There’s a line in Ondi Timoner’s Dig!, a documentary about the professional rivalries between alt-rock groups the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols during the late 90s and early 2000s, that I keep turning over in my mind. In an early scene in the film, the Dandys are absolving themselves of influencing the BJM to relocate from San Francisco to Portland to initiate some sort of musical revolution. Demonstrating their corporate allegiances, the Dandys defer to their partnership with Capitol Records and the need to deliver on their contract by producing an album. In their minds, the revolution must be delayed until after they become successful in capitalist terms. Here, the Dandys cast themselves as ambitious, efficient, and functional. This is in opposition to the BJM, who are framed as undisciplined, excessive, and (self-)destructive. According to corporate logic, only one group can be successful. After that success is confirmed, then you can usher in the revolution and get your friends to squat in Capitol Records. Dandys keyboardist Zia McCabe delivers the definitive line. “We were being productive,” she surmises, thus suggesting that the BJM, who were unsigned and filtering out hordes of side players due to persistent, drug-fueled interpersonal problems, were unproductive.
I return to this line for a few reasons. For one, I’m still not sure how either band would define “the revolution.” I have a clearer take that for the BJM it doesn’t involve cowing to the music industry. Even then, however, BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe promises to make the employees at TVT a “shitload of money” when they briefly sign to the major indie. The Dandys take cues from their namesake, Andy Warhol, and flatten pop culture in order to shade it in with camp and irony. They certainly nail the first part, creating time-shifting pop music that sounds somewhat akin to what buying a CBGB’s shirt off the rack at Urban Outfitters feels like.
The film is invested in playing up the two groups’ differences. The filmmakers deliberately chose to film the BJM in Super 8, giving their narrative a lo-fi, retro feel that bears the grain of authenticity and blurs around the margins. The Dandys were filmed in 16mm, lending their story a crisper image quality that jibes with the group’s pop aspirations. But I’ve never been convinced that Dig! is a study in opposites. For one, I’m not sure that the class distinctions between the two groups break down as neatly as we can assume. Newcombe is represented as a product of a broken family, raised by a single mother in Orange County while his father medicated mental problems with alcohol. The Dandys are represented as “the most well-adjusted band in America,” the products of nuclear families with parents who invested in Intel. However, the BJM were managed by Dave Deresinski, whose father was an AIDS researcher at Stanford. By others’ accounts, McCabe grew up working-class.
Importantly, both frontmen are chasing a mode of 60s-era Romantic rock artistry that is dead, and may never have actually existed. As a result, both Newcombe and Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor have never seemed authentic to me. Newcombe’s propensity to riot, dress in white, and put on a faux British accent in his singing scans as slightly “realer” than Taylor-Taylor wearing cowboy hats, toting skateboards, and digging on vegan food. It comes to bear on their music. The BJM produce droning guitar hymns brimming with melody but bloated by hippie pablum about bad trips and wicked women. The Dandys produce an approximation of whatever might be selling—Britpop, psychedelia, 80s-revivalist glam—and slap some pun-driven lyrics about the counterculture or sex on top like bumper stickers on a VW Bug. And if Newcombe isn’t for sale, as he claims The Beatles and Taylor-Taylor were, then what decisions led to licensing “Straight Up and Down” for Boardwalk Empire? Appeals might be made to legitimation—the pedigree of the project, the artful use of musical anachronism, the belief that HBO isn’t television anyway—but is this fundamentally different than the Dandys’ licensing of “Bohemian Like You” to Vodafone? I’m not entirely convinced. Legitimation seems like an excuse, not an opposition.
I also return to this line because I wonder what it means for a woman, the only woman in the Dandy Warhols, to claim that the band was being productive. What does it mean for a woman to say that we were being productive? Both the Dandys and the BJM played with women. This creates an aura of progressivism through inclusion. It is meaningful for bands to be mixed-gender. It is powerful to see men and women play together and it creates the potential for shifting gender dynamics in the music industry. Men and women need to learn how to share space. Rehearsal space. Stage space. Recording space. Tour bus space. Meeting space. Promotional space. Publishers’ credit space. I see some evidence of that in both bands. In the film and in the commentary tracks, McCabe and former BJM member Miranda Lee Richards own their contributions to their bands. So I wonder what we do with Taylor-Taylor essentially casting McCabe for the Dandys upon seeing her working at a coffee shop. She had no musical experience at the time. Was he casting her because she looked so much like the archetypical alt-rock pin-up, the kind of girl whose features would take to piercings and hair dye? Does this then inform McCabe’s reception, as she was infamous in early Dandys live performances for playing topless? The same questions could be asked of former BJM guest player Sophie Guenan, initially cast as a Nico-type presence in the band due to her foreign-ness and willingness to play the cello. And of course we can’t overlook that the film was made by a woman working with two men who run their own production company and won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. The film itself makes no explicit comment on gender, but we could.
