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November 13th, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes & Film

I’m sorry, Mario, but your cultural critique is in another castle: some thoughts on hipster irony

Last August I attended a live reenactment of Total Recall (the classic 1990 version, natch, not the remake). It was a deliberately shambolic affair, a loosely-focused variety show run by Everything Is Terrible and Odds N’ Ends, involving puppets, videos, intentionally bad acting, and dancing. It was, I suppose, what some would call “hip” or “ironic.”

At one point we watched a reedited version of one Total Recall‘s many chase scenes—the infamous escalator shootout where Arnold uses a bystander as a shield—now set to Drowning Pool’s “Bodies.” (You can watch the video here.) Which is about as cliched as it gets, but it totally works as comedy.

Part of what makes the video funny is that the Everything Is Terrible folks have upped the intensity of the Drowning Pool song: “Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor … Oh, wait, they’re totally stepping on that dead guy’s squishy body—ick.” Here we must pause responsibly to acknowledge that Drowning Pool frontman David Williams has always stated that the song is not actually about “the violence thing,” but rather the “respect and code” of the mosh pit, or some such other bullshit. That hasn’t stopped Hollywood folk from using the song in numerous action movie trailers. Nor has it deterred legions of Drowning Pool fans from making their own YouTube versions.

In other words, the Everything Is Terrible video’s ironic effect depends on the pairing being a cliché. Like a lot of satirical and ironic art, it proceeds by imitating an otherwise naïve or sincere effect, then subverting it. (This is why “irony vs. sincerity” is often an unhelpful binary when thinking about phenomena like hipster irony or the New Sincerity; those scenes or movements aren’t strict artistic opposites, since they necessarily share a lot of their aesthetic maneuvers. Where they differ usually lies more in their degree of self-effacement, and in their authorial intention.)

Hipster irony is commonly perceived purely as dismissal: “You’re just making fun of Drowning Pool.” And there’s certainly truth in that—fuck Drowning Pool! But is that all there is? Because the EIT video, I think, and the entire Totally Recalled show, could be perceived as something more. Those behind the show, and those in attendance, I’d argue, were actually trying to appreciate “Bodies”—but in the only way they now can. Irony, in other words, allows hipster audiences to make use of material that would otherwise be off-limits to them.

It won’t surprise you that I want to turn here to Viktor Shklovsky, because he identified a concept that I think might help us. It is his concept of deterioration:

We should mention in passing that a device in a state of deterioration can still be used to parody the device itself. So Pushkin made use of the banal rhyme “rose/close” even as he pointed out its banality in his verse. (Theory of Prose, 38)

(Here’s more on what Shklovsky means by device.)

To illustrate this particular use of devices, Shklovsky presents us with the example of “the abduction plot”: a child is abducted as a baby, grows up, then later reencounters his or her family. This device is apparently quite common in Byzantine literature, and Shklovsky criticizes a fellow writer, Merezhovsky, who takes that prevalence as a sign that late Byzantine culture was “degenerate”—i.e., he thinks the Byzantine artist is drawing on real life. Shklovsky replies that the device is purely a device, not a depiction of reality (37–8).

We today find a similar device in the plot of the kidnapped princess. Is this device realistic? Is our culture therefore degenerate? Think of how many contemporary video games revolve around some princess getting captured. And yet how many princesses exist in this day and age, and how many are ever kidnapped? In the world of video games, meanwhile, Princess Peach alone has been kidnapped by Bowser … how many times? Indeed, her imperilment has become such an overused plot device, such a cliché, that it’s apparently explicitly commented upon in Super Paper Mario (2007):

In Chapter 8-2, Mimi, a loyal minion of Count Bleck, taunted her for having been kidnapped so many times and for being rescued by plumbers instead of just rescuing herself.

And elsewhere in that article, it’s claimed that “In at least one game, Toadsworth remarks that she is kidnapped, on average, every week.”

Those moments of self-commentary in the Mario games are examples of what Susan Sontag called “deliberate camp” (see note #18): “Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’).” And it’s one way to preserve the deteriorating device. The ironic hipster has her own version of this, too: it can be seen in the many burlesque shows across our great nation. See also College Humor’s take on it, though I hesitate slightly to call that “hipster.” Still, the principle is the same.

Hipster irony, in this view, is always more than pure pretense. No one would drink that much Pabst Blue Ribbon if they didn’t, on some level, enjoy PBR. Ironic enjoyment is still enjoyment. Or to put it another way: one’s irony does not render one immune to PBR’s alcohol content. The hipster, in ordering a PBR, may indeed be making an ironic statement:

  • “I’m acknowledging the way corporations brand us by pretending to be branded.”
  • “I’m pretending to be working-class when in fact I’m middle-class.” (Though who’s middle class these days, huh?)
  • “I’m alluding to Blue Velvet, in order to see who else gets that.”
  • “I’m making a camp appreciation of the way in which this cheap-ass beer pretends to be higher quality (‘Blue Ribbon’).”

The motivations underlying these statements are multiple and don’t entirely matter. (Let’s chalk them up to the desire to accumulate cred, or cultural capital.) And these ironic or camp statements may in fact be very clever. At the same time, however, we must note that our hipster friend is making a sincere use of PBR: he wants to get drunk, and cheaply. (He could choose not to drink anything.) (Yeah, right.)

All of this has been to argue a view of irony as a gracious and not purely dismissive concept. It provides a means for using devices that could otherwise not be used, and for enjoying artworks that could otherwise not be enjoyed (at least, not without appearing naive). It’s possible that at least a few of the people in the audience at Totally Recalled were once Drowning Pool fans—and that some still enjoy the song, even if only in secret. (I just spent the past week revisiting Tori Amos’s catalog, which I enjoyed tremendously as a teenager. Not sure what I think of it now, or would admit to in public…. This isn’t public, right?) In other words, hipster irony removes the need for secrecy, allowing for public enjoyment, by affording a cloak of ambiguity.

