The Insanity of Yes and No


1. I’ve been thinking about this essay for a long time now; it comes in glimpses on the subway, in the backwoods of Maine, walking down streets at night and the confused desire for things to be different. Like most feelings I can’t shake, I take note, process and think. And what seems most important to mention as I sit down to write is that this essay came from a feeling and before it was linguistic, it was felt.


3. Let’s start with the landscape of an essay. The individual space where an academic essay resides is designed to be minimalized, if not rendered entirely absent; in this way, regardless of where you are in the world you can enter into the privileged conversation without having to work on translating it into personal meaning, or at least this is the stylistic intent. But this too is also a position. There is no such truth about the reasons why academic language has taken the shape it has, so to say an essay aims to eliminate its own land can also be said as such: the essay aims to exist on the same land as all other academic essays, to speak from the same all-encompassing island and address the various problematic and contentious happenings in the world. And it is this place that I draw my focus upon, the amount of word play it takes to parse out the complex movement in positioning, and how positioning is always at play even when it’s intended to not be thought about. It is why I get jealous and afraid of work that seems to never question their place or saddened when I can so easily rationalize inaction.


5. The first time I labeled this feeling was about a year ago when I put on “The Thin Red Line” to watch. I had recently recommended it to a friend claiming it as one of the great war films and in a moment of nostalgic memory I downloaded a copy. The title comes from three places that build and cut and slide into each other before finally landing as the Terrence Mallick film. The first specifically refers to the spirit of the 93rd regiment of British infantry during the battle of Balaclava where they famously held off advancing Russian cavalry by lining up in a long sanguine shallow line. The name stuck and carried through the rest of the war as a tactical battle formation and was reported in newspapers describing any barrier that held up against great odds. The second comes 40 years later from the Rudyard Kipling poem, Tommy, positioning the phrase ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’’ up against its own public mythology where the infantry were notoriously criticized during peace time and glorified during wartime. Thirdly, the phrase was picked up as the title for James Jones’ novel of the same name in 1962 where he used it to mark the point at which the men fighting lost themselves and crossed over into insanity during WWII and the Guadalcanal campaign. Positioning has a way of walking through time as one rides a train, building and falling apart, filling up and thinning out, a steady gaze on distant towers. Then there are those who are brave enough to walk position through time and bring it up to now, and speak.

6. We turned on Terrence Mallick’s “The Thin Red Line,” and about half way through, I had this cold chill that the film wasn’t enjoyable anymore. For the rest of the film, I continued to feel pushed away from the viewing experience. I was angry about how much credit I had previously given the film and I felt guilty thinking about how much I identified with it in the past.

What I fixed upon was the presentation, a gorgeous piece, whole, pure. And what made me sad was the realization that I wasn’t a part of this world. And by not being a part of this beautiful world, I was being marginalized by it. That because there was no acknowledgment of the film’s own design, it was an easy pill to swallow in the past and personally identify with. There are obvious tropes of the female as a vessel to the man and the othering of native people, and I think I was aware of these, but they are also obvious positions in the film and can be easily rationalized with a quick, “that’s the way things were” brush of the hand. What scared me was how easy these excuses came forward in the desire for a ‘pure’ experience. What bothered me wasn’t the facts of the film, but it was how these facts were presented, and how this presentation mirrors modern shifts and movements of marginalization where exclusion comes in the form of not be included in a pedestaled ideal.