Based on the documentary and the commentary, gender seems most operative in the BJM when it calls the group’s hippie machismo into question. Percussionist Joel Gion is most often deployed for these purposes. Outfitted in oversize sunglasses and a DIY mod hairdo, Gion mugs and vogues through most of Dig! He delivers wry commentary and wordless asides throughout the film. When guitarist/bassist Matt Hollywood concludes a tour anecdote about being accosted by Southern homophobes with “Say what you want, redneck. I’m heading over to your girlfriend’s house,” Gion counters with “The embarrassing thing was, we were sucking each other’s dicks at the time.” Yet even he cannot escape such macho posturing, claiming in a deleted scene that there’s nothing wrong with going to a meeting with a female label executive smelling like another woman’s pussy. The Dandys fare better. McCabe is able to perform, record, and tour alongside guitarist and ex-boyfriend Pete Holmström without comment. Yet Taylor-Taylor still wonders excitedly if McCabe is going to flash Matt Pinfield for a taping at MTV.
Finally, I return to this line because I would like a clearer sense of what being productive means. Does it have to do with making products? Does it have to do with feeling as though you are effectively managing your professional time? Does it mean that you feel good about your work? Does feeling good about your work mean that you’ve made a commitment to not self-exploit? I wonder what it means to the Dandys and the BJM. I wonder what it means to Matt Stahl, whose chapter on Dig! in Unfree Masters prompted me to revisit the documentary. I wonder for my pre-liminary exams, which I take at the end of the summer (I have made my reading list available through my profile on Academia.edu and I’m also updating my progress on Twitter). I wonder for my dissertation, which will focus on the identity politics of music-based intermediary labor in the post-network era. As I saw Annie Petersen do with her blog the summer she took her exams, I plan on using this blog as a space to work through some big ideas for this larger project. One of those big ideas, reignited by McCabe’s line in Dig!, is puzzling through being productive in relation to positing distinctions between labor and work.
In Bodies That Matter Judith Butler uses the concept of the heterosexual matrix to aver that materiality is a product of discourse. This supports her intervening argument that sex is a product of gender. This inverts the perceived biological paradigm that gender is the product of sex. Butler claims instead that gender enacts the processes by which we understand sex as such (Butler 1993; if you’re lost, here’s a link that explains this argument with cats). With Butler’s identity-based furniture rearrangement project in mind, I maintain that the material conditions that allow for deskilling and affect to serve as products of labor are the result of gender, which leads to the ongoing historical practices of invisibility and inaudibility. My intervention will be to theorize the relationship between invisibility and inaudibility through considering the labor roles and relations of supervisors, licensors, booking agents, and promoters. By holding visual and sonic metaphors in tension, I hope to advocate for their industrial and textual audibility through considering their contributions as labor.
It is my belief that better scholarly attention is required to understand the shaping of music-based intermediary labor in relation to an intersectional approach to understanding gender—one that is operative with race, sexuality, class, and age—at this particular historical moment. In order to successfully prepare a pre-liminary response and dissertation on this topic, I also need to historicize these changes in labor practices alongside post-network convergence and post-feminist ideology and their influence on the shaping and contextualization of media texts, intertextual relations, and definitions of power and identity. Greater emphasis is placed on branding in order to differentiate between a host of competing networks, channels, user technologies, and reception practices. Much of this is also reflected in the cultural move toward post-feminism following the feminist backlash of the 1980s. Greater emphasis began to be placed on some tenets of feminism—particularly autonomy, agency, and choice—while trading away the movement’s collaborative, anti-capitalist inclinations in order to emphasize material wealth and individual achievement.
To offer an example, I am currently working on a research project on the multiple functions of music licensing—the use of permitted copyrighted music—on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition-based reality show on Logo devoted to finding the next drag superstar. Music licensing has always been a part of reality programming, though only in recent years has it become integrated into the packaging and marketing beyond providing extradiegetic atmosphere for the purposes of narration and characterization. Drag Race has become a tent-pole program for the cable channel, which focuses its programming and brand on LGBT-themed content. In the project, I combine textual and discourse analysis to map out particularly illustrative instances of music licensing during the program’s run to make larger claims about the show’s use of music for the purposes of (often normative, though negotiated) queer identification and interpellation.
I am using the program to analyze the term “licensing” from two different angles. First, I will look at how host RuPaul serves as a licensor of her own music, a role facilitated as much by her role as producer as well as through her distribution deals with iTunes and Amazon. I am also interested in how RuPaul’s Drag Race serves as a licensee, particularly for its lip sync contests. Notably, the increasingly contemporary (and expensive) song selections and the cross-promotion of guest judges licensing their own music for these challenges serve to make the work of licensing audible, suggest the program’s increased wealth and success, and make legible the work of cross-promotion and interpellation. In analyzing the role of the licensor and licensee on this program, I consider the political of power built into giving license on a competition-based reality program for an identity-based niche cable channel, as well as music licensing’s possible queer potential for Logo and Drag Race’s intended audience.
