Wednesday, November 25, 2009

F for Fake and On Volunteering

While reading a blog post by The Smirking Chimp's resident curmudgeon BlueTigress (1) and with her help, in one of those aha moments, I saw another way of talking about my favorite theme, illusions; fake.

Mere synonym aside, the reason I'm making a distinction is that I like the vehemency of "fake" versus "illusions," the latter having more of a literate flavor, the high versus the low of "fake" or "phony". It has much more muscle. There's also another dimension to "fake" that I like; agency, planning or plotting, intention, motivation. Implicit in it is the notion that someone planned something and gave or executed it, no matter how stupid or well-thought out, poorly or masterly played. That's not necessarily inherent in "illusions" which implies the receiving end of perception, the one exception being magic tricks.

The great Orson Welles essayed on this very subject whose title I stole for this entry; it's nothing less than one of the most brilliant movies I've ever seen in both form and content.(3)

All of which - BlueTigress, Welles and my liking the theme of illusions - says that I think the term "fake" or even "phony" applies more accurately to American "capitalism" than "illusion," because it places the onus upon the people who wield conglomerated power.

I admit to an experiment; see if I could write an essay whose footnotes were longer than the main body. I've succeeded.

1. While I couldn't agree more with her take on crazy liberals, particularly white-guilted ones, I disagree with her when she admonishes them by saying,

As for the self-flagellation crowd? Look people, what's done is done and cannot be undone. Rather than go "we're so horrible" go to the reservation and volunteer to teach the kids or volunteer to be the tribe's general helper. Work with the people who are here now, rather than try to raise the consciousness of people who don't care. You're wasting your time and irritating them, which makes them even LESS receptive to your message. If it makes you feel noble to eat your bread and water meal in a room that was purposely made cheerless so you could meditate on the injustice Europeans have done to the world, fine. And when you've emerged from your hermitage, and nothing is different, don't feel bad. You did what you thought best. But did it matter?

It's the part about volunteering. Let me be honest about it; fuck volunteering. It's unctuous, condescending and infantilizes poor people of color. As Jonathan Kozol so aptly noted decades ago, bleeding heart liberal white kids come and go in the ghetto every summer during internships... and yet the reservation/barrio/ghetto stays the reservation/barrio/ghetto and the white kids disappear, only to be replaced by the next crop. In a poignantly funny moment, I recall Kozol remarking how blacks would look at white kids who opted to go barefoot to show that they were down as crazy, for who would choose to go barefoot when they had perfectly good shoes?

By saying, "...rather than try to raise the consciousness of people who don't care," she ignores history and that ole sayin', there's more than one way to skin a cat. After all, in conglomerating around the issues of war, civil rights, women's rights, and Watergate, those issues were dealt with because it was so in your face, all the time, even in the music and movies of the day. It's also much harder to organize disenfranchised folks, let alone impart pragmatism that works in favor of their needs, and I suspect that's the reason even the "pragmatic and down to earth" BlueTigress would rather advocate for volunteering than organizing.

And an important point that seems obvious to me but which I find myself clarifying time and again in these arguments; I'm not questioning the intention(s) of people, I'm interested in effects. I can remember the first time David Hilliard started telling me stories about crazy liberals when I produced a series of programs with he and Luis Rodriguez (and later, Piri Thomas!) and cracking up. But then, one particular gig which was at Jerry Brown's compound, we had a couple of nut cases - one a butt fugly fat Asian lesbo tree hugger who was mouthy to the point of making everyone within earshot do the eye roll; shithead snuck in without paying, too. The other was the typical Berkeley liberally conscious yenta who looked like she orgasmed at the thought of the Dewey Decimal system and replete with her white fro curls, so full of self-righteousness and certainty as to what "progressive" was that anything outside of its bounds -- such as Luis' story of transcendence or the Panther free breakfast program -- made her throw up. She ended up leaving during the program, but not before making us all aware of how we were all so wrong for listening to this (re-write? revisionism?) "stuff." Of course, they were at the extreme end.

Mr. Hilliard's real point, of course, was that the world was overflowing with crazy liberals who mouth off with lofty idealism, "book smarts" and high ideals, but in the end, shoot blanks. And that's why people who are crazy liberals can't stand true progressives - because real progressives are grounded in equal parts idealism and pragmatism; they have a sense of high and low, are resourceful, have strategic plans, and last but not least, they do the work.

Volunteering, on the other hand, is selfish and done for the feeling of "doing some thing good," ostensibly for the Other, but inwardly, psychologically, deceptively, for one's own self, (trust me, the irony's not lost here). It reminds me of people who do nothing about oppressive systems 364 days in a row, and then dole out Thanksgiving turkey on Skid Row. It accomplishes nothing systemically and in fact continues the infantilization of the recipients. Like virtually 99% of American systems, it's a quick fix.

The other "real progressive scenario" is a lot of frustration with the odds against you and a lot of poverty because the disenfranchised aren't motivated toward conglomerating like capital interests who have attainable, concrete goals, clearer paths via systems they are players in and the connections toward attaining them.

In other words, one is temporarily playing at action, the other's real hard work with poverrty level wages or somewhere thereabouts. This way of looking at volunteering also comports with the theme, because fake is deception, and that is exactly what goes on internally within the volunteer; self-deception.

2. In particular, there's the notion of the relationship between film(maker) and spectator, which for lack of a better way of stating it relies on a consistent interrogating of the viewer, with doubt as its tool. This is a deeper relationship - or at least a more complex one - that goes far beyond the "talking to the camera" gimmick (Annie Hall) or the mere pointing of a camera at the viewer (a'la' the opening credit sequence of Le Mepris). No doubt Noel Burch has nailed this.

Of course, reflexivity is nothing new to the cinema - Porter's The Great Train Robbery comes to mind - but the (psychological) level and sophistication with which Welles engages the audience portends things to come... which never were to be.

The tragedy of Welles - Never underestimate the stupidity of the studio system to ostracize greatness and banish him to a promise unfulfilled and but a beautiful glimpse.