Friday, April 29, 2011

Hollywood Boulevard & Death Drive (1933)

When I wrote about Hollywood's penchant for pummeling Los Angeles (read it here), I mentioned fiction that shared this apocalyptic perspective.  I cited Myron Brinig's The Flutter of an Eyelid, a novel from 1933 that ends with the destruction of California and the death of nearly all of its characters.  It is a strange, interesting, little-read novel with a biting sense of humor.  For instance, we see the various characters fall into the ocean, and one of them, a particularly obnoxious radio evangelist (fashioned after Amie Semple McPherson), is swallowed up by a whale -- then spit back out, apparently in disgust.

I wanted to I provide some passages from the catastrophic climax of Brinig's novel, passages that describe a scene much like the promotional poster for the movie 2012.  They may be a bit overwritten at times. but taken together, these paragraphs form a kind of prose poem that I rather like:

* * *

Los Angeles tobogganed with almost one continuous movement into the water.... From the sea, this furor of finality was a mammoth spectacle, as if the land were on wheels rolling into the depths of an invisible grave.  And as the land stood on end, like a sinking ship, the waves rose high with a hungry, mad roar, solid walls of water iridescent and exquisetely green in the sharp sunlight.  There was a breathless embrace of land and ocean, and of this conception death was born.  Horrified cries and screams pierced the atmosphere, a continuously moving wheel, a spectrum of sound.

Only winged creatures could escape; and all the singing birds released themselves from firmness into a sparkling freedom of swift air, until the blue of the sky could not be seen for birds flying away, to the sun and the seas and shores of Mexico and South America.  The small pink and white, blue and orange stucco houses of the shore were blown like colored sands into the tempest.... Trees were uprooted, and like captive women, dragged by their green hair into the mad, tumultuous arena of death.  Huge boulders were ripped from their smugness and fell like great meteors, many of them crushing men and women and children in their descent.  Presently, the birds in the sky were fewer; the sky was clear, the sun bright and harsh, moving like a golden chariot of triumph over a field of carnage....

For days and weeks, flotsam and jetsam of wreckage floated over the sea, pieces of fragments and odds and ends of color that had once been California.  But after a year, no one could know that California had once existed in this place, though the sky was ever blue and the sun was ever brilliant, going his grandiose way from East to West.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I am Spartacus! (Not really, but I'm going to the gym.)

About 1:47 into "Ice Cream Truck"
My wife and I watched a music video recently for a song called "Ice Cream Truck" by Cazwell, a DJ from New York City.  At one point in the video, when I saw the image to the right, I remarked, "That guy has a PERFECT body."

I forwarded the link to several friends with this message: "This video is likely to turn you on (if you're a gay guy or a straight woman) or make you feel inadequate (if you're a straight guy)."

And that is where Laura Mulvey comes in.  I have mentioned her before, in "Snark-Infested Waters."  She wrote a very famous essay called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," and in it she suggests Hollywood films were shot from a male perspective.  The camera is like a man looking at women and sizing up their physical appearance.  The women in many films were "erotic objects" for the male characters and for the audience -- it was assumed that the men in the theater wanted to have the women on the screen and the women wanted to be them.  The women on the screen embodied a phrase Mulvey invents: "to-be-looked-at-ness." 

Mulvey does not say Hollywood invented this idea; Hollywood just perfected it.  "To-be-looked-at-ness" is an extension of dynamics that already existed in a patriarchal society.  We can assume the female audience members were conditioned (even further) by Hollywood to appeal to that "male gaze" even though they were not in films.  Women became hyper-aware of how they appeared to others. 

She describes this as a sort of reverse scopophilia (the pleasure of looking at people, especially for erotic pleasure).  Being looked at can be pleasurable, she writes, but it also can cause anxiety.  It can undermine a woman's confidence, as she is possibly aware of being judged by others and being judged against other women -- especially against idealized images of women.

Hollywood and popular culture in general eroticized women's bodies in ways they did not eroticize men's. But I think that is changing.  I think we are seeing men's bodies become the "erotic object" on the screen (big and small), in music videos (such as "Ice Cream Truck"), and in advertising -- such as this ad for Marc Jacobs's Bang cologne that I have seen in Esquire.