Roughly defined, work seems to be the product that comes out of labor, which then can be understood as the myriad processes that shape the ultimate creation of work. Labor is then extracted from the worker that can produce exchange value. Thus it seems as though the two concepts might be differentiated between each other through temporality. Labor is the seemingly present conditions around which work is understood as a product that has been created. I believe that making such a distinction is important. But throughout the semester, it has been difficult to pin down a clear definition because a number of scholars use labor and work interchangeably, particular when applying such concepts to studies in popular culture.
In Being Rita Hayworth, Adrienne McLean claims to intervene on the field of star studies with a feminist investment in the construction of celebrity as labor. Yet much of her analysis focuses on work, or the final product of Hayworth’s labor—films, interviews, press, and fan discourse (McLean 2004). This speaks to a methodological issue. Obviously, McLean relied upon such primary sources because she had limited access to Hayworth’s labor. She could not visit film sets or conduct interviews. She could not enact ethnographic or participant action research to get a fuller picture of how each interpersonal professional exchange or utterance of personal obligation was pieced together to create the processural context for Hayworth’s labor. This is certainly a temporal issue. Yet it is also a concern that continues to vex production studies: the matter of access. In this regard, Joshua Gamson seems to offer a fuller picture of celebrity and image construction as labor (Gamson 1994). But Gamson had access to celebrities, publicists, agents, marketers, and journalists to help in his construction. McLean “only” had access to textual products, which took the form of archival material, as well as trade discourse and fan zines. I worry that a privileging of the always already present-ness afforded by certain methodologies (and industry connections) might place scholarship in a hierarchy based on perceptual differences around defining and re-enforcing such a rigid distinction between work and labor.
Thus there are some stakes to properly applying these terms or using them interchangeability. What is lost? What is the intellectual crime when we use labor instead of work and vice versa? What are we not capturing? What can we not capture? Do we presume a difference, particularly when many authors use them as if there is no difference or might have to reframe their work differently in ways that create hierarchal privileges of industry access? Importantly for my purposes, why is this distinction important to understand work in relation to gender and labor in terms of gender? Arguably, by conflating the two terms, we may not fully recognize what is being extracted from the body and the mind. If work is the action that we do and labor is what is taken or pulled out of the action, then we have to somehow access the people who are doing this. Can bodies be seen as labor and commodity, if commodity is produced solely for its exchange value? Such a question particularly seems important when talking about gender, femininity, and identity, as women and girls tend to be (de)valued socially and professionally in those terms. Does gender then function as an axis along which to articulate labor? Once we start talking about gender as work, can we then see labor as operative? If work as limited and reducible, then labor has to be about the sociocultural processes that make work possible.
I wonder about labor’s relationship to gender. While women are the subjects of these books, the authors are talking about gender in multiple ways that leave the concept of gender open and not bound by essentialist notions that equate gender to women. Instead of reducing “woman” to an essentialist category, it is important to think through the ways in which “femininity” can be theorized as discursive in relation to gender. However, we must also be conscious of how sex is a material product of gender through the ways in which gender and sex are marked on the body, how they are operative in the ways in which labor is organized and laborers engage in interpersonal professional relations at their jobs, and through the work they are responsible for performing and how that work is discursively defined. In other words, Zia McCabe’s breasts matter.
This makes me reflect on Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: The Case of Cagney and Lacey, one of the seminal works in the field of cultural studies. Many might unintentionally dismiss Defining Women as an extended case study about Cagney and Lacey. But the program seems better understood as a critical lens through which D’Acci interprets the ways that gender and feminism were defined through dialectic practices at a particular historical moment between the television industry, the critical and trade press, and the show’s audience(s). What seems particularly useful to feminist media scholars invested in a production studies approach to popular culture is D’Acci’s differentiation between femininity, woman, and women in her introduction. Applying Teresa de Laurentis’ definition of femininity as a “technology of gender” allows D’Acci to consider how institutions construct a subject of femininity, which provides space to consider how using “femininity” as a descriptor can become a site of struggle over what “woman” means (D’Acci, 7). She consider “woman” as the construction of that subjectivity, particularly defined as an essentialist category and perceived as a stabilized identity that the labor of production and consumption surrounding Cagney and Lacey allows her to problematize. Women, for D’Acci, seem to refer to people and their textual representations (D’Acci, 8-9).
Yet Defining Women differs from much of the media studies scholarship we have read on gender and labor because it is using a historical moment in television and media to map out a historical moment in feminism. Thus if Cagney and Lacey is used as a case study, it is mobilizing the program as a lens to say something broader about the negotiation of feminism at the level of textual representation, industry construction, and the discursive reception practices that gave it meaning as a result of advancements in liberal feminism in the second half of the 1970s and the resultant conservative backlash against feminism in the 1980s.
