I. A Tale of Two Theories: Stepchild v Black Hole
Those of us who swam through the prestige-flush and broadly funded high tide of graduate school studies in this country (the 1990's, a golden age for English, Comp Lit, American Studies, and Linguistics PhD programs) strove to acquire a facility with Critical Theory; what often is described simply as "Theory".
A more culturally specific term, i.e., a subset of critical theory, is what generally gets referred to as "Postmodern Theory."
Oh, we lucky few, we English majors, we band of post structuralists, we who grew comfortable with wine, cheese, and small talk about Derrida, Terry Eagleton, Husserl, Gayatri Spivak, Paul de Man, Jonathan Culler, Homi Baba, and Hortense Spillers at academic soirees, and, even more rarefied are we who sat Jonathan Culler's "Literature and Theory" course and Spillers' and Satya Mohanty's theory courses at Cornell. We, you see, are a vanguard, an elder tribe that was present at the dispensation. Postmodernism, the antique age (the age of the Armory Show!), the twilight of classicism, the death sigh of Kant, Hegel, Freud, and Marx, what comes after the Frankfort School; Postmodernism was our meat and mettle, and many of us in fact, now that we have taken our Cornell degrees and have scattered across the world, actually teach literary theory ourselves.
Postmodernism. That rangy, jittery, multidisciplinary, multinational and multi- linguistic Jean-Luc Godard of a stepchild of high modernism that speaks in the shards and the bits and pieces of modernism, that is, what was left of modernism after modernism failed (see Frederick Jameson, see Venturi, see Pastiche, see Baudrillard). Postmodernism is the ultimate urbaniche; it is metropolitan in the way your local, hip urban weekly newspaper is, which pimps sex ads and flaunts its own misogyny; nevertheless it presumes to speak in all our tongues.
Post-Postmodernism however, babbles in tongues far out beyond such coherent things as racism, sexism, homophobia, or Republicanism, for it is a dyslexic, an aphasic, a victim of memory loss even as it clearly and O so coherently conjures and disrespects the memory of utterly everything, even it self (this element of self contempt in Post-Postmodernism is a decisive departure from Postmodernism, which, whatever else it may be or do, certainly does hold itself in high regard). There is an almost tragic discontinuity between stepchild Postmodernism and crazy niece in the attic, Post-Postmodernism. Modernism and Postmodernism accidentally share core values, when all is said and done, you see; but Post-Postmodernism seeks to share nothing with no one, will not come to family get-togethers, and reifies nothing so much as it horrifies everything. If Postmodernism, through pastiche, celebrates the tragic dimension of Modernity's fall, then Post-Postmodernism through mockery celebrates the frightening idea that there is indeed no longer anything to celebrate, not even the fall.
Nothing matters anymore, from spectacle to boredom, to consumption, to loss, to horror, to joy, to disgust, to aliens destroying us in 2012 or the rogue planet Nibiru careening into the inner solar system to crash into Venus and tilt the Earth on its axis, to John Titor arriving from the year 2036 to warn us that there will be no more fossil fuels or KFC in the dismal future. All or any of these, might just as well be celebrated, or be forgotten, take your pick, since there is nothing inherently worth passing time doing--there is only the meaningless, blank passage of time. If Postmodernism is a monumental waste of time, as Woody Allen fumes, then Post-Postmodernism announces the end of time and the end of waste.
And Nihilism just doesn't suffice to describe this, now does it? This is something after, this is post nihilist. It is an after the gallows humor that no longer even seeks to be funny or absurd. It does not believe, but neither does it refuse to believe; it doesn't care one way or the other. It is stark, ugly, racist, sexist, homophobic, misanthropic, and cruel, simply because we are, and we find in Post-Postmodernism whatever we are, or were; all of it a depthless, reflective surface that is merely mirroring all these things back into the face of their source: ourselves. Yes, Post-Postmodernism goes the final distance that red giant Postmodernism only pantomimes: Post-Postmodernism is itself nothing more than reflexivity; not so much a surface as the nothing that reflects. It is the black hole that comes once the red giant and the white dwarf have completely collapsed. It sings, dances, acts out narratives on film (the car ride in "On The Waterfront" in which Marlon Brando decries Rod Stieger's betrayal or Gene Wilder's rant in "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that his guests have 'stole fizzy lifting drinks...so you get NOTHING; you LOSE! Good DAY Sir!" or Orson Welles standing up full medium shot behind his desk at the Philadelphia Inquirer, assuring Mr. Thatcher that "They [the people] haven't anybody to look after their interests!" --any of it or none of it, it doesn't matter to Post Postmodernism, it utters them all, or it doesn't. It is ready for it's closeup, it takes the planks on stage to deliver Marc Antony's sililoquy that 'it comes to bury Caesar not to praise him, and it sings out Sweet Sweetback's Baaaad Asssssss Ssssssong. But these performativities are an absence, not a presence; full of sound and fury, they are nothing more that an event horizon signifying nothing.
