In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?
On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.
One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.
This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.
“If we compare the generic city with the old city,” Lieven de Cauter writes, “one thing stands out: whereas the metropolis was the scene in which the masses appeared, the generic city is the place in which the masses leave the stage.”
Consider these screenshots from the tutorial mission in Gangs of London (PSP – 2006). Set in the terminal and cargo areas of an airport, the mission guides players through a set of lobbies, corridors, warehouses, and city streets, teaching them the basics of gameplay along the way. In the first portion of the mission, the player is ushered through the terminal’s check-in area. Designed to support a large volume of people carrying luggage, in Gangs of London the space is eerily still and devoid of visitors.
Expending limited system resources on NPCs in this scene didn’t make sense, but the empty spaces and peopled spaces in the airport and cargo areas reveal several insights on the role of public architecture, the place of workers, and crime in the game’s London cityscape. These insights offer tantalizing clues about how the game’s designers and players viewed public spaces and the city in the early 2000s.
People in Gangs of London’s airport are secondary to the existence of the space itself. The airport here is not a space designed to serve travelers, but an ideal setting, a stage upon which individuals perform scripted acts and gain, in return, a sort of empowerment that will enable them to proceed to other spaces later in the story. This is similar to the role these spaces play in Rem Koolhaas’s vision of the “generic city,” a city which is (according to Lieven de Cauter summary of Koolhaas) “without characteristics, the city as a blank product – like an airport, everywhere the same: a city without a centre, without identity and without history.” The airport in Gangs of London is an ideal setting for the realization of the capitalist subject: a place unhaunted by the specters of the past, a blank slate upon which the subject may project their own fantasies.
It is helpful for this space sterilized for the workings of capital that there are only a handful of workers inhabiting the labyrinthine passages and warehouses through which the airport’s fictional cargo passes. This cargo provides the backdrop of the player’s actualization. Passing through an empty hallway and locker room “backstage,” behind the terminal area, the player progresses into a storeroom manned by an armed guard. Encouraged to sneak up behind the oblivious guard, the player is instructed that they may either kill the wage worker or take him hostage. It doesn’t make sense to take the guard hostage, so the actor on the screen snaps his neck. The body conveniently disappears. In the next room, the player gains two accomplices, who mercilessly beat two wage-earning guards with baseball bats. In this space, workers and their demands are mere obstacles on the path to actualization.
After dispatching the working class, the player encounters the state. When a handcuffed gang member informs the crew that the police are aware of the mission’s objective–to steal an armored truck and finance the gang’s takeover of London–the player is encouraged to work together with the crew and eliminate the police. Two cruisers and a paddywagon full of officers arrive shortly thereafter. Easily dispatched, the bodies of these salaried state employees, and the burning hulks of the public vehicles in which they arrived, disappear in short order. The state is powerless and ineffectual, unable even to exercise its monopoly of violence–the only legitimate power left to it in the generic city.
The post-9/11 generic city in Gangs of London is the anti-Rock Candy Mountain. Criminal activity is the only sign of life. The masses have fled public space, the workers are objects, the state is ineffective. There are no planes at the airport, and the armored cars are un-armored. At least the destroyed bodies and objects disappear, helpfully, when they stop being useful.
This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.
“Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” — Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel”
Super Dodge Ball is an NES game in which the player takes control of an American dodgeball team and competes against other national teams on a journey around the world.* There is an English team–replace New York and the Statue of Liberty in the screenshot with London and the Tower Bridge–an Indian team, an Icelandic team, a Kenyan team, Team Japan, and, finally, a boss battle with Team USSR. You should watch the playthrough here if you want to see the game in action. Nintendo thought highly enough of the game to include it with the NES games on Nintendo Switch Online, which is where the screenshot comes from.
Odds are, if you played this game in 1989, you were familiar with Rocky IV, which debuted in 1985, and Top Gun, which came out a couple years later. You might have watched the 1988 Olympics, which were relatively drama-free following the political scrimmages surrounding the 1980 and 1984 games, but still drew huge audiences to a spectacle of nationalist competition. Maybe, inspired by the World Cup in 1990, you pulled the game down from the shelf to play through it again. That is something I would have done, substituting dodgeball for soccer to reenact the thrill of the television event. Maybe the looming Kremlin in the game’s final showdown flashed across your mind when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR along with it. Super Dodge Ball probably sat on your shelf when the United States invaded Iraq for the first time in 1991.
