Natural Born Cultures by Tom Jennings
[essay review of Natural Born Killers, dir. Oliver Stone (1994), published in Here & Now, No. 16/17, pp.48-51, 1995]
The notion of culture has been a problem for radical politics. Socialists and Stalinists, the PC, ultra-lefts and liberals all tend to narrow the concept to elite producers, whose quality validates a status quo possessing the standards of taste to appreciate it. Anything else may be scorned as imperfect, less than fully human, to be ignored, transcended, or educated away. Radicals stand outside received culture, presenting alternatives of rationalist criticism, avant garde art, lifestyle posing, or simply a cynical distaste for popular pleasures. Such self-marginalisation coincides with the Left's disarray, the right's appropriation of public agendas, the resurgence of a purportedly mute, rebellious underclass, and rampant consumerism.
Marxist critics tend to discuss these phenomena in terms of their interests as leaders and theorists. Communist Party intellectuals affiliating to Media Studies and identity politics gave us the hilarious spectacle of filofax Lefties dissecting the corpse of authoritarian communism on behalf of a whole catalogues of oppressed groups. Careers were built in a democratic pluralism that finally, if surreptitiously, could admit its class-specific position. Blairism is the political consequence - tight-lipped censorious Christian snobs allied with respectable folk wishing to 'better' themselves and partake of expanded cultural markets. Liberals are outflanked on the right on social and moral issues, exposing fear and hatred for the vulgar, informal, spontaneous, dangerous, ambivalent passions of the masses.
More generally unable to come to terms with their absorption into elite hierarchies since the 1950s, and with interests opposed to substantial social change, 'political practice' has become political 'good taste' (how to be right-on) for bureaucrats, teachers, cultural 'workers' and scholars. The hidden agenda of leaving their privileged positions intact permeates the new cultural theory. Criticism of the functions of leaders, intellectuals and theorists may risk leaving the new middle classes bereft of progressive roles - so it is avoided.1
Conversely, oppositional politics can be grounded in the experiences of ordinary people - the cultures that surround and suffuse our everyday lives and what we make of them. As practices producing meanings with emotional resonance in groups of people, culture expresses how we make sense of life, identify and position ourselves with respect to internal and external forces and to our material and social surroundings. Seen from below, the focus of culture shifts to hopes, fears, fantasies and expectations as much as beliefs and feelings about the past and present. Our inherently social nature is evident, from community and collectivity, language and discourse. The material basis of culture is clear from the sites of its operation - 'oral' cultures rooted in the structures of schools, workplaces, streets or communities, the elite institutions of the arts and academies, and the products of the mass culture entertainment industries.
The culture sold by capitalism may seem impoverished and imperialistic when compared to the diversity of human life and its persistent impulses for self-determination. Worse, the trajectory of media market development relies on military and security-led technological determinism, bringing corporate and state control and class-based hierarchies of choice.2 But global marketing is leading to such a saturation of mediated images, stories and symbols, that officially sanctioned public forums and channels of communication cannot connect with the masses' expressions of feeling. This distrust of the forms of knowing, being or aspiration that experts and politicians trade in doesn't inevitably lead us to cynicism, apathy, quietism or a celebration of consumerism.3
The importance of culture lies in its open-endedness, its continual re-creation and reproduction within lived experience, where cultural materials are present at every level.4 Efforts to contain it within restricted discourses - to imprison culture in the imperialism of theory - mirror existing systems of control and oppression. These justify themselves in explaining the world via regimes of knowledge which themselves developed in support of coercive and exploitative structures and processes.
Irrespective of the intrinsic value of the cultural commodities we are immersed in, their use entails creating meanings and feelings that resound and echo in social networks, and that don't map directly onto the supposed intentions of the producers or financiers. Not only may meanings produced oppose those intentions, but the very success of cultural products as commodities may depend on consumers creating excess meanings tailored to their desires. Possibilities for radical propaganda may open for those who accept their part in the culture and its aftermath,5 but not for those posing as distanced observers bemoaning the alien horrors of the cultures of others.
