Wednesday, April 2, 2014

March Reads

The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

A few words about Oryx and Crake: it was an awful experience reading this for a couple reasons. First, and most obvious, was that Atwood clearly hadn't read any post-apocalypse fiction before. It felt very rote. Secondly, and more subtle, was the strain of Orientalism and perpetuation of gross Asian stereotypes such as the hypersexualized inscrutable "geisha" character that caters to the sexual whims of the two male protagonists. Yuck. Oryx and Crake might have been one of the most crushing disappointments of my life. I love Atwood and think she is a phenomenal writer, but that book was just awful. Put this in perspective: it took me two days to read 600 pages of Invisible Man but 3 days to read 375 pages of Oryx and Crake.

This month? Not a single straight white male. I'm quite pleased with this project. I think I can keep going for a long time. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Try to imagine the neoconservative's greatest nightmare, if you can. Try to imagine a world in which individualism is crushed beneath the oppressive boot of the academy, a world in which science and research is used to enforce conformity to their ideology, and brave young white people are turned into soulless automatons to be used as cold efficient stormtroopers. Imagine that these brainwashed soldiers are ordered by the academy to ruthlessly execute white selfless families and to eliminate any individual that uses their God-given gifts to be themselves. Imagine a world in which collectivity is villainous and individualism is hyperbolically heroic and dangerous to the status quo.

If you can imagine this neoconservative nightmare, then you can imagine the first two thirds of the recent film Divergent, directed by Neil Burger. Adapted from a bestselling young adult novel, Divergent depicts a post-apocalyptic Chicago in which the denizens (not citizens) have been categorized and organized into discrete groups called Factions. Each Faction is based on a character attribute such as bravery, honesty, kindness, and most chilling of all, intelligent. Tris's class and upbringing mean that her habitus (as per Bourdieu) puts her squarely within the Faction of Abnegation. However, she is special (as all YA protagonists are) and chooses Dauntless, the sexy black leather group of shouting running teens. They perform the labour of soldier and police for the city while Abnegation, the selfless Faction, works as government. The cruel, cold, and ruthless Erudite (ie the academy) seek to undermine and overthrow Abnegation. However, Tris represents an obstacle for the villainous allegiance between Erudite and Dauntless because she does not fit neatly into any of the Factions. She is Divergent. In other words, she is special.

Tris meets the requisite love interest named Four. His chiselled jaw and piercing eyes present a gruff exterior for Tris to eventually erode through her hard work, fierce personality, and good looks. He is the trainer during the requisite training montage that takes up what seems like an hour and a half of the 140 minute running time. Tris's is fully committed to the Dauntless training program, characterized as individual and competitive, cut throat enough that weaker individuals are willing to collude and cheat. Again, the terror of the collective action and unfair advantages in a free market. Tris's skills and God-given advantages are inherently fair because she works harder than anybody, according to the film. Thus, her privilege and individuality should be punished by the system. She is an undisciplined body that is slowly manipulated through coordinated movement and repetition of dogma into becoming a docile body.

In the second half of the film, the conspiracy to overthrow the rightfully governing body is revealed. Tris and Four discover that Dauntless leaders and Erudite leaders have conspired to use science and conformity to violently grasp sovereignty. Erudite have invented a brainwashing serum (some sort of cognitive blah blah technobabble) while Dauntless have offered the use of their trained soldiers. Thus, the individual soldiers are innocent of genocide because they have been manipulated by the academy for nefarious purposes.

Only Tris's Divergent nature allows her to see the truth of the conspiracy, and only her individual, non-Faction allegiance allows her to fight against the corruption of the Erudite. Logically, this means Tris's individuality is the greatest threat to Erudite and their plans. Other Divergents are murdered if only to prevent their refusal of the change in status quo. The main antagonist, Janine, as played by Kate Winslet, spells this out during the climax of the film. Only conformity can maintain the peace of the city.

