On W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Cat and the Moon’

By Frederik van Dam

As 2018 drew to a close, the Irish College in Belgium hosted a
conference on innovation and experiment in contemporary Irish fiction
.
It was a lively gathering, with many inspiring speakers; the interest in and
relevance of global climate change was striking and, of course, apposite. The animating force behind this gathering was Hedwig Schwall, for whom the conference was also the celebration of her retirement. Instead of briefly
recapitulating my own modest contribution to this conference, I thought I’d pay homage to Hedwig by providing a short reading that takes its cue from her work.

This is a belated reading. Years ago, when I was scanning the field for a possible research topic for my BA dissertation, I mentioned to my tutor that I was fascinated by the poetry of W. B. Yeats. To pursue that interest, he replied, I should seek out our in-house expert on the subject. I did not heed his advice. Instead of writing on Yeats, I soon found myself working on the novels of Anthony Trollope. But this decision was only a delay. Among many other things, Trollope’s early novels, which are set in Ireland, made me more attentive to the tangled tale of Irish literature in the Victorian age. As a result, I was brought – inevitably – into Hedwig’s ken. What would I have approached her with, though, had I listened more attentively to Yeats’s fanciful poems and not been lured away by Trollope’s earth-bound prose?

I might have tried to impress Hedwig with some reflections about Yeats’s ‘The Cat and the Moon’ (first published in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919). The poem’s title signals that it will revolve around a psychological duality that Hedwig has so often tackled in her literary criticism; a Schwallian duality, as it were. Incorrigibly and incurably self-willed, cats are conventionally seen as conscious creatures, while the moon, at once dark and faintly illuminated, is a traditional trope for the unconscious. The poem itself, however, dissolves the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious even before it has been created, and instead emphasizes similarity more than difference. The first stanza presents the comparison between the feline and Selene in the lucid terms of a family resemblance:

The cat
went here and there
And the
moon spun round like a top,
And the
nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping
cat, looked up.

(Yeats,
p. 167, ll. 1-4)

Initially, Yeats’s cat is ‘creeping’, which suggests that without the moon it is a mere beast of the earth. As the poem continues, however, the bond between the animal and the moon is moved into the register of the aesthetic. ‘When two close kindred meet’, the poet asks, ‘What better than
call a dance’ (p. 167, ll. 12-13)? A creature whose pupils range ‘from round to
crescent, / From crescent to round’ (p. 168, ll. 23-24), Minnaloushe is
‘[a]lone, important, and wise’ (p. 168, l. 26). By staring at the moon, in
other words, the cat’s spirit is raised, elevated. Significantly, the speaker
is excluded from the dance that he observes. The poet is the passive witness of an aesthetic spectacle that seems to take place on the other side of knowledge, a spectacle from which he, as a thinking being, is excluded. The sentiment is not unlike that found in many of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, such as the following:

Though the
moon is full
There seems
an absence –
Suma in summer.

(Aitken
31)

This particular haiku expresses a sense of unfulfillment in the presence the moon, a kind of yearning for self-forgetfulness. Yeats adds a second layer to this experience by introducing a creature into the scene. It is not the moon itself but a creature staring at the moon that makes the poet (and, at a remove, the reader) feel that sense of unfulfillment, that absence, which suggests a possible cause: by virtue of the presence of the cat, the poet
is made aware, if nothing more than that, of the animalistic part of his being from which he has been separated. Without wanting to suggest that this proto-existentialist sentiment is characteristically Irish, it is a testimony to Yeats’s influence that it can be found in the many contemporary works of Irish literature of which Hedwig has been active promotor and studious scholar. Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking (2017) provides one of the most recent articulations of this experience.

I look up
to the turbine, which doesn’t appear to go to sleep as the flower-heads do. It
stays up at night, continues to spin. Two white lights glow from the generator
at its axis, a set of cat’s eyes, but each of the blades remains unlit. […]
It
feels as if the cat’s eyes are looking down, looking back at me. Watching over
the garden, the bungalow. But I’ve never been good at judging the distance or
size or position of objects in the sky. I remember riding in the back of my
mother’s Ford Estate: I was four, it was night-time, and the moon was full. I
was gazing out the window, and I couldn’t understand why it moved through the
sky at the same pace as the car along the road, why we never managed to leave
it behind. ‘Drive faster!’ I commanded my mother, but refused to tell her why,
and so, she didn’t.
I
turn my attention back to the tuck-up petals.
How
do the flowers know it’s night-time? Why is the moon everywhere?

(Baume 171)

As in Yeats’s poem, two instantly recognizable images – the eyes of the cat and the light of the moon – mutually reinforce one another in order to power a reflection on the strange and alien quality of the world that surrounds us. I like to imagine that a research proposal on the reception of Yeatsian tropes, as found Baume’s novel, would have appealed to
Hedwig’s heretic side. After such knowledge, she would have said (channelling Herman Servotte, channelling T. S. Eliot), what forgiveness?


Aitken,
Robert. A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen, 2003. Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard,

Baume, Sara. A Line Made by Walking. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Second edition. New York: Scribner, 1996.

Bertolucci’s autonomy of art revisited

by Marcel van den Haak

A few weeks ago, the acclaimed film director Bernardo Bertolucci died. He not only wrote and directed such grand epic films as Novecento (1976) and The Last Emperor (1987) and the stylistically innovative Il conformista (1970), but also the highly erotic Last Tango in Paris. In this 1972 film, a 45-year-old recently turned widower played by Marlon Brando and a 19-year-old engaged woman, Maria Schneider, have a series of sexual encounters in an empty apartment that they both wish to rent, without exchanging personal information. It was very controversial at the time – and it still is, yet for different reasons. This shift in moral concerns marks a broader turn in discussions on art that I will explore.

