Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2 Questions: Film as Essay? Essay as (Corporeal) Activity?

Essays display movement of mind
Plastic Bag displays movement of mind
Therefore, Plastic Bag is to be considered as an essay

Essays display movement of mind
Blade Runner (it might not be an essay, but it does seem to essay) displays movement of mind
Therefore, could I (retroactively) nominate Blade Runner for the Essay Prize 1982?

Is anything that essays an "essay"? Do we care if it’s an "essay", as long as it essays?

In 1993, the performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli urinated on Duchamp’s notorious urinal, Fountain, and then struck it with a hammer. In 2006, he struck the urinal again, this time causing, apparently, €14,352 worth of damage. I tend to think of these (and other Intervention Art) acts as statements, rather than as acts of essaying, simply because there seems to be only forward-moving thinking in these instances, no real back and forth, no real thought-wiggling, at least not perceptibly in the moment in which they happen.


In 1974, the French performance artist Philippe Petit walked across a high-wire strung between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. In fact, he hung out on the wire, performing for 45 minutes, actually crossing the space between the two buildings eight times. As this was not one act, but actually 45 minutes worth of acts, and as some of these acts were in direct response to the presence of police nearby and the presence of the crowd below, I tend to think of his overall act as a collection of statements, statements which, when taken together, display quite a bit of active thinking, wiggling, essaying.

Can we consider Petit’s 1974 bit of high-wire walking, in itself, an essay? Essay as actual corporeal activity? Or does that whole spectacle only become a veritable essay when the essaying is formalized in a way, in say, Man on Wire, the documentary of Petit’s 1974 exploits?

Activity as essay? What do people think? Is this ridiculous?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

“Plastic Bag” Is Way Better Than the Star Wars Prequels

Ever since my childhood anger at the lameness of Captain Planet, I’ve disregarded pollution-awareness productions as heavy-handed, manipulative, and never a very good time. Pollution’s bad, planet’s doomed, Toyota Prius. But I was willing to suspend my disbelief for Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” because it was narrated by Herzog, and ever since American Beauty got the Oscar nod in 1999, plastic bags caught in the breeze have maintained cultural currency as a symbol of modernity’s horrible beauty. A bag trapped in the wind, understandably, strikes many as a powerful metaphor for the uncertainty of experience. Perhaps, some argue, the most powerful yet.

I’m not so concerned with Bahrani’s message of sustainability, because the film works as a narrative text outside of that message, as something of a personal essay that happens to be narrated by a bag. I don’t “care” that the essay is about “pollution” because Bahrani and Jenkin have also constructed an evocative coming-of-age narrative. The bag’s life, like all our lives, is a desperate search for purpose and meaning. Bag develops as a character: he begins his conscious life with some fundamental misunderstandings about what he is. He believes that the consumer using him is somehow his mother, his maker. He mistakes this usery for intimacy. Here, I sympathize with his confusion, as his “Maker” does make baffling overuse of his utility. (Watch the actress struggle with the absurd reality of using a grocery bag to feed a dog.) The ice scene presents similar logistical problem, but it does advance our understanding of the bag’s inner conflict. This part of the essay feels to me a comedy in that we the viewers are aware of the bag’s misconceptions (silly bag), and though we may not laugh, we are reassured his story will not end with him being thrown away. We know that even though he’s been used to clean up dog shit, his ultimate worth as a character is not yet decided.

Next, we see the bag floating around the landfill, which leads most viewers to ask “What happened to the dog shit that not one scene before caked his insides?” We never learn. This is one of a long list of plot inconsistency that I’ve enumerated on the film’s Goofs page on imdb. I suppose this problem and the others can remained unresolved because it is beside the point: the point is the bag has been cast out of the ideal, out of the garden, out of childhood, and enters a state of terminal adolescence: buried literally in landfill, metaphorically in emotion. Things grow dark, time slows to a near stop, and there are only the horrible, microscopic “monsters” that eat Bag back up to the surface somehow. He reemerges into to a world where no makers exist to provide life meaning. A sparse musical score plays as the bag searches in vain and struggles against loneliness, despair. (You’ll find the soundtrack is nearly identical to Explosion in the Sky’s brilliant sound-tracking of the underrated high-school drama Friday Night Lights.)

