Sunday, October 19, 2008

Happy-go-lucky, Higher Education and Hyphy Hyphy Hyphy
I barely cracked a millimeter in Infinite Jest but I did read David Foster Wallace's Commencement Speech at Kenyon University. Watching Happy-Go-Lucky at a film festival today that's all I could think about. Addressing a pantheon of liberal arts students about to break out of abstract sociological deconstructions into the harsh and concrete reality of what they already transcended mentally, Wallace attempts to prepare them to lift the banal rock of proverbs and platitudes to find the wondrous ant colonies sustaining themselves underneath.
He warns of a certain unconscious mode of thinking that's only critical in the sense that it exists for purposes of survival. Working a dreary white collar job, an upper echelon quadrant afforded by one's degree, won't mesh well with getting home and having to do even more menial work like grocery shopping. Getting stuck on the highway in bumper to bumper traffic can lead to automatic rants about the environmental damage of oil and the generational damage its going to cause. Being stuck with Lynchian blandness in a checkout line, confronted with quarreling families, assumptions are made about the way they carry themselves:
"But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options."
As a fiction writer, that makes sense, but he also graduated summa cum laude for a thesis in modal logic. One doesn't qualify the other, but what he's getting at is not that you can possibly exploit these situations with your notepad with a booker prize on the horizon, but that merely because you've liberated your consciousness to a new mode of thinking doesn't mean you can't slip into the dreary drugde of an automaton, what is important is that your critical thinking is used to remind you of not just your reality but that of your surroundings and I won't sum up the rest for fear of my turning this into some deepak chopra nonsense about the spirit and whatnot, but the point is that the liberating part of the liberal arts education should teach one to be alert and insightful not just on "issues" and "constructs" but on life.
Considering Wallace's recent suicide, this bit is sadly ironic, but not delegitimized in any way by his ultimate action.
"Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."
And that's what I was thinking about while watching Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh's new movie about a frustratingly optimistic schoolteacher facing tons of societal woe without her features sagging like an outdated cosmetic job!
Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, who at 30 is the oldest of three siblings, but as Aaliyah circa 94 could testify, your birth certificate don't mean squat (p.s. I just looked at the lyrics for that song, 1994 was crazy!). Of course here there's no cougar manifestation or taboo transgressions that figure into her character, unless you count Poppy's inability to wallow in stalwart regard of everything that's wrong and wear her downcast conscientiousness on her sleeve. Instead she weaves the habitual Brit colloquialism that turns every phrase into a question considerate of the other person's opinion on it, even though she doesn't really need to ask because her every response subtly suggests (without her subtly suggesting) that she knows exactly what the other person is talking about. She's a kindergarten teacher and her wardrobe is halfway between the Vice Do's section and the LSD-toting 1st grade teacher in Billy Madison. Her personality supports it, too.
The way Hawkins plays it Poppy is the kind of halfway ditzy, pallishly goofy, but irrepressibly bouyant person that would make any Chomsky & Kafka reading paranoiac want to pull her out of her shell and tell her how things are and that her lifestyle is tantamount to ignorant, and therefore inadvertent, nihilism. What's great about the arc of the story is that she doesn't have a wake-up call, the film isn't her learning all the ills of the world, with head above water moments in which she decides to become a social worker or open a newspaper because she already did and is responding to the world as she knows how. Everything that happens to or around her merely confirms what she already knows.
There's a stark contrast made between her and her driving instructor who, despite having abandoned the school system (because it "didn't agree" with him) and the oppressive societal structures that keep him at bay (layed out hilariously between tense and terse bits of instruction as a series of increasingly outlandish and disconnected conspiracy theories), is virulently upset with black street culture to the point of becoming a paranoid racist. Poppy on the other hand doesn't have a black friend to fill her racial sensibility quota, but she gets on well with her predominantly black students and with another teacher who so happens to be...and doesn't drop into self-righteous and ultimately futile rant every time she has to think about what will probably happen to her predominantly black students once they move on up the educational system.
Instead, with a sherry in hand, she lays it out quite adequately without ever losing a smile, and not a spiteful smile, but one in which she knows the limitations of her abilities but isn't particularly concerned with what barriers she has to transgress! When her driving instructor tells her to lock the car doors when a black kid on a bicycle passes in front she responds in a dumbfounded "are you serious?" tone of mock indignance but doesn't lose her shit and storm out on him, instead laughing on to the next stop. She doesn't wear an anti-racism patch on her arm like the Clash but has an internal clockwork that would suggest she doesn't need one.
