On the Seduction of Proenza Schouler’s Act Da Fool**

Somewhere in my future is a book – or at the very least a longer blog post – on the phenomenon of fashion films. I don’t mean films like Tom Ford’s A Single Man or documentaries like Seamless and The September Issue. I’m talking about the cinematic shorts that are increasingly being produced to help launch luxury fashion lines. I’ve already written about the Chanel film, Paris-Shanghai:  A Fantasy but there are many others.

In addition to Paris-ShanghaiChanel has commissioned a number of other short films (several directed by Martin Scorcese), and so has Missoni (directed by Kenneth Anger). Both Dior and Gucci have shorts directed by David Lynch (one featuring the most fabulous Marion Cotillard); Louis Vuitton has one directed by Zoe Cassavetes; and Alexander Wang employed Craig McDean to direct his. Most are little more than extended commercials or music videos with really expensive clothes. But some, like Paris-Shanghai and Proenza Schouler’s recent video Act Da Fool (2010), strive to be something more artistic.

Act Da Fool, directed by Harmony Korine (writer of the cult classic Kids [1995]), is not overtly commercial. We might even describe it as an audiovisual lyrical poem. Its narrative isn’t quite linear but neither is it nonlinear. Instead, it’s an episodic series of vignettes about a group of young black women who represent, as Korine puts it, “the greatest living delinquents.” Like another one of his films, Trash Humpers (2009), Act Da Fool is shot and based in Korine’s hometown in Tennessee and again like Trash Humpers, the production value of the video is intentionally low and gritty.

Act Da Fool, like all good media events, is seductive. The images are visually arresting in the same way that Jamel Shabazz’s 1980s Brooklyn street photos are beautiful to me. (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Korine was somehow influenced by Shabazz.) The monologue is haunting and downright poetic at times, balancing on that knife’s edge between nihilism and hopefulness. Take, as just two examples, my favorite lines:

I believe that the earth is a big ball of shit – that’s why the dinosaur died out. And everyone gonna die sooner or later. That’s why I love cigarettes so much. I hope I don’t die for a long time though. I still got things I want to look at.

I ain’t going to church no more. Church can suck it. I think the stars hold the secrets.

Enough already with the telling, here’s the show:

Act Da Fool is seductive. (I know I already said that.) It’s an infomercial dressed in avant-garde cinema aesthetics (among Korine’s influences and fans are auteurs Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog) and swathed in the luxury fashions of Proenza Schouler. It’s the turducken of fashion films. Its individual parts are good yet the sum of these parts is indigestible.

As a short film, I’m absolutely for Act Da Fool. But no cultural object exists in a vacuum. The cultural economy from which this film emerges is one in which the clothes worn by the young black women in the film, the very fashions around which this film revolves (Proenza Schouler’s Fall 2010 RTW collection), is in fact not available to the characters represented in the film. The working class black women whose life experiences and life chances are such that the narrator is forced to wonder, “How come God gotta be so violent?” could not afford the clothes displayed here – the high-waisted skinny paint-splattered jean that is the star of the film retails for $550. And if the characters lack the financial capital to wear these clothes, then the actual actor-models lack the social capital. It is important to point out that the models in the film the do not actually embody the ideal Proenza Schouler fashion subject on the runway. Of the 33 looks in the Fall 2010 collection, all but three were modeled by white models – two looks by Chinese-born models Liu Wen and Shu Pei Qin, and one by Lais Ribeiro, who is Afro-Brazilian not African American like the characters in the film. As we know by now, the fashion modeling world is a glaringly white one. The reality is that without playing the roles of “delinquents” in Act Da Fool, Michelrica Hughes, Elizabeth Smith, Kiara Smith, Miileah Morrison, and Rashaani Wilson – all models – would not have jobs modeling Proenza Schouler fashions.

(L) Lindsay Hoover; (R) Kate Kosushkina

The film reveals nothing about the lives of these characters. Their significance lies only in the difference they represent: the exoticism of their racially classed nihilism, the contradiction of their gendered optimism which serves to assure the viewer poverty is actually not too bad, and perhaps most importantly, their spatial and social distance from the luxury fashion world that excludes them even as they wear the clothes in the film.

The Korine-Proenza Schouler film invents in order to fetishize a subculture that is far removed from the elite white world that Proenza Schouler (the label and the designers) inhabit. Yet, the production of this racial spectacle enables Korine, Proenza Schouler, and their supporters to culturally tour without actually engaging with the racially classed experiences of these young black women. Their bodies, unlike the bodies of white models, do not represent a cultural standard of beauty but serve instead as screens onto which romantic and racist ideas about working class black women (“greatest living delinquents”) are projected and appropriated to symbolize and sell a brand.  The lives of these characters matter less than the fetish they activate.