Immediately after the bag’s resurrection, he finds a clear sense of self and motivation. “I was strong and smart,” says Bag, “and I would find my maker.” This confidence and self-possession doesn’t last long: Bag must realize the size of the world, confess to himself that sometimes reality “was even too great for [him].” No matter what stories he tells himself about his Maker, Bag is still divorced from his purpose, and as he floats in the sunlight asking unanswerable questions about his nature, we empathize with both the freedom and terror of realizing a false narrative. Because Bag is able to realize falsehoods, his quest has become biblical in scope: we traverse ruins, we are fooled by idols, we are tempted, we meet prophets. In a stroke of oedipal fulfillment, Bag forgets all about his “Maker” mother and gets with smoking hot red bag for a minute. But this source of meaning, like all the others, is destined to failure. Without discernable purpose, the bag’s questions deepen, become decidedly existential. He questions the God-like nature of his Maker: “I began to wonder,” he says, “if my maker knew such places existed.” We’ve watched the bag grow and we are invested in his journey. It is romantic.

And this is when we learn about the vortex from the appropriately wind-torn bag prophets. We return to the scene in which the film began. Bag hits the water and is “born again,” baptized. His motivation has shifted: we’ve moved passed the childish yearning for home, and into a more abstract notion of what home might be. There are “others” who might offer comfort. Like the Poe’s maelstrom, the vortex lends itself as a metaphor for the violent tumult of experience which eventually destroys those trapped in its currents, births them back into the realm of the ideal, back to the maker. It’s supposed to be that entering the maelstrom is a life sentence, but we are reminded Bag has no definite lifespan. (This is how our filmmakers have taken what would have been a campy anti-pollution conceit and used it to turn our hero into an unwitting and troubled immortal.) And as we have learned to expect from him, Bag realizes the vortex narrative is false. It is not the maker and so Bag must be free of it.

Lastly, I think it’s important to consider that this is a film about a bag that can talk. Capital was invested to produce a film seemingly destined to be a special kind of bad, something silly in addition to preachy. But the attempt does not fail, because of the psychological complexity of Bag. He struggles with impatience; he overcomes his childish notions of monsters. He is given agency but is also left frustratingly inadequate. His origin story was false and his vortex narrative failed to bridge the fissure in his identity. (I, too, Bag, have lost my home and my God.) Our bag is left to consider the worst kind of horror: he cannot die, his maker has shown him no mercy, no hope to return to nothingness. Existence is nearly intolerable but for brief moments of joy and beauty. And though we are terrible Gods, creation remains dignified.

Are You There, God? It's Me, A Bag

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?

It’s a question posed by Katy Perry in her smash hit “Firework” and it doesn’t bode well for the plastic bag metaphor. I love Katy Perry as much as the next person with suspect taste, but I don’t think we flock to her music for the depth of her imagery (“cherry chap stick” aside). So there are easy arguments to make against Ramin Bahrani’s film, Plastic Bag. There are certainly harder-hitting ways to attack the issue of human waste, of the products we make and then discard. Plastic Bag is short on facts and as simple as a pop lyric, at least in its scaffolding. There’s a bag that talks, who in this review will be referred to as Bagsly. Bagsly has Werner Herzog’s voice, which simultaneously makes him gloriously recognizable and ridiculous. And for eighteen minutes, Bagsly wanders, feeling the sulky malaise that Katy Perry alludes to. But I came to realize that, through such conscious, classical simplicity, an essay is born, one taking up a well-worn environmentalist’s argument and making it feel new, giving the audience enough comfort and space to force us to think and feel.

Plastic Bag could easily have been a conventional, scathing commentary on waste, combining shots of non-decomposable dumps with an “objective” narrative voice announcing that billions of plastic bags are produced each year (to which wannabe hipster douchebags like me may have responded with, “Preachy!”) Instead, the film overtly covets the power of a personal essay. We’re given reality from a particular, intimate point of view, even if that point of view is fabricated. Yes, there’s an argument being made, but the film doesn’t focus on the creation of its argument. Rather, it creates its own essayist. Bagsly is trying to figure out the world he has been given to experience and, no matter how silly that could seem (what with him being a bag), the film refuses to give the viewer a moment of objectivity or even a self-aware, humorous wink. Bagsly takes himself really seriously, right from the opening moment when we find him on a beach, watching the sunset. He says, “You may be thinking, ‘Hey, shut up and enjoy the sunset you idiot.’” Of course, that’s not at all what we’re thinking. We were thinking, “The bag talks?” We’re thinking, “Is that Werner Herzog?” But Bagsly has been instantly established as the voice of this piece. As I watched the scene, I thought of James Baldwin’s famous line from “Autobiographical Notes”: “One writes out of only one thing — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, that it can possibly give.” Plastic Bag typifies and exploits this sentiment. In giving Bagsly the voice to essay his own experience and do it compellingly, relentlessly, the film has occupied an emotionally resonant tradition, pulling the viewer away from any hardened expectation of the polemical and engaging our love of the intimate.