Rocky IV, Top Gun, the Olympics, the World Cup, Super Dodge Ball (and other games like it), the fall of the Soviet Union, Operation Desert Storm. These things appear disconnected, but they were woven together in an intricate pattern, disparate phenomena contributing to a noumenon of nationalist triumph in the eye of the American beholder.
Set against world-historical events like wars and political collapse, cultural products like films and video games seem to speak with an infinitesimally small voice in the historical record. We should reconsider this point of view. Because these events take place out there in real time and space, the vast majority of people experience them passively. Movies, games, recorded music, and other cultural products occupy personal time and space. We experience them actively and use them to think through events.
For most Americans, the Soviet Union collapsed on the news. Americans who played Super Dodge Ball contributed to this collapse in their minds when they played the game. Along the way, they internalized certain ideas about difference, about strength, agility, and development. Many of these ideas were expressed spatially. Players have inhabited these spaces for more than thirty years.
“You’re branded, branded, branded, branded.” – Tom Peters
The first function of signcraft is branding.
Our time, incidentally, is the era of The Brand. The era of The Brand coincides with the rise of the internet. Branding existed before the internet—of course—but as our lives are almost completely mediated by screens now the brands surround us, assaulting our senses and needling their way into our thoughts from every direction, every surface. Even our relationships are subject to capital-B Branding. In 1997, business guru Tom Peters wrote, “We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” When we use the same tools, employ the same postures, and undertake the same motions to join a work meeting, find a date, chat with our friends, or order a meal, however, “to be in business” is synonymous with “to be alive.” The Era of the Brand is the Era of Business All the Time.
We are encouraged, therefore, to cultivate a “personal brand” which we can use to manipulate our friends, partners, employers, clients, and associates. After all, “the greatest success stories inevitably involve people who stand out from the crowd.” A recent business book argues that we live in a “new world of new rules” where “mobile phones and digital technology give even average people the chance to build a brand around themselves.” To erect a sign is to mark the earth with a brand. Hence this blog.
If branding is the first function of signcraft, narrative is the first function of branding. This example, a pylon sign for “The Flats” apartment complex, illustrates one of the ways in which narrative might be put to use. Brands are rarely honest, and this one is no different. This sign obscures.
First, the sign itself. Its high-waisted sans-serif fonts evoke a sort of friendly modernism at the nexus of art deco and children’s storybooks, while the bright colors spanning the spectrum from warm to cool signify a vibrant and diverse community. The architectural elements in the logo—the stairs, window, and doorway beneath the implied rooflines of the lettering—bring to mind a close-knit urbanism, like the Painted Ladies of San Francisco or the immigrant communities of old New York. Putting it all together, this sign implies that the community behind the sign is both urban and urbane, warm, vibrant, and modern.
What is behind the sign?
The architectural values of The Flats do not align with the implied values of the sign out front. Far from warm, vibrant urbanism, this array of hotel-style lodging perched on stilts above a parking lot is housing as a utility. Building on top of the parking lot is a clever use of space, but it cedes pride of place—the very footing upon the earth we all need to feel secure—to residents’ vehicles. In a city built to serve vehicles instead of people, at least this apartment complex and others like it completely surrender the earth to the cars. There is honesty, at least.
If architecture is meant to empower humans and shape their spirit through beauty and excellence, why do we relegate students living through the most formative years of their lives to the most utilitarian housing? Built and furnished with spartan commodities, colored with low-quality paints in neutral colors, student housing suggests to its inhabitants that home is something they will enjoy later. Now is time for something else. Landlords and designers would say it doesn’t make sense to spend more on student housing. The students won’t care. Worse, they will probably just damage the building, the furniture, and everything else. This is probably true. I’ve heard of students literally charging through the walls in their apartments playing football. They draw on the walls, clog the toilets, burn holes and spill drinks on the furniture. But how much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, I wonder? Do students recognize that landlords, parents, and university administrators treat their housing like a utility and consume it accordingly?
