Tag Archives: film

FILMS: Women Make Movies Movies

The wonderful feminist media arts organization, Women Make Movies, has just introduced three new films that I think will be interesting to a lot of you. Please consider watching them and/or asking your university libraries to buy them – independent arts organizations + independent feminist filmmakers, what’s not to love?? (The movie descriptions are taken from the WMM website.)

Cover Girl Culture: Awakening the Media Generation (dir. Nicole Clark, 2009, 80 minutes)

Cover Girl Culture pairs images of girls and women in television and print ads with footage from the catwalks and celebrity media. Clark (a former Elite International fashion model) is given rare access to women editors from major magazines like Teen Vogue and ELLE, who provide a shocking defense of the fashion and advertising worlds. The film juxtaposes these interviews with revealing insights from models, parents, teachers, psychologists, body image experts and most importantly, the heartfelt expressions of girls themselves on how they feel about the media that surrounds them.

With an insider’s view, the film addresses issues like today’s increasingly invasive media, heightened advertising to tweens, the sexualization of girls, and consumer culture’s disempowerment of young women. An up-to-date inquiry into advertising and the cult of celebrity’s deep and negative impact on teens and young women, Cover Girl Culture also suggests how to educate young women to think critically about the media.

Arresting Ana: Anorexia Online (dir. Lucie Schwartz, 2009, 25 minutes)

Eye-opening and extremely timely, Arresting Ana is the first film on a burgeoning movement promoting self-starvation.

Pro-Ana websites are in countries around the world, but France is the first to suggest regulating them. Combining in-depth interviews of medical and academic experts with video diaries by Sarah, for whom “Ana”, short for anorexia, is a support system, friend, and motivation to stay alive. Arresting Ana offers unprecedented access into anorexia’s hidden underground while seeking effective solutions to ending this serious disease.

This well-made documentary, which features an engrossing soundtrack and pro-Ana sites and shocking quotes and images, is crucial for students and teachers of media studies. It also provides important insight for psychologists, social workers, sociologists, and educators on who controls women’s body issues, how young people interpret eating disorders today, and how legal and free-speech issues are contested in a new media landscape.

Wired for Sex, Lies, and Power Trips: It’s a Teen’s World (dir. Lynn Glazier, 2009, 45 minutes)

An inside look at the culture of sexual harassment and bullying widespread among many teens today, this unique and compelling program examines the price that adolescents, especially girls, pay to be cool, hip and popular in our brave new wired world. Questioning and confronting their own and each other’s stereotypes and assumptions, three different groups of culturally diverse teenagers share personal stories of navigating their hyper-sexualized, high-tech environment, where the online posting of racy photos, raunchy videos, and explicit gossip and lies, is as commonplace as bombardment by provocative media messages that degrade and objectify women.

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The Truth of Lagerfeld’s Idea of China

Several days ago, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director at Chanel, debuted Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy, a short film made to accompany the Chanel pre-Fall runway show. The 22-minute short was projected on an outdoor screen amid the Shanghai cityscape. (The film clip is below.)

Cross-overs between fashion and film are nothing new. Indeed, Paris-Shanghai isn’t Lagerfeld’s first foray into filmmaking either. Last year, he made his directorial debut with a 10-minute silent film called Paris-Moscow. Another designer/filmmaker is Tom Ford who just released his first film, A Single Man, a feature-length adaptation of a novel (with the same name) by Christopher Isherwood. And while The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was not produced or directed by a fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s contribution to the 1989 acerbic comedy film on the pleasures and perils of (all manner of) consumption undeniably exceeded his role as head costume designer.

