“I can’t believe I bought these shoes”, exclaims the performance artist Miranda July in her hit indie film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). “They’re exactly the same as my old shoes. Except they’re pink.” I had a similar feeling about her film. It is bright, cute and attention-grabbing, but it’s the same as my old shoes.
The exciting colours, unusual designs and athletic swooshes that one can find on shoes amount to an excess of form, which compensates for a fundamental lack of content: they’re really all just shoes. Artists should take this reality as seriously as political economists do, since art takes place in a society in which the referent of culture is consistently the commodity. One way of dealing with art’s social position is to adopt the æsthetics of consumerism and mass culture, and, in doing so, shock the viewer into a different relation with those cultural forms. Other films this year have done exactly that: for example, George A. Romero gave a dazzling reinterpretation of commodity fetishism in Land of the Dead (2005), presenting relations between people as relations between zombies; and David Cronenberg’s History of Violence (2005) used the conventions of a commercial crime-thriller to trace the genesis of violence in culture, the family and cinematic spectatorship itself. By taking up the discursive forms of the culture industry, by pushing them to an extreme and/or resolving them into a cinematic reconstruction of meaning, these films present us the complexities of the existing reality, without either obeying its orders, like a reactionary television sitcom, or pretending that there’s nothing to worry about, like a happy-go-lucky adventure flick about pirates.
In July’s highbrow film, however, the colourful candy-coating of the commodity is not a means of critique: it is an emotional experience. Her pink shoes are worth the money, after all: they bring her a comfort she never realized shoes could deliver and she falls in love with the department-store clerk who sold them to her. July wants to find those little spots sprinkled throughout the immense accumulation of commodities that are pretty and poignant; as the film’s website puts it, “Me and You and Everyone We Know is a poetic and penetrating observation of how people struggle to connect with one another in an isolating and contemporary world”.
July’s character, Christine Jesperson, falls in love with Richard Swersey (John Hawkes), the shoe salesman, after a chance meeting. One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Baudelaire described another kind of chance meeting in the poem, “À Une Passante” (“To a Passerby”). “Around me roared the nearly deafening street”, wrote Baudelaire, and in the midst of the crowd a beautiful woman strolled past him in a “lightning flash”. As quickly as she came, she was gone. He asked at the close of the poem:
Here the frenzied modern experience of the crowd is rendered in lyric poetry – a sonnet, no less. The nostalgic romanticism of the poetic form enters into a spellbinding tension with lightning flash of the new, striking the poet as he loses himself in the streets of urbanized modernity. The crowd gives Baudelaire the erotic, the “pleasure that kills”, and the next second pulls it away, as though it were shooting past on an industrial conveyor belt. Romantic love, the sonnet’s faithful metaphysical companion, is turned on its head; as Walter Benjamin noted, “The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight.” (2) The poem approaches the modern city dialectically: the crowd inaugurates a new pleasure, but it destroys intimacy. In the struggle between the poem’s form and its content, we are confronted with the conflicted nature of historical change.
Christine and Richard, on the other hand, meet not in the modern city crowd but the postmodern suburban department store, characterized not by a rush of sensation but monotony and boredom. Within this garish and repetitive collection of commodities and individuals, Christine can be certain of finding her beloved; she can give him her cell phone number, into which she has programmed the number of the department store so that she will even know that he is calling ahead of time. The digital signifier of her love is the name of the department store, which she waits to see in the atomistic solitude of her apartment – a private life that is nevertheless plugged in to society.
Imagine if, in Samuel Beckett’s play, Godot actually did come – and he was just a regular guy. This, for Slavoj Zizek, encapsulates the difference between modernism and postmodernism. (3) The procedures of modernism correspond to that period of capitalism in which the subject that was supposedly constitutive of society was fragmented, reified, isolated from others by the very rationality it had set in motion. So, the key figure in modernism is the absent centre, the emptiness that enables any social structure but which, at the same time, cannot be found within it: everything revolves around the moment that Godot will come, but he never does. Postmodernism, on the other hand, occurs when the subject is imploded into the technological network. Long ago, the entire public world became available on the television in the formerly private home, and now everyone walks around with a cell phone, an iPod and a laptop in a laptop bag, with a different brand-name emblazoned boldly upon every article of clothing. Baudrillard describes this as “obscenity”, when the subject is struck with “too great a proximity of everything” (4). Postmodernism, then, is a matter of overwhelming presence; that is, an obscene, dull intimacy with the object(s) that defines the system.
Art that responds to the postmodern epoch imprisons itself in the ordinary reality of everyday life. By presenting itself surrounded by the petty and commonplace social determinants that have constructed it, everyday life appears to us as perverse and contingent: this is an æsthetic order of banality. Negatively similar to the shock effect of modernism in the previous century, banality records the changes history puts simultaneously in front of our faces and behind our backs. It shows us the lifelessness of postmodern uniformity, but it also shows us new modes of perception that can lead beyond capitalism. (One need only look at recent leftist thought regarding globalisation for an illustration of the dialectical nature of postmodernism: by uniting the world with the motive of capitalist exploitation, globalisation has engendered the construction of unprecedented international networks of resistance, which can use the tools of global capital—most obviously the internet – to make another world possible. Though, of course, one should not optimistically equate possibility and certainty.)
The banal can be observed, for example, in Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), in which a girl accosts us on the street and tries to sell us Madonna’s pap smear, which she shows us and describes in detail. Or in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), when the grand bourgeois narrative of Happiness itself is objectified into an obscene banality: the crude but triumphant first ejaculation of a pubescent boy, which is met with speechless disapproval by his family. Similar devices are easily observable in the works of other great postmodern filmmakers like Cronenberg, Romero, David Lynch, John Waters, the Coen Brothers, etc. (Let me emphasize that the list does not include Quentin Tarantino.)