In the neoconservative fantasy, collective action is reprehensible because it represents an unfair advantage against the individual in the free market. Collectivity and conformity is the hand of the government. It is repeated as dogma that Faction comes before kin in this evil cruel system. Individuality and free market capitalism are the only signs of the fair and just society. This is not hard to read in the film Divergent because it is right there on the surface. It is explicit. This is the libertarian heroic fantasy: one in which the ruthless Randian entrepreneur rejects the rigid structures imposed by the systems unmotivated by profit.

It is utterly telling that in the film, the only depictions of family come from the farming Faction and the selfless small government Faction. Amity is the rural labour force for food. They are depicted in the opening exposition as happy, giving, and carefree. Only in these brief scenes do we see families, smiling, white, and heteronormative. The Abnegation Faction also provides the audience with two conflicting images of families: Tris's family is a tight unit of selfless, loving, giving people who work selflessly for the government, whereas the leader of the Abnegation government, Marcus, is depicted as corrupt and abusive to his son (the law of economy of characters means that this son can only be one person: Four). The crucial difference here is that Marcus is depicted as a single father. Thus, the absence of the mother, the heteronormative mother, leads to corruption and an overreaction of punishment for individuality. Four is unfairly punished for being unique. Similarly, Tris and Four's romantic relationship is explicitly chaste because of the reaffirmation of traditional family values that the Right hold so dear. As soon as they kiss, Tris tells him that she doesn't want to go to fast. She must maintain her virginal purity lest she be punished for her nonconformity.

Likewise, the threat of punishment for Tris's individuality is much higher than for Four, ie she risks literal death. However it is this uniqueness and self-awareness that allows her very survival. There is a curious excess of scenes in which Tris undergoes a hallucination. In the film, the final test of initiation into Dauntless is facing one's greatest fears in one's subconscious. Some sort of technobabble allows for others to watch on a screen the initiate's confrontation with their fears. In the case of Tris, she defeats a flock of angry birds by knowing her own mind well enough to understand that it is a dream and not real. Yes, Tris's Divergent (read: individualistic) nature allows her to differentiate between simulation (read: ideology) and reality (read: how things really are). Within the dream sequences, she is able to control the parameters of the dream. She develops an ability to think around the illusions, to see that the glass cage filling with water is not glass but ephemeral dream stuff. However, it is critical to Tris's survival that does not reveal her Divergent nature by shattering the illusion of the dream. Instead she must overcome these obstacles by means of conformity: in order to survive within the system, she must suppress her individuality and defeat the tests by pretending to be Dauntless. She must perform collectivity to survive.

But survival is not enough. To survive within an unfair system is akin to death ("give me liberty or give me death"). Thus, as Divergent, she must defeat the government and expose their corruption. In other words, her Divergent nature will always give her away. She will struggle against the suffocating bonds of conformity and her true nature will reveal itself. Her flower will bloom regardless of the drought imposed by collectivity.

In typical heroic fashion, the John Galt figure of Tris must sacrifice her ties to either Faction in order to transcend conformity. She must be divorced from her past because in the neoconservative American fantasy, the past is the past, it should not matter, and has no bearing on the present. Thus, in order to achieve her heroic destiny, Tris's parents must die. There can be no ties to Faction. Nothing can hold her back from her destiny as exceptional hero.

There is something utterly insidious about the nexus between the Campbell monomyth (the Hero) and the neoconservative fantasy of exceptionalism and struggle against academy. None of the major YA film franchises appear to be anything but heroic fantasies of the Right wing: the rise of the individual against the oppressive and opulent government; the reinstatement of tradition and traditional family values; the perpetuation of heteronormativity; and the reaffirmation that class can be overcome through hard work, athletic prowess, and ruthlessness on the free market. The Harry Potter megafranchise reiterates class distinctions, the Twilight franchise offers heteronormativity and the nuclear family as solution, and The Hunger Games suggests overthrowing a Big Government too interested in fashion and conformity.