Lagerfeld’s latest film has Lithuanian model Edita Vilkeviciute playing a very tightly-wound Coco Chanel who travels to 1960s Shanghai in her dreams. (Vilkeviciute also played Chanel in Paris-Moscow.)There, she meets two “Chinese” youth in Mao-style suits, played by Danish supermodel Freja Beha and Lagerfeld’s French male muse, Baptiste Giabiconi. Both are adorned with Mao-style outfits and heavy kohl-lined eyes. While the Beha character admits that she doesn’t “know much about Western designers,” she admires Chanel’s jacket and is soon invited to try it on. Chanel then offers the Giabiconi character a men’s jacket to try on. As Beha and Giabiconi happily embrace each other in their new jackets and hurry to admire themselves in the mirror (speaking fake Chinese), Chanel beams smugly at the camera, “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.”

As with French Vogue‘s earlier blackface editorial featuring Dutch model Lara Stone, yellowface and other dominant forms of racial masquerade highlight and reaffirm white thin female bodies as the signification of universal beauty. Despite defensive assertions by, among many others, Carine Roitfeld (with regard to the French Vogue editorial), Tyra Banks (in her “apology” for the racial drag photo shoot on America’s Top Model), and now Lagerfeld that racial performances by white models/actors is “avant-garde” and “post-racial,” such performances are ridiculously retrograde and reproduce historical racial hierarchies in which white bodies (imagined as racially-unmarked and thus universal) are superior to racially-marked bodies. It is from this location of universality — what Nirmal Puwar calls “the universal empty point” — that white female bodies like Beha’s and Stone’s “can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the violence of revulsion.”

Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents “the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China.” Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, “had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”). Lagerfeld’s China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.

More from Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism:

“[The] Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.”

In the example of Lagerfeld’s film and its accompanying runway show, the material effects of the cultural enterprise of Orientalism is clear. Lagerfeld’s production of an idea about China, articulated through Western epistemologies and white bodies, sells both Chanel fashions and the Chanel brand. As Vilkeviciute/Chanel puts it: “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.” The implication being that if “Chinese” people who are imagined as located in a time, place, and culture so far removed from (and thus alien to) fashion’s modern Western cosmopolitan center can desire Chanel fashions then anyone can. Thus, Chanel’s dream is the neoliberal dream of increased global markets for Western commodities.

Orientalism is distinctive in the Western cultural archive of racial projects because it operates not simply through the hatred of but also the fantasies about the other. Orientalist objects — and this includes Oriental people like the yellowfaced characters in Lagerfeld’s film and those in so many of Hollywood’s classic films — are, to quote Homi Bhabha, “at once an object of desire and derision.” The writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan have also described this racial ambivalence in terms of “racist love” and “racist hate.” The desire for the other and the desire to consume otherness are subtle forms of “genteel racism” that have become preferred modes of cultural representation in this multicultural or post-racial historical moment. I want to note that while genteel racism is specific to this historical moment, it emerges from a legacy of patrician Orientalism (the production of otherness through its exoticization and eroticization) that has always been an integral part of U.S. history. Jack Tchen observes in his book, New York Before Chinatown, that George Washington and other founding figures sought distinction and respectability through the consumption and display of Chinese and Chinese-style goods like porcelain, tea, and silk.

It may be difficult for Lagerfeld and others in fashion who practice and endorse blackfacing or yellowfacing (as well as their supporters) to accept that these cultural modes emerge from and reproduce histories of racism, Orientalism, and xenophobia because Lagerfeld does not fit our image of the virulent racists we remember from sensationalist talk shows like Jerry Springer. Also, aesthetic practices seem far afield from more recognizably racist practices like cross-burning, for example. And it is not my contention that genteel racism and overt racism are the same thing.

What we have been seeing in fashion magazines and on runways are cultural practices of “boutique multiculturalists,” to borrow a phrase from Vijay Prashad: “boutique multiculturalists like the faddishness of difference . . . they reduce different ways of life to superficial tokens that they can harness as style, but refuse to engage with those parts of difference with which they disagree.” Prashad argues (and I would agree) that boutique multiculturalism is more pernicious than overt racism because it covers over or “occludes the structures and practices of actually existing racism” by aestheticizing their histories.

