Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Uncanny Valley

Conrad Flynn with a guest post following up on the idea of Quentin Tarantino as video store clerk auteur and meta-movie maker. Conrad relates QT  "the king of junk culture re-appropriation" and pioneer/ populariser of a "How many movies has this guy seen!?!" pomo-pastiche style of mash-up-movie.....  to a condition (at once spiritual and in many cases literal) of growing up in the Valley., i.e. near to Hollywood but not in it.

The internet's effect has been to make the rest of the world feel like the Valley.

The closest thing you could've had to the internet experience, in terms of a gluttonous diet of porn, and movie and music history....  before there was the internet was growing up in the Valley, and that Anything Goes aesthetic that raised  Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow and others... that embarrassment of riches -- and junk -- meant multiculturalism became a-culturalism, because there's no perspective passed on to you -- just a Hollywood library -- and it can create a cynicism and exhaustion because it burns you out if it's not given a context, or if that's all you ever feasted on.

Regarding the myth of Tarantino working in a video story and seeing everything....  His father had been an actor in Westerns in the 60s, and Tarantino was already a film-fanatic - that's why he was at the video store to begin with. It was correlative, not causative.... 

Tarantino's sensibilities are Valley even if he technically lived somewhere else in the Los Angeles area. [He did take an full time acting class in Toluca Lake, in Burbank, "the media capital of the world" and an incorporated city within the Valley]. That somewhere else was always just on the outskirts of Hollywood or L.A., it seems, so he was a nose pressed to the window, which ties into the Valley sensibility anyway.

The three tent pole characteristics for the Valley are nostalgia, kitsch and pornography. Susan Sontag technically graduated high school from North Hollywood High. Her own interests in camp and pornography in the 60s are relevant here. Camp being a form of deviant or subversive form of nostalgia and kitsch. And, of course, the aesthetic relationship between kitsch and pornography has been noted before many times. Some even going so far to say that pornography is a form of kitsch; certainly an ersatz form  of sexuality.  There's that Milan Kundera quote:

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

"The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

Also Oscar Wilde on sentimentality, relating to kitsch:

"A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.

That can be tied to the retro/nostalgia culture's superficiality: how it wants to enjoy the past or be sentimental but not pay a price for its indulgence. Similar to the pornographer wanting sexuality but rejecting an emotional intimacy and the price that comes with an actual connection. And with all this there's the degree of separation: making movies about other movies, music about other music, Kundera's kitsch shedding a tear over a previous tear. It can be tied into your own Retromania theories about current pop culture feasting on dead cultures and things that are no more. Not bringing them to life or adding them somehow, as a good revival of something might do, but making the corpse dance. You want to say to a lot of young artists "Yes, but what about your experiences and life? Don't you have anything of your own?" That question was leveled against Tarantino 20 years ago, and I'm sure even earlier against other artists, but now, as you've written, it's an aesthetic and a tag for a generation. The internet is a non-stop "Look what Junior found in the attic!" showcase.
Judd Apatow went to school in NYC but he lived in the Valley early on in his career, and had a failed TV pilot he created called "North Hollywood" that was about the vagaries of trying to make it in the entertainment industry and living in the Valley, on the outskirts and being an outsider who's almost made it.
So with all these directors [see also Paul Thomas Anderson, Burbank-brat Tim Burton] they were enamored and obsessed with entertainment from an early age, and had a knowledge of "the canon" and even the anti-canon in a way that was hard to pull off pre-broadband.  They all had family in the business as well. It's Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids" about the people who made movies of themselves.
Back to the meta-ness of their films: movies that are about movies, the history of movies, or are about entertainment and don't really reference anything outside of it. Religion doesn't factor in any of their lives -- not even peripherally or superficially. That's something you notice about the Valley: you wonder where people would even go to church, or if anyone, outside of the Latino and presumably Catholic population, even does. LA's conservative demographic moves to either Orange County -- heavily Republican -- or to Santa Clarita (where a Mormon represents them in Congress). A lot of other Christians moved east to Colorado or out of state. So the Valley, again, just being Hollywood's less-glamorous sibling, also pre-figures and puts a landscape to America's changing religious map that is increasingly irreligious, if not atheist. 
That's another thing that pre-figures the feeling you get when you go online or watch media and think there's something like a 7-1 agnostic to believer ratio. There's even the angle that the religious impulse, being so absent in the Valley, transmutes into a worship of entertainment. As much as anything else it's the post-religious atmosphere in the Valley, and the greater LA area, that was prophetic. It's not that Malibu, Brentwood, and the richest areas of the county and country are more religious, but they have ways of putting some glamor into their religious impulse, and what they replace it with. Whereas in the Valley you'd see a young man who is a monomaniac about something. 
Monomania: that other great characteristic of the internet. If you lived in Topeka, Kansas, in the 70-s there was a limit to how much film culture, or any culture, you could take in, but in LA there's a bottomless pit and history. So we're dealing with "the archives" and the "But wait! There's more!" element that the internet would bring to the rest of humanity years later. And there were other people in LA, who could enable you in your subculture and obsession, something that the internet would give you later but wasn't around for the rest of the country.