The film’s graphic sex scenes, the anonymity of the encounters and even the overt bisexuality of the young lead actress led to much moral condemnation at the time. Wikipedia gives an astonishing overview. Some critics called it “pornography disguised as art”; British censors gave it an X rating, which was still too light for some conservatives; New York moviegoers were threatened by bystanders calling them ‘perverts’ and ‘homos’; several countries such as Spain banned the film completely; and in Italy the main actors involved (including Bertolucci and Brando) were even given suspended prison sentences.[1]

image

At the same time, the movie was hailed by critics and audiences as a ground-breaking masterpiece. One of the most famous film critics ever, Pauline Kael, wrote one of her most famous reviews on precisely this film. She gave an in-depth interpretation of the story, particularly of the innovative look at sex in film – not portraying it as merely a mechanical act but as the expression of the characters’ drives – as well as the powerful debunking of American masculinity. She discussed the gliding camera style and the “sequences that are like arias,” and she reasonably compared Bertolucci to many great filmmakers of the past: Renoir, Vigo, Carné, Von Sternberg, Ophüls.[2] Other reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, later added the realness of the acting, including coughs and disconnected sentences.[3] In
other words, the reviewers touched upon all those elements of a piece of art that make it just that, art.

Last Tango in Paris is a fine example of an artwork in which aesthetics and ethics collide. In the art world, it is common practice that art is judged solely with aesthetic criteria, such as the innovativeness in form and style, the complexity or depth of the content, and perhaps the authenticity of what is portrayed. Moral judgements, that others in society might have, should be put aside. This idea originated in the nineteenth century. It stems from a misconception of Kant’s and Schiller’s ideas on the distinction between the Beautiful (aesthetics) and the Good (ethics). These great, eighteenth-century German thinkers analytically separated these two concepts, yet without disconnecting them entirely: the Beautiful should be at the benefit of the Good, art is meant to improve human beings. Thinkers in post-revolutionary France adopted this distinction between domains, but interpreted it as a full autonomy of the arts, regardless of possible moral benefits or objections. Art should be for art’s sake, not for morality’s (or money’s) sake.[4] This idea lies at the core of modernism, which reached its height in the early twentieth century, such as in literature (Woolf), visual arts (Kandinsky) and music (Stravinsky). It is still strong today, although societal benefits of the arts are often deemed important, too. Strikingly, Pauline Kael compared both the shocked and the astonished reactions at the first US screening of Last Tango in Paris in 1972 with the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps in 1913, often exemplified
as the ultimate artistic revolution against the bourgeois establishment.

This maxim – art for art’s sake, form over content, aesthetics over ethics – serves as an ideal defence mechanism against any moral objections towards art. Art is a free place in which the rules of society ‘out there’ do not matter. Within the walls of a museum or a theatre you can do whatever you like; the audience will perceive it as something sacred in itself: Art. Moreover, art is the place to push the boundaries, to break taboos, to act like an iconoclast. Conservative, reactionary, religious and prudish critics can object all they want, but in the art world we don’t care.

This ‘system’ works as long as the artists see themselves as progressive – as is often the case – and their moral critics whom they can ignore as conservative. Bertolucci was a Marxist and an iconoclast, whereas his critics propagated family values and resisted licentious sex. What we see lately, however, is a steep rise of moral objections against artworks from a progressive standpoint. Art that is deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or culturally appropriative has increasingly come under fire. Art can be aesthetically beautiful, a comedian’s joke can have an original punchline, but when it in one way or the other denounces women, people of colour or LGBT persons, it is put under a magnifying glass. Often it is not the art itself that has an issue, but the artist who produced it. Can we, for instance, still watch a Kevin Spacey movie without second thoughts? Art works are also criticised in retrospect. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is stripped of its most misogynist and racist scenes, an 1896 painting by J.W. Waterhouse was recently removed from Manchester Art Gallery because of similarities with #MeToo situations (though this soon turned out to be a publicity stunt); and even Friends fans are re-evaluating their favourite yet homophobic episodes from the 1990s. Of course, such debates are not entirely new – e.g., already in 1972 a feminist group criticised Last Tango for “male domination”, as the same Wikipedia page shows – but the strength, scope and impact of the current discussions are expanding.

Another point of this type of criticism is the way an artwork came into being. Here we return to Last Tango in Paris. Decades after the film’s release, in 2006, actress Maria Schneider revealed how Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando had sexually humiliated her, particularly in an anal rape scene.[5] Without her prior knowledge (or only just before) and certainly without her consent, Brando had used butter as a lubricant. Schneider felt raped and held Bertolucci accountable. Hence, Last Tango became controversial again. This story has come back in the limelight several
times: after Schneider’s death in 2011, and particularly when a semi-remorseful interview with Bertolucci on Dutch TV (College Tour, 2013) had found its international way in 2016.[6] He stated that he felt guilty towards her, but that he did not regret his decision. He wanted to capture her pure
reaction rather than let her act humiliation and rage. Hence, he expressed his guilt as a person, not as an artist. And he explained further: “To make movies, sometimes, to obtain something, I think that we have to be completely free.”

