Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights

by on Jul.26, 2014, under Uncategorized

imagesOne of the strangest, most original books I’ve read so far this summer is Kyle Muntz’s Green Lights – strange because of its mixture of whimsy and horror, the quotidian (neighborhoods, tree-lined streets) and the sublime (a mountain that holds up the universe, a giant flower). The story is so simple it could be from a children’s book. A narrator moves through a mysterious series of scenarios (a neighborhood, red rooms with bizarre sculptures, parking lots that spread out for miles) in his effort to “talk about color.” He encounters a villain (an old man whose “soul is like a pitcher with all the water poured out of it”), a sort of love interest (E, who constantly appears from the upper branches of trees), and an incredibly unlucky friend (M, who seems to be on a quest, but we never know for what exactly). The narrator himself is young, curious, and amiable for the most part — except when he gets a job “carrying a flamethrower around the neighborhood, melting people.” But even that brief moment is so Dali-esque — “melting people” made me think of melted watches — that it’s hard to hold it against him. He’s continually good-natured, often using the word “nice” to describe the more fun things that happen to him. But his seeming innocence is never cloying. He’s too alert to the world around him, too aware of its dangers — as when the old man kidnaps E — to become overly cute.

One of the best qualities about Green Lights, I think, is the power of the imagery: it often borders on the psychedelic, but not in a clichéd way. More like the dreams and visions of Rimbaud (especially Illuminations), Angela Carter, Jack Smith, Harry Darger. As the narrator describes one bacchanal: “All of us were wearing masks. Mine was white with narrow eyes and red paint on the front. The music of us glowed like something better than sound. It was breaking through boundaries. This is the greatest thing, to be in each of us.” Only a few pages earlier, there is a giant flower “at least a hundred feet tall.” The narrator winds up swimming in a lake he finds inside of it. Muntz’s spectrum is often in cartoon colors, forming in cartoon shapes, and like some cartoons, the images have their own screwy logic — scenes leap acrobatically from other scenes.

A few years ago, I remember reading a book review — I can’t remember of what book — but the reviewer said it was a children’s book written for adults. It was meant as a compliment, and it could apply to Green Light as well. It’s filled with lines like “E was looking at a flower. Then she held it up to the sun for a second, until it caught on fire.” It’s a book that tries to lure us to some fresher, less hidebound, less “adult” was of thinking, perceiving. It’s a book of radical, subversive innocence.


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by on Jul.26, 2014, under Uncategorized

Tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 pm, Cassandra Troyan and I (and some dancers) will perform a Fassbinder-inspired piece called Beware of a Holy Whore” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

In a recent review of Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment, I refer to Durbin’s expositional prose as “point-of-view-less” in order to describe the haunting affectless/affecting dichotomy of her transcriptional fiction. Throughout her book, Durbin faithfully depicts, I argue, “the reality of reality television” and “the surreality of the real” by objectively describing the mise-en-scène of Real Housewives, The Girls Next Door, and other reality television successes of the first decade of the millennium. The technical choices that Durbin makes in her video work, “Anna Nicole Clown Mouth,” reaffirm the aesthetics of her prose while adding a dimension to our understanding of the effect (and potentially the aim) of such an aesthetic.


“Clown Mouth” is one shot. It lasts eights minutes and forty-six seconds. The camera focuses on the lower half of Durbin’s face, where a red clown mouth outlined in black is painted around her actual mouth, spreading up to her nose, down to her chin, and out over her cheeks; the camera remains focused on that part of Durbin’s face, stationary for the duration of the video. The only movement in the video is Durbin’s mouth, opening and closing to speak as she reads the entirety of the “Anna Nicole Show” chapter of E!, a story written in the form of a transcript that includes voices from CNN, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard K. Stern, Riley (Anna Nicole’s daughter), and mechanical baby, whose hundreds of “mamas” Durbin reproduces. Here we return to the question of point of view: whose mouth are we watching? It’s not Anna Nicole’s mouth, nor is it Howard’s, Riley, the mechanical baby’s, or Durbin’s. Looking closely at the video (or watching it several times as I did), one is struck by clumsy physicality of a human mouth. Lips flap, a tongue squirms and cavorts, the teeth rise and fall. All of this to facilitate speech, but again, who is speaking? Moreover, does the question whose mouth are we watching and who is speaking have the same answer? In “Clown Mouth,” we watch a mouth, trapped in a close-up, masked and unmoored from body, divorced from identity, a flat and unchanging orifice of the affectless as Durbin neither smiles nor frowns, her voice sounding neither angry nor shrill, happy or concerned. The video takes place in real time with no technical effects. The focus is sharp. Durbin effectively reproduces the flat expanse of televisual experience that her fiction creates through the use of filmic techniques that resist the emotional or affect-based conduit of point of view. What we see is what we get. But that’s all.