In criticizing the film, I don’t mean to negate my own pleasures with regard to the film. In fact, its aesthetic beauty and its ideological problems are deeply interconnected – the former seducing us to forget or deny the latter. But as I’ve already said, cultural objects do not exist in vacuums – not even beautiful ones, and certainly not “avant-garde” ones.

**A huge thank you to one of our favorite tipsters, Jennifer Ayres, for cluing us to Act Da Fool!




24 responses to “On the Seduction of Proenza Schouler’s Act Da Fool**

  1. jen

    YES! I couldn’t really articulate the kind of cultural tourism that bothered me, but then this whole brilliant post came along and equipped me with regarding the aesthetic as “the exoticism of their racially classed nihilism”! Which is so right on!
    Fantastic analysis, thank you for sharing this!!

    • Glad you saw the post, Jen and thank YOU for telling us about the video and making sure we don’t miss the important stuff in this ever-ballooning fashion media complex! Coming soon is a companion post on the proliferation of fashion films . . . it’s farther down on my To Do list but it’s there. Thanks again!

  2. Heath Sledge

    In addition to the ideological problems you point out (completely accurately), I’m wondering how this short is supposed to function to sell the clothing. It seems to me to be not unlike the M.A.C./Rodarte/Juarez debacle, in that both make an attempt to exploit as “edgy” the circumstances of these young women’s lives, which are *extremely* far removed from those of the target consumer audience. What is the appeal of this racialized and classed othering for the target classes? They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t think it was going to work in some way, after all.

    Not that the women don’t look fabulous in the clothes–there are many arresting images in the short. (Are they professional models, did you say? Or “regular women” from the town?) But this seems to me to be more than simply playing with high art/low art juxtapositions, and there’s something a bit gut-churning about it.

    • Thanks for your comments! A couple of other readers have also drawn parallels between the Proenza Schouler video and the Rodarte debacle – and rightfully so. I was thinking of Rodarte as well as a vast number of other examples of cultural appropriation too (some of which we’ve already blogged about). The move to “racialize space and spatialize race,” as George Lipsitz so perfectly describes the aestheticization of the ghetto (like the aestheticization of la colonia) is widespread in U.S. popular culture, Vanilla Ice being an exemplary case. In fact, there’s a ton of work in hip hop studies that examines these kinds of appropriations by white artists. I won’t rehearse them here but I do want to say that the appeal of such appropriations has to do, at least in part, with a desire to claim authenticity.

      In their appropriations of “ghetto aesthetics,” white artists like Vanilla Ice or the Rodarte and Proenza Schouler designers assert their own discursive proximity to an imagined source of authenticity. But the ghetto is “authentic” only because it’s perceived as existing in a time and place apart from (and thus, untouched by) the postmodern metropole of the cosmopolitan subject. The anthropologist Johannes Fabian describes this as a “denial of coevalness.” So the discursive production of a proximate relationship to “ghetto life” is at the same time a social, temporal, and spatial disavowal of that relationship. As I put in the blog post, ghetto aesthetics don’t function as an engagement with the lives and experiences of black people or with the maquiladora workers (in the case of Rodarte); instead, it’s a mode of cultural tourism that maintains and secures the racially classed hierarchies between the immobilized racialized object (stuck in and forever associated with the ghetto) and the highly mobile and cosmopolitan white subject . K. Wayne Yang’s explanation is much more succinct: “the ghetto [in the popular imaginary] is not where black people live but rather where blackness is contained.”

      • jen

        A George Lipsitz quote and then a Johannes Fabian quote worked in!!?
        I’m in love!
        And I really have to check out K Wayne Yang now, thank you for accessibly referencing these folks in such a way that’s really exciting!!
        Additional questions I’m wondering about is the relation of the imagination of ‘urban’ to the imagination of ‘ghetto’- does ‘urban’ operate to imply an edgy ‘ghetto’-lite edge ? Or is ‘urban’ a domesticization, ie what happens after the ‘ghetto’ is cleansed and the wine ‘n cheez loft bars move in?

  3. Hel

    I’ve hated Harmony Korine with a vengeance ever since I saw Gummo (nauseating “teehee, working-class people are all messed up!” bullshit+”ironic” use of metal on the soundtrack=SMASH), so seeing this doesn’t surprise me at all. “Exoticism of their racially classed nihilism” absolutely nails everything I find obnoxious about this. (Well, that and Korine’s “look at me, I’m pretending like I don’t really know how to use a camera!” aesthetic, but I guess we can agree to disagree on that.)

