Tag Archives: avant-garde

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!



THEORY FLASH! Coco Fusco, “Who’s Doin’ the Twist?” in English Is Broken Here (1995)

Photo found at mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com.

Like Minh-Ha, I’m dedicating my time this week to my manuscript (and also all the end-of-the-academic-year functions, like graduations and awards ceremonies for “the kids”). But the most recent iteration of the phenomena of “native appropriations” sent me to my bookshelves for some choice commentary, stirred by vague memories of the same damn debate in days of yore. (And I think we actually have quite a number of posts here that speak to some of the general structural and ideological issues at hand, if not to the specifics.)

Interdisciplinary scholar and artist Coco Fusco, in an essay called “Who’s Doin’ The Twist? Notes on Cultural Appropriation” (published in her collection with the genius title English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas), offers some useful analytics for unpacking the premises of some of the defensive and hostile responses to Jessica Yee’s Bitch post, for instance, that claim a diffuse “right” or freedom to wear whatever one might want.

In this essay, Fusco addresses those moves by an aesthetic avant-garde to appropriate the signs and symbols of racial otherness in order to enhance their own identities as transgressive personalities, akin to bell hooks’ concept of “eating the Other,” and we can easily see how her criticisms of the avant-garde myth of originality (to cite Rosalind Krauss) might apply to the hipster or hippie in the headdress:

Writing and talking about cultural appropriation, I reposition myself in a somewhat precarious way within a society that seeks to deny how segregated it is; I go from being a “minority” critic dutifully explaining otherness to one who addresses whites as agent in an ongoing dynamic of racialization. This shift in terms disrupts the commonly held assumption that desire for the Other is in itself a way of eliminating racial equality. Furthermore, to speak of whiteness as a way of being in the world still disturbs many of those for whom a racialized discourse is in itself a minority discourse, a mode of marginalization. Dominant cultural and white avant-garde defenses are cast in terms of aesthetic freedom (But why can’t I use what I want as an artist?) and transgression of bourgeois banality (But I cross boundaries and therefore I rebel too). What is more fundamentally at stake than freedom, I would argue, is power — the power to choose, the power to determine value, and the right of the more powerful to consume without guilt. That sense of entitlement to choose, change, and redefine one’s identity is fundamental to understanding the history of how white America has formed ideas about itself, and how those ideas are linked first to a colonial enterprise, and in the postwar period, to the operations of industrialized mass culture. (68)

Coco Fusco in full effect!

Fusco also tackles the divide that assigns creativity to acts of appropriation of “exotic” or “other” cultural forms performed by privileged persons, and simultaneously decries as derivative those acts of parody, recycling, creolization, and adaptation of imposed cultural forms performed by non-privileged persons. In this troubling formulation, she argues, the privileged person is granted a sense of self-making or creative agency, while the non-privileged person is either a mimic or tragically “unnatural” and “inauthentic.” (See the entire history of the 20th century American and European avant-garde, perhaps most egregiously the movement dubbed “primitivism.”) We witness this dynamic play out in those comments that both proclaim a “right” to wear feathers as a matter of personal freedom absent of historical “baggage,” and at the same time suggest that indigenous peoples themselves “sold out” their cultures, by manufacturing commodities for tourist consumption. (An alternate reading might interpret this as the creative recycling of an always already problematic concept of “Indianness,” as artist James Luna does in his installation work.)

Finally, Fusco ends with this very much relevant note to distinguish between such acts not through some hazy notions of moralism or intention, but via historical knowledge of the relations of power and cultural exchange:

What is at stake in the defensive reactions to appropriation is the call to cease fetishizing the gesture of crossing as inherently transgressive, so that we can develop a language that accounts for who is crossing, and that can analyze the significance of each act. Unless we have an interpretative vocabulary that can distinguish among the expropriative gestures of the subaltern, the coercive strategies that colonizers levy against the colonized, and dominant cultural appropriative acts of commodification of marginalized cultures, we run the perpetual risk of treating appropriation as if the act itself had some existence prior to its manifestations in a world that remains, despite globalism, the information highway, and civil rights movements, pitifully undemocratic in the distribution of cultural goods and wealth. (77)

Coming up next in THEORY FLASH!, “Native Appropriations” Edition, is Rosemary Coombe’s brilliant The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties.