Friday, 28 June 2013

What Genres Mean [Index Post]

I've written enough about different genres and how their form impacts meaning that I think I should make an index post bringing them together and sorting them. There might be some doubling up, since one post might fit into multiple groups. ("Other People's Epics," in particular, ends one sequence and begins another.) Pretty much all of these can be found through the "genre and form" or the "poetic form" labels, but those labels also retrieve lots of other things, so I hope this is useful in its organization and specificity.

Other People's [Insert Genre]s Series
In which I talk about how genres alter their content and what this means for choosing the best genre as a vehicle for an idea. In which I also talk about imagining other people's epics, mysteries, etc.
Other People's Epics
Other People's Mysteries
Other People's [Insert Genre]s

National Epics
In which my thinking about potential national epics, particularly an epic for Soviet Canuckistan, evolves somewhat.
7 Quick Takes (XLVIII)
The Canadian Epic
Other People's Epics

The Fantasy Genre
In which I think about problems unique to the fantasy genre.
Magic Realism and the Trick of Taxonomy
Magic, Maps, and Mystery

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom, Parts I and II, which I considered putting under both National Epics and The Fantasy Genre, and in which I talk about how Cyberlore's Majesty 2 both does and does not tell a compelling story about the creation of a hybrid monster culture
As For Me and My House, in which I talk about the self-account genre, a la Judith Butler, in relation to the coming-out narrative, the testimony, and self-disclosure of mental illness.
This Exploitation Might Not Be the Kind You're Thinking of, in which I talk about exploitation flicks and group identities.
A New Poetic Form, in which I make up a form called an aubadina, which is really just a messed-up sonnet, designed specifically to express the parting of ways.

I will update this as I write more posts like these.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

This Exploitation Might Not Be the Kind You're Thinking of

National Identity and a Pageantry of Stereotypes

When discussing his motivation for making the movie Desperado (2010), director Robert Rodriguez said he was interested in giving people a similar experience to one he had watching John Woo's The Killer:
Rodriguez says that when he got to Hollywood to make Desperado he wasn't trying to make a Latin film but a film that was entertaining just like when he saw John Woo's, The Killer and he thought, "Damn I want to be Chinese." With Desperado he liked the idea of people watching it, who would say, "Wow I want to be Mexican." [sic] (source)
Recently I've been thinking about the relationship between identity/community and the sort of quilt of stereotypes that define exploitation flicks like Rodriguez's later Mexploitation flick Machete (2010), as Rodriguez's quote exemplifies.

(I'm drawing my knowledge of exploitation flicks from these sources: Wikipedia's page on the genre; TVTropes's page on the genre; my own viewings of Coffy (1973), Undercover Brother (2002) (which is really am affectionate parody of Blaxploitation rather than an example of it, despite the fact that Blaxploitation was self-parodying from the outset), Kill Bill I & II (2003, 2004), the Grindhouse movies Planet Terror and Deathproof (2007), and Machete; and conversations with friends on these and other exploitation flicks. Take my interpretations with the grain of salt designed for opinions based on insufficient evidence.)

Exploitation flicks are often described as containing some kind of exploitation (a gimmick to draw in audiences) rather than high-quality plot, acting, or cinematography, but since things like action sequences, romance, horror, and comedy count as exploitation, this definition reduces the term to something as vague and unhelpful as "genre movie." Sometimes definitions insist that two particular exploitations--graphic violence and nudity--must be present, which does narrow the definition considerably but still includes everything shown on HBO (Game of Thrones, I'm looking at you). To narrow the definition so that it actually approaches common use, I would say that an exploitation flick must 1. use at least one of graphic violence and nudity/explicit sex to draw audiences; 2. promise some other material that will play on specific conventions and/or stereotypes and violates a contemporary taboo, such as religion/sacrilege, racism/racial identity, Nazism, or cannibalism; and 3. be notably or seemingly low-budget (though not necessarily poor quality). Often the element in the second qualification places the film in a particular subgenre: among the subgenres, Blaxploitation (which draws heavily on stereotypes of and societal problems for black Americans), nunsploitation (which often shows nuns exhibiting sexual behaviour we don't expect of nuns), and kung-fu movies are perhaps the most well known.