Bahrani’s essayist reflects back on us our most tried and true themes. We find a bag that wants to be a believer. After the beach scene, we get him waxing poetic about the memory of meeting his “Maker.” He describes this over the image of him hanging on the metal rack at a grocery store cash register (a close-up that leaves him looking crucified) before being yanked to life. He has found a reason for being, something to serve. It’s a pretty heavy sentiment, especially since his initial purpose is getting stuffed with bananas, cereal, and a box of sugar. The audience might know that visual is absurd, but it’s impossible not to feel a connection to the universal pathos being presented. Bagsly wants to believe in his Maker, to believe in the value of the life he’s been brought into. The audience’s identification is stranded between Maker and product. We see the Maker, that cruel God, and she looks like us, she behaves like us. But we find our voice, our insecurity, our feeling, in Bagsly. He is the noble human sufferer we want to see ourselves as.

The film gets even more interesting, to my mind, when people are gone after five minutes, and Bagsly is left in the wasteland of our environmental neglect, roving through quiet pastures, into empty cities, along the barbed wire tops of fences that no longer serve a purpose. Through his endless life, the viewer is shown how tenuous our organic survival is, how common and quiet it will be for the world to exist without us. But we’re not told that outright. The film never says, “This is reality after man’s extinction from creating a world he can no longer survive in.” Instead, the voice remains innocent, sincere, longing. Seductive in its emotion. As Bagsly floats through an empty forest, he says, “I wonder if my Maker knew such places existed.” He’s not yelling at us. He just wants to know. Had she (we) seen such beauty? Could we conceive of it? In what he doesn’t understand, what he is unable to express, lies white space for the audience to fill in. It makes our minds work and then we must reckon with our own knowledge that we never put to use.

As I mentioned earlier, not much really happens on screen over the course of Plastic Bag, but subtly, I think, there is an essayistic crescendo reached by the last scene, and we’re forced to interrogate why we’ve been moved by this strange little film. Bagsly is underwater, hanging on some coral, watching some fish. He cannot distinguish exactly where he is or how much time has passed. He can’t even be sure anymore if his Maker, if mankind, ever existed. Then he asks, “Why were my moments of joy so brief?” And I realized that is what got me. It wasn’t the awful notion of bags clogging our coral reefs, of the “Pacific Vortex,” where tons of wasted plastic will float forever, poisoning sea life. It was the weepy human sentiment of happiness being fleeting. I am a sucker for humanity. We all are. I will never hunt thanks to Bambi, not because the movie made me realize that animals are killed needlessly every day (though it did that), but because Bambi whimpered, “Mama, where are you?” Because the film allowed me to be self-centered, to think of the symphony of grief that my own mother’s death would unleash. In creating a bag that feels like I feel on my most Emo of days, that speaks like (and is!) Werner Herzog, that legendary dramatizer of the human perspective, Bahrani fed me all the things I love. And as I lapped them all up, he turned a mirror onto my own human selfishness, how I can only be moved by my way of seeing the world.

There is a moment before Bagsly’s final monologue, when he has found the Vortex and drifts with trillions of other wasted bags. That should be the end. The film and the audience both know that clotted, drifting destruction is the reality of every bag’s unending existence. But Bagsly, good old emotive Bagsly, says, “No one here thought about anything. I grew restless and I started to think about [my Maker] again.” It should be obvious throughout the whole film, but here, after we’ve suspended disbelief and invested in his story, it’s made so clear that Bagsly isn’t like any bag. He is so apparently us, an exaggeration of humanity, with all of our thoughts and motivations, be they religious, social, or introspective. As we feel deeply for him, our mind must also acknowledge the cutting truth underneath — there is no life or story or purpose to the plastic bags we make. And we already knew that but found it easy to ignore. Bagsly, this fighter, this underdog, is what we can stomach, but there will be no human perspective in the world we leave behind. There will be the mass of the mindless plastic that Bagsly is differentiated from. We create products that will outlive us and we are on our way to making a world with no stories, no us, just trash. Instead of telling or shrieking, Bahrani has presented us with the loveable humanity that we will make absent. And he’s made me realize all the hand holding artifice that it takes just to make me listen.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Plastic Bag is not Duchamp's Urinal

Before continuing please 1) refer to the first longish sentence of Ander’s February 9th post (on Ruefle) OR 2) just read it here, quoted: “The better question is whether a thing essays and whether the way that thing essays—which is perhaps to say wiggles slightly, in a provocative or interrogative manner, as if by its act of unsurety, or doubling-back, renouncing its previous movement of mind or body—whether it reveals or illuminates some edge of meaning.” This will be our epigraph. For the sake of this blog post please accept this epigraph as a steady turtle. (Yes, one could probably posit other “better questions” or that this is not the “best question” to begin with here, but, regardless, this is what we are starting with. This is our ground point, our base, and from here on we will not concern ourselves with what this initial turtle is, or is not, standing on—i.e. if you are still wondering if Plastic Bag, this propaganda-esque short film, is, or is not, an essay, please stop wondering and let’s just get on with things.)

