something primal in all this--perhaps that is why it is so hard to actually look at the screen, at the actors exerting themselves so very hard. But the medium cannot support this anti-slyness.

Where is the voyeurism? I sometimes make fun of serial TV dramas for making a convention of implication, but whatever--at least it's fun to feel as if you're putting things together. All of this transparency makes it impossible to see anything. If parties consisted of people being politely given their turn to tell us their deepest (read: simplest) convictions, and cry their eyes out if they like, there would be no intrigue to mitigate the abjection and discomfort of parties.

This is the second movie I've walked out of in the past month, and I've only seen three movies in the theater in that time. I'm beginning in to get paranoid. Can I handle movies anymore? They didn't used to be things I had to recover from. Bad movies are generally still enjoyable to watch at some level. They at least go down the gullet. Some apparently managed to get Killing Them Softly and Les Miserables down without choking. I wonder if I should bother going to the movies anymore.

4 January 2013

There and Not There

Loosely covered in foil, pale with months of freezer burn, there is a pan of pesto. Most of the space is filled with bags of peaches. I put in a bag of tamales a few days ago.

I have been known to leave parties without warning.

There is a paper shopping bag of fabric scraps and a rice cooker box filled with 35mm camera equipment. There is a dusty painting of an ideology long abandoned, its canvas canted atop large, empty 3-ring binders. There is a light grey jacket on a hanger. Its fabric crinkles.

The object of leaving a party is twofold: to be known for it, and to leave the party. It is to see the stars, and to be seen seeing the stars. The audience is not necessarily there.

What is there, however, is a whole salmon, two-years frozen, kept from smelling, guts kept in. There, too, is a user directory from a computer seven years dead. There are photos downloaded from the Internet. There is a game that may be played but is not. There is a drawer of discarded clothing. There is a box of butter wrappers for greasing pans.

When the party is left behind, it begins again. Events that were not events come under scrutiny. During the party, life outside the party comes alive. Outside, the party comes alive. Neither "outside" nor "alive" are the right words. Perhaps "below" and "up," because whether at or away from the party, there is always a mole.

There is a wooden tortilla press. To use it, plastic wrap must be put between the wood and the uncooked tortilla.

2 January 2013