While Lagerfeld stumbles upon the truth of Orientalism, it is clear that he doesn’t understand its material and political effects. Locating Paris-Shanghai among classic Orientalist productions like The Good Earth (in which Luise Ranier won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of O-Lan) and Madame Butterfly (Mary Pickford famously played the Japanese geisha Cho-Cho San in the 1915 silent film), Lagerfeld explains, “People around the world like to dress up as different nationalities.”

What Lagerfeld misses, though, is that yellowfacing (as with blackfacing) is not simply about playing at difference but about reaffirming and securing traditional meanings about racial difference that are constituted by their asymmetrical and contrasting relationship to the universal ideal of whiteness.

 

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FILM: Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags (HBO)

Set your DVRs for tomorrow morning when HBO will be showing a new film on the rise and fall of the New York City garment industry called, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags. From HBO’s description:

For generations of New Yorkers, the Garment District was the lifeblood of the city. But with the increased globalization of clothing manufacturing, this once-thriving area continues to shrink. This documentary looks at the vibrant, unexpected history of the Garment District and features interviews with workers, labor organizers, designers and fashion executives who look back at their careers in an area that was a doorway to the American Dream for thousands of immigrants. These stories provide an intimate portrait of an industry in decline–and give a timely look at how American manufacturing has changed, perhaps forever.

If you miss it on Tuesday, November 24, you can find it on HBO On Demand through December 6, 2009.

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ART: Yoko-Inspired

New York Magazine‘s The Cut discusses ThreeASFOUR’s spring 2010 collection, a collaboration with Yoko Ono, with Grey Gardens director Albert Maysles: “He explained that the show was inspired by the short film Cut Piece, which he directed in the sixties. In that film, Yoko sits on the stage in Carnegie Hall and invites the audience to come up and cut her clothes off. ‘That was more interesting, because men were doing the cutting,’ Maysles said, ‘And you didn’t know how far they were going to go. There was more tension.'” ThreeASFOUR restaged the performance with models (clothed in the collection) who walked around the stage and then snipped at the threads holding the silent, immobile center model’s cover-up of loosely sewn fabric.

Questions about scopic pleasure and emotional endurance are uppermost in my thoughts these days, and Yoko Ono’s original Cut Piece continues to move me with its harrowing resonance for how easily we take from each other, and what we’re allowed to keep to ourselves.

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FILM/TEACHING: Good Hair (and a Lesson Plan)

In my fashion course I inevitably assign Kobena Mercer’s “Black Hair/Style Politics,” sometimes with selections from Lisa Jones’s Bulletproof Diva and Ayana Boyd and Lori Tharps’s Hair Story, sometimes with Angela Davis’s “Afro-Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” in which Davis reflects upon her infamous image as a revolutionary on the run, and this image’s recirculation as a stylistic icon, as black power chic, in the decades that follow.

For me, Mercer’s essay is especially valuable for his insistence that “we need to de-psychologize the question of hair-straightening and recognize hair-styling itself for what it is, a specifically cultural activity and practice.” He usefully argues that black hairstyling can be understood as a variety of “aesthetic solutions” to these ideological of race and racism, “in that they articulate responses to the panoply of historical forces which have invested this element of the ethnic signifier with both personal and political ‘meaning’ and significance.”

There are several independent documentaries about black hair and its politics and practices, but the latest –and with the most advance press and mainstream attention– is Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair (2009), which opens in select theaters on October 9. Judging from the scenes in the new official trailer, it would be great to screen for the course alongside reading Mercer and Davis on the traffic in criteria for creating, circulating, and challenging stylized signs of blackness.

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STYLE ICON: Billie Jean (From the Archives)

Last night, I successfully introduced my collaborator Minh-Ha to my #1 fave film of all time, The Legend of Billie Jean (with Times Square and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains running a close second and third). After countless viewings, I am still mesmerized by the scene of her transformation — the beautiful but unassuming girl from the trailer park, after one too many violations of her sense of dignity, cuts off her hair (and her sleeves) and otherwise embraces her outlaw status. That the film also deals with the outlaw figure as fashionable commodity –inspired, girls from all over shear their heads, though Billie Jean is troubled by her own iconicity– is also absolute genius.