Considering our epigraph, an essay deserving the Essay Prize ought to display such wiggling (to wiggle = to essay = movement of mind) as we’ve not seen (or rarely seen) before, and, as our epigraph suggests, such an essay ought also to illuminate for us something greater, not just a fact or an opinion or a report, but a certain meaning scraped together from facts and opinions and reports and pasted together in such a way that when held up to the light an X is (clearly) visible to the astute reader/viewer. And so our questions then, regarding Plastic Bag, might begin: 1) Does this film display movement of mind, and if so, how lovely and nuanced is the wiggling being done? and 2) If there is wiggling, is all this wiggling around approaching some meaning, and if so, where does this meaning fall on the grand scale of great meanings?

The question of “inquiry” (read: movement of mind, wiggling) came up in our discussion of Plastic Bag last week, as in, is there inquiry present here? It was brought up that inquiry, in this instance, certainly arises via the viewer (the film inspires viewers’ minds to wiggle and squirm and writhe)—but I believe this inspiring of inquiry is inconsequential to the actual essaying being done, and it establishes a false criteria by which to judge Plastic Bag’s success as an essay.

Take Duchamp’s Fountain. It inspired a lot of wiggling in its viewers, and in doing so it was a successful art piece; it did (still does?) what Duchamp wanted it to do, though it, itself, has actually done very little—it simply exists, and its existence inspires brain-wiggling in those who see it. Fountain is art as object, not as essay, because it does not essay, not exactly, no. It itself does not move; it inspires movement. And while it might be true that Plastic Bag inspires a similar sort of thought-movement, it also does much more than that: Plastic Bag has voice, and demonstrates thought/thinking in itself. While Fountain represents Duchamp’s consciousness, his ideas, Plastic Bag actively reveals a (collaborative) consciousness at work, wiggling, that is to say actively extrapolating an idea, that is to say actively at work in the essay, essaying. And in this way, Plastic Bag is so much more than Duchamp’s urinal. It is an essaying essay.

The wiggling, the essaying within Plastic Bag (independent of any wiggling of the viewer), can be seen as playing out like this: A sustained, unique (collaborative) consciousness tracks the metaphorical and real blowing of a plastic bag through the world, and through the philosophical and moral digressions that have been (and are) often experienced by humanity, as it (we) also pass (whimsically) from one stage of life to the next. And from this tracking of this bag through these digressions and stages, we the viewers witness a (collaborative) consciousness, the consciousness of the film’s creators, wiggle, in a provocative and interrogative manner, flitting along from one place and idea to another, embodying its own unsurety, its occasional doubling-back, and if not its renouncing of its previous movement of mind, then at least it’s acceptance of that movement, and a particular gumption to charge forward. And this consciousness’ wiggling is particularly visible in the (underappreciated) nuances of the Herzog-delivered monologue.

The Plastic Bag starts out in The Cave, and even after Plastic Bag is pulled away and presented with a greater view of the world, it is still weighted by a mythology used to make sense of a world that has never been seen until now. This mythology is crucial; it is how PB deals with the trauma of being plucked suddenly into the light. “I met my maker; I had a purpose”—PB is born, not literally at the moment of fabrication, but rather as a spiritual being (of sorts) upon being given (or realizing) its purpose via a Maker, a being who gives meaning and thus life—a god. This god gradually becomes a personal God, and PB achieves (or imagines) a certain closeness to this God: “My skin against her skin. My cold, her warmth. I made her happy and she made me happy. I thought we would be together forever.” Alas, eventually PB is cast out, to the dump, exiled (from Eden?) out into the world. But PB continues with this Religious worldview, finding spiritual strength in its belief that its Maker must have made a mistake, that it is still worthy, and ultimately “Nothing could destroy me”—nothing could tarnish its spirit.