Big Screen Distraction
Cinema films are the most expensive, elaborate and spectacular cultural commodities, and are the organising centre for much of our relationship with the mass media. Going to the cinema is a public, social act where we physically separate ourselves from the everyday world in dream-like or festive states, attracted by overwhelming sounds and images. At home special efforts are made to view films and videos on television, compared to the visual wallpaper of most TV output. Films live on thanks to the commodification of stars, symbols and spin-offs. But characters, elements of narratives or film styles may become markers of experience and identity, incorporated into everyday life like, say, soap operas, but with a special quality due to the strength of their impact. Film cults and fan hobbyism are extreme examples of this. But for millions of others not investing such immense personal significance, films are as prominent as sport or music, and are as thoroughly woven into social and cultural life.
Contemporary cinema is dominated by outrageously expensive Hollywood blockbusters which profit from merchandising and globalising hype. Smaller studios, independent producers and (usually government sponsored) non-US film industries break even on a combination of cinema attendance, video and television rights. Increasingly, as viewers become used to differentiated media, film producers minimise risk by combining styles and genres, appealing to multiple groups of viewers at once and playing havoc with established critical categories.6 So Natural Born Killers mixes conventions from action and crime thrillers, romances, road movies, documentary, melodrama and social satire; plus exploiting assorted avant garde film devices and state of the art computer graphic, video and television techniques.
Realism In Fantasy
Engagement with films furnishes fantasy experiences for viewers that may enhance their own potential competence in understanding and embracing their own agency. Only to the extent, crucially, that they read into (and explode out of) the narratives salient elements of their own lives - and such processes, of course, the producers of cultural commodities have relatively little power over. The capacity of cultural products to inspire their audiences may have unequivocally negative effects, which conventional wisdom exaggerates and agonises over if it works contrary to or exposes accepted dominations (such as children assaulting each other as opposed to adults doing it). Ironically, the resulting censorship neutralises the power of cultural products to be used for those resistive strategies which would render policing and interpretation by experts as well as moral guardians redundant.7
Cinema's attraction to new middle classes seeking cultural distinction has developed in tension with the vulgarities of Hollywood, especially in dealing with social conflict. Not so much the lifestyle dilemmas that a tradition of safe bourgeois film and television dramas has milked; but in the collective untidiness and mass tragedies of the lives of the oppressed. Social realism appeals to those insulated from it, but it's difficult to sell the masses films about our suffering because it implies some kind of exotic uniqueness of the problem treated - as opposed to the everyday connotations, for us, of crime, exploitation, misery and drudgery.
Popular cinema narratives portraying the unpredictability of large scale social discord have to appeal to powerful groups in order to be financed and produced, but also need to convince a popular audience that the cards are not all stacked in advance, and that whatever levels of realism are employed have any integrity. In navigating this uneasy path, pleasure must still be afforded to viewers with agendas of hope, fear and expectation, and patterns of desires, likely to diverge wildly from the educated taste of the film makers.
The static cinematic viewpoint leaves watchers distanced from the seething film spectacles of diffuse and sublime social or community processes. Passively connected to events on-screen, one person's voyeur can be someone else's carer, and another's gaoler. Treating one extreme of suffering as the be-all and end-all of a story is the classic strategy of 'social realism' genres of cultural production, with the intimate lives of a few standing as exemplars of the many. This resolution of systemic social and political conflict into a multitude of individual problems reproduces the discursive intersection of the middle class charitable gaze with the ministrations of a benevolent liberal State. Thus the film maker's task, rendering onto the screen the chaos of the social world, helplessly follows a similar logic.
Crime and Punishment
The enduring archetypal social issue is crime, where the cumulative weight of cultural material produced to try and explain what is wrong with society is conveniently funnelled into separate working class bodies. This fragmentation of collective reality - a narrowing of focus onto the 'problem' of the lone working class object - forces the development and resolution of processes into a rut of heroic voluntarism. Implacably opposing moral forces are divided arbitrarily and simplistically so that no-one can doubt where guilt lies - inside the bad individuals (as opposed to the more general intuition that institutions are far less trustworthy).