Exploitation flicks tend to incorporate as many stereotypes and associations connected with their chosen theme as they possibly can. For instance, Machete, which I will use as my example throughout, is mainly about illegally-immigrated Mexican Americans ("We didn't cross the border; the border crossed us!") and it has redneck border patrols, cockroaches, taco stands, semi-mythical revolutionaries, high Catholicism, street fighting rings, chop-shops and pimped-out cars, corrupt Federales, bandannas, and people brandishing rickshaws, hoes, and shovels. Plot devices include Mexican immigrants using publicly subsidized health care, Mexican characters getting construction work, Mexican characters infiltrating houses by doing yard work ("You ever notice how you let a Mexican into your house just because he's got gardening tools?"), and American-raised Mexican-Americans struggling to balance American and Mexican identities. It is almost as though the script writers made a list of all possible stereotypes that Americans have of Mexicans, strung them into some kind of order, and wrote a plot around that. Most of these stereotypes are presented as blatantly as possible. Subtlety is not highly valued.

Given the genre's focus, exploitation flicks usually privilege a pageantry of associations over the linear logic of tight plot. There is something carnivalesque and anti-systematic about them (though, of course, it is not necessarily the case that they don't have some kind of deep order). Part of this might come from the fact that the exploitation flick's very name implies an emphasis on immediate experience--pleasure, outrage, shock, tittilation, excitement--over a more considered or analytic engagement. It assumes that an exuberant display of taboo topics will be pleasurable to its intended audience, perhaps in part because of the imagined or documented outrage of a putatively unintended audience of social censors (but of course this unintended audience is really intended if their outrage is a real source of pleasure). However, there's something more to this than just the pageantry and the pleasure of taboo. These films use the play of stereotype and the overabundance of flavour to explore, if not always articulate, a certain kind of collective identity. In my flagship example, Machete, this is especially obvious; Rodriguez has said that he wanted to make his national/ethnic identity attractive, so Machete must display something that is recognizably Mexican, even if Mexican-ness is not clearly articulated in the film. (Of course it couldn't be; it, like any national identity, is imaginary.)

This leaves me with five directions for further questioning.

1. There must be a considerable difference between an emic (insider's perspective) and an etic (outsider's perspective) exploitation flick. Were Machete an etic film rather than an emic film, we would be quite right to consider it an act of appropriation at best, derogatory patronizing at worst. As much as I'm tempted to subscribe to the death of the author, it is clear that an author-figure (or author function) of some kind is still hugely important to an interpretation of a text. If an exploitation flick plays with the identity of a community, how much changes depending on whose community it is?

2. Exploitation flicks play on a confusion of identity or affiliation as well as an exuberant expression of one. I am not Mexican; it is unclear what affiliation I am supposed to have with this film (or it would be if Rodriguez hadn't helpfully told us that we're supposed to want to be Mexican). In etic exploitation films, we're often encouraged not to affiliate with the thematic group; from what I can tell, hixploitation films do not want you to want to be a hick. But more often than not it's unclear: what does Coffy think of race in America? The associative rather than linear focus makes it hard to pin down.

3. Identity must be somehow related to association. I might want to say that my identity as an academic, for instance, is based on a set of values or a set of practices, but if you were to make a gradsploitation flick the salient features would be much less logically coherent ones: all-nighters, useless erudition, endless arguments, grading papers, probably some seductive co-eds (which have nothing to do with my life as a grad student but would be conventional in such a film), etc. Is this a good way of imagining identity, "good" meaning either "accurate" or "admirable"? What does this tell us about how to strengthen our communities? Or does it say something very bad about the communities in question? Is it just a clumsy genre? Of course we should remember that in the case of things like Blaxploitation and Mexploitation, which focus on minority communities, there's a jocular reclaiming element to the stereotyping. The pleasure may come from claiming certain identifiers that were thrust upon them. These films might be excellent examples of the post-modern sense of irony, in that they balance self-conscious parody with sincerity.

4. If an exploitation film is the vehicle for making Mexican identity desirable, this might suggest that violence and nudity make identities desirable, which I find disconcerting. There's a lot in our culture to suggest this is true, but it's worth thinking about why. There are some obvious answers: violence implies that the protagonists are strong and capable while sexuality implies that the protagonists are desired by those who are desirable and desire those who are desirable (and thus have ideal normative sexualities). I'm sure this has something to do with masculinity et al., which makes me suspicious. But I'm also suspicious of those who would ban exploitation flicks as a prudish reaction to violence and nudity/sex; I suspect that filmmakers can use both exploitations to make intelligent and valuable commentaries, even if they have not ordinarily done so.