In other words, in order to make something aesthetically beautiful, in this case something authentic, one can put ethical issues aside. It is the modernist defence mechanism against moral objections to art that we got to know so well in the past century. However, when the critics are from the same – progressive – side of the spectrum as most artists are, this standpoint gets more uncomfortable. Moreover, if participants within the art world itself are protesting, such as actors Jessica Chastain and Chris Evans after seeing the Bertolucci interview, it seems to get untenable.[7] Many artists still emphasize the autonomy of their art (“we have to be completely free”) when encountered with moral criticisms on sexism and the like, and they refuse to ‘censor’ themselves. Some even regretfully say that prudishness is back, only a few decades after the ‘liberating’ 1970s, without realising that the current critique is of an entirely different type.

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However, more and more artists are taking these increasing critiques into account, be it out of fear for Twitter storms and consumer boycotts – yes, social media can greatly escalate the impact of such critiques – or due to true awareness. This might differ per occasion, but in general, I sense that a shift is taking place. Can we still defend art as a purely autonomous place that does not have to abide to the norms of the rest of society? Are the current debates putting an end to this modernist paradigm that has endured for so long? Or is it just a strong but temporary storm? For now, these are open questions.

So, can we still watch Last Tango in Paris? In her obituary, Dutch cultural columnist Joyce Roodnat – herself a #MeToo accuser of another recently deceased acclaimed filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann – thinks we can: “Thank you Bernardo Bertolucci. Your films changed my life. I forgive you everything.”[8] Well, that might go a bit far, but I’d say we can enjoy the film, but with reservation. Nevertheless, present-day directors will no longer get away with it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Tango_in_Paris

[2] https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/834-last-tango-in-paris

[3] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-last-tango-in-paris-1972

[4] Gene H. Bell-Villada (1996), Art for art’s sake and literary life. How
politics and markets helped shape the ideology & culture of aestheticism
1790-1990
. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press.

[5] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-469646/I-felt-raped-Brando.html

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMl4xCGcdfA

[7] https://twitter.com/jes_chastain/status/804966641998168064 and https://twitter.com/chrisevans/status/805091489814548480

[8] https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2018/11/28/mijn-laatste-tango-met-bernardo-a2779325

A New Chapter in Space Exploration

By László Munteán

This coming July will mark fifty years since the legendary landing on the Moon by the crew of the Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Although the upcoming anniversary may not yet be at the forefront of our minds, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, featuring Ryan Gosling as the astronaut Neil Armstrong, is without doubt an early tribute to the mission. Considering the difficulties Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin faced when trying to plant the American flag into the dusty soil of the Moon, an event yielding one of the most iconic photographs in history, the absence of this symbolic event in Chazelle’s film is rather conspicuous. This is not to blame the filmmaker, however. Quite the contrary, in a new era of America First, this lacuna in a Hollywood blockbuster is rather refreshing insofar as it allows Armstrong’s psychological voyage as a man traumatized by the loss of his daughter to take center stage.

As First Man is still playing in movie theaters around the world, images about the successful landing of NASA’s spacecraft InSight on the surface of Mars on November 26 have gone viral. Among a series of objectives, the spacecraft is tasked with gathering information about the material composition of Mars. Instead of drilling a hole for a flagpole, InSight sends a probe deep into Martian soil. After years of trial and error, such an
achievement is, both literally and metaphorically, groundbreaking. The
belligerent rhetoric of Cold War space race that underpinned the Apollo
expeditions and left six American flags on the surface of the Moon has long
been replaced by the legacy of international cooperation in the service of
science.

image

In light of First Man’s silence on the flag raising ceremony and incoming footage of InSight’s activities on Mars, it is particularly intriguing to examine how NASA, a national agency of aerospace research, positions itself in its new promotional video entitled “We Are NASA.”
Less than three minutes long, the video opens with a montage of archival footage of emblematic launches accompanied by bombastic music and a fragment of Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech about sending a man to the Moon. A male voice reminiscent of the one used in Hollywood trailers declares that “we are building the next chapter of American exploration.” This chapter entails “returning to the Moon to stay so we can go beyond to Mars.”

While the rhetoric of “exploration” and the “pioneering spirit” is deeply rooted in the American notion of the frontier and coast-to-coast expansion, a notion which Kennedy upgraded by speaking of space as the final frontier, the voiceover also informs us, so as to underscore the aims for the new chapter, that “This is not hypothetical. This is not about flags and  footprints. This is about sustainable science.” At this point, we see
children looking at a photograph of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module with the American flag. The visual and textual rhetoric that unfolds in this sequence is laden with tension. On one hand, NASA takes pride in its achievements over the past sixty years and gladly embraces the vocabulary of the frontier and exploration. On the other hand, the new chapter of exploration on which it embarks seems to continue with a sentiment that absorbs us in Chazelle’s representation of the Moon landing in First Man: while acknowledging the legacy of American scientific ingenuity and the heroic act of the astronauts, the flag is withheld from anchoring this sentiment exclusively onto the fabric of the nation, as did the 1969 documentary Footprints on the Moon, featuring Wernher von Braun as narrator. If the gesture of refraining from using the national symbol in First Man brings to the fore Armstrong’s personality, “We Are NASA” re-inscribes the rhetoric of the all-American frontier into sustainable science as a means by which “to go farther than humanity has ever been.” At a time when scientific insights are often dismissed as fake at the presidential level, NASA’s new promotional video unmoors scientific goals from nationalism and inscribes science as a national interest.