Brands and their signs do important work to shape this complicated reality into a narrative. Student apartments here evoke fantasies of place and class—Tuscany Village, Villa Sienna, Chateau Deville, The Polos. Others evoke states of being—The Players’ Club, The Luxe, or, somewhat vaguely, Quantum. None of them match the stories they tell about themselves. This is what brands do because it is what humans do: name a thing, tell a story. But because these things are named and narrated to sell a product, and because the story these brands tell is meant to obscure the commodity relationship underlying one of the most fundamental part of a student’s life, the signs that tell those stories deserve critical attention.
In summary, The Flats is student housing. Its materials are bare commodities–vinyl siding and soffit, asphalt shingles, steel and concrete stairwells, steel piers—and the rich, vibrant colors on the sign are nowhere to be found. Beige, gray, off-white, and rust-red: this is American neutral, a building that withdraws from the eye and eludes memory. There are two ways to look at the reality behind the sign. On the one hand, it is a memory hole, a place that withdraws from mind and spirit so students can spend their time at home focused on other things. On the other hand, it is housing at minimum, a raw commodity meant to be rapidly consumed and forgotten, like a Big Mac or a rental car. Either way, reality belies the brand. The sign hides the thing signified. This sign is doing some heavy lifting.
This is the second entry in Signcraft, a series of posts looking at signs and the things they describe. You can read other Signcraft posts here.
Legend has it that Miami Vice was born when the President of NBC, whom I (unfairly and probably incorrectly) like to imagine deep in the throes of a head-spinning fugue state around 11:30 in the morning on day 3 of a coke binge in the summer of 1984, scrawled the words “MTV Cops” on a sheet of paper and pitched it to a producer. We can imagine a similar scenario playing out in 2016 or 2017. Some producer on a flight from Los Angeles to Shenzhen to make a superhero movie pitch jolts awake from a psychedelic jet lag dream, fumbles for his iPhone, head lightly spinning from a single Lime-a-Rita before the flight, and scrawls “The Departed with women” in the Notes app. The Kitchen is born, and I sit down to watch it on a Tuesday night many months later in a suburban multiplex on the edge of the woods in North Florida.
hard to talk about The Kitchen. I
think all of us gathered in the multiplex on Discount Tuesday this week were
extremely aware of the trail this
movie is trying to blaze. The stars are badasses, alright? They don’t take any
shit. They dominate every man in the film—with the exception of fathers and
Italians—and we all love that. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “this
gangster movie is good, but what if the wiseguys were women?” then this is probably the movie for you. I loved that part
of it. But if you value good films or human life, it probably isn’t the movie
for you. Let’s talk about that.
life and death. Like Stuber, which I
talked about on Discount Tuesday a few weeks ago, The Kitchen kills with impunity. People die in this movie and
nobody really cares. Heads are blown open; dead people are dragged on the
sidewalk; bodies are dismembered and dumped in the Hudson River. Spoiler alert:
Haddish and McCarthy sniffle for a moment when they kill their husbands, but
the audience is discouraged from joining in these brief moments of quiet.
Watching these badass women rampage is just too fun, I guess, for the filmmaker
or the audience to go and turn the killers and the victims into humans. That
would require empathy, right, and who wants to bother with that on Discount
Tuesday in the summertime?
The Kitchen’s failures as an example of filmmaking art follow, in part, from all of this sexy dehumanization. If films are meant to shed some light on the human experience, death should do something. Take the gangster movies that this movie clearly wants to emulate. In The Godfather, benefiting from death makes Michael Corleone into a monster. Each killing in the film’s pivotal seizure-of-power sequence severs him from his humanity and isolates him from his family until, finally, a closing door figuratively seals him within his own personal hell. In Casino, death is a grotesque ritual which so scars the fantasy landscape that the killers operate in the depths of the desert. Death is a reminder of the cruel masters back east, and a consequence of flying too high. Goodfellas treats death like a cruel joke, but the audience clearly understands that Ray Liotta’s character is both hero and heavy. He’s a ghoul.
You may be wondering: what if all of the people who die in The Kitchen are bad guys? Does that make it OK, like Inglourious Basterds or revenge movies? It might, except The Kitchen isn’t about revenge or redemption, and the bad guys aren’t Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The “heroes” in this film kill the “villains” in order to become the villains. With the exception of one rapist—killed by a male savior/mentor instead of one of the badass women, it’s worth pointing out, as though some villains are still too formidable for women to handle—we don’t know anything about the small-time gangsters who die in this film except that they’re standing in the way of the “heroes” racing to reach rock bottom. There is a moment near the end of the film—in the nadir of the “dark night of the soul” every screenwriting manual will instruct budding artistes to include in the script—when Melissa McCarthy says that she’s built something too great to give up. I was left wondering: does she mean the criminal enterprise the hero-villains built from theft, rackets, blood, and graft; or just the relationships they made along the way?