(There are, of course, great clothes: Billie Jean in her wide-belted, paperbag-waisted shorts, striped tank top and rolled handkerchief, before; Billie Jean in men’s trousers tucked into calf-length boots, a jaggedly tailored wetsuit, fringed fingerless gloves, and dangling earrings doubled up in one ear, after; her brother Binx in his zebra-striped painter’s cap, or his ’50s gray short-sleeve button-up with black detailing worn with highwater pants, dress shoes and no socks. I also love the fact that every jacket she comes across in the movie quickly loses its sleeves!)

The following love letter to Billie Jean is a reprint of one of my old columns (from 2001, I believe) from the now-defunct Chicago-based punk culture magazine Punk Planet. (More of my old columns can be found here, at my old stomping grounds Worse Than Queer. I actually have no idea what company hosts the site anymore, and have changed my e-mail address several times in the last few years, so read them quick before they disappear forever!)

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This bloody road remains a mystery / This sudden darkness fills the air /What are we waiting for? / Won’t anybody help us? / What are we waiting for? / We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation / We will be invincible!

Whether princess or pauper, Molly Ringwald in all her incarnations meant nothing to me. The sum of her girlish charms left me unmoved. Neither pouting lips nor thrift-store femininity could persuade me. I remained unimpressed with her seemingly eternal pursuit of heterosexual romance — a pursuit which was translated on film as “spunk” or “personality.” As an ominous sign she favored feathered blonde boys in white linen suits and my god, they were in high school. Bad taste by way of Simon LeBon was continental maybe, but unfailingly bland. Or she slummed it for an afternoon with the broken boy from a broken home, whatever — she got her kicks by crossing the tracks just far enough to fake the danger.

When feeling especially vicious, I imagined her twenty years later, her pale mauves and hot pinks turned to suburban corals, a sickly salmon hue. From Pretty in Pink to Some Kind of Wonderful to Say Anything, The John Hughes oeuvre was unfailingly conservative – either you learned your place in the social-class continuum, the value of upward mobility, or both — Reagan-era cultural politics for teenagers. And the dangerous girls, the ones with potential –the baby dykes and raccoon-eyed freaks– were inevitably tamed by the promise of romantic heterosexual love, that old sleight of (empty) hand. Like anyone really believed Watts with her red-fringed gloves and drumsticks in back jean pocket would fall for a chump boy like sensitive-yet-superficial Keith. We all knew in our heart of hearts that she was destined for girls like us, girls who wanted to rock (and make) out with other girls. I envisioned her in Greyhound buses and truck cabs, blonde head pressed against the rain-spattered window, trekking to the Pacific Northwest after a last-gasp graduation to join an all-girl rock band. And I cheered when The Basketcase in her black shadow and black mood uttered, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” That felt real and prophetic, even. But when Ally resurfaced from high school bathroom in white lace and distastefully muted eyeliner, I recognized the set-up and cursed Molly (and Hughes) for her awkward, awful transformation and looked away.

But Billie Jean — now she was a girl who could bruise your heart.

This shattered dream you cannot justify /We’re gonna scream until we’re satisfied /What are we running for? / We’ve got the right to be angry / What are we running for? / When there’s nowhere we can run to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent / Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

I love The Legend of Billie Jean. I first saw it when I was fourteen, three years after it was released. I was an alternateen looking for punk rock and I found Billie Jean. Not instead, but simultaneously. It had everything a girl like me could ask for in a “whirlwind story about a group of kids who challenge the adult world:” a girl outlaw in fingerless gloves and a righteous sense of justice. Isn’t this every girl’s teenage fantasy?

In The Legend, it’s summer in Texas, and the heat is sweltering. Billie Jean is an attractive working-class white teenager who lives in a trailer park with her divorced mother and bleached blonde younger brother Binx. Because she is “from the trailers,” the local boys believe she must be cheap, and led by ringleader Hubie, the boys trash Binx’s scooter (and later Binx) when Billie Jean proves otherwise.

