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Crap Crap, Glorious Crap

There’s a thoughtful post in the Barrelhouse blog abt the movie “Four Christmases” and making fiction “happen.” I think this is a great reflection on the kind of fiction that aims to conceal its scaffolding,  realism that seeks verisimilitude.

I like this kind of writing. I also like writing aware of its own artifice.

And I enjoyed the movie “Four Christmases” a lot more than I expected. Barrelhouse’s Mike is correct — its characters never fully emerge as characters, but would Reese Witherspoon  lifting small children and flinging them against the walls of a jumping castle have been as entertaining if I hadn’t been thinking, “Holy shit! Reese Witherspoon is throwing kids!” ?? …Possibly not.

I like cultural products aware of their own artifice, both the artful (see link to Artifice Magazine above) and the horrific and craptastic, which I enjoy for their pure spectacle.

I recently consumed the movie “Valentine’s Day,” a hot, delicious mess of a movie, and experienced great joy consuming it. I like this recent crop of ensemble romantic comedies. They eschew things like character development, depth, emotional complexity, etc, opting instead to proceed at a rapid pace from one manipulative moment to the next, leaving the viewer in a state of constant, pitched, overwrought emotion. Kinda like rom-com porn or cocaine or something. Reviewers keep comparing “Valentine’s Day” to a box of cheap drugstore chocolates, which is actually totally appropriate, because — you know that brief euphoric sensation you feel after snorting a convenience store doughnut? That’s totally “Valentine’s Day.”

These ensemble rom-coms are not movies so much as meta-movies, and their characters are not characters but dolls. I imagine writing their scripts must be like playing with dolls: You be the Patrick Dempsey doll. I’ll be the Jessica Alba doll. Which doll has the prettiest hair? I want to be that doll when I grow up. But what should she wear? These movies have absurdly stacked casts because familiar faces (and bodies — see: Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner) serve as substitutes for content. We see Julia Roberts’ or Taylor Swift’s face and project a ton of our own scripts and fantasies onto each.

Are these movies truly self-aware? Can crap be self-aware? I think so. We’ve got Shirley McClaine posing in front of  her own image from a classic film while she makes out with Hector Elizondo. We’ve got Taylor Lautner’s character saying he’s uncomfortable taking off his shirt. We’ve got Julia Roberts in the outtakes, riding in a limousine down Rodeo Drive and cracking jokes about how she “used to shop there.”

Because “Valentine’s Day” is a shallow film about a bunch of people from Los Angeles whose lives are woven together by a contrived network of relationships and events, several critics have compared it to Paul Haggis’s Crash.

Another recent and glorious crapfest directed by Haggis is the music video for the new recording of “We are the World,” updated to benefit survivors of the crisis in Haiti.

Remember how the original “We are the World,” recorded in 1985 for African famine relief, was epic schlock? (My grandparents had this hilarious “making of” video abt “We are the World,” hosted by Jane Fonda, and I used to watch it whenever I visited them. I was obsessed with Cyndi Lauper’s hair). But remember how despite the weird assemblage of voices (everybody from Huey Lewis to Dionne Warwick), that shit still cohered into a single type of schlock, a very mid-80’s adult contemporary-type schlock? Not so with the update. In the Haiti version, about 20 different varieties of schlock are competing for attention, resulting in horrific dissonance. D-listers singing alongside icons. Babs juxtaposed with the autotune R & B-sters. Janet Jackson looking creepy alongside her dead brother. All sloppily intercut with footage from the crisis in Haiti. I can’t get enough of it. It must be seen to be believed:

10 thoughts on “Crap Crap, Glorious Crap

  1. I’m too emotional vulnerable to watch that video, but I like the doll metaphor. That seems spot on. Business, business, business is everything.

    It seems when the self-awareness starts, ie movies referring to other movies explicitly, like the McClaine scene, there is some real trouble. Is the audience supposed to feel good (or rather smart) that they recognize the in-joke of the reference? Is it a ploy to gain sympathy?

    When Robert Altman did it in the Player, it was different because the actors were acting as themselves. Burt Reynolds calls a film critic an ‘asshole’ when he walks away from his table. That to me is Burt Reynolds or at least how I think Burt Reynolds would act. There is no ploy.

  2. Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp'” is more useful now than ever, because camp is in ascendance in our culture. It has become a dominant mode of making and experiencing art:



    Two of the notes:

    10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

    11. Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of “man” and “woman,” “person” and “thing.”) But all style, that is, artifice, is, ultimately, epicene. Life is not stylish. Neither is nature.

    1. Thanks, Adam.

      I will read this. I probably should have done so a long time ago, I know it’s a seminal piece. (I’ve also never read “Against Interpretation,” I am uncouth and uncultured… I have read some of the one abt images of violence).

      My undergrad Queer Theory professor referenced Notes on Camp but we did not read it directly.

      What I remember her paraphrasing is the notion of camp as a queer reading of popular culture, and that “camp” becomes “kitsch” when it enters the mainstream and is depoliticized, and that this is sort-of a constant, cyclical process.

      Then we watched a video of Dusty Springfield singing in a big orange wig.

      I think that particular professor was constantly looking for excuses for us to savor a little Dusty.

        1. This part seems most relevant to my post:

          “What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.”

          …I think maybe these are the parts my professor was trying to interpret?? –

          “Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”


          “Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the Tishman Building aren’t Camp.”

          …I think she also pulled into the queer theory context some of the parts of this where Sontag talks abt androgyny and exaggerated expressions of femininity and masculinity.

          …Something I do not see stated directly here, but that I somehow absorbed elsewhere, is this notion that camp and Queerness are linked through camp’s celebration and valuing of the meaningless and unproductive as Queers are cast as unproductive in a capitalist/patriarchal system of production/reproduction.

            1. …As far as camp being on the ascendancy in our culture–

              I think this notion of taking the frivolous very seriously and treating the serious frivolously is a fairly accurate description of figures like Gaga or Glambert.

              As for a film like Valentine’s Day, or the We are the World redux, I don’t think the serious is necessarily made frivolous — or if it is, it is happening either unconsciously (like the unconscious, fully earnest camp Sontag outlines earlier in the essay), or through my own camp reading. I think Gary Marshall, director of Valentine’s Day, is promoting an ideal of romantic love that though ultimately hollow, commercialized and commodified since the Victorians, he still believes to be an elevated, transcendent, essential virtue in heavily moralistic terms, more in keeping with the first of the three artistic sensibilities Sontag outlines — his belief system is evident, for instance, in his characterization of the teenagers who nobly choose to abstain from sexual intercourse. …Then the way the folks behind We Are the World believe they are accomplishing moral good or tapping into some essential bladah bladah of humanity is perhaps more obvious.

        2. Ha! Yeah—it’s really just a passage from TRIPTICKS! Good call!

          When are we going to have Ann Quin week? Her voice calls out to us from beyond the grave… We are all her children…

          1. “Obviously anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms or exterior or none at all.”

            I need to finish it! I’m a little over halfway.

            I was thinking I was going to read de Sade (100 Days of Sodom) or Markson (Wittgenstein’s Mistress) next, but I might need to take a break first.

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