But it might be difficult to extrapolate labor from Defining Women. In my efforts to extend her definitions of femininity, woman, and women in relation to her application of Richard A. Peterson’s circuit of production model (production/text/reception/context), a series of questions emerge. Does “female” refer to the program’s production context? Does “feminine” refer to Cagney and Lacey as a text? Does “feminist” refer to the program’s intended audience? Can any of these terms be applied to the circuit of production model or would doing so essentialize these terms?
Part of the reason for the book’s difficulty might be its deceptive simplicity. D’Acci sets up a lot of the analytical work to be done by the reader. I perceive this as an opportunity. While she does not discuss labor directly, she does leave openings for possibilities for other scholars to talk about labor. For one, she offers her notes within the book as a possible model for doing similar research, as well as evidence that the book itself is a product of labor as a process. She also offers a number of examples that could be interpreted as labor. One of the central tensions in the book is executive Barney Rosenzweig’s turn toward developing this show. As D’Acci makes clear in her mobilization of meeting notes and interviews, Rosenzweig was clearly motivated by Cagney and Lacey’s commercially exploitable possibilities in an ephemeral cultural moment when liberal feminism was part of the zeitgeist.
However, this moment of inception and the commercial impulses undergirding the production have direct bearing over the productive negotiations that kept the show on the air during its run that are represented as labor through the work of letters and industry discourse left behind. The show was always under threat of cancellation and relied upon an active, vocal assemblage of fans who fought for its preservation while simultaneously challenging the show’s representation of working women and homosocial bonding within the constraints of both liberal feminism and prime-time broadcast television. We can see this through actress Tyne Daly’s continued resistance toward certain production and promotional decisions. Daly was vocal in wanting Cagney and Lacey to be more of an explicitly feminist show that caused her to feud constantly with Rosenzweig. However, because of Daly’s commitment to feminism, she was often at various promotional and political events that served to animate the show’s implicit feminist values through associating the program and its stars with people like Gloria Steinem, organizations like the National Organization of Women, and causes like reproductive choice. This identification with feminism became built into Daly’s labor. Such identity-based responsibilities recur in Candace Moore’s discussion of L Word cast members’ appearances at lesbian bars for screening nights hosted by Showtime and the Human Rights Council (Moore 2008). This is demonstrated by actresses Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey advocating for fans to support commercially appealing political causes like equal marriage while also mobilizing and interacting with their fan base in order to lobby for the show’s continued existence.
Finally, I continue to return to an archetype that D’Acci invokes numerous times in Cagney and Lacey (D’Acci 1994). What do we do with the “go-getter”? This is a feminine archetype that D’Acci attributes to emerge out of advertising during the turn from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Go-getters were defined as being productive, efficient, normatively feminine, and compliant with the ideological directives of capitalism in order to guarantee their own professional ascendancy and advancements. For D’Acci, the “go-getter” becomes an important model upon which liberal feminist narratives were built, including how programs like Cagney and Lacey represented professional women. For me, I wonder how the “go-getter” remains a model for how female industry professionals are expected to comport themselves in a post-feminist climate. This is particularly concerning because to my mind, the go-getter is a figure of accommodation. In this case, “getting” seems to imply fetching or acquiring something for someone else. Climbing up the corporate ladder suggests that what is being reached for is someone else’s approval and that mentorship and successorship conform to heteromasculine, patriarchal definitions of achievement. So is it a more feminist act to play the game or do we try to change the system by advocating for production practices and representations that do not reinforce patriarchal machinations?
Extending the go-getter archetype even further, how is interest created in a show like this? In the case of Cagney and Lacey, much of the promotion of the show centered on controversies mobilized by identity politics. Feminism and feminist viewership(s) were interpellated by a consistent focus on and representation of hot-button liberal feminist issues like partner abuse, incest, rape, and the glass ceiling. Rosenzweig appears to be stirring the pot in order to get people to pay attention in the first place. Is this exploitatively political or a legitimate feminist strategy? And what does it mean to center such concerns on liberal feminist ideology, embodied by archetypes like the go-getter, which seems to be more concerned with accommodating patriarchal definitions of professional success and social justice than other more resistive, radical models? As someone who studies how labor informs the popular music that is brought to television, negotiations with liberal feminism and post-feminism seem likely to extend beyond the visual realm of representation as well. For a start, such negotiations might help us to understand how and when gender is operative in Dig! both for the subjects in front of the camera and for the female documentarian behind it.
A few weeks back, the trailer surfaced for Greetings From Tim Buckley, the first of reportedly two Jeff Buckley biopics in the works. The one that is currently in production attempts to take on the singer-songwriter’s brief career in its entirety, all the better to showcase its acquired rights to his original material. It boasts a cast of name actors. It also promises to make a star out of Reeve Carney, the British singer-actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to the alt-rocker. For some people, this is kind of a big deal. As a long-time Buckley fan who has followed trade discourse on a number of potential and aborted biopic projects since the late 90s when early cheerleader Brad Pitt trumpeted his interest, I’ve been concerned about who would tell the story and what such a film would focus on. I’ve been particularly interested in casting rumors and maintain that 2006-era James Franco would have been the way to go.