Billie Jean arrives at Hubie’s father’s seaside shop to demand the exact amount for the scooter repairs after appealing to a sympathetic but dismissive police lieutenant. The senior Pyatt invites her upstairs to the office, ostensibly to withdraw money from the safe. Once there, he suggests a “play as you pay” plan – and he makes himself plain, sliding his hand against her arm and suddenly lunging. No wilting Texas rose, she knees him in the groin and flies down the stairs into the shop, where Binx has discovered the gun in the register. Seeing his sister threatened, he waves the gun at Pyatt, and the gun accidentally goes off. Thus begins their headlong flight from the law, taking their best friends Ophelia and Putter with them in a battered station wagon.

After a failed attempt to negotiate with the police at a mall -Pyatt brings a gang of teenage thugs for an ambush- the kids break into a mansion for food and shelter, and discover an ally in the son of the District Attorney. He suggests they make a video to present their demands and Billie Jean, earlier mesmerized by Jean Seberg’s portrayal of Joan of Arc (the film is playing during a group discussion), prepares herself for inadvertent pop stardom. Making sense of her situation through an image of Jean/Joan burning at the stake, she shears her locks and shreds her clothes, making herself over into a modern Joan of Arc or a more righteous (rather than merely art-damaged) Penelope Houston. It is through a commodity image that Billie Jean realizes her political strategy — manipulating a cinematic sensibility, she presents a striking figure on video. Her friends are awed – and soon, so is everyone else within reach of radios, newspapers and television sets.

The video of Billie Jean with her fist in the air, shouting, “Fair is fair,” is played everywhere. Inspired by her message she becomes a touchstone for teenage rebellion, a fugitive aided and abetted by legions of youth. They slip her past police roadblocks, offer her shelter in underground clubs, nourish her on their fathers’ credit cards. Young white girls get the “Billie Jean cut” and even Putter (no stranger to the “real” Billie Jean) invests in Billie Jean’s celebrity and defiantly cuts her hair before a rapt audience of wannabe Billie Jeans, cops, and her abusive mother.

Beneath the layered guitar wanking and arbitrary (but temporary) love interest lies not only a critique of misogyny and classism, but also a meditation on commodity culture, pop presence, and fantasies of identification. This is not limited to Billie Jean’s identification with the cinematic image of Jean/Joan. In the course of her criminalization Billie Jean becomes iconic as a sexualized body in ways which she cannot control. Ever the businessman, Pyatt not only displays the bloody shirt he’d been wearing when shot, but shills photographs of Billie Jean taken by Hubie’s pals, emerging enraged from a local swimming hole in a clinging top and bikini. He pawns pastel-hued t-shirts emblazoned with her “mug shot,” the red concentric circles of a target framing her head. There are visors (oh so ’80s) and posters and bumper stickers and frisbees and beach towels, some of them ironically emblazoned with the slogan “Fair is fair.”

Her gender and class status as “white trash,” those markers that contain and constrain her mobility through the world, are coded as dangerous and criminal. As such her status as a “white trash” teenage girl makes her hyper-visible to the disciplinary state, but also to commodity culture, even while her ascent to cult figure in some ways depends upon ignoring the historicity of those social conditions; so that even as she is pursued by the mustered strength of Texas law enforcement, her image reaps profit and (pop) pleasure for others.

The Marxist model of commodity fetishism describes an affective process, a substitution of meanings – the social relations of labor are disguised by the commodity form. But commodities and images do not simply veil “real” conditions, but constitute them. Images are also social relations, and this becomes clear for Billie Jean as the line between state surveillance and her supposed celebrity is blurred. This is a different order of fetishism – a fetishism of figures, in which the iconic persona of “Billie Jean” is invested with a life of her own. People relate not to Billie Jean per se but her image, and in a way that obscures the histories of its determination as image — including Billie Jean’s own meditation upon Jean Seberg’s cinematic portrayal. Like all pop icons, she (both Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc and Billie Jean) becomes the screen upon which an audience of thousands projects their fears and fantasies. In the latter case, the adults are afraid of her, the kids adore her. They make meaning of their own lives, whether seemingly threatened or otherwise encouraged, in relation to her image.