(continue reading…)

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WHITE MATERIAL: Obscene Whiteness as an Occidental Residue in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgive

by on Jun.26, 2014, under Uncategorized

In his post yesterday, Johannes made an interesting observation in passing on the Thai setting of Nicholas Winding Refn’s widely reviled Only God Forgives:

Like Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103″ it takes place in the orient, where imperialism discovered modern beauty in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Xanadu, Coleridge built an opium den…

One of the film’s obscenities is the obscenely patent Orientalism of Refn’s mise-en-scene. The film unfolds in a claustrophobic Bangkok-as-‘Chinatown’ , on sets reminiscent of The Lady From Shanghai, Death of a Chinese Bookie, and Polanski’s iconic so-named film in which Chinatown stands in for Hollywood’s Heart of Darkness, complete with reddish-green lights, drug haze, voyeuristic, curtained chambers, catwalks and corridors, sightlines which don’t match up, and theatrical spaces like operas, burlesque stages, go-go cages, boxing rings and nightclubs. The obscene is that which should remain hidden but is not; in Refn’s film, the latent racism of Orientalist tropes so common in Western film is right out there into the open, neither ironized nor dressed up as Keanu-ish spiritualism for the benefit of the Western individual’s soul.


An effect of this Orientalist palette is to make the white figures seem particularly artificial. More than ‘American’, they read to me as white; the phrase ‘white material’ comes to mind, after the semi-autobiographical Claire Denis film about French colonists in North Africa. The mother character, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, is not only a sexed-up outre Mommy MacBeth, part-Real Housewife, part -Freudian bingo card, but she is in whiteface with blonde extensions, golden dusting powder that simulates clublight or the mandate of Heaven, an impractical manicure, and elaborately painted on eyemakeup that obscures any kind of ‘natural’ eye.

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Why is it significant that Refn’s protagonists are in whiteface? [In Refn’s previous, not-reviled Drive, blondissima Ryan Gosling wears a white and gold jacket to drive this point home.] Refn’s mise-en-scene re-renders whiteness not as an originary, natural term from which all other terms are derived and against which they fail to measure up, as in Imperialist logic, but as an artificial mask made from dusting powder, hair extentions, eyeshadow, hairdye, Western suits, acrylic nails, foiled tips. These toxic, inhuman substances truly are the ‘white materials’. In the context of Western imperialism and colonialism, structural violence comes from the West, from the Heart of Whiteness. Evil, which only God can forgive, is a white material which can be piled up or smeared on in various configurations and manifestations.


Finally, as Johannes’s observation indicates, so much of the Modernism which is so beloved to me carries with it the trace of colonialism, imperialism, racism, sexism and Orientalism. A chief offender is my beloved Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty (ahem) derives from his febrile, Paris-World-Fair impressions of Balinese dance. I recognize the racism inherent in this theatrical encounter, and I hope I do not replicate this relationship of colonization in my writing or reading. Yet if I am not willing to discard Artaud’s body of work, I am also not willing to divorce this racial element from his work. Instead I keep it always in view when I think about Artaud, because it becomes a site where Art’s violence, its unwholesomeness, its predatory tendencies, as well as its theatricality, its artifice, its relationship to Evil, comes into view—that is, where Art becomes obscene.

[BTW, for more iterations of White Material-as-Occidental-residue, see Kara Walker’s late a Subtlety and Johannes Goransson’s sooncoming Sugar Book.]


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