(Re)Discovering Connie Converse

Music streaming service Spotify has been criticized for making a ‘mindless’ way of listening to music possible. Unlike a record, which you have to turn over, or a cd that stops playing after a while, on Spotify you can endlessly stream one song after the other. The other day, however, a song started playing on my Discover Weekly playlist that utterly grabbed my attention. The song was ‘Father Neptune’ by Connie Converse. It sounded like some home recording by a contemporary ‘New Weird America’-type singer. I
listened to it again, completely struck by the way it sounded and its
self-deprecating, and highly amusing, lyrics. The song features a woman singing about her sailor husband, who quite openly loves the sea more than his wife: ‘When my man goes to sea / He steps so high and free / I think I know as I watch him go / That he has no need for me, for me’. Despite feeling rejected, she prays to ‘Father Neptune’ to keep her husband safe while he’s away at sea. Throughout, the song uses rhyme and repetition to great comic effect, and the delivery and the silly guitar riff in
between the verses make it all the more humorous. Then, there’s a verse that adds great depth to the song: ‘I know it’s a boat / That keeps him afloat / But I like to think it’s me / And if it were not for this / I would sink / To the depths / Of the sea’. All of a sudden, this quirky old-timey song about a sailor and his wife becomes about people’s ability to tell themselves little lies to make their day-to-day existence bearable – and, even worse, to know
that they’re doing this, while continuing to fool themselves nonetheless.

Intrigued by the song, I looked up the album on Spotify. Based on the quirky album artwork and the name of the artist, I thought this must be some vintage-inspired contemporary musician. A Google search revealed, however, that she was a singer from the 1950s, with a fascinating life story. The first hit – her Wikipedia page – tells you her full name (Elizabeth Eaton ‘Connie’ Converse) and her dates (born August 3, 1924 – disappeared 1974). Still further intrigued, I started to read more about this singer, who turned out to be a recently ‘(re)discovered’, but still relatively little-known musician.

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The main sources of information about Connie Converse’s life are a number of online articles and a 40-minute documentary called We Lived Alone: The Connie Converse Documentary by Andrea Kannes (2014). In these articles, the main facts about her life and her recent rediscovery are listed over and over: she was born in New Hampshire, won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and left the college after two years to move to New York City. There, she wrote and recorded songs in her Greenwich Village apartment and performed at friends’ dinner parties, accompanying herself on guitar. Halfway through the 1950s, she recorded a set of songs in the kitchen of artist and entertainer Gene Deitch, who held music gatherings at his house. While Deitch and others tried to help her become well-known, her career as a musician never took off. In 1961 – the year Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village, and after around 12 years of trying to become well-known for her music – she gave up composing and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her brother lived. Here, she got a job at the university as editor of an academic journal. Then, in 1974, after writing a set of letters to friends and family, which could be construed as ‘goodbye letters’, she drove off, never to be seen again. To this day, nobody knows what happened to her – whether she ended her life, as her brother suggests on Kannes’ documentary, or whether she decided to start afresh somewhere else. Then, in 2004, Gene Deitch played some of Converse’s songs on a music historian’s radio show, and two listeners were inspired to set up a record label for the sole purpose of making Converse’s music known to the
public. Five years later, a collection of her music was released as How Sad, How Lovely (which you can listen to here: https://connieconverse.bandcamp.com/ or purchase here: http://www.squirrelthing.com/artists/connie-converse).

The common narrative in all the articles is that Connie Converse can be seen as a ‘singer-songwriter’ long before Bob Dylan was doing his thing in Greenwich Village, and as a ‘female singer-songwriter’, writing cleverly composed songs with confessional lyrics, long before anybody like Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton or Joni Mitchell came along.

As the articles show us, Connie Converse’s story has all the ingredients for creating a fierce and devoted fanbase: her story is repeatedly told as the story of somebody who was lonely-but-brilliant, independent and intellectual, and who seemed to live in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a sense that she was ‘wrongfully’ overlooked during her lifetime, and that the large body of work she left behind (only a part of which is currently known to the public) is in desperate need of being uncovered,
written about and recognized. Also, because her songs don’t easily fit into any genre, she functions as a blank screen on which people can project their own labels: she has been classified, for instance, as ‘[a] prototype of the DIY artist’ [1], or as ‘a “singer-songwriter” before that term or style existed’. [2] Labels such as these create the distinct feeling, among her fans, that she was ‘ahead of her times’, which is another feature of the ‘textbook cult artist’ [3] that Connie Converse has been described as.

One thing the writers have in common is that they are all completely bowled over by her music. Also, many of them seem glad that Connie Converse’s music is ‘finally’ getting the recognition it deserves. And here I have to agree: Connie Converse’s music is simply great. The chords are unusual, the lyrics tell wonderful stories, and the songs are incredibly moving, as well as very, very funny. Her repertoire is very diverse, and includes songs in which she humorously criticizes the restrictions women faced in the 1950s (‘Roving Woman’), profound songs about loneliness and isolation (‘One By One’) and songs that feature surrealist humour, like ‘Unknown (A Little Louder, Love)’, which starts: ‘Once there was a trumpeter / Blew his love a ballad / That was not enough for her / So he blew her a lobster salad’. She plays around with rhythm, melody and pauses to create emotional effect, and while telling stories about domesticity and love, her songs also explore the darker side of life. This goes, for instance, for ‘Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)’. This song is about a woman living on her own in a valley that people call ‘lonesome’, who states that she isn’t ‘lonesome’ at all. After the opening, there is a beautiful melody and the speaker sings about a whippoorwill ‘sitting on [her] windowsill’ and a ‘brook running by [her] kitchen door’. We get the idea she is perfectly happy being there by herself. Then, there is a humorous twist: it turns out that everything there is ‘talking’ at her, like her lover used to do. ‘See that brook
running by my kitchen door / Well, it couldn’t talk no more / If it was you //
Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing / Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling / In the yard I keep a pig or two / They drop in for dinner like you used to do’.
This is the reason she isn’t lonely there: she has
all sorts of creatures and things reminding her of her annoying ex-lover. By
the time the song ends, she no longer ‘goes’ to the valley, as she sings in the beginning of the song, but ‘lives’ there: ‘In between two tall mountains / There’s a place they call “lonesome” / Don’t see why they call it lonesome / I’m never lonesome now I live there’. Despite the humour, there’s a sense here that the speaker can’t escape her somewhat tormented mental state – and that she is kidding herself in thinking that she isn’t lonely. Several of the songs on How Sad, How Lovely feature characters like this, with complex inner lives.