Of course, as PB escapes the dump and experiences more of the world, “Destruction. Desolation,” it comes to understand that it is essentially different (from those things that readily decompose), and it begins to question its place in the world, and its disillusionment really ramps up as it begins to question the beneficence of its Maker, “She never came,” and eventually, as PB rests on the shoulder of a statue, an idol-representation of the real thing, the disillusionment is complete: “There was nobody left” (left alone, oh loneliness), “She had forgotten me and I would forget her, too.” And PB travels on, disillusioned, drifting through life without purpose, looking for purpose, for some kind of meaning, until there is a brief love affair, which again provides PB with a sense of purpose. (I like to think of this as PB’s late high school period.) This love ends however, as so many first-romantic-loves do, and post-love, as the winds drift each their own way, PB once again despairs (i.e. he reads Nietzsche for the first time as a freshman in college), and a brief, but distinct, period of Nihilism ensues.

Then suddenly, PB is something of a Naturalist, “I looked just like the Earth. I saw the sun, and I looked like that, too.” This could be seen as PB’s hippie period, and while PB perhaps found some gladness in the notion that we’re all just stardust really, despair nagged: “I was still lost.” But, “That’s when I first learned about the vortex”—from hippiedom PB moves on to the joys of Humanism (or more correctly, Plasticism).

Suddenly, in this phase of Secular Plasticism there is talk of self-agency and solidarity, “They said there was no maker. They said we were the maker. Join the others…” And PB treks after this great vortex, this place of collective harmony. Of course, upon arriving, further disillusionment sets in: “No one here thought about anything.” And suddenly we see PB, still desperate for purpose and meaning, trying to escape from the collective, and yet PB just gets mired, weighed down, not only lost, but stuck, its flimsy handle looped around some coral. Where does PB go from here, truly in despair, wishing it could die? What state of consciousness got it into this mess? What will get it out?

Now remember, the film Plastic Bag doesn’t really care about this bag blowing along in the wind. The bag is a stand-in, a proxy, for us. By showing PB blowing through these different stages of awareness and consciousness the essay is modeling the path(s) that much of humanity has taken (or is perceived to have taken), and as PB is stuck on the coral reef wishing not to be made of non-biodegradable polymers—polymers that will eventually break down into nurdles that will eventually cause the death of all kinds of marine creatures, from those as large as birds and tuna, to those as small as krill—we the viewers, are meant to recognize that this film is in fact about us, and this stage of consciousness is no longer representative of PB’s state of mind, but of our own, of our own 21st century Scientific worldview, which has left us mired, in trouble. Plastic Bag seems to say that as a result of our scientific worldview (and our scientific success, of sorts), we, our world, everything, are all doomed in so many different ways. This plastic bag cannot die, but organic life can, we can, and as we recognize that first truth, we must reckon with the second.

(Science break: A nurdle, also called a pre-production plastic pellet or plastic resin pellet, is a pellet typically under 5mm in diameter that is produced in the first stages of plastic manufacturing, or later as larger pieces of plastic (cups, bottles, straws, bags, whatever) are broken down into ever-smaller bits. By the estimate of one California legislation-action group, almost 60 billion pounds (27 million tonnes) of nurdles are manufactured in the United States each year, and these nurdles have become a significant source of ocean and beach pollution, and (as said above) frequently find their way into the digestive tracts of various thus-doomed sea creatures, like krill.

Krill, which are near the bottom of the food chain, feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, converting these into a form of protein and nutrients suitable for many larger animals for whom krill makes up the largest part of their diet. One species, Antarctic krill, reportedly makes up an estimated biomass of over 500,000,000 tonnes, about twice that of humans. Of this, over half is eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish each year, and then that krill biomass that is eaten is replaced by growth and reproduction. Now imagine a world where massive amounts of krill are choking to death on nurdles, which they mistake for plankton. Some studies estimate that there is six times more plastic (nurdles) than plankton in the Pacific Ocean. Think how this will affect the food chain. Think how this will affect us, eventually. Think of the Futurama episode where Fry—the dumb 20th century human—gets his neck caught in a plastic ring from a six pack and nearly asphyxiates.)

And so here we have it, the last stage Plastic Bag takes us to, the last stage of wiggledom for the essay: Environmentalism. And some say this theme as seen in Plastic Bag is played out, that environmentalism is so everywhere it’s already passĂ©, and it annoys us because we like disposable plastic packaging and we don’t want to feel bad about our lifestyles because we don’t want to feel compelled to challenge ourselves to change, and so we knee-jerk against this essay because it’s all “environmental” and that’s nothing new, blaaahhhh, as in blaaasĂ©. And okay, I’m fine with this viewing of Plastic Bag, but please, as essayists, appreciate the skill and nuance this film displays as it takes us along a true and elusive path, models our many philosophical trajectories, and ends (albeit predictably) by smacking us on the head with a (accurate) depiction of the current state of things. Simple Plastic Bag is, and yet simple it is not. It is intelligent. It displays a (collaborative) intelligence, and whether we love it, hate it, or don’t give a shit, we at least get to see that intelligent (collective) mind wiggling its ass off.