The film is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen, drawing on such nostalgic imagery and language that anyone of a remotely similar position in the world watching feels some sort of desire to swallow it whole. The most amazing feat of the film is its original structure. It feels poetic in a way that alludes to Faulkner’s italics and Virgina Woolf’s interior monologues which is an incredible feat in film. The camera never positions itself entirely to a character but stays omniscient, floating in and out of characters’ interior lives and memories before, during and after one particular battle to overcome a mountaintop held by Japanese infantry. Narrative is built not around the plot of over taking the mountaintop or facts of Guadalcanal, but the experience of it. The awkward result twists the intimate language critiquing society and conveying personal experience with the aforementioned authors and manages to glorify the past while side-stepping any critical stance by focusing on that now obvious truism that war is horrible. And this is where we are today. This is where marginalization as it relates to the individual is born, where languages of personal meaning, the intimacies of ‘moments of being’ formed out of a desire to express, to explore and critique are used in such complex ways of restating and validating ideals of what values are that it has become a choiceless choice to– at least, in part– love one’s marginalization. I still love “The Thin Red Line.”

7. Play this:

While watching this:

8. Then the feeling returns. I’m out in Oakland where another friend has convinced me to participate in Occupy the Port. I remember the helicopters flying over us, the mass of people walking across the bridge and the difficulty in hearing the speeches. I remember firmly believing in the cause and confused about how to pin point what it was that was being protested. How do you protest something that does not involve the color of someone’s skin, or someone’s sexuality, or degrades the environment, but at the same time could be argued to be the root of all these problems? What do you protest when what you are protesting isn’t tangible, yet it touches everything? Occupy is an amazing movement for saying no by simultaneously rejecting the faculties of a consumerist and capitalist society –one whose categorical thinking has rubbed deeply into the north American identity – while speaking from a position that rejects neoliberalism wholesale. I remember listening to older protesters express frustration at the lack of focus and leadership and speakers of the Occupy movement counter by pointing out that that was exactly right. And that’s the feeling. The futility of language, not just as words in articulating thought, but as it positions the self in the face of cultural shifts and ambiguity. What I took away more than anything was a staunched and wrinkled face; when an ideal extends so far out that it loses relevance in its hearth, what does this utter lack of context or history do? Whether you like it or not a conversation between you and neoliberal hegemony is taking place, you don’t get the option to be omitted from the relationship. It has happened to you.

9. To respect the process of reading, to allow a reader to take agency through the text and thereby actively resist marginalization, there has to be some form of acknowledgement of the reading. This sounds binding, can border on restrictive, and can easily spin out of control in some kind of fractal feedback loop of meaningless references and word play (see Synecdoche New York), but again, our notions of what a reader has been in the past breaks down when considered in today’s milieu.

I can find four primary categories used by filmmakers to distance the reader from the act of reading. There is the use of the obvious: the film within a film, reference to a world outside the diegesis, kitsch… to directly address that you are watching a film as you watch it. There is the use of genre/archetype/stereotype: conscious play with a previously known language. There is aesthetic distance (fragmenting narrative, non-narrative film, experimentation), which allows distance in the uncomfortable experience of watching David Lynch, or the intellectual experience of watching Maya Deren. Finally, there is distancing from the uncanny as in the experience of watching Andre Tarkovsky’s films (though the previous examples are not limited to their bracket and most films have some kind of mixture with several or all categories).

10. Then came A Family Finds Entertainment. A professor introduced me to this film with the statement, “I have no idea how [Ryan Trecartin] does it, or really what to make of it, but I know it works”.


12. Family Finds Entertainment is a baffling experience. What’s more baffling is that it came out of a 21 year old’s senior thesis for undergrad. And what’s most baffling is that it was made in 2004. I saw it around 2009 and didn’t know what to do or make of it. It gave me panic attacks. I wanted to hate it, it’s ugly, it’s kitchy, the characters are superficial and manic, nothing is dwelled upon, and there’s no time for reflection. I put it aside. I didn’t know how to talk about it, but I found myself returning to the film and telling friends to watch it. What I was compelled to is a way the film mimics and makes visual the insanity that exists in watching something like Thin Red Line and loving it, or in remaining passive to something as abstract as capitalism and consumerism’s all encompassing island. It shows, and makes tangible, the insanity of a language that fails to address its own lack and desperately makes stabs at easy identification.