Postmodernism cannot account for this. It, is a hip, leather jacketed ideosnycrato celebrating the procession of shattered surfaces left over from Papa Modernism's reign in ways that yes, subtly re-valorize the modernist project through sheer repetition in endless microcosm, and if it is a critique of Modernity, as those of us who defend "Gravity's Rainbow" believe, nevertheless it wins the frank title of modernism reborn (for Thomas Pynchon's novel is actually a dirge, a mourning for a death, a 'deathkit' to borrow from Susan Sontag -- and that death is us, it is the post war failure lurking in Nixon's five o'clock shadow). It reified modernism with its sense of humor even as it turns that humor on modernism's failure.
Post-Postmodernism is not laughing for us, it is not even laughing at us. Laughter has mass, and therefore falls into the vortex. Postmodernism is a critic. Post-Postmodernism is a crank.
II. Crank v Critique
A Crank is not a critic. A critic levels analytic disapproval in the hopes of pointing the way to a better conception by pointing out the ways in which a thing, a place, a time, a milieu, an ideology, a habit, or a dispensation has failed to reach its own potential. A critic, in short, is a bearer of hope; of negative capability; of knowledge through negation and therefore of value, standards, ethics, taste, judgment, of disapproval at least. A critic believes.
A crank is simply making noise. The crank gives voice to aches, to pains, to twinges; the crank clears a sore throat, not necessarily as a prelude to saying something, but well, in order to clear a throat. A crank belches up what cannot be digested, or simply rails at the unruly children who've just struck a baseball through the crank's window. The object is not to perfect, since there is nothing left in the crank's world that the crank can reasonably look to as being the standard which the thing being cranked about could ever possibly have achieved. No, the crank is a car engine, whining, grinding, forever about to start, which never will.
Not that Post-Postmodernism is without its own virtues. As I was once upon a time startled by the then new idea that funky Postmodernism could provide a 'pleasure of the text' (how, I wondered, can something as apocalyptic as post modernity provide pleasure?), I am again surprised to notice that it is possible for Post-Postmodernism (at least in the realm of cinema) to provide a a type of pleasure. If Postmodernity was Godard, then Post-Postmodernism is undoubtedly Robert Rodriguez.
For exempli gratia, the relatively recent American mid budget semi independent film, "CRANK" might be what one would call postmodern: "Crank" 's boorish, patriarchal-pubescent sexualization of violence was offensive, and there was a sense in which it seemed to know how offensive it was and was seeking to capitalize on its own pretense at satirizing contemporary culture. It is 'knowing' in the way postmodernism is. It is knowing and wants you to know it knows; and shell out for a ticket (and ultimately for a DVD at Walmart) in the process. "Crank" made light of our post public school culture of ugly, stupid video games. I saw "Crank" and had no desire to see it again, let alone to put it into my Netflix cue.
I put the more recent sequel to "Crank", "Crank 2: High Voltage", into my Netflix cue purely because of my favorite critics' (Gareth Higgins and Jet Lowe, hosts of the podcast, "The Film Talk") having stooped to review it. Half way through it I was enjoying myself so much that I had to pause to go back to read a few reviews of it, to read interviews done by the directors, Neveldine and Taylor. I went back to my bookshelf to reconsider a couple of Frederic Jameson's essays and to reconsider that Holy Grail of Post-Postmodernist film, "28 Days Later," (fast zombies!). I skimmed a little Laura Mulvey, and, (God help me) reviewed some Werner Fassbinder.