Given global, divisive and corporate barbarisms, it is ironic that the banality of a diametrically opposed evil is celebrated instead: that of the serial killer.8 Popular novel and film treatments have experimented with every conceivable fiction and media convention, even interrogating the cultural significance of the serial killer genre's popularity itself. The disasters of capitalism have very definite purposes - in consolidating the power to profit - whereas the actions of serial killers seem utterly pointless in any social sense. Thus the nihilism of the political world is displaced into the moral vacuum of the ultimate criminals. Now, when Hollywood gloss meets TV soap, tabloid news sensationalism, social issue movie, MTV editing and video diary 'realism', the scoop has to be serial killers. And if we're really supposed to think that Natural Born Killers is serious, then the director must be Oliver Stone.
Tablets of Stone
Stone has consistently tried to achieve popular Hollywood expressions of contemporary history, abusing in cavalier fashion the conventions of social issue and social realism genres in his 'state of the nation' stories.9 But despite his avowed intention to radically criticise existing institutions, viewers are usually left mystified about the social and political scenario portrayed. Crippling liberties are also taken with the historical record, so precipitating fatalism about the prospects for effective political agency.
This is compounded by gross narrative oversimplification, supposedly in the interests of populism, but in practice going so far as to evacuate the complexity of situations down to a comic book shorthand. Viewers have to do their own work in transcending the indiscriminately childish patterns of motivation Stone's characters have to operate with. But by that stage, such a large proportion of any recognisably social context has been eviscerated that few strategies remain for imagining how the fictional problematic might relate to our real lives.
Noddy and Big Ears Go Psycho
Renewed child violence and copycat scares gave Natural Born Killers free hype - the calibre of 'evidence' being more laughable than usual (e.g. Panorama, BBC1, 27/2/95). Sure enough its characters seem indiscriminately deranged grown-up babies, even if their personalities and development are hidden from us. Backgrounds of horrific abuse and random misfortune would be convincing precursors of this killing spree only if the action took place inside the psychopaths' vengeful unconscious fantasy-lives. In that case the moral - it was the telly wot did it - would be a provocative comment on media zombification. We could speculate on how destroying the tissues of community enhances, as it cuts adrift, violent infantile impulses which otherwise get woven back into intersubjective creative experience. But we learn nothing about how any real world phenomena are generated, overdetermined, conditioned, articulated and driven.
If the media bewitch us exactly so that we do remain ignorant, that can't account for the desperation of liberals like Stone trying to recuperate disenchantment with the information age and its media, while striving to maintain coherent positions for themselves (where all those 60s gurus failed?). Worse, such familiar leftist elitism would concur with Natural Born Killers' implicit argument that specifics don't matter: of cultural connection, social context, or how viewers' experiences are woven into our lives. Since the media turn it into a glossy celebrity distraction; it is, in effect, distracting us in precisely that way; and that's all it does. Or has someone read too much Baudrillard?
The film's main innovation is its constant background visual noise of distorted, agitated fragments of film, hand-held, home video, black and white TV, animation, pop video, computer simulation and other visual styles infesting walls, skies or any surface that holds still long enough. Now and again one of these techniques infiltrates the main action for sustained moments, profoundly enthralling and unsettling the viewer, forcing even closer attention. This breathtaking strategy of montage serves as multiple analogy: TV segmentation and random juxtaposition (channel-hopping, succession of images etc); the jumbled chaos of symbolic, social, and urban environments; and the crazy work of the id, here magically materialised. A mythical media junkie's unconscious is filtered through the director's ego and projected (cinematically and psychologically) within a cinema screen. Despite these layers of processing, artifice and distanciation, it is a marvellous metaphor for media saturated culture.
Action films are utterly (unwittingly) spoofed. The irony and subtlety of a Tarantino script is sacrificed for pompous seriousness, so the actors have no choice but to caricature infantility. Formal pyrotechnics replace pulp devices of affectionate banter and wry humour amidst humdrum horror. Clumsy, staged references to other films are paradoxically more comical amid the ad hoc existentialism and romantic fatalism which show no sign of the reflexiveness that might give them integrity. And in the prison riot, the police, media and governor's decadence, the execution of the media pundit, and the outlaw woman's bodily refusal of victimhood, middle class America's nightmare of underclasses out of control comes into sharp focus.