Likewise, Divergent depicts a structure in which intelligence is posited as villainous. It's hard not to be offended when the film tells you that the academy (the one in which I work and live) is brainwashing fine hardworking white kids into being genocidal stormtroopers through irresponsible use of science. The only other applications of science in the film represent moments of either forced conformity or unfair collusion. It's as if science and the academy are always irresponsible and it is up to athletic white kids to save us from the evil intelligentsia. Truly, this sounds like the paranoia of the Right as espoused by "thinkers" such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly.

Even as a film, a unit of entertainment, this propaganda for family values fails. The direction is lacklustre, the running time bloated, the action bland, and somehow everything seems really small. It seems like there are only about 50 people in each Faction, yet the city is depicted as teeming. This is a microcosm of the lack of internal consistency in the creation of the speculative world. Throughout the film, I found myself constantly irritated by the logical implication of this world. It doesn't seem like there is a Faction devoted to construction, maintenance, design, or even basic manufacturing. Who is running the trains that the Dauntless dolts seem so keen to jump off? Who stops the train when the kids don't want to jump? Who built the structures they live in? Who maintains the dungeon-y Dauntless headquarters? Who cleans up after them? Who manufactures the sexy leather outfits worn by Dauntless? How do the tattoo artists in Dauntless get and maintain their equipment? Who cooks for the Dauntless during the meal scenes of the film? And on and on.

The film is a terrible blur of neoconservative fantasy and stretched metaphor for the anxiety of not knowing who to sit with in the cafeteria. At every stage, character motivations and important points are stressed as explicitly as possible so the audience does not fall behind the characters. The supporting cast is filled out with types (the sassy sidekick who is of course a person of colour -- thanks, tokenism!) with completely undercooked motivations. The screenplay follows slavishly the three act structure. If the motions of the beats hadn't tipped me off to a romantic scene, then the obvious change in lighting would have. As soon as the lighting changes from stark blue or teal to orange and warm, then I knew characters would touch sexually. It is a tedious exercise.

If I had never seen a film before, I would have loved Divergent. However, I have seen a film and thus I was bored senseless. Nothing is surprising, nothing is new, and I did not care to be depicted as the genocidal villain, thank you very much. Fuck this movie.

Monday, March 3, 2014

February Reads

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir K. Puar
George and Rue by George Elliot Clarke
The Luminaries by Elenor Catton
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

Another month, another attempt to read something other than cis straight white males. I read Wells for school, and then wrote a pretty scathing article on it, so I think that mitigates it. Only one white women (Catton) and that novel ate up most of the month. It was pretty damn good, though the first two thirds were far superior to the rushed final third.  Two of the five books are Canadian (Clarke and Hopkinson) so that's something. Kindred was especially terrific and I'm writing on it for another course.

Monday, February 3, 2014

January Reads

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Find a Victim by Ross MacDonald
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Cold Moon over Babylon by Michael McDowell
Madness: A Brief History by Roy Porter
Frost in May by Antonia White
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
(about 1/3 of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries)

2014 is going to be a year in which I try and read more women, more people of color, more queer writers, and less straight white cis males.  This means I'll probably be reading more books published by Virago as well as less Western specific stuff. This month is mostly English people. Notice that the two buzz-iest books of 2013 (The Luminaries and The Goldfinch) appear on here; their general acclaim seems warranted, I believe. Only three straight white cis males appear on this list (Walpole, MacDonald, and Porter) while Hensher and McDowell are both queer.