That ambiguity, I think, is what so many find so alienating about hipster irony, if not irony in general: it is a kind of shield (shielded cloak?) behind which there’s plenty of room for concealing one’s genuine tastes. That is to say, even as the hipster reveals his appreciation, he does so in a guardedly insincere fashion, and thereby continues to evade any sense of culpability. (He isn’t culpable to any critique one might make of Drowning Pool, because he “doesn’t really like” the band.)

We could stop there and claim to have discovered something, but let’s push on a little more, and examine the artist who’s been hanging over this entire post: Total Recall‘s director, Paul Verhoeven. It would be an understatement to say that his films have received pretty mixed critical reactions. Even today, I still hear some express grave doubts about his artistic merit. (A friend once guffawed when I professed to sincerely love Robocop, and don’t get me started on Showgirls.) What’s more, I frequently hear people call Verhoeven “camp.” And I do not think he is camp at all.

So what is he, then? With each passing year, I think it’s easier to read the man’s Hollywood films as detailed critiques of some aspect of the US, and the way in which Americans understand themselves through media. (I just saw something along these lines in the latest issue of Sight & Sound.) In Total Recall, for instance, many have cottoned on to the reading that the whole film is in fact a fantasy—the vacation that Douglas Quaid purchases from Rekall. (Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger point this out in their utterly brilliant DVD commentary track.) In this way, the movie ultimately serves as a metaphor for action films in general: you buy your ticket, you get your escapist violent fantasy, you go back to work the next day. So you really do identify with Douglas Quaid, who’s sitting the whole time in a chair—and who ends up lobotomized, right?

But can Verhoeven, like the hipster, claim a lack of culpability? It seems to me that there’s really no way he can—but nor does Verhoeven want to do that. Total Recall is a comment upon the escapist nature of violent Hollywood action films, yes, but it is also an escapist violent Hollywood action film. (As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his introduction to Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”) (See also A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket.)

We see a good example of that in Starship Troopers. Because it is more cartoonish, more over-the-top, one thinks it would be easier to read Verhoeven’s critical intent. (See, for instance, this excerpt.) The SS-derived costumes, the narrator’s overly concerned tones, the “bug-stomping” parody of 1950s anti-Communism films—all of this is presented as a pretty clear mockery of propaganda—including the US media’s glorification of the first Gulf War. (Not for nothing is the film trying to recruit its audience to go battle “monsters” in the desert. As Verhoeven has put it, “War makes fascists of us all.”) And yet, even though Starship Troopers is ultimately a much less ambiguous film than Total Recall—it’s an anti-war film in the guise of a propaganda film—people still failed to register the critique in Starship Troopers. I saw it in the theater; I was there; I watched people missing the point.

The danger of Verhoeven’s cinema, then, is that he’s such a good satirist, it’s been easy to miss his critical intent. This is why when many people watch some of his films now, they read them only ironically—i.e., they claim that one must make some other use of those films, which they take to be entirely naïve or sincere. For example, it’s become popular to organize camp viewings of Showgirls, a film that very few now regard as a deliberate masterpiece. (I myself consider it one.) As Susan Sontag thoroughly noted, camp is a form of ironic appreciation that depends on audiences enjoying an artwork for reasons other than what its maker intended. (It is, at heart, an enjoyment of bad art, particularly kitsch.) But those Showgirls viewing parties are reacting to the movie very much the way Verhoeven intended them to: the whole movie is a put-on, a joke. What is missing in this camp enjoyment is the understanding that the joke is ultimately a serious one.

As I observed earlier, Sontag distinguished in “Notes” between “deliberate camp” and “naive camp,” and one might consider Showgirls the former. But I think it’s actually satire. Complicating things, surely, is the problem that the screenplay, by Joe Eszterhas, does seem naively sincere. But I read Verhoeven as mocking Eszterhas, in much the same way that Starship Troopers mocks Robert A. Heinlein’s militarism.

Ultimately, I tend to think of Verhoeven as a pornographer, and a very moral one at that. It is I think impossible to argue that Verhoeven doesn’t intend for us to enjoy the sex and violence in his films. Nor do I get any impression that he himself fails to enjoy it. (He infamously called that particular shot of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct “revenge” for her refusal to go topless in Total Recall.)

But that is precisely what makes Verhoeven so valuable: his refusal to hide his own appreciation of what he is lampooning. Total Recall sees Verhoeven mocking the excessive violence in Hollywood films even as he embraces—and outdoes—that excessive violence. He at all times implicates himself in his own critique. (Related: the works of the recently departed Kōji Wakamatsu.)

By this logic, the real target of Verhoeven’s criticism is not culpability, but anyone who thinks themselves outside that culpability—he’s mocking puritans, and anyone else who would publicly disavow private enjoyment. (As they say, pornography’s the biggest media enterprise in the US, so someone has to be buying the stuff.) Hence the brilliance of Verhoeven’s 2006 feature Black Book, which can fairly be called an erotic Holocaust film. Because Holocaust films must be erotic; why else does Hollywood keep making them? (The Nazis are easily the best-dressed of all movie villains. Insert here just about any reference to Nietzsche, or Foucault.)

Verhoeven’s honest critiques are consternating. But they put the lie to Drowning Pool’s David Williams’s claim that “Bodies” somehow isn’t about violence. (Williams is presumably quite happy to collect his royalty check when a Hollywood producer misunderstands the song, and uses it in an action trailer.)

The question for the hipster, then, is not whether or not he enjoys the thing he’s supposedly critiquing—because we know he does; he’s fooling no one—but to what extent he’s willing to acknowledge that, and thereby implicate himself in his own critique.

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