One could protest my list because Cazwell's video is clearly homoerotic; it uses men's bodies as erotic objects because that is what its audience wants.  But gay culture went mainstream several years ago, and now gay music videos circulate as freely as straight music videos.  More than ever, straight men are seeing men's bodies presented as erotic objects.  And these images are not always in productions intended specifically for gay audiences.

Spartacus, for example.

Andy Whitfield as Spartacus
The gladiators in the Starz television series are more naked than clothed in every episode.  Sometimes we see them completely naked, despite there being no narrative need for them to be so.  (That is one way to reduce a costume budget.)  And when we see a man and a woman in a sex scene, the man's body is featured just as much as the woman's -- if not more so.

I challenge any man, straight or gay, to tell me that Andy Whitfield, who plays Spartacus, is not lust-worthy.  In Mulvey's description, he is an "erotic object" because it is likely the audience either wants to have him or be him.

One legacy of "to-be-looked-at-ness" among women is eating disorders based upon poor body image.  Research indicates that "body image dissatisfaction" is growing among men.  There are more eroticized male bodies visible in popular culture, and this increased attention has led to changes in those ideal bodies.  They are more muscular then ever.  One study suggests that a 1976 Playgirl centerfold model would need 12 fewer pounds of fat and 27 more pounds of muscle to be a centerfold in 2001.  

Finally, if you are skeptical that male "to-be-looked-at-ness" is spreading, then please explain Spanx for men to me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Abs = Boobs

In the fleshy marketplace of America, a man's six-pack abs are the equivalent of a woman's large breasts.

Just ask Karl Marx.

Their similarity can be illustrated by talking about them in terms of Marx's ideas of "use value" and "exchange value."

In the "olden days," young boys were urged to build their muscles by ads in the back of comic books for Charles Atlas.  The ads featured the benefits of male muscles -- with an emphasis on the biceps -- in two arenas: to compete directly against other men and to attract women.  In this regard, bulging biceps had a "use value": They were tools for intimidating, attacking, or defending against other men.  They had a practical use.  The manly muscles also had an "exchange value": They were used to attract a female.  They were used to create an exchange between two parties.

In a sense, the man's "guns" were advertised to women, who then offered to "buy" them with their companionship, and if the man found the woman attractive, an "exchange" would be made.  In this sense, the biceps as commodity have a value that is dictated by someone other than its producer, which is a key element of Marx's notion of a commodity that possesses an "exchange value."  The man may build up his arms with great effort but still fail to attract a woman; it is the women who dictate the value of the arms.  However, although the women may dictate the value, the quality of the biceps can dictate how choosy the man can be in selecting to whom he will "sell" his muscles.  The producer does not control the price, but he has some influence on it.

(All of this assumes that the women are attracted to well-developed biceps.)

Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino
The six-pack abs, on the other hand, are created as spectacle.  Just ask The Situation, the Jersey Shore Adonis.  His entire "career" is based upon displaying his.  The key is not just the muscular development of six-pack abs but their visibility.  It is important and useful to have a strong core, even for a man who works all day behind a desk; this can help him maintain good posture and avoid back pain, for instance.  But few people talk about abdominal muscles being useful against bullies.  Unlike the biceps, abs are not used to intimidate or combat other men -- two men do not step outside of a bar and lift their shirts to settle an argument.  And a six-pack, however strong, that is hidden beneath a layer of fat is not a six-pack.  So, the use value of a stomach that looks like a washboard is exceeded by its exchange value.

An admirable abdomen is intended to be displayed, just as a commodity is advertised or placed in a store window.  It is intended to be exchanged for something, such as the praise or affections of another person.

In this sense, a six-pack is similar to a large rack.  Breasts have the same use value, regardless of size: Both can be sensitive to sexual pleasure and both can nurse an infant.  Size does not influence usefulness in either regard.  However, size does seem to matter in American society -- on television, in movies, in the cosmetic surgery industry.  Large breasts, whether natural or man-made, tend to have a higher exchange value whether on the Silver Screen or on Main Street.