I'm also going to list books read by month, rather than whenever I have assembled a list of more than two. 2013 was a year of very little reading and great personal change. I plan to read more this year and I'm making excellent progress. But like any pronouncement I make in January, caveat emptor as I might tire of the project and read a month's worth of Victorian lit.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Glean Some Death: Agnes Varda, Essay Films, and Death

Jean-Francois Millet

“He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days..”
– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life." – Wendell Berry 

Entropy, from the Greek for "transformation," is an immutable law of physics that all ordered systems descend into chaos. It is inevitable that the rules of the universe will slowly break down and lose their tight organization and rigidity. Entropy is the inexorable relaxing of order that ends in the ultimate chaos: nothingness, a complete absence of order. All matter obeys the march of entropy. There is no escape. No escape from decay. No escape from death. All bodies will die, will lose their rigidity, will have their organs stutter and stammer, will wrinkle, will stop, will end. Death is the ultimate "transformation" of matter. Entropy is pervasive and death is always knocking at the door. All things fall apart. The subject is always intensely aware of the inevitability of death, since it is the ultimate fate of all things. Despite this knowledge, the subject feels an immense ambiguity about entropy. They are programmed to resist death by any means necessary, yet entropy is ineluctable. Some subjects combat entropy ceaselessly, while others accept their fate.

Agnès Varda's documentary Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is, in many ways, an expression about acceptance of death: the death of a cultural practice, the death of an era, the death of the subject, the death of the filmmaker. Though, "documentary" is perhaps not the best descriptor for Varda's intimate glimpse into the practice of gleaning. Rather, the "essay film" would work better as the genre of the essay film better allows for the introspection and formal vacillation between subjects that Les glaneurs et la glaneuse traffics in. The essay film as a genre lets Varda accomplish her rather literary goals of metaphorical vacillation that the staid documentary form might resist. Instead of the didactic approach of the documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an essay film that lets the subject accept death, or rather transformation.

In the traditional tarot card deck, the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana is the Death card. The Grim Reaper rides aloft the white stallion, brandishing the flag of the flower. While the card may seem grim, with kings and paupers still at Death's feet, the card symbolizes nothing more than a change of state: "One state must end (tis common sense)/Before another may commence" (Moore Promethea, 12.15). Death is inherently transitional as it allows for one state of matter to transform into another state. There is little difference, physiognomically speaking, between a living body and a freshly dead one. The moment of death is not even the initial step of entropy's march. Rather, the physical death is only one step on a long journey. The decay of the body, the transformation, is constant, from the moment of adulthood. 

Varda uses the medium of video to easily capture the gleaners and their dying/transforming cultural practice. She narrates that her project is to film one hand with the other. Through this, and the title, she sets up a duality that the film is both about gleaning and about ageing: an objective factual documentary and a subjective introspective look at the documentary filmmaker. But Varda "rejects this duality" and she forces herself and the viewer to understand that the camera lens both captures and reflects simultaneously (Fischer 114). It is not a dilemma: capturing the practice of gleaning before it disappears versus accepting its disappearance. Rather, it is a process. The film, like death itself, is transitional, a liminal state between genre (documentary/travelogue), between media (film/video), between subjects (gleaners/filmmakers). Instead of resisting the change in state, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse embraces it. The film understands the "horror of it."

The film is cognizant of the death drive, or Thanatos. The death instinct is not, contrary to its name, interested in the death of others but rather the destruction of the self. Freud's formulation of the death drive is related to the subject's repetition, the constant return and departure, the build up of pleasurable tension (pleasurable, of course being relative). The death of the subject, then, is the ultimate release of tension – far more pleasurable than sexual release. The rehashing of events not pleasurable are rehearsals for the subject's own death. Repeating destructive events is the ultimate form of self-destruction. Since the death of the subject cannot be experienced by the subject (as the body loses ability to be aware of or even repress), the death drive is experienced through the deaths of others (eg family members, friends, celebrities, pets). Other decaying dying bodies allow for the subject to "work through" their own death. Thus, I submit that Varda's documentary is not a documentary about a transforming cultural practice but a way of working through her own impending death by metaphorically aligning herself with gleaning.

Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée. Ceres Teaching Agriculture to King Triptolemus. 1769
The choice of the practice of gleaning as a way to work through the subject's inescapable descent into entropy is not chosen randomly. Not only is it a cultural practice on the decline, but it is also an agricultural practice. The practice of agriculture, done by countless across the world, has always and forever been intricately related to death. The Greek figure of Demeter (later named by the Romans as Ceres as in the above painting) was closely related to death, literally. Her son-in-law was Hades, lord of the underworld. The Greeks used the myth of Persephone's partitioned time in the underworld as a way to explain the seasonal shift in agriculture; when Persephone is in the underworld with her husband for half the year, Demeter is in mourning and thus there is no growth in the soil. Though, Demeter/Ceres are not the only deities that closely linked death and agriculture. Osiris, of the Egyptian pantheon, was both lord of the dead and lord of the harvest. In Aztec mythology, Xipe Totec is the life-death-rebirth god as well as agriculture. Ninurta, of Sumerian mythology, was god of agriculture and war. There are countless more examples. Agriculture has always been linked to entropy because it is the apotheosis of transformation. At no point does agriculture ever sit still. It is a constant process, ever changing. All elements of nature shift, in a futile attempt to stave off permanent death. Rather than submit to oblivion, flora and fauna go into fallow periods. Trees lose their leaves; grains hibernate. They transform. It is a constant vacillation between life and death.

In the film, Varda picks up a potato, discarded and unwanted. She lets the camera's gaze linger on it, letting the potato take center stage for once. The rotting starch would normarlly have been forgotten by the camera's gaze, as it is transforming back into the earth, but Varda saves it and allows its transformation to be the star. 

The potato should not be forgotten. They deserve to be filmed, Varda implies. She films them up close, while simultaneously is filmed herself, setting an immediate comparison. Neither Varda nor the misshapen potatoes should be forgotten, despite their transformation towards entropy and death. Both deserve to be in the archive of the documentary. As Derrida writes, archives are traditional and revolutionary, institutive and conservative (11). Archives shelter themselves, conceal themselves while simultaneously making themselves transparent. Varda's film is both traditional in the sense that it is a travelogue, has a subject, and uses linearity for intelligibility but the film is also revolutionary in that it frustrates, resists, and blurs generic signifiers. It is not simply a travelogue nor a one subject documentary. It is not simply a meditation on the transformation (the entropic journey) of a cultural practice. It is both transparently about gleaning while sheltering its multivalence. Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is an archive that seeks to keep gleaning alive in the collective conscious and it is an archive that seeks to keep Varda alive. Though, as Derrida points out, the archive does not happen without the death drive. Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression" (19). In other words, the very fact that things are finite is enough to drive the archive fever. Were things (potatoes, people, lives, film) infinite, there would be no need to archive, to sort and select that which need to be made infinite. The archive inherently looks to the past as it is a shelter for things the archivist has decided might be lost in the future, but in that, the archive also looks to the future. It is both pessimistic (things will be lost) and optimistic (things will be remembered in the future). For the archive, “it is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (Derrida 36).

This prophetic tendency finds a comfortable home in Varda's ostensible archive. The film straddles the past and the future, using historical analysis and art to understand the cultural practice of gleaning while looking forward to how different cultural practices might be understood in relation to gleaning. This complex relationship with past and future means "there is no stable archival object or archiving subject that we can hold, or by which we can be held, in a time that is simply present or past" (Torlasco 52). Varda interviews a cook who gleans herbs and vegetables in order to keep his food cost down. Also, in the final sections of the film, Varda interviews a man who gleans at the urban marketplace. Varda "gleans" this man from obscurity, from the forgotten edges of history, and follows him around. She follows him to his home, where he teaches new immigrants basic reading and writing. The building is a shelter, just like an archive.

For archive fever to function, “it is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (Derrida 57). It is a desire to salvage from the wreckage of the past, to re-energize the detritus of the past for a future. The documentary is a film invested in the idea of transformation: the transformation of a cultural practice, from an agricultural one to an urban one. Thus, as gleaning changes from a wholly alimentary concern to one of dealing with increasing levels of discard from consumer culture, the subject of the film shifts as well. Varda attempts to salvage the practice of gleaning by interviewing those who live on the margins of urban spaces.