And you might ask: Isn't this blogger just imposing his own wiggling movement on this essay film? Am I—the viewer here—still the one instigating the inquiry? (I don’t think so, and I want to say no, I’m just articulating it, but…) Maybe. That said, in any case, there is certainly some wiggling going on here, and (I believe) this wiggling is indeed illuminating some edge of meaning—elucidating not only the current state of things, but also suggesting the myriad philosophical and moral paths that have led us here. Where exactly this might fall on the grand scale of great meaning, and should this particular act of essaying really be in contention for the venerable Essay Prize—I don’t know. I leave that to you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Rambling Bag, Not a Rambling Mind

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to the essay. (Well, I should explain that I’m a linear-traditionalist seeing as I’m quickly learning that the roots of the essay are planted in diverse grounds.) So when I first explored this short film, I couldn’t help but balk at its labeling as “essay.” Plastic Bag is a beautiful film, no doubt, reminiscent of the scene in American Beauty that reminds all of us to look around and appreciate life. But this film took that beauty in a different direction, in a harrowing and dystopian direction. Throughout my first viewing of the short, I kept asking myself why this film qualified as essay. I have since read up on the director’s and writer’s perspective on the film, and while I see some rationales for this piece could be viewed as an essay, I cannot help but feel it rings of propaganda. Let's examine.

Firstly, the filming itself seems significant. Whereas a print-writer may manipulate connotations and word choices so as to help reinforce her implied purpose, film must use framing, lighting, recurring images, editing. Throughout the earliest sequences of the film, Bahrani shoots Plastic Bag (PB) with a particular framing, never allowing the face of the Maker to be fully within the shot. The effect of this choice is two-fold, I believe: 1) it allows the audience to see a bit more of the intention of the focus, robbing us of what we would normally seek—facial expressions. The impact is that we look more at the expressiveness of the bag rather than the woman. 2) It shows the uninformed perspective of the bag. At the beginning of the film, PB has not experienced the world apart from his time with his Maker. His only perspective is upon those things that he is regularly near—hands, sides, legs. That we never see the Maker’s full face indicates that he never sees her full face, never really becomes intimate with portions of her humanity. This separation deepens the notion that the relationship between humans and plastic is dilapidated at best. Bahrani and Jenkins manipulate this relationship so as to bring the reader's attention to it.

Next, for techniques of lighting. Most of the initial shots in this film—especially those shots that are indoors—use focused light spots, accentuating PB’s “plasticness.” The way the light glints and sheens sets off the almost-subconscious thought that this bag is not natural in its environment. Through the disparity of shiny plastic and dull human skin, the director manages to deepen the disjoint in their relationship. We are more aware of how this plastic bag we have all encountered differs drastically from us and our lives. By the time the short ends and we hear the thought of “I wish you had created me so that I could die,” we are able to retrace all of the visual rhetorical cues Bahrani set up to accentuate plastic’s apartness. We may use plastic every day, says Bahrani, but the relationship we have is as unnatural as the sheen on the bag itself.

Another trick that Bahrani uses to for persuading his audience is recurring images. The floating of the bag happens more often than anything else in this film, making the film tres monotonous. Which is the point. Bahrani and Jenni Jenkins wanted to create a film to draw awareness to the fact that plastic does not have an end; it will continue to exist long after we discard it. As PB finds his way out of the dump, so will all of our plastic. The winds will carry it around and around the world, landing it in the North Pacific Gyre (“The Vortex”) and the environments of animals. The fact that so much of this film features shots of the bag floating draws attention to the listlessness and lastingness of plastic. Another frequent shot—that of PB (and his friends) caught on trees, fences, grass, coral—also reveals the listlessness of plastic. Coupled with either the narration of choosing to remain caught or being “patient” about being caught, these shots of PB’s passive attachment to the world again allude to plastic’s forced relationship with the natural world. “Patience” especially draws out the notion of plastic’s lasting impact—PB will outlast the trees, grass, coral, and fences that he attaches to.