The other film, which made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to some acclaim, appears to be a different animal. Penn Badgley—best known as Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey and also received attention for his work in Easy A and Margin Call—plays Jeff. However, rather than attempt to take on the young singer’s career, the film centers on his promising debut at a tribute concert for his late father, folk singer Tim Buckley, the man from whom he inherited an otherworldly voice but otherwise never knew.
Bracketing off the remainder of Jeff’s career is a smart move. For one, this story is arguably the most compelling portion of David Browne’s Dream Brother, a biography that dialogues father and son’s personal lives, professional trajectories, and untimely deaths. Focusing on a time before the son wrote his own material is perhaps a clever way to hide that the production didn’t receive permission from Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, who oversees his estate.
Situating Greetings within the music biopic’s governing conventions, the decision to build a film around one minor but important legend is also a way to potentially distance itself from the genre’s limitations. Stated broadly, music biopics are boring. They essentially tell the same story. A musician—usually male—cannot handle the pressures of fame. He indulges, he betrays trusts, he self-medicates, and he overcomes his vices—either through posthumous legacy or with a second wife. This makes it ripe for parody, whether we’re talking about Walk Hard or Behind the Music.
These are a set of conventions that are hard to rework or overcome. Arguably–and I say this as a fan–not even post-modern, self-aware music biopics like 24-Hour Party People completely pull it off. For all of Tony Wilson’s winking at the film’s construction of his record label’s mythology, all the conventions are in place. Ian Curtis commits suicide. Shawn Ryder succumbs to decadence and hurts the label in the process. Martin Hannett substitutes one addiction with another and dies. Factory Records loses its money through a series of poor business decisions and has to shutter the label and its night club, where Wilson gets to dance with his ghosts one last time. Given the film’s proclivity for postmodern asides, it misses an opportunity to not better integrate female artists who had minor or tangential relationships with the label and its scene. Linder Sterling made fliers for the Buzzcocks and fronted Ludus. ESG performed at the Haçienda’s opening night and recorded with Hannett. Happy Mondays’ backup singer Rowetta Satchell reportedly survived an abusive relationship with Ryder.
One possible reason why this film genre retraces the same narrative conventions is that the life of a touring musician is potentially a boring subject for a feature film. A concert can be a magical experience, a site of interpersonal conflict, or just another show. Otherwise, a tour is often a series of interchangeable cities, hotels, interviews, stage setups, vehicle breakdowns, and fast food restaurants anchored by a bus and limited wardrobe that adopts a stench which blooms and stagnates the longer you’re away from home. It’s tough to make this glamorous or narratively compelling for a feature film, which may explain why musicians’ lives and performances have arguably been better served by documentaries and concert films. David Byrne unveiling the oversized suit in Stop Making Sense is exciting. The countless moments where he and the rest of the Talking Heads engage in passive-aggressive sparring or ignore each other is not.
So where does this leave Greetings? Based on the trailer, Badgley does a capable job mimicking Jeff’s voice, mannerisms, and odd charisma. However, I worry that the film (or the studio) doesn’t trust its audience enough to recognize Badgley’s effort. The scenes selected for the trailer bluntly underline how much he looks and sounds like his father and that his performance at St. Ann’s Church was transcendent. Importantly, they use other people’s reactions to illustrate Buckley’s otherworldly star presence and artistry rather than trusting that filmgoers might be caught up enough in Badgley’s performance to make that leap for themselves. It’s especially intrusive at the end of the trailer when Jeff covers “Once I Was.” The camera lingers on reaction shots—particularly his lover’s tear-streaked face—instead of his performance.
I would imagine the primary motivation behind relying on other characters to tell the audience just how engaging Tim and Jeff Buckley were as performers is so the film to get around the potential liability of its subjects’ relative obscurity. Many people, if they know Jeff at all, are only familiar with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which scored several 9/11 montages and Seth Cohen’s summer retreat and was performed by a few American Idol contestants. Critical estimation of Grace, his only album, grew after his death. It certainly influenced a number of vocalists—Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey, Maxwell, Duncan Sheik, Chris Cornell, Chris Martin, John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright—most of whom were more commercially successful. Tim’s work was well regarded by critics and peer musicians, particularly his early output, which sought to broaden the scope of folk music by folding in the textures and improvisatory impulses of free jazz. But he never had a proper hit record.
This makes the film’s title potentially confusing for people who are not familiar with either musician. Greetings takes its name from the tribute concert that helped establish Jeff’s presence in New York’s underground music scene and piqued the curiosity of major label A&R representatives. The title assumes that you know who these men are and their (non-)relationship to each other while the trailer hedges its bets by having virtually every character remind Jeff of his connection to Tim and his own artistic potential. The title is also potentially insulting to Jeff, who in some sense is once again overshadowed by his father’s legacy.