She doesn't come at it from some false hippie spiritualism, there's no rewards system or framework which will patly fill out a self help book, she just kind of exudes and this lends itself to the film's amiably shambolic structure. Unlike Amelie or one of the twee life-affirming bubbles of quirk sundance seems to pump out mechanically every year, her wondrous infectiousness merely plays out of her every gesture, the way she fits into conversations or the ways in which others react to her. There's no artificial CGI scape of London with Poppy popping in for a voice-over filled with easily digestible whimsy pointing out the cracks in other people she finds amusing, you pick it up as she goes along, no externalized signifiers.
If there is any wake up call it's merely a slight corrective to the extent in which her good natured internalizing of external conflict, much the way trees spit out CO2 as oxygen, actually lends itself to other people. The only thing I can compare it to is the Prez's story arc in season 4 of the Wire and the way his good-intentioned dealings with Dukie eventually prove unfruitful. Happy-go-lucky doesn't provide an easy fatalist defeatism to its various outcomes, though, it just goofily pals on.
I've not seen Mike Leigh's previous films, one concerning a leading figure fighting for abortion rights while sticking it out doing dangerous backyard work, and another in which David Thewlis apparently makes everyone feel gross. Reacting to critics who claim the movie is just Sunny D chemical sugars in the face of a Bhopal disaster he insists:
"If anyone wants to say that Happy-Go-Lucky is devoid of social comment, that's stupid, as it has plenty to say about how we live, that is the way we teach, the way we learn, the way we have relationships, the way we interact with people, the way people accumulate ideas and don't know what to do with them, surviving and dealing with problems. It's rooted in social issues, and in that sense, it's political if you like. But it's not tract, it's not a piece of propaganda. A film can only be interesting if it's rooted in reality in some way, things can only be funny if they're rooted in reality, and they can only be tragic if they're rooted in reality. It's overall a bright, energetic positive experience and I hope it makes you feel it's worth living. But within it are darknesses and sadnesses of various kinds, which are there for Poppy to react to, deal with, feel about and care about. As such it's hopefully a complex film that has its comic and celebratory side."
I also thought about Hyphy, the Bay Area rap juggernaut that announces itself like a bio-dome of self-sustaining gas and plant culture. E-40 and a gaggle of others have basically taken all of rap's supposedly regressive and embarassing aspects and turned into categorical emblems of nobility. Spinning lexicons whose rapidity would make Shakespeare blush they wear their stupidity on their sleeve, blow their aesthete out their speakers, and rove like the fearsome packs they're made out to be. What's great is their connection to the conscious sphere. For all the getting dumb, putting your stunna shades on, and general defiance of selfish ass-saving logic (by Dawkins' definition) by ghost riding the whip, they're intrinsically linked with acts like the Coup. While in promotion and content there's no direct connection, they kind of complete each other. Perhaps I should phrase it with Boots on the diplomatic end but it would only undercut keak and the rest of the gang.
In rap it's generally frowned upon to indulge in excesses if they're not cut along a strict moral grounding, IED's of explosive righteousness about your position in relation to the radio or mainstream conception. For all of the lyrical populism I can't really understand the lack of embrace for what pops out of a large portion of the population's speakers. To an extent there is a corporate commodification of what was once a communal property, but it's too easy to systematically dismiss something more than tangentially linked to its golden age on the streets. There are producers and writers who come in and do behind the scenes work to prop up artistic merit on the face of the album cover, that doesn't necessarily delegitimize the work that's being pumped out. Hollywood in the 30's and 40's was filled with supposed stoolies and toadies rung in to do a fix-up job and cut a studio picture for a paycheck. That doesn't necessarily mean everything they churned out was thinly spread butter. Some, like Preston Sturges, cut their reputation fitting in wildly variegated romps with personal stamps in between their bouts for creative control. Some, like Seijun Suzuki, transformed their contractual obligations into abstract art exhibits meditating on alienation, repression and violence while endlessly playing with convention.
It's too easy to conflate the artists whose product is being hawked and the industry that's hawking the product. There's the sociological, overarching framework which can be analyzed, but if you consistently lob the individuals working within it then the result is almost tantamount to the statistical outputs of opportunity costs in low-intensity conflicts. So, take the time to get dumb, put your stunna shades on, because the world being dark already doesn't necessitate you remind it of itself on a regular basis!