Yes, I said Fassbinder. As disgusting as Fassbinder is, there is something about his films that make you keep watching them, and though at the time he was making them the term "Post-Postmodernism" did not yet exist, it is clear now that what held our attention was the prescient black hole of Post-Postmodernism at the center of his work. The original "Crank" did not achieve the ugliness of "Crank 2" nor surpass its own false detachment in the way its sequel does and thus I was bored by the adolescence, the porn violence, the high key lighting, and the self conscious cartoon-reality (like Wile E. Cyote, Chev Chelios is burned, beaten, electrocuted, beaten, and falls from great heights, yet comes up punching over and over again with cartoon regularity).
I was immediately taken with the second "Crank" however, clearly a parody of video game visual and narrative conventions and cliches (moreover this second seems to know the difference between the two), and clearly also a parody OF the parody of the first "Crank". Thus it explodes the very notion of false detachment that plagues so much Postmodern art and culture (Karl Lagerfeld, "American Idol," the intellectual effluvia of "Illuminati" conspiracy theories, Slam Poetry, Prof Michio Kaku, the Lizard King of Comedy Hypocrisy himself, Jerry Seinfeld, the morbid plague of conservative Christianity, and anything said or done by Oprah Winfrey--all is false detachment which still rabidly pursues all it pretends to have detached itself from. "Crank" is knowing in a way that seems not to know how full of crap it is.
Seinfeld's famous dictum is his proclamation that his comedy 'isn't about anything really' as a sneer directed at the hypocrisy of American consumer culture; yet, nothing could be more self absorbed than Seinfeld's pretense that he is skewering self absorption. My favorite Detroit Finney High school English teacher Ernie Stengel used to laugh uproariously in class about the hypocrisy of the Song, "You're So Vain" in which the singer declaims, "You're so Vain, you probably think this song is about you/You're so vain, I betchu think this song is about you/don't you?". What could be more vain, Stengel would laugh, than Carly Simon berating Warren Beatty that he is vain?
The TV show "Seinfeld" virtually celebrated if it didn't get eaten alive by, its own self-reflexivity: it was definitely about something, alright--it was about trying very, very hard to appear to not be about anything. The harder it tried, the more it collapsed into just another version of "I Love Lucy," but without the saving grace of William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, the barely tamed bulldog husband of Ethel Mertz-- Fred, an Irish working class counterpoint to the petit degenerate bourgeois pretensions of Cuban Ricky and Scottish Lucy.
"Crank 2" is Dave Chappelle to its predecessor's Jerry Seinfeld. It is knowing about the futility of trying to dissociate one's self from one's self, and thus genuinely not knowing about the forms of libidinal excess that the first one presented 'knowingly' in an unfunny, obnoxiously literal way, as if it intended to treat its audience like every viewer was a 16 year old multiplex geek with a cheesy skunk-hair mustache.
"Crank 2 High Voltage" in other words is fresh and vibrant, visually speaking--one cannot help liking at least that aspect of it if one loves cinema. And besides, where the first film was labored, the second is effortlessly satirical, as Dave Chappelle himself can be with his shamelessly vicious parodies of pop stars such as Prince, R. Kelly, and Lil Jon, or his very Post-Postmodern, "Being Taken to the Ghetto".
The opening long shot of Chelios falling out of the sky (ad continuum from the previous film's climax) and landing atop a car, bouncing, then landing again face down (or rather, cheek down) on the pavement in the extreme foreground is hilariously cartoon-like, not in the insultingly deliberate cartoonish tone of the first "Crank" but in the way of Post-Postmodernism: the opening has contempt for itself, for you, for Chelios, and most of all for an industry that would profit from cartoon versions of death. The level of absurdity is pushed beyond all reason so that the absurd fallings from great heights only to survive unscathed, which littered the first "Crank" becomes not only absurd but becomes grotesquely Grand Guignol, as in Chappelle's story of being taken to the ghetto where he does not just see the 'heart-wrenching' cliche of youths selling drugs on the corner but claims to have seen a BABY selling CRACK at 3 in the morning. For Grand Guiginol (a form of French psychodramatic/melodramatic theater that puts to use elaborate, outrageous excesses in the form of violence, the macabre, horror, and almost sickeningly grotesque attacks on the sensibility of the audience) is a form that forces one to face one's recognition of the Post-Postmodern ugliness of Things As They Are Now, with neither humor nor satire to soften the cruelty. As with Cahppelle's humor--which has as often earned him resentment and hostility, even from African Americans, as it has accolades--the raison d'etre of "Crank 2" seems as much to be its desire to disgust as it is a desire to amuse.