A group of preteens rally to her, hoping that she’ll save a neighborhood boy from the physical abuse of his father; a man spies her adolescent “gang” and vows to bring her to justice, and like a Old West vigilante (complete with cowboy hat and rifle) he guns his pick-up truck at the gathered children. And as a pop figure the social relations that conditioned Billie Jean’s outlaw status are obscured – the girl who offers Billie Jean a ride in her Ferrari might not have done so if she were not a celebrity, and the throngs of teenagers who sport her image may very well have been her torturers only days earlier. The girls who turn themselves in to the police, all claiming to be Billie Jean, participate in a projective fantasy of being “bad” like Billie Jean in ways that elide uneven class relations and hierarchy and also manifest a desire for “authenticity.” It is a fantasy with material force – while the sense of solidarity forged between the girls is mediated by commodity culture (and punk rock is no exception), it is still a meaningful relation, enough to inspire the contradictory impulse to both appropriate and inhabit Billie Jean’s notoriety. Their gesture is not simply part disrespect and part homage, part consumption and part conviction, but a mixture of all these things at once.

The conclusion of the film finds Billie Jean confronted with her iconic stature, literally. Her brother has just been shot by state troopers -mistaken for herself in a dress- and disappeared into the back of an ambulance at the beach where she was to turn over the “hostage” and receive a new bike. There are crowds of young and old (but mostly young) attracted to the beach by the media-frenzy over Billie Jean’s scheduled appearance. In the hours before the exchange -boy for bike- was to be made, beach-goers are treated to Billie Jean haircuts, Billie Jean contests, Billie Jean souvenirs. Radio station DJs broadcast from sandy towels and portable amps and the teenaged audience parties in anticipation.

Billie Jean only notices once her brother is taken away that everyone has her face stuck to some part of their bodies, and follows the trail of lights in the dimming dusk to the circus tent Pyatt has erected to sell his wares. Towering above the beach is a paper-mache effigy of Billie Jean, pointing a gun toward the ground, other hand on hip. Before the crowd, the cops and the cameras she confronts him about his sexual coercion, his unwillingness to otherwise pay for the damages to the bike – and seeing that she has an audience, he grins, stutters, and attempts to bribe her into silence, or submission. He reaches into the register and pushes a wad of bills into her limp hand. “A little more, a little less, does it matter?” he says. “It’s not about the money,” she replies scornfully, and throws the bills into the fire. As Pyatt scrambles on all fours to recover the cash Lloyd moves behind her to toss a poster into the growing flames. Soon the crowd is coming forward to lay their souvenirs in the fire, or lofting them through the air. Everyone watches as the fire grows to consume the posters, t-shirts, tent and effigy, perhaps participating in another, totally different kind of collective pleasure.

In film after film Molly (and others like her) triumphs when she wins the rich boy in her homemade prom dress or bride’s maid gown, proof she is worthy of heterosexual desire. Not Billie Jean. In the end she walks away from the fire, the boy, and Texas. (This is when the Pat Benetar song “Invincible” plays, and this is why I tear up like a big gooey baby every time I hear it.) Her burning effigy is not only an allusion to Joan of Arc – having led the people to a dream of freedom, she’s misunderstood and betrayed by the very same- but a potential critique of consumption as “revolutionary” activity. But at the same time it speaks to the dangers of consuming and appropriating radical stances and images, of the depoliticization of historical conditions or capitalist relations, it also points to the contradictory pleasures of fantasy identification with our pop stars and the possibility for that pleasure to become a kind of political agency, however temporary.

Is any of this coincidence? One of the screenwriters for the film was Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted writer in the 1950s who was targeted by the House on Un-American Activities Commission for his leftist political alliances. It’s entirely possible that he was versed in the kinds of intellectual debates circulating among leftist cultural workers at the time, and retained some of these threads even in penning a mainstream film marketed for the vast American teenage market.