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Of course, Connie Converse’s story is not unique. Elements of it are similar to the stories of singers like Sibylle Baier or Eva Cassidy. Also, music critics have pointed out similarities between her music and that of her female contemporaries, such as Peggy Seeger and Susan Reed. One reason why Connie Converse’s story is interesting, though, is that it shows us how a new discovery can change existing periodizations and, with this, our view of music history. Indeed, the ‘discovery’ of Connie Converse sheds new light on singer-songwriters and folk artists such as Bob Dylan, female
singer-songwriters and their precursors, and the music scene in 1950s New York. This reminds us, once again, that the periods that scholars, music historians and journalists refer to in their work, and that we teach to students, are not fixed entities with clear-cut boundaries, but are artificial constructions, made on the basis of the cases at our disposal. What’s more, the story of Connie Converse shows us that becoming ‘famous’ does not necessarily depend on talent, but relies on a combination of many factors: connections, reviewers, record labels, music journalists, scholars, luck, and timing.

[1] In press releases for Howard Fishman’s play on Converse’s life, A Star Has Burnt My Eye (2015).

[2] Spinning on Air podcast (2009, https://www.wnyc.org/story/62099-connie-converse-walking-in-the-dark/).

[3] New York Times review (2016) of Fishman’s play (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/theater/a-star-has-burnt-my-eye-review.html).

“All that is solid melts into air”: Cultural Analytics and Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015)

By Roel Smeets

These months, research brought me to autumnal Montréal, Canada, where I am a visiting scholar at McGill University’s .txtLAB. Montréal is the geographical centre of cultural analytics, a quickly evolving discipline that uses the methods of data science for the study of culture. The young and blossoming Journal of Cultural Analytics is hosted here, which is one the leading platforms in this field of study.

In the cold and rainy atmospheres of the city I daily think and talk about devising and fine tuning methods to analyse novels on a larger scale than literary scholars commonly do. I like to think that I am not doing this because I am perverted by a neoliberal logic in which everything, including works of art, have to be measured and classified. I rather tell myself that my algorithmic approach to the contemporary Dutch novel serves a higher goal: revealing patterns of literary representation that are not visible to the human eye. Turning art into data thus becomes a means to a noble end –
or so I believe.

Last weekend, I took a break from research and went to see Julian Rosefeldt’s video installation Manifesto (2015), which was exhibited at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). In the first room of the exhibition, excerpts from a diverse collection of manifestos are shown on panels, ranging from Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848), to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909), to Lars
von Trier’s and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 Manifesto (1995). In the next room, thirteen short movies are shown in which actress Cate Blanchett utters lines from these manifesto’s while performing various roles such as factory worker, homeless man and schoolteacher.

Manifesto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOA6ramO1aw

Upon entering the room, I hear Blanchett’s voice orchestrated through a cacophony of sound. I hear the words from the different manifesto’s being uttered all at once. At first glance, it feels as if every short movie expresses radically different statements on the workings and uses of art, culture and society. As if everyone disagrees. But at the end of each short movie, out of the blue, a moment of apparent harmony emerges. All of Blanchett’s characters start to synchronously utter words that all sound very much alike despite their difference in meaning. It is as if all manifesto writers are suddenly on the same page, as if there is nothing but one shared belief, although it remains unclear what that might entail.

The first video features lines from the Communist Manifesto. The chief point of focus lies with the words “All that is solid melts into air”, taken from the
first section of the manifesto. Unhampered by what Marx and Engels might have meant by this, the words serve as metaphor for the seemingly inviolability of the idealistic convictions of all the manifesto’s portrayed in the exhibition. Listening to the concepts and ideas expressed in each individual manifesto, I had the experience of listening to clearly defined, impregnable beliefs, carved in stone. But listening to all these manifestos at once, the apparent solidity of each manifesto melted into air. What seemed solid at first, turned out to be unstable, relative, hilarious almost.

I see Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015) as a metaphor for my own research practices. Turning culture into data creates an illusion of solidity. Numbers instead of words, statistics instead of speculation. But a numerical representation of a novel is still a representation, a perspective, a point of view, and therefore not necessarily more true than other representations. I picture a future exhibition where excerpts from dissertations are read out loud with an air of solidity, seemingly disagreeing, but sounding alike. Words on a page melting into thin air.