After the opening shot of Chelios' horrific fall, the next shot of henchmen literally scraping him off the street with a SNOW SHOVEL is priceless. While a more sober note could be struck regarding this film if one acknowledges the much more seriously cinematic innovations it achieves compared to its predecessor ("Crank 2"'s tight framing and the dynamism of a hand held $3,000 Canon XH A1 retail camera (!) makes it not just a Guignol, but a thinking bit of cinema both dynamic in its verite primitivism, and impressive in its technical virtuosity), the sudden irruptions of Guignol, Situationist parody, Surrealism, and outright Dadaism mark it as a decidedly anti-cinema work. It achieves a strong mash-up dynamism reminiscient of Ed Wood, Russ Meyer, John Waters, early Spike Lee, and early Quentin Tarentino due to the quick, jerky, hand-held reality of having no million dollar behemoths (studio quality, industry size cameras) to wheel and track and jack around, and is impressive in that directors Neveldine and Taylor have such a stripped down technical setup to work with that something very like real directors' chops actually show in their ratchet cuts, zip pans, gut jumps, porno edits and video game edits, Japanese mise-en-scene, classical tracking (?) and literal running shots.
Yet, Post-Postmodernism is not any of those old styles ('Surrealism,' 'DaDa,' or any of that) from the European ancien regime, but is simply indeed, "mash-up" and nothing any more pre-supposing than that. If late Tarentino often slips into a mawkishly backward-gazing Postmodernism ("Kill Bill") then Tarentino's good friend and fellow 'grindhouse' autuer, Robert Rodriquez is far less mawkish about race, identity, gender, vampires, and essence, as would be any colored man with good sense who must deal with the vagaries of artistic expression within the cut throat Hollywood system.
At any rate, Rodriguez seems more certainly a direct influence on Neveldine's and Taylor's style than Tarentino is. Witness the vaguely offensive bathos of Tarentino's "Jackie Brown," workerly talents of veteran actors Pam Grier and Samuel Jackson notwithstanding. Rodriguez's is a far more laconic, more polymorphously perverse style (he presents violence in a filmic world that suggests a cold medium where Tarentino's implied medium is more pubescent, breathless, and hot). Rodriguez's cinematic sensibility is closer to that of Nev and Tay than to that of the more adolescent Tarentino because Rodriguez, Nev, and Tay all choose neither the blue pill nor the red pill, but instead stick Morpheus up for huis fly ass leather jacket and are satisfied. None of that 'temet gnosce' footsie with The Oracle or scurrying about dodging bullets is necessary in the case of Post-Postmodernism.
One need only consider that Rodriguez's embodiment of female sexuality and eroticism is the fulsome, fecund Salma Hayek, while Tarentino's embodiment of female sexuality and eroticism is the homoerotic, flatly androgynous and vaguely Aryan Uma Thurman. Not that Nev and Tay's choice of bland blonde, Amy Smart is any more colorful than Thurman, but one simply notes the obvious similarities between Neveldine/Taylor and Rodriguez, where ouvre are concerned.
But again, the lack of the typical million dollar accouterments of Hollywood corporate cinema means that this B movie was going to either be the worst thing since somebody's film school MFA thesis or else be exactly what it is: a master's study session in how to create momentum, suspense, comedy, satire, visual energetics, a dynamic gestalt of image and sound, and the pacing of a street thriller using the most basic visual storytelling tools of action movie making.
It gives us something to think about. Namely, is this how dynamic and engaging the coming Post-Postmodern 'new' cinema will be once the monopoly of Hollywood excess ends (comes a digital paradise), and there is a Red Camera chicken in every pot, not just six mega huge studio chickens? Does the hand-held anomie Neveldine and Taylor conjure here raise the promise that we'll see once again the vibrancy of RKO, of the WPA artists, of Lon Chaney, and Charles Chaplin, of Preston Sturges and the early Hughes Brothers ("Dead Presidents")? Charles Burnett ("Killer of Sheep")? Or of the latter-year Orson Welles? Poor Orson, ultimate 'outsider' cine-global artist, Orson, cursed and blackballed by William Randolph Hearst, stone broke ragamuffin Orson, shooting budgets here one day gone the next, gadding about, God knows where in Spain, trying to create a sound montage by mouthing his dialogue into empty paint cans?