Varda, as in other films, shows an interest in the underclasses, the detritus of "polite society." Varda salvages them, just as her subjects salvage food or garbage in order to survive. It is a process of transformation, to take the garbage of one person and turn it into the treasure of another. In the film, Varda interviews different artists who repurpose trash in order to make art. Trash is beautiful, one moment in the film tells us. This is another vacillation in Varda's project: recognizing that the transformation itself is beautiful. The entropic descent is inevitable, but there is beauty to be found there, in the wrinkles of a hand, in the rotting heart of a potato, in the discarded doll's head, in the margins of society.

While entropy is inexorable, Varda's film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse shows a complex relationship with death. The essay film, with its personal and empathetic approach, its confessional style, and its loose structure, is an ideal form to approach the subject. The archive fever propels the essay film, just as the death drive propels the archive fever. Varda's awareness of her decay, her destruction, fuels the desire to capture, salvage, and repurpose. In one sequence, Varda films her hand forming a circle, as a camera's lens, so that she might capture images. She films her own hand, just as she claimed she would. Her own decaying hand. She does not shy away from death. She repurposes death for film, for art. She gleans the beauty from entropy with her film.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Notes on Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets


Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets opens with a foreboding and portentous image of the Winnipeg Arena. The image of the arena is poor, with glaring distress of the video on the sides. A drone whines uneasily as the arena comes more fully into view. A newscaster's voice, easily identifiable by the common cadence, intones these words:
You wouldn't think a smaller city smackdab in the middle of the country wouldn't be a violent place but it obviously is.
With its opening 30 seconds, Death by Popcorn provokes an emotional response from its audience. The film asks the audience to feel anxious, and in a complex way, asks that the audience tie their anxiety to their memories of the Jets. The traditional set of emotions that accompany rituals of sport should be complicated, this opening shot demands. The subtitle of the film claims that this is tragedy, but surely this is horror.


If the personal is political, then the emotional is political as well. In her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes:
Pain has often been described as a private, even lonely experience, as a feeling that I have that others cannot have, or as a feeling others have that I myself cannot feel. And yet the pain of others is continually evoked in public discourse. (20)
If Death by Popcorn is about anything, it is about what Elizabeth V. Spelman calls co-suffering. Spelman argues that the presentation of other people's negative feelings leads to an appropriation of those negative feelings. This is not simple empathy, where we imagine ourselves skating in another person's shoes. Rather, this is parasitism. When I am presented with the other's feelings, the other is constituted by me. The other person is produced through my appropriation of emotion. In order for the other to be real, I must feel as they feel. In this way, the body is absent, and the emotion is only real element: "the body is absent because it is perpetually outside itself, caught up in a multitude of involvements with other people" (Ahmed 26). Bodily surfaces are only constituted through my appropriation of the other's bodily pain. The other's body does not exist until I feel it. For Jets fans, they co-suffer with the Jets, with their failure, and in turn, appropriate the failure themselves. Winnipeggers feel their shame of the Jets through each other, as a mass experience, through a mass ritual of pain and mourning.


In his book, Among the Thugs, journalist Bill Buford writes of British sporting events:
I had always assumed that a sporting event was a paid-for entertainment, like a night at the cinema; that it was an exchange: you gave up a small part of your earnings and were rewarded by a span (an hour, two hours) of pleasure, frequently characterized by features—edible food, working lavatories, a managed crowd, a place to park your car—that tended to encourage you to return the following week. I thought this was normal. I could see that I was wrong.(19)
Buford's book about football hooligans was one of many accounts of the ritualistic and often organized violence inherent to the British football culture. He writes of his slow descent into the darker, lesser known parts of footie fandom, such as the ties with the National Front and the EDL.

Jets fandom might not have had the overt racism and criminality that hooliganism has, but Death by Popcorn gestures towards the seemingly inevitable link between the two. The ritualistic displays of tribal fealty, the chanting, and the investment into collective feeling all contribute to the inexorable comparison between sports fandom and ritual violence.