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Not just any rock memoir, but a “beautiful one”

Door: Dennis Kersten

© foto: Simon Q

There is a fantastic anecdote in Brett Anderson’s memoir, Coal Black Mornings (2018) about how the Suede singer as a teenager listened to his favourite post-punk records at the wrong speed (33 rounds per minute, instead of 45): “I fell in love with the slowed down, hellish yowl that
seemed so in keeping with the content”. When he is eventually told, the magic of the music is lost. Also, the awful sound of his third-hand hi-fi set taught him to ignore the bottom end in music, possibly influencing the writing and recording of his clear and simple songs later. As he writes about his younger self, “The parameters of my ability, though at first a limitation, actually ended up being a strength as I incrementally developed the only style I could – my own”.

While reading about the magic of mishearing music in Anderson’s book, I was reminded of the Sunday evening in 1993/4 when I went cycling through Nijmegen, listening to a cassette of Suede’s eponymous debut album. I remember how snippets of sometimes half-heard lyrics seemed to cohere into an invitation to a scene of broken bones in council homes and housewives addicted to mother’s little helpers. A world populated by people “so young and so gone”, and, indeed, so far removed from my own life at the time. What was I to make of lines in which lovers go lassoing, or someone is “born as a pantomime horse”? As I recall, there was absolutely no such poetry to the city I cycled through that evening. I had no need for the domestic violence of “Animal Nitrate”, or the use of drugs in “Sleeping Pills”, but my home town definitely lacked stories – or, at least, that is what I thought while trying to make sense of Anderson’s lyrics.

As can be read in his memoir, Brett Anderson, born in 1967, comes from a similar humdrum background in Haywards Heath, West Sussex.
His childhood and adolescence may have lacked stories, too. To his older self, that is, because the book he has just published is the story of his Haywards Heath days, his escape from the doledrums via student life in Manchester and the formation of Suede with, amongst others, his girlfriend Justine Frischmann. First and foremost, it explores his relationship with his parents, a recurring subject in Suede songs, especially on the reunited band’s two most recent albums. Anderson is concerned with his father’s influence on the development of his personality and bares himself while describing the impact of the death of his mother from cancer. Thus, Coal Black Mornings makes for intimate as well as melancholic reading: it does not start with the sentence “This is a book about failure” for nothing. It is one of the most powerfully emotional and well-written rock memoirs recently published.

The current popularity of the rock star autobiography may be indicative of rock music’s waning significance and the ensuing desire to wallow in nostalgia for the so-called “golden age” of guitar-oriented popular
music: the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. As Michael Hann claims in The Guardian (31 March 2017), “rock is the new jazz… something fetishised by an older audience, but which has ceded its place at the centre of the pop-cultural conversation to other forms of music, ones less tied to a sense of history”. Clearly, considering the commercial success of life narratives by some of rock’s most heavily canonized names (Dylan, Richards, Springsteen), there is a market for stories about the good old “rock” days. And, yes, they do sometimes create the impression that their authors have come to a
point in their lives from which they can only look back. However, while early-Suede seem to have become rock heritage (2018 did see the release of yet another deluxe edition of their debut), it would be unreasonable to say that with Coal Black Mornings Brett Anderson is simply jumping the rock memoir bandwagon.

Thanks to its focus on his pre-fame life as well as its sophisticated writing style, Anderson’s book qualifies as belonging to a subset of the celebrity memoir that has more on offer than abundantly illustrated (and frequently ghostwritten) sensation stories about the very private lives of the stars. As such, it should be an equally interesting read for non-Suede fans. Its tone, subtlety,  and perhaps “literary” precision in its choice of metaphors may remind readers of recent, critically acclaimed rock star autobiographies like Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010) and Robert Forster’s Grant and I (2016). Coal Black Mornings is no typical rock memoir either: Anderson is relatively young, while contemporary rock life writing seems to be dominated by musicians who were at the height of their powers in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Blur’s Alex James and The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess have both published at least two autobiographical books, while Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker is, apparently, writing his first, but Anderson’s 1990s Britpop generation remains underrepresented on the autobiography shelves.

With a new Suede album announced for September 2018, Anderson can hardly be said to look back on a fully formed career, neither does
Coal Black Mornings aim to present a complete picture of his life so far. As he explains in its introductory pages, the book, a “prehistory” of Suede, was written with a very specific intention. “The very last thing I wanted to write was a ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir,” he says in the “Foreword”. Instead, he is writing mainly for the benefit of his son, so that “When he is old enough, which may indeed be when I am no longer around, at least he’ll have this to add a little bit of truth to the story of who his dad was and the passions and privations he lived through, and ultimately where we both came from”. Fatherhood has not only changed Anderson as an artist, but having become a parent himself has also made him reevaluate his relationships with his mother and father. His memoir, then, has work to do: in days to come it will tell his son who his father really was and, more immediately, it will help Anderson come to terms with life at 50. Like any autobiographical
narrative, Coal Black Mornings has its duties towards the present and the future, as much as it is about its author’s personal history.

Much has been written about the book’s ending: it stops when Suede sign their first recording contract, about a year before their debut album will top the British charts. Anderson has already been interviewed about a potential sequel, which would inevitably be about “coke and gold discs” as well as guitarists and songwriting partners leaving the band at crucial stages in
its career. In Coal Black Mornings, there is more about the heyday of Suede, and especially band relations, than initially seems the case, though. When Anderson describes his early relationship with “intense” fellow-songwriter Bernard Butler, it is already clear that it is bound to end in high drama, even if he always writes about Butler with deep affection and admiration. References to later periods in the existence of Suede complete the picture of a fascinating group of people, personality-wise: a follow-up to the current memoir might provide more detail, but the dynamics underlying the interactions between Anderson, Butler, Osman and Gilbert are already evocatively rendered.