But I’m actually more concerned with what Greetings does to Rebecca Moore, Jeff’s former girlfriend. Moore did not give this or any other production permission to use her name and likeness in the film. I respect her decision. For one, she was with this man a long time ago and was the subject of many of his songs (most notably “Lover You Should Have Come Over”). More importantly, she’s always had her own thing going on. She is the daughter of Peter and Barbara Moore, an artist and historian associated with the Fluxus art movement. She is a fixture in New York’s avant-garde theater and music scene who received attention for protesting Lower East Side redevelopment initiatives. She is also a multi-instrumental independent recording artist. When she met Buckley, she was already an established presence in this scene. In the trailer, despite Imogen Poots’ best efforts, she’s reduced to a starry-eyed intern named Allie with a crush on her boyfriend’s father.
Another noteworthy figure in Jeff’s romantic life was Joan Wasser, who was in a relationship with the singer at the time of his death. Like Moore, Wasser is an accomplished veteran of New York’s independent music scene. It’s my understanding that she also did not grant permission for the use of her name and likeness in any related film project. One of my favorite parts of Dream Brother is Wasser’s recollections of the first night she spent with Jeff while their bands embarked on a tour together. Though Jeff had a reputation for being a player, many of his friends and romantic partners were creative women who had little to no interest in being part of the same industry with which he made his bed. I recognize that these productions must avoid reproducing too close a likeness to these women for legal reasons. But by parroting conventional representations of women in music biopics as blindly supportive and caught up in their lovers’ mystique, Greetings‘ filmmakers potentially do a disservice to their subject, a young man who had a bit more going on than his father’s voice and cheekbones, and the people who were part of his life.
Last week was a whirl of wind. This week is whipping up quite a gust of air as well. But I don’t want any more days to pass without referring you all to a post I wrote for In Media Res. Wrapping up the site’s excellent week on hip-hop cinema, I curated a post on Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames in relation to Invincible, Jean Grae, and Tamar-kali’s tour of same name. Do check it out.
Last fall, I got around to watching Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. A friend recommended it based on my interests in female pop musicians and music video. Well, he didn’t recommend it. He predicted (correctly) that I would hate it. But he thought I might be able to make use out of it. For a little while, I thought about writing a term paper on it for my film score class. But then I watched the thing and decided that expanding my existent work on Kelly Reichardt’s use of sound and music would be the kinder, gentler option. I’m all about self-care. Final papers, grading, season affective disorder, and multiple Sucker Punch screenings would take their toll on even the steeliest individuals.
Is Sucker Punch that bad? Yes, particularly because it fails to live up to its potential. Snyder intended for his cinematic period comic about 60s-era female mental asylum patients to be a self-reflexive critique against fanboy culture’s leering, dehumanizing sexism. That may be true, but the critique gets lost in the execution. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a survivor of family abuse who is put in an institution by her own stepfather after she accidentally kills her sister. To escape her present living condition, an impending lobotomy, and basically everything that’s ever happened to her, she uses fantasy as a retreat.
Unfortunately, Babydoll can only imagine herself as a sex slave, showgirl, or video game avatar. This is evidence of a damaged mind and the handiwork of self-reflexive fanboy screenwriters. Granted, all of Babydoll’s fantasies are about escape and vengeance, with a brothel pimp (Oscar Isaac) and madam (Carla Gugino) standing in for her stepfather, an orderly (Issac), and her psychiatrist (Gugino). Furthermore, Babydoll assembles a team of showgirls/patients (played by Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung) in order to enact collective revenge against their captors. This could be an attempt at female solidarity, though its potential is undercut by the presence of double agents within the ranks. The film does acknowledge that many survivors blame themselves and protect their abusers, as represented by the storyline for sisters Sweet Pea (Cornish) and Rocket (Malone). I suppose it would be disingenuous of the film to have Babydoll escape a lobotomy that assuredly would be performed on her in a mid-century mental institution. But even Babydoll’s fantasies seem constrictive, particularly because Babydoll and her co-hort’s bodies are diminished by music video objectification and CGI wizardry.
Where I find Sucker Punch especially hard to take is its use of pop music. Reflecting the (barely drawn) ensemble of female archetypes in the film’s main cast, the soundtrack is mainly comprised of well-known anthems and classic tracks by “empowered” female artists. Suspending any critique of historical accuracy—an argument I have little interest in with regard to period films if the music works—what troubles me is how the music is clearly supposed to aurally represent some notion of girl power. Björk, Annie Lennox, and Alison Mosshart are tough, resilient, iconic women who represent freedom, escape, and strength to many of their fans. But the film’s use of their music is as confusing as it is calculated. Having Browning cover “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is one thing. Having it play over the film’s opening montage of Babydoll’s institutionalization following her sister’s death is awful. Using Björk’s “Army of Me” in a scene where Babydoll kills a supernatural foe is meant to be empowering but feels hollow. The same could be said of the girls’ final showdown to Mosshart’s cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Nothing about Sucker Punch feels victorious, no matter how many girls you put on screen or in the soundtrack. For one, I can’t imagine girls kicking that much ass while wearing stilettos and skimpy leotards (live-action Aeon Flux couldn’t do it). For another, I hate that actresses are required to look normatively sexy while kicking ass (at least Michelle Rodriguez didn’t wear heels in Machete). In her mind, Babydoll is a post-classic Hollywood Salome. But we never see Babydoll perform. Assuredly this is intentional. I seem to remember hearing that an alternate version of the film features Browning’s dancing, which left little to the imagination. Maybe this prevents us from objectifying her further. But I’d still like to see her claim ownership of her voice and body in those scenes. Unfortunately Babydoll and her girls are never people; this undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist intentions.
