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January 6th, 2014 / 8:01 am
Film & Music

Let’s overanalyze to death … Macaulay Culkin eating a slice of pizza

On 16 December of last year, Macaulay Culkin posted to YouTube a video of himself eating a slice of pizza:

I watched it and showed it to some friends because, on the one hand, how random! Macaulay Culkin! Eating pizza! Lol! One million other people and counting apparently felt similarly.

The video fascinates because it depicts a star (or a former child star) doing something utterly mundane. The presentation is simple, stripped down. The shot is static and there are no cuts. Culkin looks embarrassed to even be there, to be watched eating. There’s no glitz, no glamor. The guy eats pizza just like you and me, even tearing off the crust (though I would’ve finished the rest of the slice).

At the same time, the video fascinates because it’s awful—it’s “so bad it’s good.” That reaction is breathlessly conveyed in the Time Magazine blog post, “Questions We Asked Ourselves While Watching Macaulay Culkin Eat a Slice of Pizza,” which presents no fewer than forty-six questions about the video, in pseudo-live-blogging fashion:

Why does he look like he really doesn’t want to be wherever he is, or eating the slice?

Has he ever eaten a slice of pizza before?

Why does he look so sad?

Does he know he’s being filmed?

Do the pizza oils get trapped in his beard?

Why does he keep looking up?

Forty-six questions is a lot of questions, prompting a forty-seventh: “How many times did author Eric Dodds watch the damn thing?” And one million views is a lot of views. Thus, despite being banal, despite being awful, the video is somehow also something else. Would it be fair to call it transcendent? Even sublime? And if so, why? Because it purportedly offers us unmediated access to a former star, now desperately embarrassing himself?

But far from being random, or mundane, or excruciatingly candid, Culkin’s pizza video is a put-on, its every second pure artifice. For starters, it’s a loving recreation of another work—a short film of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger:

Culkin’s video faithfully mirrors Warhol’s—for instance, his oregano “fails” to come out of its shaker the same way Warhol’s Heinz ketchup failed him. Culkin rips off the pizza slice’s crust in an echo of Warhol dispensing with part of the bun, and ultimately stops eating the same way the older artist did, with just a few bites left. Like Warhol, Culkin places the remaining food and trash inside the bag and balls it all up, then fidgets awkwardly in front of the camera for half a minute, before announcing who he is and what he’s done. Nothing in Culkin’s video, then, is in earnest. It’s rehearsed, acted. It’s a performance.

The video is also an advertisement for Culkin’s new band, the Pizza Underground. Barely more than a month old, they sing covers of Velvet Underground songs, except they change the lyrics to make the songs about pizza:

I’m waiting for the delivery man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Comes from Domino’s, one two three
More than thirty minutes and that pizza is free
I’m waiting for the delivery man

At first glance, we seem to have been thrust back into the realm of the totally random. Why the Pizza Underground? Is pizza somehow like velvet? Is pizza now a staple in New York City’s underground sex scenes? … Don’t answer that.

The incongruity is the point. The substitution of pizza comes across as childish, even Twee: we have here a bunch of hipsters ironically taking the piss (pizz?) out of Lou Reed and John Cale, et. al. Their first move is to unburden the Velvet Underground’s songs of their more adult content—heroin and orgies and sadomasochism—replacing it with what might be the most inoffensive commodity imaginable. Because pizza appeals to everyone; everyone likes it, and everyone eats it: kids, adults, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, drunken frat boys, even hipsters. (There’s even vegan pizza, and gluten-free pizza. Pizza is for everyone!) Not unlike an artistic version of Rudy Giuliani, Culkin and his gang have stripped the Velvet Underground’s New York of its seedy underbelly, its adult underground playground, replacing it with chains like Domino’s and Papa John’s and Pizza Hut.

And yet at the same time, consider who we’re watching. I don’t read tabloids, but I’m vaguely aware that Macaulay Culkin, post-John Hughes, post-Chris Columbus, has led a less-than-glamorous life. His parents stole all his money? He was rumored to have been molested by Michael Jackson? He was addicted to drugs? In the video, I see a scraggly young man, no longer the fresh-faced cherub who once gleefully tormented Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal!“) He looks, quite frankly, strung out—like someone who might fit in well at Warhol’s Factory, or unsteadily swaying along at a late ’60s VU show. Why, he could even be the subject of one of Lou Reed’s songs:

Baby Macaulay came and hit the streets
Lookin’ for pizza and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should have seen him go, go, go …

The Velvet Underground and its milieu fits Culkin more neatly than it initially may have appeared. (The video of the Pizza Underground’s first concert is fifteen minutes long. … Coincidence?)