In the coming age of a new agitprop of pure democracy will all the Twitterers, Facebookies and MySpaceouts rise out of the rubble of a collapsing old corporate film oligarchy once everybody is able to run through the streets with relatively cheap high-end Canons?
Because Neveldine and Taylor show with "Crank High Voltage" that the chicken still needs a skilled chef to make it edible. Chops are required.
All to the better.
III. Into the Hole
And then there is Neveldine's and Taylor's almost insanely proliferating accumulation of film references on top of references. No, not references really, but subsumations--cannibalizations.
"He die hard wid uh vengeance!' one Asian 'nurse' exclaims to another during one of Chev Chelios' several surgery/vivisection/autopsy scenes. The references range from macro pastiches like the early rooftop shootout as video game set piece, to the smallest, oddest fetishes of B movie excess, e.g., the 50's/60's horror film sub genre of disembodied heads. Chev is dragged by El Huron before Huron's brother who is now a living human head suspended in a vat of nutri-mucous electro-bio liquid stuff. Have Nev and Tay gone too far past satire and even parody with this? Au Contraire, mon frere. They have merely resurrected the sub genre motif of those heady hollywood rags, "The Man Without a Body," "The Frozen Head," and my favorite, "They Saved Hitler's Brain!"
Nev and Tay provide Guignol-hilarious allusions to the widely varying film grammars of Sergio Leone, Tarantino, Antoine Fuqua, Spike Lee, Robert Rodriguez' "Mariachi" cycle, and Run Run Shaw's Gung Fu vengeance motifs. Bravo to the directors' playful and implicitly 'critical' (but not) takes on a long string of horribly racist LA movies such as "To Live and Die in LA," and "Colors." Not to mention their attack on heavy handed 'Oye Ese, Mi Vato' television fantasies - cop shows like "The Shield".
Bai Ling's shameless, tripped out crack whore and Efren Ramirez's over the edge and into the trees gay Mexican 'full body Tourette's Syndrome' suffering Venus (brother to Kaylo) are open to our seeing them as sublime parodies of the predicament of every gifted actor and actress of Asian and Mexican descent who is forced by Hollywood to demean themselves in roles that are little more than ridiculous ethnic slurs. Likewise, Amy Smart's running series of public copulation scenes with Jason Stratham is a 'parodic' nod to all the gifted women in Hollywood films who are forced to do sex scenes with the male lead and show some T&A (ala Halle Berry) as the price of the Hollywood ticket. I don't know about you but I'm STILL heebie-jeebied by my memory, all these years later, of Catherine Zeta Jones slinking all up on old coot Sean Connery in 1999's "Entrapment," which even ten years earlier, in its nicer version, 1990's "Russia House" was just as nasty, putting not quite as old but just as bald Sean Connery in bed with Michelle Pfeiffer. Ick!
Is it just me, or did the incredible actresses of my youth (Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway, Ruby Dee, Mia Farrow, Rosalind Cash, Sally Field, Sissy Spacek, etc.) seem a bit less badly used by Hollywood Postmodernism of the 80's? Sure, there are a few dignified actresses in the Baby Boom Postmodernism of current day Hollywood, such as Meryl Streep, grand dame of 'art babes' who never has to take her clothes off (okay, the necrophilia and booty popping of "Death Becomes Her" blows my theory to hell here, but, you know what I mean), and we've had Susan Sarandon and Little Susan Sarandon (Julianne Moore) as serious movie fare in recent years. Still, none of my students (I teach at the college level) has ever heard of the ground breaking feminist film, "Thelma and Louise" which doesn't seem to play the college circuit, and though Callie Khouri won the 1992 best screenplay Oscar for "Thelma and Louise" it was another 17 years before the very first academy award to a woman director was bestowed upon "The Hurt Locker." In short, Yvette Mimieux might have gone for it ala the creepy fusion of grumpy grampy John McCain and babe Sarah Palin, but I think Jean Seberg would certainly have turned down a tongue kissing scene with Extraordinarily Old Gentleman Sean. Pam Grier would have smacked him around a little for even asking.