I will continue this conversation with thoughts I have touched on before in "Snark-Infested Waters": Laura Mulvey's notion of "being looked-at-ness" and how this is beginning to influence men.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Drivers, He Said

We all have seen them: the people who go to the store in their house shoes.  We have seen both men and women do it.  Most of them have been seen in Walmart or Kmart or late at night in the corner liquor store.

I think most of us will agree that this not right.  Wearing house shoes as street shoes is like wearing your pajamas to work.

But I recently had been seeing more men wearing something that looked like leather house shoes.  I was really puzzled by this until I learned that those shoes had a name: drivers.

I must admit, I had not heard of them before I did a little research for my previous post that complained about men not wearing socks in fashion photography, "The Joy of Socks."  In looking at various sites that offered fashion advice, I saw references to "drivers" that I did not understand.  And then I saw a photograph of a set.  Oh, that's what those stupid shoes are called.

"The Perfect Driving Shoe" in GQ
They strike me as not substantial enough to wear on the street and too informal to be worn with the dress slacks with which I see them paired.  Yet even GQ is encouraging men to wear them with slacks.  And I was in the Verizon store recently when I noticed one of the salesmen wearing a pair of drivers.

Really, dude?  You're going to spend all day on your feet in those?

Look at them.  No real heel.  No arch support.  Hardly a sole.  Grips on the bottom that look more at home on the bottom of your bath tub than on the bottom of your shoes.  Honestly, can you tell me the difference between driving shoes and house slippers?  I admit, one has fake wool lining and the other costs more than $150.  But that is about it as far as I can see.

Gucci drivers
Men's house shoes

Drivers have a purpose.  As their name suggests, they are for wearing while driving.  The rounded heel and the "pebbled" soles serve a purpose.  In a car.

Wearing them may aid in the comfort of your foot, and drivers save you from scuffing up the heel of your actual shoes.  But once you are out of the car, you do not need to wear them.  Wear your driving gloves around all day and see how many people snicker behind your back.  "Who does that guy think he is?  Racer X?"

So, why should we not snicker when you wear your driving shoes around town?  Are you a Formula One driver on your way to Monaco?  Or are you just concerned that the floor mat of your Kia Spectra will scuff up your Thom McAns?

PS: I know a little-watched 1971 film directed by Jack Nicholson is not the best source for a blog title.  Something like "Driving Me Crazy" might have been better.  But I cannot resist the opportunity for an obscure pop culture reference.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Joy of Socks

No one is going to accuse me of being a fashionista.  That portion of my wardrobe not purchased at JC Penney or from L.L. Bean is devoted to t-shirts -- for powwows and pop culture references mostly.  But the thing that apparently would offend the sartorially sensitive is my drawer full of socks.

I have noticed in the fashion advertising for men in Esquire, GQ, and other magazines that few of the male models are wearing socks.  I know that for some shoes the socks are optional.  For instance, sandals require socks only if you are a British tourist visiting Venice Beach.  I have seen plenty of men sans socks in boat shoes, penny loafers, and drivers.  But I never see in the real world what I have seen in many ads: men without socks in more conventional leather shoes, even in wingtips and ankle boots.

Some folks might think this is tres chic.

All I can think is stinkfoot.

And ankle bones chewed raw.

A recent ad campaign from Banana Republic features a bevy of white folks having fun at Joshua Tree National Monument in Southern California.  They are wearing all sorts of clothing inappropriate for climbing rocks and hiking in the desert.  Look at this young man leaning against his car.  Look at his shoes.  Note the absence of socks.  Think about his sweaty man-flippers in those leather puppies.

What will Dr. Scholl say when they bring this guy into the ER with bloody ankles and fetid feet?

This even happens in the real world.  Kanye West has ditched his socks for the red carpet. I know, I know.  I am a straight man, so why am I looking at Kanye's naked ankles when Amber Rose is in the picture?  (I am sorry, Amber.  I will try harder.)

Some of this trend made more sense when I saw a photograph of a hot  fashion designer in Esquire.  No wonder male models have been shorn of their socks.  The designers hate them!  There is Michael Bastian, wearing a blazer and a tie -- and no socks.  I know he is wearing penny loafers, and those can be worn without socks.  But for me the jacket and tie dictate the need for them.  And as if that didn't make him tool enough, he's sitting on the mantle piece.  He seems to have issues.

Someone should introduce him to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.