In addition, this prehistory of Suede does shed light on the origins of many of the early Anderson/ Butler co-writes. Anderson relates how those songs process real-life experiences and build on observations of the people that pass through his pre-band life in shabby London flats – the “Beautiful Ones” of the title of a 1996 Suede hit. A turning point is “the emergence of sex” in the songs Anderson and Butler wrote in preparation for their first album: “The moment that Bernard and I started to dig deep inside
ourselves and into those primal urges like anger and hatred and lust was the moment that we really grew as writers”. (Enter the lassoing in the lyrics of “Moving”, presumably.) The memoir itself is conspicuously light on discussions of sexuality. Anderson only fleetingly refers to his “overtly feminine” stage persona, which he explains as “an expression of grief”. It was his way of dealing with the loss of two of the most important women in his life just before Suede hit the big time: his mother and Justine Frischmann. “This idea of replacing people with gestures and things fed into some of those early songs,” he writes.

When I was out on my bike in the early-’90s, listening to some of those “early songs” on Suede, I thought that at 40 I would understand and live life better. I was sure I would know more words to be able to express myself more adequately. But by the time I reached 40, I felt I had only really learnt to be 30 in the meantime. 40 brings new questions – and calls for yet more words. Judging from his memoir, Anderson is at a similar new crossroads in his life: he is, indeed, not looking back from an end point, but reflecting on what and where he has been to be able to answer the personal questions that matter in the here and now. He should not write a sequel about Suede’s peak period, as some have suggested. I’d say, let Coal Black Mornings do its work. It may be a book about failure, but Anderson’s life writing is a triumph.

Virtuele optiewaarde

door: Cas Smithuijsen

Op uitnodiging van de Vereniging Rembrandt sprak de directeur van het Britse Art Fund (artfund.org) afgelopen vrijdag in het Rijksmuseum. Hij vertelde dat het fonds in 1903 begon als financier van museale aankopen in de hoop met zoveel mogelijk leden een particulier draagvlak voor openbaar kunstbezit te kunnen kweken. Na een eeuw zagen de fondsbestuurders dat het met dat maatschappelijk draagvlak niet erg opschoot. Waar
het zich al verzamelde was dat vooral in Greater London. Ze besloten het roer om te gooien en een product in de markt te zetten dat wij in Nederland al lang kennen: de nationale museumkaart. Weg met de ideële leden-op-een-kluitje, ruim baan voor abonnees van een museumpas overal in de UK. Voor 65 pond geeft die gratis of met korting toegang tot de Britse museumschatten onder slogans als : never without art of art where ever you go. Inmiddels zijn er 140.000 kaarthouders. De koperstatistieken vertonen een gestaag opgaande lijn. Maar ik blijf kritisch: ik leerde bij Methoden en Technieken dat opgaande lijnen kunnen ombuigen of zelfs afbreken.

Toch gaat het verhaal onmiskenbaar één kant op, ook in Nederland. Met bijna tien keer zoveel Museumkaarthouders (en daarnaast in sterke opkomst: de houders van de VIP-pas van de deelnemers aan de BankGiroLoterij) neemt het leger nomadische museumbezoekers een beslissende voorsprong op de leden van de regionale vriendenverenigingen. Waar vrienden zich ook als frequente bezoekers vaak
rondom één of een paar musea scharen, vergroten kaartbezitters hun culturele actieradius naar zo´n 400 musea tussen Delfzijl en Cadzand. Met de pas in de pocket laten zij zich periodiek graag mobiliseren door aanlokkelijke blockbusters. Niet dat ze die allemaal gaan aflopen, maar alleen al het idee dat de lijst met gratis toegankelijke musea heerlijk lang is  – en dat daar steeds weer iets nieuws valt te zien – spreekt aan. Het is een psychologisch mechanisme achter consumentengedrag dat stadsgeograaf Gerard Marlet al enige tijd met de fraaie term  `optiewaarde’ benoemt.
Marlet zegt: mensen verhuizen vaker naar agglomeraties waar veel verschillende culturele voorzieningen dicht op elkaar liggen. Wat hen tot de keuze van vestigingsplaats aanzet is dus niet het verwachte feitelijk gebruik van die voorzieningen, maar louter de mogelijkheid dàt ze gebruikt gaan worden omdat ze binnen fietsafstand liggen.

Optiewaarde zegt iets over de rol van voorzieningen binnen een fysieke, geografische context. Vastgoed als musea, bioscopen (de Cinevillepas), openbare bibliotheken (bibliotheekpas)  en theaters (Podiumpas,
Wearepublic) herbergt content dat ook zonder tegemoet te komen aan effectieve vraag een maatschappelijke of commerciële waarde vertegenwoordigt. Maar buiten dat vastgoed om zien we een pijlsnelle ontwikkeling van veel en gevarieerde virtuele collecties, vrijwel alle opgetrokken uit internationale content en via internet direct aangeboden aan een internationale klantengroep. Net als de fysieke collecties ontlenen de virtuele collecties hun aantrekkingskracht niet primair aan het werkelijke gebruik ervan. Hun grootste optiewaarde is de goedkope en gemakkelijke toegang tot een schier onbegrensde voorraad
audiovisualia, potcasts of e-books. Spotify en Netflix zijn inmiddels beursgenoteerde bedrijven die jaarlijks miljoenen nieuwe klanten bijschrijven. Een abonnement heeft nog bijkomende voordelen. Dankzij de streaming loop je niet de kans te blijven zitten met een ‘drager’ (DVD of boek) die je eigenlijk niet wil. Met een abonnement op KOBO leg je een e-book zonder wroeging weg als het tegenvalt; je begin gewoon aan de volgende.  Met een abonnement op een streamingsdienst ga je ook over de grenzen van tijd en plaats. Met mobiel internet heb je alles wat je wil direct op je net- en trommelvlies, 24/7. Grenzeloze, betaalbare en groeiende
collecties in combinatie met onverplichte en onbelemmerde consumptie, daar gaat het steeds meer om. Natuurlijk bekijken we onderstaande index weer met de nodige scepsis, maar kijk eens wat een stijgende lijn….