Yes, I hate that I like this monstrosity, but this "Crank" sequel is Guignol with a vengeance, and with the smallest curlicues of detail, such as the old woman molested by Chev at the race track telling the inevitably vaguely Chicano stand-up reporter that her attacker had been sexy, 'like that guy from 'Train Spotting' (!!) Or did she say 'Transporter' (??) I started to get rewind fatigue after a while (or is that 'reverse' fatigue now that it's digital?), as I played and replayed scenes to catch the smaller details.
I became obsessed with trying to figure out if Clifton Collins Jr,'s megalomaniacal Mexican underworld boss was really Jim Carey or just an ironic sketch tribute to him (??) I mused over another recent moment, while watching the Star Trek reboot, when I'd gotten the strange feeling, watching the character Ayel, Nero's first officer, that I was watching Jim Carey in a lot of disfiguring makeup. A quick check of the cast of "High Voltage" told me that the same actor who'd played Ayel was now beneath the El Huron makeup. Oh, snap!
When I suddenly realized nearly at the last scene he was in that the Triad Boss "Poon Dong" was David Carradine made up to look like Keye Luke (Brilliant, I tells yuh! Brilliant!) I didn't know whether to keep laughing or seek out my dusty old VCR transfers of "Kung Fu" episodes to run on the TeeVee beside "High Voltage" on my computer so I could do a close comparison. So I thought about it a moment and realized it wasn't Keye Luke as Master Po in "Kung Fu" I was looking at Carradine doing--it was Carradine as Keye Luke as Luke's character, "Mr. Wing" in 1984's "Gremlins". Now I had the urge to look up a Betamax copy of "Gremlins."
I didn't. I mean, for dignity's sake, right? Somehow I suspect I would have seen startling similarities in the makeup jobs done on Carradine and Luke and that Neveldine and Taylor meant to do this to us--make us want to look. Besides. Think about it. 'Neveldine' --- 'Carradine'. You want to tell me that's just a coincidence?? I almost wanted to run to YouTube to seek out videos on the subtleties of illuminati conspiracy theory.
"Crank High Voltage" in its second half pulls out all the stops and tosses off every possible LA youth gang crack whore Mexican underworld crime boss and Chinese Tong/Triad fantasy ever conceived by Hollywood--with a little organ theft paranoia (ala William Gibson and the genre of Bio punk) thrown into the mix. In fact, by the time I started to feel paranoid about just exactly HOW many homages and film references were piling up in every scene, even to the point where I was searching the background mise-en-scene and straining to hear non diegetic sounds and off camera center details in the sound montage and mise-en-scene for clues, I became certain that "Crank High Voltage" is a lot more than simply a parody.
The two films taken together are above all the comedic take of Nev and Tay on the paranoia and absurdity of 21st century information sickness, bio punk organ theft phobia, the body as cyborg disposable, and the Mary Shelly nightmare gone viral. The first film and the second (and the obviously Mary Shelleyesque third film in the cycle that is upcoming in which Chev will be reincarnated once again, this time as something not quite human), are altogether a cycle making up one grand and crass homage to our lives today, The Way We Live Now.
The film's Urban trash, street opera, strip club machete killers, Black gay bikers, buttocks, elbows, nipples, and testicles at risk, provoke recognition in an unsettlingly effective way: "Crank" reminds us that there is arising in us all the dawning realization we all are awakening to, that somebody has done something to us, fiddled with our glycemic levels, manipulated our t-cells, exposed us to Chernobyl fallout, and 'monkeyed' as David Letterman would say, with our very genes; and that we have a limited time to track down who did it and where our collective heart has been spirited off to.
What the heck was in that cold-box Johnny Vang was carrying and desperately protecting, anyway? Chev Chelios finally seizes it from Vang, thinking it is his stolen heart Vang has been transporting, but stares quite uncomprehendingly into the box (shades of "Pulp Fiction"), asks aloud what the frack it is, then discards it in disgust. Maybe only Marsellus Wallace can tell us for sure, but it might have something to do with the other stolen artifact Chev Chelios will be looking for in the next film: It is Post-Postmodernism in that box; it is what has now been rendered obsolete; it is his soul.