On the thought of “patience,” word choice and editing play a crucial role in developing the persuasive essaying quality of this film. “Monsters,” an oft-used word choice in this short, makes intentional shifts towards powerful rhetoric. By our acts of mindlessly discarding our plastic waste, Bahrani and Jenkins say that we are doing monstrous things to our world. The fact that “monster” couples frequently with the landscapes we’ve left behind—the discarded warehouses of New York City, the houses filled with plastic bottles, the dump—we are supposed to recognize that our actions in the world do turn us into monsters for the world. The only other times the word appears—regarding the dog, the horses, the fish—are moments when PB discusses how the animals are not interested in him. About the horses, he even says, “I served no purpose for them [horses],” showcasing, again, the unnaturalness of plastic: If animals have no need for plastic, says the film, it is likely that we don’t actually have a need for plastic either.

Another editing and word choice example is of PB’s encounter with nature. As he trips and dances over the fields and under the trees, Werner Herzog’s voice intones, “There were always new worlds to see—I wonder if my maker knew such places existed.” By using the plastic bag’s experience in these worlds—worlds free of other plastics and man-made products—Bahrani and Jenkins illustrate humanity’s lost wonder in nature. The fact that PB ponders his maker’s interaction with these spaces shows us the director’s intention is to make us ponder our interactions with these spaces. Rhetorically significant in moving our curiosity, these narrational moments tie with the images to inspire the audience to consider its relationship with the environment. That it seems so shocking to see a plastic bag drifting through these beautiful settings makes the audience evaluate the disjoint between our treatment of some environments and our treatment of others. The Maker (we) had no problem throwing away the plastic bag, but we are supposed to have a problem with this scene.

There are more tricks, so many more. But I think they all go towards showcasing this film as a piece of visual propaganda rather than an exploration of a topic. The authors knew from the onset what they were attempting to do with their piece—Jenni Jenkins is a sustainability consultant who approached Bahrani about making a film to spread awareness of the North Pacific Gyre and the destructiveness of disposable plastic. That the film is beautiful and moving makes it successful in accomplishing its goal—to spread awareness and make people think of their choices—but I don’t know as these characteristics makes this piece successful in functioning as a processing of the world around. The world of Jenkins and Bahrani seems thoroughly preprocessed and prepackaged. That’s not to say that it is not a fantastic short film. But if we’re approaching essay as “activity” (Monson) or as “a mind’s inquisitive ramble through a place wiped clean of answers” (D’Agata), Plastic Bag fails on both accounts. Rather, it is a piece meant to move the audience’s mind through an evolving world of answers, one in which Plastic Bag’s creators had already determined their stance.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A word about some of the posting for the next couple months

I'm writing here to contextualize some of the talking that's going to be happening on this blogspace over the next few months. This semester I am teaching a course--a graduate craft seminar on essaying--at the University of Arizona. This course is being taught alongside a similar course that John D'Agata is teaching at the University of Iowa this same semester. The texts for this course are the nominees for the Essay Prize--listed on the linked website. We are reading these texts (or ten of them, anyhow), one per week, as a way of talking about what the essay is, but more importantly what it does. Writers at Arizona and Iowa will be blogging back-and-forth or maybe just alongside each other in this space (and anyone reading this is more than welcome to join the conversation), partly in evaluation of the essay-nominees (for the classes' job is to come up with critical language and criteria by which we might judge the essays we read, and to select the finalists, and then, in a glorious public flourish in Iowa City and Tucson, to present on the three finalists and to choose the winner).

Partly I hope we'll be talking to each other, and to ourselves, and to the unknown quantity of you which is italicized not just for emphasis but because of its amorphous quality--we'll be talking about the essay, and probably about genre, and about writing acts and reading acts and performing and the ways in which we are always as writers (or rather, as authors, as public figures, like it or not), performing on the page or on the webpage or in the air performing. Starting next week we will be looking at a video nominee: 

and writing/talking/thinking about it, for these three things are in many ways the same. See you back here soon.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The better question is whether a thing essays

and whether the way that thing essays--which is perhaps to say wiggles slightly, in a provocative or interrogative manner, as if by its act of unsurety, or doubling-back, renouncing its previous movement of mind or body--whether it reveals or illuminates some edge of meaning. I am thinking of Mary Ruefle, with whom I took half of one class one semester of graduate school some time ago. I left the class at break time because I was under the impression that all she had said she would talk about was things I already knew, nay, was master of. And besides, from what I had seen, Ruefle was clearly on the edge of something, a precipice, probably, and on the other side--what? madness? an effervescent otherness? the clouds? a descent or ascent into something uncalculable and therefore terrifying because it remained beyond my sight? I don't know. It was other, and it didn't appeal to me. I had drinking to do. I had workshopping to do. Not necessarily in that order. She appeared to be one in a series of professors brought in for the semester who would half-ass their way through a "class" on some subject that devolved into gossiping about whatever and gave little fuel to our small, desperately churning creative engines.