The terrorism of hooliganism finds its older mature brother in Death by Popcorn. A man holding a microphone interviews another man outside the arena. He wears a scarf that appears vaguely Middle-Eastern, almost like a terrorist.

Later (around 48 minutes into the film), brief glimpses can be seen of two masked men standing over a third on his knees, his head covered. Behind the men, a cloth banner with vaguely Arabic writing hangs. A modified Oilers logo on the banner looms over the three men. This sequence, staged for the film, mobilizes the signifiers of films made by terrorists, a oft-seen image in the years following the 9/11 attacks (though existing long before). As the kneeling man reads what is presumably a manifesto written by the "terrorists" (as per the logic of these films), one of the terrorists hits his stick on the ground. The hockey sticks stand in for the cheap AK-47s that terrorists often hold in these videos, but this has another significance in the sense that the banging of the stick on the ice is a common way for players to signal to their teammates. In this section of Death by Popcorn, the banging of the stick is a threat. Listen to the message, obey the message, or face the consequences. Obey the group, follow the group, or face cataclysm.


Death by Popcorn has a subtle but distinct interest in architecture. The outside face of the Winnipeg Arena opens and closes the film, while there are countless shots of inside the arena in the rest of the film. The dilapidated arena at the very end of the film speaks to the "broken dreams" of the city, and its failure to maintain a major league sports team. A careful link is established between the fortunes of the city, both figuratively and literally, and the Winnipeg Jets. It is not hard to create a symbolic link between a city's prosperity and its architecture.

In the advent of postmodernism and the cementing of globalization, "dominant buildings have long ceased to be those in which political and public power resides but are rather those of private finance and corporate investment" (Rykwert 6). In the reign of neoliberalism, the small government, both in the sense of organization and in visibility, must not be involved in the regulation of business. Decreased visibility of state power means increased visibility for corporate power. The Winnipeg Arena, by dint of its name and thus implicit government link, was doomed to fail. Proponents of neoliberalism argue that any regulation of the market, any governmental hand in the free market leads to impotence. This is literalized in the film when Susan Thompson, then current mayor of the city, expresses that she (and thus the government) tried everything to maintain the Jets' presence. But the very act of government intervention leads to impotence, according to the tenets of neoliberalism. The municipality's meddling was doomed to fail; the free market giveth and taketh away.


The great move that Death by Popcorn takes is to tie together the sense of loss inherent in the urban experience with how the citizens linked their civic pride with the successes and failures of the city. As Joseph Rykwert writes in his book, The Seduction of Place, the very moment of urbanity is by definition an absence of the "natural" state. Moving into the city means giving up nature, giving up the natural, default condition of living creatures. This absence is felt, internalized, and then reworked as a coping mechanism. The melancholy for nature is reconstituted in opposite, as a fear of anything outside the city walls.

The constant threat of the outside world weighs heavily in the film. A false rivalry is set up in Death by Popcorn between the mediocre teams of Winnipeg and Edmonton. The latter city is constituted as the Other, a villainous but ridiculous team as symbolized by the goofy Wayne Gretzky. The other is produced through the earnest intense feeling of optimism for the Winnipeg Jets. As Lauren Berlant writes in "Cruel Optimism," "when we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us" (20).

The sense of loss of nature by virtue of urbanity, the production of civic pride through sports fandom, and the inevitability of the loss of the Jets leads to an intense feeling of cruel optimism. Berlant writes, "cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss" (21). The intensity of feeling for the Jets is only made more ridiculous in the light of the inevitability of the Jets' loss. The agent of loss for the Jets is blamed not on capital or neoliberalism, but on the popcorn.