It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about its moral and historical counterpoint: J.C. Chandor’s 2014 masterwork, A Most Violent Year. That film takes place just three years later and engages the late-seventies underworld this movie glorifies. It has everything this movie has: crooks, a gritty, desaturated New York cityscape, gangsters, a badass woman, even Hasidim. But instead of cruel, half-baked stereotypes, these are real people, living in a real place. Instead of racing to the bottom like the soulless heroines of The Kitchen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain struggle to do the right thing in a world that rewards badness. If Donald Trump is the Bizarro Obama, an inverse agent whose entire political program is built on undoing his predecessor’s legacy, The Kitchen is the Bizarro Violent Year. Its nihilism betrays the talents of the performers and craftspeople who brought it to life.
It is a statistical inevitability that someone, in a few months time when it comes out on streaming and DVD, will sit on their couch and knit a cute little hat while they watch Kumail Nanjiani’s new buddy-slash-cop-slash-odd couple comedy blockbuster Stuber. And you know what? That’ll be OK. They’ll have a great time, because it’s a funny movie. The chemistry between Nanjiani and co-star Dave Bautista is great. The timing is pitch perfect. The script is decent. I laughed a lot and I am responsible for at least one loud snort in an otherwise respectable darkened room. You should watch it. But I hope we are reaching a point in America where it will be just a little weird to knit and scroll through instagram and eat pizza rolls on the couch while this movie is on the TV, because it involves a lotof shooting. Like, a lot of gunfire. Are we still OK with this? It’s time to check in with one another.
People die in this movie. They die hard, painful, terrifying deaths involving acute shock and the extreme loss of blood–which is what happens when a person is shot in the lungs, legs, shoulders, heart, head, stomach, liver, and so on. We don’t see it in the movies, but we should know by now that most of the time people who are shot take a long time to die. They gasp and struggle. If they haven’t passed out from the shock, they moan and cry and try to cling to life. They shit in their clothes. They frequently gurgle from blood in the throat. It’s fucking terrible. No one who witnesses it can ever leave it behind, and it happens a lot in this movie.
Our movies, even the cute buddy comedies with a happy ending, continue to pass right over the hard reality of death by gunshot. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of humans–people who took their first steps, who enjoyed cookies and cakes, who scratched dogs behind the ears, who cried and loved and listened to music, even if they were bad people–die horrible deaths in pictures, and we rarely give them a second thought as the bodies pile up on the screen. They just fall dead, and the story moves on. But as we deal with the increasingly heavy toll of gun violence in the United States, it’s clearer than ever before that it’s not that easy. The dead will always be part of the story. This is why we have ghost stories. To quote the title of another recent film, the dead don’t die. They haunt us. They haunt their killers. They leave people behind. There’s no such thing as a completely happy ending if people had to die to get there.
To its credit, Stuber at least tries to deal with this. Nanjiani’s character, Stu, is never really OK with violence. He cries and vomits; he screams after a gunfight. But the basic premise of the movie is this: he needs to toughen up, while his hard-boiled counterpart, Victor, needs to soften up. They go through an extremely difficult situation together, and at the end both of them have grown. After a six-hour ordeal, Stu–who, spoiler alert, ends up shot in the shoulder–has overcome his insecurities and learned to be clear with others about what he wants from life. Victor–who also, you guessed it, has been shot in the shoulder by the end of the night–has learned to show some affection to the people he cares about. Stu gets a girl. Victor gets a dog. It’s not clear who cleans up the bodies or which funerals Stu and Victor will attend, but everyone is happy.
So, then, is Stuber trying to tell us that it’s OK for people to die horrible, bleeding deaths if the people who survive get to be a little more self-actualized in the end? Probably not. But while we struggle, as ever, with the horrible toll of gun violence, it should be weird that we could walk away from the movie with that interpretation. It felt weird to me. It should be weird that we can sit on the couch and knit a cute little hat while people die on the screen, over and over again, and it doesn’t really matter. Shouldn’t it? Are we OK yet?