  4. This is an awesome post, Minh-ha! I’m glad that you asserted that something can be both beautiful but troubling when considered beyond its aesthetic virtues. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I have been delving back into a lot of French surrealist poets and poet-mystics–there’s so much to love and admire and be seduced by: the playfulness of language, the curiosity about the world, but I can’t help but be disturbed by the French avant-garde’s taste for mystical experiences, which seem wholly reliant on a curiosity for and an exoticism of spiritual practices from African, Latin, and Asian cultures.

    Your post also made me think about the aesthetic and cultural consequences of ‘distance’– –distance in the sense that you brought up so thoughtfully in your above comment about how the ‘ghetto’ is imagined, perceived, and realized in representations like this one. I also wonder if distance lends a hand in allowing playfulness. I wonder if the playfulness of a video like this one, directed by uber-hipster, uber-beloved Korine, is only possible (or partially possible) because neither Korine, Proenza Schouler, nor the intended target audience and customers for this video risk any possibility of actually identifying with the setting and the characters in this film (which as you’ve already pointed have little engagement with the actual lives and experiences of black people.) I think the safety and comfort of this distance, as well as the emotional freedom distance affords in contrast to a higher level of emotional involvement that may beset someone who is too close to the subject matter, allows greater artistic freedom in a sense.

    Just anecdotally, I’ve noticed the high premium that a lot of my educated, middle to upper class white friends place on playfulness when it comes to art about people of color. A lot of them find themselves primarily attracted to art created by white individuals about people of color and much more ambivalent or openly disinterested in art produced by people of color, especially art that can be considered–not sure how to put this–more severe and emotionally raw and perhaps unwilling to indulge in too much levity.

    Your amazing distillation of ‘ghetto aesthetics’ and the enjoyment of it operating as a form of cultural tourism also reminds me of a time when my friend told her co-worker, who came from a very impoverished background and had aspirations to become a chef at a fine dining restaurant, that she loved eating at bad, greasy, fast food places because it was fun to indulge in bad food every now and again. She realized quickly that her co worker was not at all amused, and was in fact horrified by her remark, since he came from a background where most of his meals were bad, unhealthy, greasy fast food meals, and he was desperately trying to better his situation so that he could afford to eat well.

    I feel like a similar force is operating behind Korine’s video–the images he presents in his film are in no way threatening to this target audience, there’s no fear of his target audience recognizing themselves in these images or characters, and instead they just get to be voyeurs of this artificial world posing as an authentic ghetto experience (which, come to think of it, is exactly how most tourism operates… a chance to see other-ed bodies, and visit authentic new worlds and cultures that turns out to be artificially constructed in the end.)

    Anyway, I’m sorry I rambled! Thanks for posting this, I enjoyed it so much.


    • Also: this is not exactly related, but I’m so curious if you’ve seen Holy Mountain, directed by Alejandro Jodorowski? I’d love to know what you think!

      • That is one of my favorite films!

      • I haven’t seen Alejandro Jodorowski’s Holy Mountain – will put it on my Netflix queue! And yes, I think you’re absolutely right that playfulness and, more broadly, hipster claims to irony reproduce and secure certain kinds of white bourgeois privilege that make engagements with social difference safe (in that they don’t disrupt in any meaningful way the dominant social order). I think this is precisely why they’re more appealing.

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  6. I’ve been anxiously awaiting to hear your thoughts on this video. Boy, do I need to get back to the books because I’ve lost my sense of articulation. “The Korine-Proenza Schouler film invents in order to fetishize a subculture that is far removed from the elite white world that Proenza Schouler (the label and the designers) inhabit” – that’s it, exactly how I felt.

    I’m still baffled about the Rodarte thing…I’d really like to talk to the women about it. Both of them are Latina (Rodarte is a their mother’s Spanish maiden name) and have voiced respectable opinions regarding fashion in the past. They seemed really in tune with things and then MAC happened, which left me extremely confused.

    • Well, I think one of the main problems with the Rodarte thing was that the discursive construction of their racial proximity to the maquiladora workers came across as naive since they seemed to be totally oblivious to the massive difference between their class positions and the maquiladora workers’ class positions (and the privileges therein). The Rodarte fuck-up is an important reminder of the heterogeneity and difference WITHIN racial categories. Also – and this might have just been me here – I don’t remember the designers ever mentioning or identifying as Latina or Chicana or even the dreaded “Hispanic” before this collection. The commercial timing of their claims to racial proximity made such claims all the more suspect (for me). It’s like when people who seldom identify as Native American claim indigenous roots in order to assert their belonging to America or to demonstrate their heterogenous heritage and “cosmopolitan chic”. It may be true but it’s also what sociologists Leonardo and Hunter call “playing urban without the burden.”

      • “playing urban without the burden” – wow, that phrase has just been added to my ever growing list of quotes. I’m in agreement about this but I truly was baffled when I read about their MAC collaboration because any one who has access to wikipedia could surely look up the devastation in Juarez and the maquiladora murders. There is information out there and I cannot believe how oblivious they were.