Eight years later, in the preamble to teaching my craft seminar in nonfiction (the rather-badly named "Essay as Activity") at the University of Arizona, I found myself reading The Most of It, her book of "prose" or possibly "fables" or possibly "poems" or possibly "prose poems" or possibly "psalms" or possibly "lyric essays" (I am not sure which genre tag is most appropriate, or whether any genre container can hold these in; yet Russel Edson sez: "if it's not something else it's probably a prose poem." Thus?). Now I'm convinced that Ruefle is a genius, which is to say completely unhinged, unbound, lovely. As in her brain opens--or a brain opens, a construction of her brain and a collaboration with whatever radio signals from beyond it picks up--and she gives us these odd, uncoiling, elaborate, lovely, hilarious, and above all things utterly surprising sentences.

And they are sentences. They certainly are sentences. Admittedly they have the lyric capacity of lines of poetry or crots of essay or whatever. Her associative shifts and leaps, the ways these sentences essay, are pretty awesome to watch. This extends to her lectures, which to this reader at least have the same odd conchlike and borderline insane quality:
"If you bother to read this at all it is a clear indication your life is intolerable and you seek a distraction by engaging in the activity you are presently pretending to engage in. I say pretending because you would never have reached the conclusion your life is intolerable had you not also reached the conclusion it is unreal.... This is what pretending to write looks like: it looks like this. Not a landscape and yet passing before your eyes, unrolling as featureless as a plain and often you are the antelope, scared to have been born under such dismal skies.... Isn't existence grand, the grandest bond between two you can imagine? Doesn't it outstrip your finest memory? Memories are worthless, have you ever stopped to consider that? Do you remember being by the seashore and watching the great broom of the sea come swooping down on the shore, pushing all the glinty particles of sand out of its way? The sound of the sea's broom was so tremendous, it sloshed the fluid in your ears?" ("Some Thoughts on the Lyric Essay, from the Seneca Review)
Or you could also try out her excellently wandering lecture at Vermont College, "On Theme," later published in West Branch, worth your time on interlibrary loan or at AWP.

As Brian Phillips notes in his essay, "Cocteau and Catfish: on Poets' Fiction," reviewing The Most of It: "What makes this ["Hard-Boiled Detective"] so funny is that the obviously insane theme is presented deadpan, as an essay, with a logically developed (and screwily persuasive) argument.... But the logical order is intrinsically a narrative as well, because Ruefle's sense of language and character is so vivid that the real fascination of the story comes from imagining the person who would create this piece of prose and the events that led to its creation."

(As an aside, I find her sentences incredibly tweetable: "Is there anything sadder than the sight of a medium heartbroken dove stuffed with French fries on Christmas morning?" At least, when they're short enough to tweet. Usually they are not--and the length is part of the pleasure of the magic trick: the longer the sentence goes, the more oddly it trajectories, and the more pleasure is arrived at when we get to the detonation of the period--assuming it works. It doesn't always work, of course, but it works a lot.)

That this book was the winner of the Essay Prize in 2009 seems about right to me. While it may or may not be nonfiction, it is quite clearly a brain on the page--not always Ruefle's brain directly as much as the product of Ruefle's brain and its capacity for imagining. Check out the excerpt on the site I just linked. The interview is absolutely worth your time.

Her class clearly would have been more than worth my time eight years ago, but as with many other things, understanding comes late. And maybe it's better to have had this near miss with Ruefle's actual brain to regret, and to essay, albeit briefly, here. This way I narratize and contextualize my rediscovery of some seriously kickass work--whatever tag you want to hang on it.

Or perhaps it is better to forget. As Ruefle says in a long essay on her erasures published in Quarter After Eight, a magazine I continually forget about and rediscover, to my pleasure:
And who can forget? And who can forget? I CAN, you may be thinking, because I never knew any of this before, or I CAN, because none of this is of interest to me, or changes my life-so I, I can forget.
And that, my friend, is the art of erasure, as it is enacted in your own life, and all lives: life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don't know or haven't experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased "whole" becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased; if you are lucky you will remember one place or one person, but no one will ever, ever read on their deathbed, the whole text, intact and in order.

First your life is erased, then you are erased. Don't tell me that erasure is beside the point, an artsy fragment of the healthy whole. If it is an appropriation, it is an appropriation of every life that has preceded your own, just as those in the future will appropriate yours; they will appropriate your very needs, your desires, your gestures, your questions, and your words.

Or so I believe. And I am glad. What is the alternative? A blank page.