Is it cheesy? Well, you could argue all teen flicks by necessity are idealistic and melodramatic, and this is a fantasy about a teenaged heroine who struggles against a homegrown injustice. Overt metaphors (perhaps Joan of Arc is a bit much) and the cringe-worthy menstruation scene are distracting. And clearly Billie Jean the character depends upon Helen Slater the actor being recognized as conventionally “pretty:” tall, thin, blond. But I think the demand for absolute resistance is misguided, and to demand purity in pop culture ignores contradictory and complex realities, and so maybe there’s hope for Molly after all. We know by now that no mass cultural production (especially film) is shaped outside of corporate management and market influence; we know capitalist culture is able to assimilate even the most “revolutionary” sorts of images or themes without threat to its survival.

But it may be that because we already know these things, we can begin to ask other questions. The issue of how to capture the popular imagination is at the center of the struggle for hegemony. Instead of dismissing popular culture (and its audience) for the fact of its messy manufacture, we might probe further to examine the character and range of any given commodity form’s power and possibility, what moment of crisis it might represent, what (problematic) pleasures it might afford. We should neither blindly denounce nor embrace these pleasures, but instead try to understand what produces them. This does not mean we abandon the analysis of late capitalist culture or patriarchal relations; on the contrary, it might mean that we take these more seriously. And as black queer theorist Wahneema Lubiano writes, “It might well be that taking popular culture seriously could teach us something about form, about aesthetics and about the development of pleasure in politics.”

And maybe I just want to be able to take seriously my own pleasures; as a queer Asian American girl reader of pop culture, I remember what it meant for me to harbor crushes on Duckie and Watts (and thus imagine her alternate endings), or to read Wonder Woman as “almost Asian” (I was seven, and it was the black hair that did it). But it’s also because when I first saw this movie at fourteen, it was like how punk rock used to feel – impossibly, hopefully idealistic. However uneven my own fantasy of identification, it fueled both my nascent desire for rebellion and my sense of its potential. And watching it however many years later, it reminds me how good it felt to believe.

I’ll always love you, Billie Jean.

And with the power of conviction /There is no sacrifice /It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible /Won’t anybody help us? / What are we running for? /When there’s nowhere we can to anymore /We can’t afford to be innocent /Stand up and face the enemy / It’s a do or die situation /We will be invincible!

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FILM: Useless/Wu Yong

Thanks to Selvedge, I’ve stumbled across the 2007 documentary Useless/Wu Yong from award-winning Chinese director Jia Zhangke about the experimental work of Chinese fashion designer Ma Ke. The documentary follows the preparation and launch of her collection Useless in Paris, and also serves as a meditation on craft and industrial production under late capitalism. From the synopsis:

A hot and humid day in Canton. Amid the thunderous noise of sewing machines, women work quietly under fluorescent lamps in a garment factory. The clothes they make will soon be shipped to unknown customers. Likewise, the future of each face along the assembly line is blurred.

A wintry day in Paris. Chinese designer Ma Ke prepares her newly established brand “Wu Yong” (Useless) to be launched in a spectacular show. An anti-fashion designer, she abhors assembly lines. The trademark of her majestic line is based on first burying the clothes in dirt to allow nature and time to put the finishing touches on her work.

There’s also a press kit you can download from the official site, which includes interviews with both the director and designer. Here, Zhangke talks about the many layers of his film:

[Ma Ke’s] work went far beyond the image I had of fashion design; to my surprise, I found that her ‘Wu Yong’ collection made me reflect on China’s social realities, not to mention history, memory, consumerism, inter-personal relationships and the rise and fall of industrial production. At the same time, the idea of making her the subject of a film gave me the chance to look at a wide range of social levels as I followed the process from design to manufacture to exhibition in the garment industry.

I hope that we’ll get to see this documentary soon — I can’t seem to find any information about screenings or DVD release.

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