Mitski’s new single, “Working for the Knife”, uses the psychic relationship with film to talk about the psychic relationship with art under capitalism. While Mitski is sometimes laundered down to a confessional writer, she often states in interviews that she writes more usually about the process of making music, the process of making art–about which she sings with desperation in Geyser that despite her desires and her best efforts, “it’s not real\ it’s not real\ it’s not real enough.”
In the music video, she acts out a variety of filmic archetypes, from the sinister competence of the chain-smoking cowboy with her invisible cigarette to the manic ecstasy or fear of the tortured female horror movie protagonist, who stomps and flails with her hair flying around her face to expiate whatever enormous terrible emotion it is that lives inside her. (This figure is the “unhinged woman” in the Internet parlance of the moment. Overuse of a word causes what linguists call semantic bleaching, the invisibilization of the embedded metaphor. What comes through the door that sits off its hinges?) What’s terrible about capitalism, she might want to say, is that it commodifies not only the actual product of your creative spirit, but even the very reason you want to create, if you are an artist working in a certain stream. Capitalism causes you to buy and sell your only tool to make life mean anything, to force yourself to manufacture such meaning-making or to fake manufacturing it.
Sufjan Stevens’ new album with Angelo de Augustine, A Beginner’s Mind, is also about movies. The set of movies that he and de Augustine respond to is very particular: a Zizekian mix of high and low culture with a focus on fantasy and crime film, what I guess we used to call “cult classics” before everyone was the cult. Of course the high/low culture dichotomy is problematic, but it points at a real difference at least in creative intention or cultural reception, and I’m not very interested here in playing language games about it. Writing an album exclusively about Wim Wenders movies at this point in the culture would maybe seem pretentious at this interval, but you buy goodwill by juxtaposing them with Point Break so as not to pretend you’ve never enjoyed a blockbuster.
My personal version of this album would include a lot of supernatural action horror from the years 1995 – 2005: a second Reeves vehicle, Francis Lawrence’s Constantine, particularly Tilda Swinton as the ethereally androgynous and vaguely sadomasochistic archangel Gabriel, was very formative for me. The way we enjoy these movies is certainly different from the way they were meant to be enjoyed, though it’s not quite ironic in the meanspirited way sometimes meant by early Internet pioneers of the sport. We are sincere in our appreciation of the feelings they arouse in us, but we aren’t a passive audience. We want to re-use the sometimes flimsy archetypical material that is being offered us to derive new insights or synthesize new theories. I think this is probably a more holistic approach to media criticism than the hoity-toity refusal to look twice at anything made for the masses or for money. It just seems to me we all started doing it at once.
I read the revelatory Girls Against God earlier this year, which had me wandering around in a daze nearly the whole time I had a dog-ear in it, savouring a new and previously untapped hatred of artistic pablum and the mediocre. I examined it with somewhat impressed alarm on the bus or the sidewalk. I had never found the guts to label this emotion as hatred before, partially because I’m well aware that I myself am probably mediocre, statistically speaking, and it is distressing to hate yourself. Hating the mediocre is very different from hating the bad. Hating the mediocre leaves plenty of room for deep-reading art that produces an intense emotional reaction in you even if it’s formally scattered or incompetent, even if it’s silly or overwrought, or relies on Keanu Reeves to do too much emoting. Jenny Hval, who I first knew as an experimental musician, writes about black metal and avant-garde film as the same impulse — an impulse to break through art and access the Real, to destroy the falsehood of fiction and somehow force art to do what we want it to do. What is it we want it to do? You can only stomp and flail in response.
(She describes, close to the end of the book, an imaginary hours-long movie with a single shot of a black metal band standing still. It’s funny, but the description of this movie is almost more effective than it would be to actually make the movie, which I wouldn’t want to watch. Similarly, I often tell people about Annea Lockwood’s River Archives, three-hour-long sonic pieces that track the flow of particular rivers from source to sea, but I’ve never listened to one all the way through, even though “Sound Map of the Danube” is available for free on YouTube in its entirety.)
Recently, I decided I want to get serious about reading theory, and I downloaded a film syllabus and a textbook to begin a self-guided wander through critical film theory. I did this even though I have no intention of making a movie. Other than writing, I’m interested in working on a game, maybe. I draw in my spare time, but have no intention of pursuing it in any way seriously. Of all art forms that produce objects, maybe the only thing I’ve never considered making is a movie. It’s not because the possibility seems too obscure to me. I know several women who have directed short films and have played in several practice efforts on their protosets, once as a drowned ghost in a black silk robe, for which role I dunked my whole head in my filled kitchen sink. Maybe I don’t want to make movies because film is a social and communal pursuit at its heart, and I don’t want to cede control of creative output to anybody else. Nevertheless, it’s movies, and not literary criticism or games or visual art, that I intuitively decided was the angle I’d choose to expand my understanding of media studies.
I have a few more examples of this type of thing–Weyes Blood wrote “Movies” as far back as 2019, and Baths wrote “Adam Copies” about Neon Genesis Evangelion a year earlier. But I could put a million examples forward and they would all have the same empirical problem, i.e., that I am already a person who’s interested in film, who’s in fact working on a manuscript for a fiction novella that leans heavily on film for its metaphorical infrastructure, so it’s obvious why I would notice any increase in non-cinematic art that intertextually summons cinema. I’m not making a claim that this represents a sweeping culturewide trend, or that it even necessarily represents a change. Maybe I just haven’t listened to enough music from before 2010, since that was approximately when I bought my first-ever CD (Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated”). But I do wonder. Is there a reason that we are all so interested in movies, as opposed to books, or dance, or textile art? Why aren’t two major albums coming out this year that are about video games?
I would like to hazard that many of us who are interested in art are exposed to more film and TV than anything else, through our multiplicity of streaming services, which we put on every time we sit down to eat a tofu stir-fry for dinner alone in our rooms in front of our computers. I don’t know whether to point at the supply or the demand side to try to explain the fact, and the suggestions I have I can’t effectively investigate. It could be more cost-effective for capitalism to sell us infinitely restreamable TV than anything else. Our Twitter-winnowed attention spans might demand fast-moving input. These aren’t suggestions I can effectively investigate beyond speculation. It could also be purely the stochastic effect of interesting thinkers becoming interested in movies and the rest of us following suit.
I’m not sure. I’m only asking. Is something happening to us? Should I be worried? I just want to watch movies.