Snyder’s invocation of riot grrrl/girl power feminism resembles producer Max Martin’s deployment of feminist girl punk. Ann Powers observes that Martin harnesses the subgenre’s rebellious energy for anthems by artists like Avril Lavigne, P!nk, Britney Spears, and Taylor Swift. Linking Martin’s collaborations to the recent political mistreatment of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Powers concludes:
The complex and still unfolding story of the Russian collective can’t be summarized in a short essay, much less a paragraph. But it’s worth contemplating Swift’s latest move, not only because it’s so powerful, but because it demonstrates how consequential a serious act of talking back can be. Punk is a great flavor enhancer, and in small doses, it adds a kick to pop. Take it straight, however, and you could be utterly changed.
I recognize all of this results from (and predates) riot grrrl’s mainstream co-optation. Such appropriation is bound up in the politics of power and consent. These issues are Sucker Punch’s (disjointed, unformed) thematic center. And the stakes are high, both on- and off-screen. The politics of power and consent shape science and the prison industrial complex, both of which are regulated by government and corporate interests. When confronted with difference, these institutions often take power away from patients and prisoners. How else can we explain the mistreatment of people like Sara Kruzan and CeCe McDonald, since it can’t be justified? How else do elected officials like Todd Akin and Jan Brewer get to subjugate women and girls’ bodies with their hate speech and dangerously applied legislative authority?
Powers notes that punk is about community rather than the individualist bent of many of Martin’s confections. Totally. For me, punk is all about struggle and resistance outside of and within those communities. It’s about the transformative potential of making do and speaking to (and spitting at) power. It’s about rebelling against society’s imposition on its own citizenry. It’s also about rebelling against three-chord song structure and mosh pit misogyny.
I also recognize that when it comes to popular culture and art, feminist critics should be cautious about being proscriptive. Perhaps Sucker Punch and texts like it are empowering to people. Jessica Hopper advises against dismissing Taylor Swift’s radical potential for young girls, something I’ve always tried to do as a Girls Rock Camp instructor despite my well-documented, self-reflexive antipathy toward her. So I don’t want to take that potential away from anyone. But I personally can’t abide what I perceive to be the film’s disempowering political message. The stakes are too high.
Musicians who dabble in acting fascinate me. It probably has to do with never remembering a time before Madonna or music video. What makes a movie star different from a pop star? Acting ability might be considered as the obvious difference, principally because it involves being present in a moment with someone else instead of being caught up in how you look on camera (in theory, anyway). Shimmying and lip syncing in front of a white screen is not cracking wise with Rosie O’Donnell in the dugout, even if MTV forever changed how blockbuster movies look and how people act in them.
Granted, Madonna was always at her best when she didn’t bother losing herself in someone else. Even if she had any interest in doing that—her reinventions are personal—it can be difficult to transform from one of the best known pop stars of all time into somebody else. That’s why her performance as Mae Mordabito in A League of Their Own remains a favorite because she gets to deliver the line “Hi, my name’s Mae, and that’s more than a name, that’s an attitude” and pitch a self-obsessed and sexxee Italian American dancer-turned-ballplayer as meta-commentary. She also tears up when she refuses to return to taxi dancing after hearing that the league may shutter due to poor ticket sales. This is her least convincing scene in the movie—Madonna would never cry about returning to the humility and degradation of a past life because she would just co-wrote a song about it.
This makes me think that there’s little difference between the two vocations. I enjoyed Salt, but I never forgot I was watching Angelina Jolie for a second. That’s exactly how I felt about Girl, Interrupted, as much as people wanted to compare her to Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro at the time (they always want to compare us to men). Angelina Jolie is a good actress. But Angelina Jolie is never not Angelina Jolie, whether she’s playing a distressed single mother, a sociopath, a videogame heroine, a lesbian supermodel drug addict, a Type-A television reporter anticipating her own death, or Mariane Pearl.
The awkwardness of negotiating the medium specificity of performance is what interests me. I watched Something Wild solely on the basis that Suburban Lawns’ Su Tissue mumbles through her cameo. But casting is the other part of what interests me about musician actors. What do directors see in certain musicians that they want to capture or incorporate into their films? Certainly Jonathan Demme gets some hipster credibility from casting Tissue or Sister Carol in a movie, just as he does in creating one of the best concert movies of all time with the Talking Heads or directing my favorite New Order video.