        In regards to them claiming “Latina”, I wont even touch “Chicana” as I haven’t met many people outside of my Womens Studies/Chicana Studies major who identifies as that, I read an article in Tu Ciudad in which they spoke about their mother’s heritage. Unfortunately I might have been the only person in L.A. who read that magazine as they shut down production in 2008. It was that moment I loved them more because I’m always struggling to grasp on to people I think share a similar story (this could have been slightly delusional on my part, haha). I was really disappointed with all of this came to pass.

        PS Have you seen Senorita Extraviada? It is an amazing film about the Maquiladora murders that made my cry my eyes out.

  7. JM

    I have also noticed an increasing number of these “short fashion films” and frankly at first glance they seem really self-indulgent to me. I guess their increasing popularity stems from the fact that many people aren’t buying clothes/accessories as much as they did before the economy tanked, and so by attaching a backstory or emotional impact to their lines designers are hoping to compel people to shell out some hard-earned shekels. However, in their push to make their clothes seem relevant it seems the Proenza Schouler brand ended up appropriating a culture that is completely removed from the rarefied world its line and many of its customers inhabit. I’m thinking the director, as well as the designers, were going for relevance and a sort of emotional resonance by falling back on tropes of poverty, an attempt to remind viewers that the brand is “relevant” through drawing connections between it and an impoverished community. However it doesn’t quite work because of the reasons you and the other commenters have mentioned Minh-ha. I think what annoys me the most about this is that this is an industry that prides itself on innovation and creativity, and yet they’re continuing an “expensive clothes in a wildly incongruous setting worn by people who can’t afford it” idea that has been done to death.

    • Yes Yes Yes! Absolutely self-indulgent and yes, trying to be relevant for economic but also social reasons . . . but woefully missing the mark. I sometimes try to read films like “Act Da Fool” or “Paris-Shanghai” more generously – at least they’re trying to engage with issues of race and class? But you’re absolutely right (again!) that there’s nothing innovative or new about cultural tourism.

  8. Uh, possibly the REAL comment here, is that a resourceful person could make a pair of these $550 jeans for less than $10. Several bottles of fabric paint could accomplish the same thing.

  9. I felt a lot of these things back when there was only a rumbling of stills from the film. I felt a lot of complicated things: recognizing that stills correlating stray shopping carts to black girls would have to be racist (especially, as you noted, coming from designers who never feature black girls in their runway shows). It’s hard to be put in a position where you can just kind of assume that the film is problematic because it bothers to feature girls of color at all. (And, of course, it did turn out to be problematic in all of the ways I imagined when I first heard about it.) I wrote about it, more informally, when they were first released. I touched on some of these ideas: that cultural tourism, Othering, and how that ties in with Proenza’s poor runway casting record. (And what it means that when they’re inspired by that cliche “street fashion” thing–as is more the case in FS2010–they are more open to utilizing women of color than they are when they’re drawing from “beachy” themes. SS2010 was impossibly white on the runway, given its West-Coast vibes and the fact that those vibes are almost universally reserved for white women.)

    I revisited it a few days after that with Fabian in hand, as you applied his words in the comments above. I would even extend the thought about the “low and gritty” aesthetic in terms of Fabian: vintage-izing (if you will) the visual quality of a film featuring girls of the “ghetto” further serves to place them outside our time, outside the current, outside the relevant, in a space waiting to be mined by Korine for “inspiration.”

  10. Amy

    Great post! I’m speechless at how perfectly you hit every important point, from the admitted beauty of the film to the huge huge problems of how it was made, for whom, and the issues it is so ignorant of. Thanks for sharing your supremely articulate thoughts!! I wasn’t sure what it was about this film that made me so angry but you made it all clear!

  11. you know it’s wrong as soon as you watch it. but it is part of it’s appeal. it’s nihilistic. nihilism isn’t considerate of demographics or political correctness. it’s a negation. it’s saying “this is fucked” and in that same way this video is fucked. it’s appeal is that something is wrong with it. or at the very least it’s haunting draw.

    i doubt harmony korinne is ignorant of any of the issues that it creates. that’s nihilism! he’s a brat, and i say that in a non-judgemental way. and that is also glamour. glamour is always a bit nihilistic and a little bit of death. like when karl lagerfeld says “fashion is the bitch”.

    and yes i’d say this is modern blaxploitation. harmony isn’t black but he comes from this place. so at least for him this isn’t cultural tourism, it’s his home town.

    i agree with what you are saying but i think you are missing the point that this piece knows exactly what it is. you don’t hire harmony korine to get a politically conscious piece, at least of the variety of which you speak.

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