July’s film is different in two ways. First, it inspects postmodern technology itself, dealing centrally with email, internet chatting, cell phones, video tapes, etc. It really is laudable that she deals with these details and that she wants to make an interesting film about them, but how does she do it? That is the second difference. For July is not content to rest with occupying banality, showing us late capitalism and letting us find the dirty laundry of our own lives in it. Like another recent “art” film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), Me and You seeks to imbue the banal with some kind of deep meaning – as though Godot came and turned out to be an affectionate performance artist with a magical view of life. Look at a moment, just before the end, when a young boy identifies an old man’s idle habit of tapping a coin on a signpost while waiting for an early bus with nothing less than the majestic significance of the rising sun. The goal is described in a digital advertisement on the film’s website:
In July’s modern world, the mundane is transcendent and everyday people become radiant characters who speak their innermost thoughts, act on secret impulses, and experience truthful human moments that at times approach the surreal. They seek together-ness through tortured routes and find redemption in small moments that connect them to someone else on earth.
July is unwilling to accept that the mundane is simply mundane, that this is its virtue as much as its flaw. With the search for “redemption” in “surreal” but “truthful human moments”, she insists that the mundane become transcendent. This unfortunate attitude results in a major æsthetic error: a sappy indecisiveness that prevents her from choosing wisely between absence and presence. In other words: the events of the film either happen too much, or too little. Two teenage girls decide to have a fellatio competition, with their young schoolmate, Peter (Miles Thompson), as the battleground. It seems like a fantasy only a young boy could dream up and he dashes around the house looking pedantically for the items they have informed him they will need. Then the act simply happens and we are treated to juvenile shots of Peter’s jubilant face. After finishing, the girls ask him which one was better. He says they were both good, and everyone is happy. Better: if it had not happened, or if its depiction were absurdly direct. Either one would lead us to more interesting questions about sexual competition (and could be funny enough to do justice to the preceding scene).
Another incident: in their spare time, Peter and his seven-year-old brother, Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), log on to the dark underbelly of the internet to have bizarre virtual sex conversations with anonymous strangers. (Anyone who grew up in the information age knows that this is a source of endless amusement.) The seven-year-old comes up with an excremental fantasy that is nothing less than inspiring – a sort of eternal economy of fæcal exchange that sounds like something Georges Bataille might have dreamed up at the age of seven – which furthermore earns its own internet “emoticon” in the manner of “:)”. This seems to arouse his virtual partner, who insists on a meeting. What does this marvellous set-up lead to? Pure sentimentality: they meet, the woman realizes her embarrassing predicament. (She happens to be the prim and uptight director of the art gallery Christine is attempting to get her work in, but, instead of playing on the amusing concurrence of anality, July presents it as just another crazy quirk in a coherent personal self.) She gives the boy a sad and condescending kiss, and walks away. The viewer, ostensibly, is touched. The disorienting situation constructed by the internet chatroom, in which a young boy’s infantile perversion can libidinally invade the ego of a seemingly well-socialized adult, is drained of its subversive possibilities and presented only as device to pluck our heart-strings.
The normative moment of sexuality arrives when, at the end, Christine and Richard the shoe salesman meet and embrace. The normal couple gets together and they are happy, and that’s it; the viewer can shed a tear of joyful selfhood and go home to the amicable computer, perhaps stopping at the Whitney to find another sophisticated consumer of art to take home and cuddle with. The fulfilment of this ideal trumps the unruly bursts of subversion in the banal that the film so often spotted and quickly moved away from.
When we can have the imaginary coherence of the happy ending (the cinematic equivalent of romantic love), we need no longer worry about the anxiety-inducing issues the film almost raises regarding human interaction in the computerized world. These issues are fraught with contradiction. As much as it is necessary to criticize the dehumanisation brought on by hyper-technologised capitalism, one must be careful not to moralistically reject the potential for new modes of understanding that the shock of history puts within our grasp. On the other hand, though it is necessary to appreciate the liberatory possibilities that an alienated society ironically breaks open, one must not make the mistake of identifying alienation with progress and thereby forgetting the real world of exploitation, violence, and human suffering that exists offscreen. This world makes one appearance in the film, when the director of the art gallery and her assistant are choosing work for their exhibition on art in “The Digital Age”. A slide comes up, a disturbing picture of a presumably African man with AIDS. The assistant thinks it has nothing to do with the digital age. Yes it does, responds the director: “Email wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for AIDS.”
The latent political substance of this proposition – which could scrutinize a world in which electronic communication coexists with the inability of so many people to access needed medical care – is cancelled out with a silly line about bodily fluids. It joins the rest of the quirky, irreverent lines scattered throughout the film and we do with the image what television news has already taught us to do with images of suffering: we forget about it and focus our attention on the commercials that follow. What Adorno might have described as one of “the smudges left behind in the deluxe edition of the book of life by the fingers of power” is Photoshopped away. (5)
Like a digitally airbrushed image, Me and You makes a messy, contradictory reality seem clean, pretty, pleasant: synthetic. Alienation is presented, then simply sentimentalised. The film may make us feel good – I have no qualms about saying that I enjoyed much of it – but it tells us nothing about what it means to “connect” with each other, like we connect to the internet. To do this, cinema needs much more than a hip, artsy You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998).
- Charles Baudelaire, translated by James McGowan, The Flowers of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 189.
- Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (New York: Verso, 1989), p. 44.
- Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 145.
- Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication”, in Hal Foster (Ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), p. 132.
- Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber, Prisms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), p. 256.