But what is more horrifying is how the insanity of the film is attached to the process of the main character coming out. We first meet Skippy when he’s in the bathroom in the middle of committing suicide, his friends argue with him to come out, eventually he does, and is murdered then brought back to life. Ryan Trecartin plays the main character as well several other incarnations of Skippy-like spirits in the midst of some crisis. There is also a film crew making a film, a band-in-every-room party, electric fish, red bull, dancing, muddy people, singing and screaming. To talk about what happens in the film is really pointless– watch five minutes and you’ll understand. It’s saturated with information, no cut lasts longer than five seconds, references are a constantly at play and then tossed away. To watch it is to cast yourself into the ocean and be tumbled around for forty minutes trying to find some kind of ground to stand on. This mania of groundlessness is hinged to the main character’s futile attempts to try and find themselves.

The only way to read this film is in the movements, how it churns manically forward, unable to stop or pause. Meaning is formed out of the impossibility of finding meaning in what has happened. Moments, scenes, instances and lines all rise, appear, and are stripped away by the next moment. One is made aware of watching the film by being forced to realize that it will take multiple viewings to possibly grasp what is happening (as well as through kitch, the obvious, the uncanny and the aesthetic distance…).

This film underlines one of the most bitter ironies of today. When forced into being removed from what is happening, to find significance in the movements of what is happening, there is a loss in the value of claiming/stating your identity to find agency. Choices in personal identity, where to find personal meaning has been washed out in a sea of consumer choices, where to eat for dinner, how to dress after work, what to eat to calm your stomach, what to listen to get a party going…

So, where are we? Information is too perfuse to place value, and the reader -avoiding the all- encompassing oneness of a certain neo-liberal landmass – steps back and processes from a more abstract place. Facts are becoming meaningless under their own justification, pointing out something as proof can be disproved by its position. We are thick in the epoch of movement and the difficulties are only just starting to be uncovered. The ‘to’ in I to you, facts to now, universal to the personal. At the moment –as in all transitions- it seems horrifying. Watching Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment highlights the horror of this transition and the choiceless position we face.

13. This all became clear to me in one moment, on April 19th, 2013. Four days after the Boston marathon bombing, the city and select outlying neighborhoods were ordered into lockdown while an unprecedented manhunt involving the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, the Boston and Watertown Police departments, and the Massachusetts State Police searched for a 19 year old unarmed kid. I felt confused and angered. Even after hearing from a cousin that was working in the hospital where most of the victims ended up talk about the cooperation and community engagement in the face of trauma, I couldn’t stop wondering why there was no protest to the mandated lockdown, why there were no signs proclaiming that this is what a police state looks like. Everyone complied. In today’s political climate, somehow, feeling these things put me in line with sympathizing with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Fear is a position. Nostalgic love of the poetic imagery in Thin Red Line is just a position. We have the responsibility to make choices, starting from a feeling, informed by what we have experienced, opened by what we have learned, and positioned by a language’s lack.

The only way as readers of the world to continue to foster agency in this cultural shift –prevention has historically been and will always be impossible– is to reposition ourselves in the pursuit of truth to note what is perceived in context and make choices. And it is here in the ‘to’ that all things fluctuate, make themselves fluid, rise in each moment only to be replaced by the next. There is the responsibility of choosing what to hold on to. And while there is loss in previous ideas of claiming personal agency there is also such beauty in the position! I know I’m treading on a thin line here, and I’m trying not to undermine a history of activism, but I propose that there is something quite interesting happening in terms of finding personal agency and the simple self. Let’s take sexuality. Sexuality as we know it will cease to exist. In the ‘to’ between you and I, how does sexuality exist? How does gender exist? All that exists is a position in conversation. Significance is already moving there, agency is coming in a fierce new way, and I really don’t know what to expect.

In the end, I must insist that this is a thought experiment that crumbles in the face of the everyday. It is not a justification to disregard other’s –myself included- from seeking, exploring and questioning. This brings me to one of the central tenets of this repositioning.

14. Everyone is allowed their own personal revolution.


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