The film uses survivalist rhetoric to complement this condition of loss. A masked man hisses at the viewer that there is impending cataclysm. “Our civilization must survive,” the voice intones. Text on the screen reads “Spend Money,” a injunction. The logic suggested by this sequence is that consumerism and capital might be enough to save the Jets. However, as cruel optimism points out, this survivalist discourse is a stop-gap measure. The loss of the Jets is inevitable, despite the apocalyptic overtones of the film. The man repeats that “we must prepare for cataclysm.” In this way, the masked man is one of few voices of reason, despite the hyperbolic rhetoric. However, all is for naught. To reiterate, the loss of the Jets is inevitable, and even with that knowledge, people “choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to” (Berlant 23).

The man in the mask looks to foment fear in the Jets fans but it is more accurate to speak of the fans relation to the Jets as anxiety. There is a difference between fear and anxiety which is "most often represented in the terms of the status of the object" (64).  Fear is an emotional reaction to to an identifiable threat, whereas anxiety is a "tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event" (64). In this case, the vague event, not quite defined is the cataclysm, the apocalyptic loss of the Jets. As one young man says in the film, "What is there in this city without the Jets?" or "What can we do in the winter?" In the logic of Jets fans, the answer is that there is nothing. Civic identity and pride is so intricately tied into the public spectacle and ritual of the sports team. The film asks, in a larger sense, for the sports fans to complicate their feelings, to think not about the traditional physical violence of the sports ritual, but about the emotional violence from this anxiety, this cruel optimism for the Jets, this painful attachment.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.

Berlant, Lauren. "Cruel Optimism." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.5 (2006): 20-36. Print.

Buford, Bill. Among the Thugs. London: Arrow, 2001. Print.

Rykwert, Joseph. The Seduction of Place. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Robert Delaunay's "Hommage à Blériot"

Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) was a French artist who cofounded the Orphism art movement, an off-shoot of the Cubism movement. Orphism was known for its abstraction, use of geometric shapes, and its vibrant experimentations with colour, sort of reminiscent of Paul Klee. Delaunay was famous for a series of paintings based on the Eiffel Tower, which at the time was still quite new (it was completed in 1889). Delaunay depicted the shifting points of view, a hallmark of modernism, with strange perspectives and impossible planes of the Tower. His work strongly suggests an attempt at re-imagining the world not through but by technological innovations. This comes to a head with his "Hommage à Blériot," the above painting. Louis Blériot was a famous French aviator who was the first to fly across the Channel in a "heavier than air" aircraft. Here is Ernest Montaut's almost ligne claire illustration of Blériot's departure.

In "Hommage à Blériot," Delaunay combines his artistic and technological interests into one grand allegory of modernism. It's a representation of accelerated movement, both physically (the biplane on the right and the propeller of Blériot's craft on the left) and intellectually. This painting uses both the playful colour lyricism of Delaunay's earlier work and more Expressionist tendencies and experimentation. It is a homage to both a single man, an aviator, but also to a new type of construction in which the traditional planes of the Earth need not halt acceleration. The painting imagines the incessant radio waves not polluting the city of Paris, but producing it. The great French symbol of Industrial civilization does not loom menacingly, but works organically with the landscape.

It's a beautiful expression of optimism. The colours and idealism work together to suggest that Utopia is not some misty point in the distance, but happening now. It's also an expression of populism, an attempt at blurring the distinct lines between high and low art. Rather than emit the forceful abstraction of High Modernism, Delaunay introduces the populist figure of imagination, the aviator, le constructeur who fashions his own aircraft. The energetic colours express movement and combinations, such as the high and low arts.

Delaunay said, "La où j’attache une grande importance, c’est à l’observation du mouvement des couleurs. C’est seulement ainsi que j’ai trouvé les lois des contrastes complémentaires et simultanés des couleurs qui nourrissent le rythme de ma vision" (My rudimentary translation: "Where I put the greatest importance is on the observation of the movements of colour. The laws of contrasts and similarities of colours nourish the rhythm of my vision")

It is in the movement of colours where the painting gets its energy, its interpretation of the new way of thinking, produced by the new technology. It's aspirational and angelic. It's grasp exceeds its reach.