On ILX, years ago, I started a thread where you had to compare a director to a band, aesthetically: Tarantino's band was Pavement. They were both historians of their form, had the same breakout year (1992), and would steal from their idols and reference works every chance they got. They both flatter critics by putting in references that only critics and fellow buffs would appreciate -- they're the ideal artists for cinefiles and record collector geeks in the Nineties and Noughties.
It's ultimately all nihilistic because you feel if you took their record collections and films away they'd have nothing important to say. Entertainment about entertainment.

That's the feeling the Valley gives you: entertainment is to it what Catholicism is to Vatican City. In many ways it's just Hollywood with its make-up worn off. Filled with has-beens and up-and-comers. There was a women who, when this friend of mine introduced himself to her and said he was living in North Hollywood, she said "North Hollywood? Are you on your way up or on your way down?"


  1. Related material on Paul Thomas Anderson, even more Valley-uncanny than Tarantino or Burton:

    Paul Thomas Anderson - born and raised in the Valley. Named one of his movies "Magnolia" after the street just north of Ventura. Magnolia brings in a bunch of middle-class homes and neighborhoods but also goes through some bohemian parts and, near Burbank, is home to entertainment and kitsch stores (a Goth store, a retro toy store called "Blast from the Past," boutiques, film equipment and outfits etc. It epitomizes the Valley in a lot of ways, hence his naming the film after it)

    Here's a good quote from Anderson about that:

    "Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is from the San Fernando Valley. Growing up in the suburban area of Studio City, he was surrounded by houses and trees. For many years Anderson was embarrassed by this fact thinking—if he was not from the big city—he had nothing to say. “For a long time I felt ashamed that I was from the Valley,” Anderson admits. “What kind of stories were there to tell from there?”

    "The Valley is on the “other” side of the Hollywood Hills. There are no “studios” in Studio City, but the area of Van Nuys where Anderson went to high school had warehouses. Most of these warehouses would have signs hanging out front, but every fourth or fifth would not. Occasionally these warehouses would have fancy cars parked in the lot. And to Anderson this meant one thing, “There’s porno in there.”


    Noteworthy is the fact that Anderson attended the same private high school -- now closed -- that Michael Jackson attended: Montclair Prep. Robyn Thicke also went there. I've always thought an Anderson-directed Michael Jackson biopic would be great.

  2. And more:

    "Anderson was obsessed with Taratino when Reservoir Dogs came out. Like Tarantino, Paul Anderson's movies will have scenes that recall classic scenes in other films too. There's a shot in "There Will Be Blood" that's inspoired by Terance Malick's Days of Heaven, and another tent-preacher scene compositionally modelled on a similar scene from "Night of the Hunter". Boogie Nights famously took its final scene, conceptually, from the last scene in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

    "Director as band: For Anderson, LCD Soundsystem. They both flatter critics by putting in references that only critics and fellow buffs would appreciate -- they're the ideal artists for cinefiles and record collector geeks in the 00s.

    "James Murphy could move from pathological detachment to pathos and confiding sincerity, but he also couldn't write a song that didn't feel, at least to me, like it was only ultimately about other music -- or about listening to music".

  3. So why do I Love Paul Thomas Anderson but hate James Murphy?
    I dig Tarantino but can't stand Jon Spencer Blues Explosion??

  4. When I was walking through Burbank with Conrad, it felt like my soul was slowly being sucked away by a collectible Harold Ramis action figure.