But what happens when a director casts a musician as the protagonist or lead actor in a film? This question looms over Wong Kar Wai’s breakout feature Chungking Express and the flatly received My Blueberry Nights, his first film with an ensemble of American and English actors. The issue of reception warrants mention. Despite both films possessing Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s love-drunk visual style and featuring stories about women played by pop stars who brush past love and run away from it before returning to make the commitment when they know what they want, one was heralded as a cinematic triumph and the other was dismissed as “that movie with Norah Jones.”
For what it’s worth, I like both films quite a bit. They ache and bend seductively and, through creative use of editing and framing, seem to possess an associative non-linearity despite the narratives unfolding mostly in chronological order. They also make exceptional use of pop music—a hallmark of Wong’s cinematic storytelling—with the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” serving as the theme to one character’s wanderlust and Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness”—a song with a heroic build-up—representing the tragic one-sided love an alcoholic police officer has for his ex-wife.
And they have killer final scenes. Chungking Express ends with a flight attendant (Faye Wong) drawing a boarding pass on a napkin for a smitten police officer (Tony Leung) to whenever she wants to take him. My Blueberry Nights concludes with callbacks to earlier portions of the film—sensual close-up shots of melting pie a la mode from the opening credits and a promising kiss between broken-hearted Elizabeth (Jones) and cook Jeremy (Jude Law) her potential new lover. The first time, a kiss from Jeremy sets Elizabeth in motion, first as a waitress and barmaid in Memphis and then as a waitress in Las Vegas.
The pretense is that she’s working to save up for a new car. But in reality, she is recovering from a break-up and doesn’t want to launch into a new relationship before giving herself time and space to figure herself out first, hence why she goes by Lizzie during her time in Tennessee and by Beth while in Nevada. Faye, who meets Cop 636 while working at a snack bar, demonstrates her love for him by sneaking into his house to tidy up while he is at work. She acquires entrance by stealing a set of spare keys left in a break-up letter from his flight attendant girlfriend that she leaves for him at the snack bar. But when the police officer commits to an actual date, Faye decides she needs to see California for herself and takes a job as a flight attendant before reuniting with him.
Though the pay-off to how these two couples get together is central to both films’ charm, it should be noted that they are but one story that Chungking Express and My Blueberry Nights are telling. The former splits the film in two, exploring the romantic angst of two recently dumped police officers and the two very different women—a blonde wigged drug dealer, a waitress whose hairdo puts the “pixie” in Manic Pixie Dreamgirl—they fall in love with. The latter demarcates the protagonist’s journey by nickname, geography, and a different set of wayward supporting players. However, the films are remarkably similar in theme and content despite differences in reception.
Why might they be viewed so differently? Certainly their placement in the director’s oeuvre plays a part. Film audiences were jolted by Wong’s impressionist style upon seeing Chungking Express—still an impossibly cool-looking film nearly 20 years after its release—but became familiar with it come My Blueberry Nights. I think the matter of translation plays a part as well. Put simply, Faye Wong means differently to particular audiences. It’s hard for me not to register her character’s quirkiness and driftlessness as akin to what we now associate with white female hipsters like Zooey Deschanel, but I don’t speak the language. Anthony Fung did a reception study on Faye and her impact as a pop star on young Chinese women following the influence of feminism and capitalism during the late 20th century and made a comparison between Faye and Madonna in terms of her impact on gender politics as well as her fragmented identity as pop star, iconoclast, and mother and the ways in which she distanced herself from her fans. But the cultural contexts surrounding her casting may signify differently depending on the film market and audience.
Time period seems to play a role as well. Given the film’s mid-90s release, it is probably no accident that Faye is covering an alternative rock love ballad and not “Take a Bow.” Wong was also associated with the Cocteau Twins. The same year Chungking Express came out, Wong released a cover of “Bluebeard,” renamed “Random Thoughts,” a song known by fans of the group that marks a shift in lead singer Elizabeth Fraser’s songwriting. Following the birth of her daughter and the dissolution of her relationship with band mate Robin Guthrie, her lyrics became much more direct. “Bluebeard” is anchored by the question “Are you the right man for me?,” a question Faye’s character in Chungking Express seems to be asking herself.
I wonder then if Othering plays a role in how Chungking Express is received relative to My Blueberry Nights. I also think that casting Norah Jones—who cannot seem to distance herself from Come Away With Me‘s Starbucks shuffle and fusty accolades—forces certain audiences to confront their anti-pop baggage. The inclusion of Jones’ “The Story” on the soundtrack further exacerbates matters. How would people feel if Cat Power, who appears briefly as Jeremy’s ex and lends “The Greatest” to the soundtrack, played the lead instead? Jones’ performance in her first scene is strident and broad, but she loosens up and develops as the film and her character’s journey unfolds. Or maybe people feel that Wong doesn’t need to tell the story twice. But when both films have final scenes literally dripping with romantic and erotic possibility, you want to replay them like your favorite pop song.