And armed with the benefit of hindsight, how consistently “adult” was the Velvet Underground? How “mature” was Warhol? Despite the drugs, despite the S&M, weren’t they also—at least on certain occasions—perfectly happy to act “childish,” even what we have since then learned to call “Twee”? Consider Maureen Tucker’s drumming: her bashing away on simplified drum kits—and, on at least one occasion, garbage cans—arguably inspired the likes of Beat Happening and Meg White (although Moe famously eschewed the use of cymbals). And songs like “After Hours” and “Sunday Morning” sound as though they were written to one day wind up in Wes Anderson films (just like “Stephanie Says” did), or to be covered by Belle and Sebastian (as indeed “Sunday Morning” has been). Suddenly, Culkin and company’s drumming on an empty pizza box doesn’t seem all that much of a stretch.

Of course, Culkin’s band is a parody. When listening to the Pizza Underground, we hear both the original VU songs as well as their parodic deformation—

How much pizza must she eat
At all the pizza parties?

Here she comes
You better hide your slice
She’ll eat it all so you have none
It’s no fun
Everybody knows
She’s a pizza gal

—which is why (judging from that concert video) the band plays a medley, offering up passages selected from the Velvet Underground’s biggest hits. That way, they can cut straight to the parts that we’ll most recognize, calling attention to the pizza-centric changes that they’ve made. (Along similar lines, they’ve made the short video “Empire Pizza,” a five-minute parody of Warhol’s notorious eight-hour-long 1964 film Empire. Five minutes is possibly the shortest amount of time needed to make the joke.)

Every substitution requires an exclusion. Missing from Culkin’s pizza video are specific brands: Warhol ate a Burger King Whopper, but Culkin isn’t chowing down on a slice of Donimo’s MeatZZa Feast®. (I wonder if he considered doing so?) Burger King and Heinz have been replaced by a generic brown bag, a generic slice of ‘za, and a container of oregano turned such that we cannot read its label. And missing from the Pizza Underground’s songs are the specific people and places, and specific underground artworks and artists, that Lou Reed sang about: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Edie Sedgwick, the corner of Lexington and 125th. In their place, we get generic pizza gals and the nondescript pizza parties of tomorrow.

What about the specific pizza chains that are also now part of the songs—Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut? I have two thoughts there. The first is that they are being evoked only ironically. When Papa John’s replaces Steven Sesnick in the PU’s cover of “Stephanie Says”—

Papa John’s says
When answering the phone,
“Which toppings should I saw you want?
We deliver now.”

Papa John’s says (Papa John’s says)
That he’d like to know (he’d like to know)
Why you’ve given half your life
To toppings you hate now.

“But I didn’t want anchovies!”
People called and they said no mushrooms.
“This pie’s cold, and there’s mushrooms—
Get them off my pie!”

—I don’t think we can read that as any endorsement of Papa John’s—as an ad for the chain. Nor are we meant to be moved by Papa John’s plight, the way Lou Reed intends us to be moved by Stephanie’s. (It’s so cold in Chicago, too, Stephanie—call me!) Fittingly, the audience laughs. We all know it’s just a big joke.

But it’s a joke with a serious undertone, thanks to Culkin’s presence. His progression from child star to scruffy pizza rocker—from “the greatest child actor since Shirley Temple” to a bearded, shaded, black-clad, ironic hipster—suggests a rejection of Hollywood, and of polished Hollywood commerce. The Home Alone movies that he remains best-known for contained rampant product placement: numerous shots and snatches of dialogue designed to shill for American Airlines, Pepsi, Budget Rentals, Coca-Cola, Tiger’s Deluxe Talkboy Tape Recorder, Dodge Ram, Tic-Tac, Honda, more. What’s more, critics at the time took notice: as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it in his Chicago Reader review, “John Candy [appears] in a cameo designed to assist a product placement.” Considered in the fading light of its most famous member, the Pizza Underground’s casually name-dropping pizza chains comes across as all the more insincere.

This brings us to the second and more poignant way the chains work, a thought related to the crack I made above about Rudy Giuliani. The Pizza Underground ultimately strikes me as a fairly loving tribute to the Velvet Underground—the chance for Culkin and his friends to dress up and pretend that they’re Warhol, Nico, Maureen Tucker, John Cale, Doug Yule, the late Sterling Morrison, and the recently departed Lou Reed. But of course they’re only pretending—paying homage to a time and place that’s passing out of reach. If there’s any sublime at work here, it’s that of the underground art world of New York City in the 1960s, a time and place that taught so many of us, then and now, what it means to be an artist—what we even consider art—especially when confronted by mainstream capitalism. Macaulay Culkin and the Pizza Underground are straining for a slice of that, even as they acknowledge it’s well out of reach.

That said, I can’t wait for their inevitable follow-up, Wheat Pizza/Wheat Heat.Sister Rigatoni,” anyone?

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