5. This is probably a coincidence, but to what extent does the term exploitation, which as an industry term does not refer to oppressive practices, relate to exploitation in the sense of oppressive practices? Exploitation in the latter sense has played a role in the history of black Americans, Mexican Americans, etc.; it might be argued that the nudity in these films is an exploitation of women; the violence in these films might reflect the violence needed to enforce the exploitation of oppressed populations. It is probably a coincidence, but it does seem a terrible irony that the method by which filmmakers "exploit" an audience entails or reflects the presumed audience's own exploitative practices. (It also gives a certain linguistic legitimacy to the Marxploitation flick, a genre I made up.)

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Hope, Remoras, and The Homeward Bounders

A Note on Depression?

In my previous post "Splitting Planarians: Incomplete Thoughts on Theodicy (and Complete Ones on Certain Flatworms)," when I'm not geeking out about natural history, I complain a bit about that week's lectionary readings. "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings," Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, "knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." I was complaining about the suffering part of that verse, but I also want to complain about the hope part. Specifically, the bit where hope doesn't disappoint seems a little off to me, if by "a little off" we mean "lies from start to finish." Hope is fine-tuned for disappointment.

I have a troubled history with hope (link and link), but I haven't written on that recently. Depression is a wonderful reason to bring that old issue out again: do I hope that I will eventually be free of this major depressive episode? do I hope that I will eventually be free of mood disorders altogether? The former is likely; the latter is not so likely. I've also been struggling with the more immediate problem of my unemployment. If I do not get a job in Vancouver, I will be moving to Alberta for the summer to work there. It's not that I dislike Alberta, but I would far prefer to remain in Vancouver. Hoping for a job when I knew that I wasn't likely to get one in Vancouver's unforgiving job market was an almost physically painful experience. I felt like it would almost be better to give up on getting a job entirely, even though my self-imposed deadline was only nigh, not here. And yet I wanted a job in Vancouver, and had applied to so many promising-looking places, that I felt hope anyway, despite my better judgement.* (As of writing, the deadline has passed and I am still unemployed, so I will be leaving for Alberta soon.)

The good news is that I suddenly understood Diana Wynne Jones's The Homeward Bounders a few weeks after reading it. SPOILERS One of the underlying fantasy mechanics in that novel is that hope drains the reality from the world you inhabit: by projecting your efforts into a world you cannot access, you make your current location unreal. /SPOILERS "Hope is an anchor," says Ahasuerus, and he doesn't mean that it stabilizes you but that it impedes you.** Jones is right. Hope can drain the present of reality: when I was desperately hoping for a job I did not have, I was ignoring my present situation and, for that matter, not preparing for my probable future. And I'm sure most of us know people who use hope to delegitimize our current hardships; maybe the future will be better, but I need to know how to handle my suffering now. (Jamie, the protagonist, encounters Prometheus chained to a rock and wants to ask how Prometheus could have survived his torment, but doesn't ask because he already knows the answer: he had to.)

So is Paul completely wrong? I'm sure he's not, because he's talking about a particular hope (albeit one that hasn't paid many dividends for me quite yet), but we must be careful with this hope thing. I would like to not be disappointed by hope and I would like to know the love poured into our hearts, but so far I have no experience of any of that. I will let you know if I figure anything else out, and please let me know if you have any non-platitudes to say about it.

Also, I would like to direct you to Nadia Bolz Weber's post on the same verse.

*Did you know that there is a word for acting against your better judgement? It's acrasia. Thanks, ancient Greece, for another useful word! Now if only you hadn't advocated misogyny and slavery.
**I think a better metaphor would be the kind of fish that is called a remora. Sometimes known as sharksuckers, whalesuckers, or suckerfish, they latch onto sharks and whales and, sometimes, boats. It is called a remora, which means delay or hindrance in Latin, because Pliny believed that enough remoras attached to a ship would slow it down or even hold it fast. This isn't true, but the name has stuck onto the fish about as much as the fish sticks onto sharks. (It is thanks to Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings that I learn this etymology.) Remoras are commensalists rather than parasites. (The kind of commensalism they practice is phoresy). It is at that point that the metaphor breaks down, because I don't think hope is commensalist.
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