Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

After some cajoling, a little bit of lying, and overcoming my natural aversion to things that are recommended to me by others, I finally read  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Having conquered Gravity’s Rainbow under extreme duress last year, Wallace’s ginormous tome seemed the natural step.  It’s spectacular, it’s amazing; the Decemberists based a music video on one of the scenes! Well, it is pretty big.  And a lot does happen, not all of it coherent.  But I am of two minds on this one.

Wallace certainly had a deft touch and was capable of making even banal events seem fascinating.  He dedicates huge swaths of the book to characters that never appear again, or only have a slight effect on the plot.  Whole scenes and subplots are introduced only to be summarily dismissed.  Figures who seem initially under drawn come back 500 pages later and the reader who has managed to pay attention feels somewhat rewarded for her efforts.  I am incapable, however, of not comparing this book to the other great post-modernist novels; i.e. to Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, even American Psycho.  And what I conclude, the more I consider it, is not that Wallace is a bad writer (he’s not) nor that he’s overrated (he isn’t) but rather … well … it’s been done.

I don’t mean that anyone else has ever attempted to write a 1000 page book involving a tennis academy, a dead filmmaker, and a halfway house, among others; I mean that Wallace’s whole project simply smacks of overwriting.  I was about 150 pages into it when I suddenly realized that either this was the most brilliant book ever ever, or it was needlessly verbose.  Long-winded, if you will.  I happen to love ridiculously long books — I figure that I’m getting my money’s worth.  And I enjoy getting involved in the ups and downs of characters over several hundred pages.  If a book is good, how much better to get to spend lots of time on it? I’ve read almost all of Charles Dickens for that very reason.

My problem with Wallace is that I’m not convinced he’s as good as he’s supposed to be.  For all its circuitous nature, Infinite Jest is still a pretty standard, easy-to-follow book.  It does not take you on a roundabout journey through the contemporary moment — in fact, it’s already quite dated.  The technology has stopped in the early nineties, when the book was written, although it is set in the future.  The extensive examination of drugs and drug usage has been done so much, in movies, books and articles, that it feels quite tired.  And that is perhaps why, for me, the book ultimately fails to rise up to the status of a great work of literature.  Gravity’s Rainbow is set in WWII and was published in 1973, but it still resonates.  It’s a novel of apocalypse, of human folly and deconstruction.  It is long and confusing and packed with references real and imagined.  Love it or hate it, it is still a mindfuck.

I would not argue that a book has to be complex or almost impossible to comprehend in order to be great.  But I do think it has to transcend its time period.  Novels I consider great (War and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow, Bleak House, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Confederacy of Dunces, Slaughter-House 5, to name a few) are all of their times, but they ultimately move past their times.  They do not merely attempt to define a moment or a generation — in fact, they do not seem to make it their project to define anything.  They are novels of humanity, stories that strike to the heart of what it means to a human being and do so with humor, tragedy, pathos, cynicism.  I felt curiously disconnected from Infinite Jest.  I admired the writing, but I did not feel connected to it.  It was being told a story that no longer felt relevant.

I don’t really want to set up any author as more worthy of admiration than Wallace … but I’m going to anyways.  Tristan Egolf is from the same generation, and operated in much the same milieu (and like Wallace, he committed suicide).  But to me there is more depth to the few books he completed than in all 1000 pages of Infinite Jest.  He’s unique; his characters are Amish werewolves and punk-addled teenagers with shotguns.  Lord of the Barnyard has no dialogue; Kornwolf occupies a lot of space in describing the experience of listening to punk music.  The novels are edgy, insane grotesqueries, breaking most conventions and totally annihilating others.  The author, like his characters, simply does not give a fuck.  Egolf writes like the end of the world is near.  And the only thing to do is to go out in a blaze of adrenaline-fueled glory.  I must admit, that’s something I can get behind.

Anyways, here’s a music video:

Within the first five minutes of the new Scream movie, I was giggling uncontrollably.  Ensconced in my seat at the front of the theatre next to a whole row of twenty-somethings, my little cinephiliac mind flooded with endorphins.  I felt positively giddy.  Because the Scream franchise is among the cleverest out there, a self-aware product trading at once in parody and real slasher film aesthetics.  And Scream 4 (or Scre4m, apparently) goes to a place that the others only hinted at.  In a phrase, it goes beyond postmodernity.

In some ways, admittedly, the slasher film has run its course.  The knife-wielding psychopath isn’t really all that scary–the first Scream traded more on references and pastiche than in real scare tactics.  The Millennium did not require motives, but today horror films are  faced with a public that is not easily shocked or frightened.  Your typical Western audiences are so accustomed to the tortured terrors of the Saw Franchise, Hostel I and II, and the whole bevy of torture porn that ups the ante for pure shock with every new installment that a dude in a mask with a knife just does not provide serious shocks.  The Scream movies depend on an audience aware of the so-called rules so sharply laid out in the first installment: virgins survive, sex, drugs and alcohol kills, the blonde always dies, the multiple red-herrings, and that all-important final scare when you think it’s all over.  How then to cope with an audience that struggles to be shocked?

Well, the answer is simple.  Don’t shock them.  Entertain them.  What Craven is good at–has always been good at–is providing the jump factor, the pure enjoyment of waiting for the inevitable bloodbath, of betting on who will survive to the final act, who could be the killer, and what that final twist will be.  The darkness of the subject is lightened by the fact that it’s all a joke, a massive prank that the audience is in on.  For all the blood and guts, it’s still funny and we’re meant to laugh at it.

Scre4m merrily acknowledges the changes in technology that the other films did not have to address.  There are cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, iPods and iPhone apps, digital cameras, live streaming and web cams.  There are hyper-aware film geeks to lay out the rules–namely, that all the rules have changed–and to subsequently comment on them.  There are films within films, references to reboots and remakes, the veneration of the original, a whole pop cultural world the audience can recognize, relate to, be versed in.  There’s also an edge of commentary, amid the gleeful mayhem.  Cults of celebrity and the public lives of every individual are fixed securely in the viewfinder, right before the knife tears out their innards.  The film recreates the genre for the generation raised in the Millennium, a group able to surf the waves of metanarrative without ever stopping to have it explained.

Which brings me, finally, to my criticism of the critics.  I’ve already read several reviews of Scre4m that claim, among other things, that the film is for a generation afraid to be frightened.  Yes, it is addressed to us, the smart-asses, the hipsterish masses so aware of our hyper-reality that we seem incapable of existing offline or disconnected.  While the high schoolers of the original went to Blockbuster, we buy DVDs and mp4s, download music and hold four way conversations over multiple cell phones.  But we’re not afraid to be frightened.  We’re frightened all the time.  We’ve been told, for years now, that there are a million things to be afraid of, and the media, the government, Mom and Dad and the whole consumer culture trades on our fear.  Can you blame us if the psychokiller in a ghost mask doesn’t quite scare us? That we laugh rather than cringe at the obviously fake entrails or the crushing of bones? Or that we take open and obvious pleasure in the flaunting of the rules of horror that the makers of Scream themselves created? In the face of such overweaning terror, we either despair…or we laugh.  It seems to me that this generation has chosen laughter.

Nearing the end of the film, one character expresses to another:

“Wow.  That’s just so meta.”

“What?”

“I dunno.  Something I heard the kids say.”

We’ve gone round the bend, past meta, past postmodern, into an unknown land the critics have no word for.  Welcome to the Millennium.  Motives are incidental.