As usual Stone can't handle the complexities of politics plus media in the face of social forces beyond a superficial individual level. Like its woeful TV predecessor, Wild Palms, this film poses as a serious cultural object by neurotically hamming up the technological wizardry. It falsifies and trivialises the way the media deal with crime and violence, and is irrelevant to their real contemporary expressions. It is transparently parasitic on its cultural context - usually commercial products parade social conscience as niche marketing, not hiding behind it as a crusading principle.
Stone will convince those whose grasp of structures of power and capacity for agency in the world are as shallow, cynical and narcissistic as he is. Natural Born Killers and its ilk only have corrosive effects on those whose smugness and jaded tastes are relatively untouched by the material immediacy of 1990s impoverishment and brutalism. We can interpret it (and the panic-hype reception) as a display of intense hysterical anxiety by the elite middle classes at the predicament their ethics, technology and aesthetics are bringing their children to; and at the same time abject fear as they see their brave old world beginning to slip away, threatened with ease by the demons of their own creation. That they hate themselves so much, and know us so little …
Blood From A Stone
Stone's films unwittingly reproduce the alienating social effects of the media and government operations he claims to want to change. This banal grandiosity contributes to their success as films - but in the ambivalent pleasures they evoke, we glimpse the tragically robust persistence of government-by-capitalism. More optimistically, his films demonstrate that conventional wisdom about possible paths to personal, social or political change (as expressed by the film maker or his leading characters) are definitely not going to be useful as such in our lives. They are the social and political opiates of the enemy - their weakness, not ours, and crying out to be travestied as such.
The cinema audience may use the power of film images to resonate with our fantasy lives - which is another way of saying, the exploration of possibilities, catalysts and raw materials for thought and intention, dream and action. And if we fantasise about what we don't have, those in control fear what they may lose. Given their contemporary cinematic visions of the world and its people, their confidence seems to be at a surprisingly low ebb, balancing subversion and containment more hysterically than ever. Even if we can't take that much heart from their discomfiture, surely we can at least take every opportunity to expose it publicly.
1. Main sources for the left on culture: Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction; Callinicos, A. (1989) Against Postmodernism; Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture & Postmodernism; Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism; McGuigan, J. (1992) Cultural Populism; Ross, A. (1989) No Respect; Szczelkun, S. (1993) Conspiracy of Good Taste. My contributions to Here & Now 11, 14 & 15 also cover some of this ground.
2. see Ian Tillium, 'Technological Despotism', Here & Now 15; and Bonnano, A. (1988) From Riot to Insurrection.
3. Some examples of pessimism, cynicism, quietism etc: Lash, S. & J. Urry (1994) Economies of Signs and Space; Poster, M. (Ed) (1988) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings; Fiske, J. (1989) Understanding the Popular and Reading the Popular.
4. For culture and the grass-roots, I used: Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power; de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life; McGuigan (1992); Willis, P. (1990) Common Culture; and E.P. Thompson's studies.
5. Sadly this seems to exclude most of the libertarian left.
6. Books on cinema I found useful are: Collins, J. et al (1993) Film Theory Goes to the Movies; Corrigan, T. (1991) A Cinema Without Walls; Kuhn, A. (1990) Alien Zone, Tasker, Y. (1993) Spectacular Bodies; Turner, G. (1993) Film as Social Practice.
7. Seen most clearly in exploitation genres like horror and porn. See for example Clover, C.J. (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws; Newman, K. (1988) Nightmare Movies; Segal, L. & M. McIntosh (Eds) (1992) Sex Exposed; Williams, L.R. (1993) 'Erotic Thrillers & Rude Women', Sight & Sound, July, pp.l2-14.
8. see F. Dexter, Seriality Kills, Here & Now, Issue 12, and the ensuing debate in Here & Now, Issue 13.
9. including a Vietnam War trilogy - Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth; the parapolitics of JFK; a biopic of The Doors; gangster stories in Wall Street and the script for Scarface; and accounts of the media and US politics, from Salvador and Talk Radio to Wild Palms (TV series) and Natural Born Killers.