De afgelopen weken bracht de Raad voor Cultuur adviezen uit over het museumbestel en het mediabestel. De adviseurs constateren dat regionale musea in de problemen komen omdat zij het qua bezoekersaantallen afleggen tegen de grote musea in de Randstad. En dat het nationale publieke omroepbestel met zijn Nederlandse programma’s door de komst van Netflix als het ware wordt uitgehold. Maatregelen zijn nodig – inderdaad: wie zal dat weerspreken? De vraag is wel hoe om te gaan
met de huidige patronen van consumentengedrag. Kunstconsumenten zetten hun keuzevrijheid steeds meer op de eerste plaats. Cultuuraanbieders moedigen dat eigenlijk ook aan door enerzijds het regionale aanbod op te schalen naar het nationale. En anderzijds de virtuele collecties op te schalen tot mondiale. Het lijkt een niet te stuiten proces ten nadele van het lokale en het fysieke. Maar misschien kan het nog verkeren, we blijven kritisch!

Jazz Isn’t Dead, It just Sounds Funny

by: Vincent Meelberg

On Saturday, April 14, 2018 the next edition of the Transition Festival will
take place in Utrecht, the Netherlands. This festival promises to provide a
fresh view on the current developments in jazz, offering concerts where
established jazz artists share the stage with young innovators. And indeed, the
lineup includes well-known names of jazz veterans such as Pat Martino and John Surman, as
well as new(er) bands including Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, and
Cory Henry and The Funk Apostles.
While the musical qualities of these newer bands are beyond dispute, whether or
not these artists can actually be considered genuine jazz artists is not always
completely clear. Cory Henry, for instance, brings along his Funk Apostles, not
his Jazz Evangelists. Can we still call his music jazz, despite its obvious
funky sound?

In order to answer
this question, first it must be clear what jazz exactly is. Throughout its
history, jazz has developed from ragtime and New Orleans jazz to jazzrock, fusion,
and free jazz. As a result, it seems almost impossible to characterise jazz in
a productive manner. Some festivals, such as the North Sea Jazz Festival,
stretch the notion of jazz to such an extent that most popular genres seem to
fall under this category. Just take a look at the lineup
of the 2017 edition of the North Sea Jazz Festival
. Headliners of that edition included Usher & the Roots, Grace
Jones, and De La Soul. And Although some of these artists do have a jazzy sound
in some of their songs, they cannot be considered actual jazz artists by any
stretch of the word. So, does this mean that jazz has become an empty term?

According
to jazz critic Ted Gioia
,
jazz still possesses a certain mystique, one that pop artists would like to
benefit from as well. That is one of the reasons why pop stars prefer to
perform at jazz festivals and occasionally even hire jazz artists to play on
their records. That is, as long as the musical result is not too jazzy…

Stanley
Crouch, another jazz critic, claims
that we need to make sure that mainstream jazz is preserved.
Crouch generally dislikes all jazz that deviates from the way jazz was
performed between the 1930s and 1960s, thus to him the fusion of pop with jazz
is a horror. Ultimately, he asserts, people won’t be able to distinguish real
jazz from pseudo jazzpop tunes.

But is it really the
case that jazz is threatened by outside influences? Will jazz disappear when it
adopts elements from pop music, or when pop music borrows elements from jazz?
When we take another look at the history of jazz, then we can see that it is
characterised by impurity, that is, by influences from other musical genres. In
this sense, jazz is an impure genre, impure in the sense that it has always
been hospitable to other musics. Since improvisation is a crucial element of
jazz music, and new generations of jazz musicians improvise while drawing on
their own musical experiences, both as players and as listeners, it is
inevitable that other musical styles will influence their improvisations. they
will simply improvise differently than their predecessors. As a result, jazz as
a genre will evolve and change as well.

So, can we still call all of the artists that will
appear at the Transition Festival jazz musicians? I believe that we can (even
though I am sure that some of these artists would not call themselves jazz
artists). Sure, they may not play the kind of jazz that was played
in the 1950s or 1960s
, but the spirit and
intention is similar. To create new sounds, improvise new stories, and just make
great music.

De precaire praktijk van de hedendaagse rockmecenas

Door: Rocco Hueting & Helleke van den Braber

image

De afgelopen weken is er een bescheiden hype
ontstaan rondom de documentaire Buying
the Band.
De film werd al langere tijd gretig gedeeld
onder muzikanten en belandde uiteindelijk in de openbaarheid bij 3voor12. We volgen de rijke
vastgoedondernemer Jan ’t Hoen die zich inkoopt in de oude band van Herman Brood. De documentaire toont ons op ongemakkelijke en soms zelfs
ontroerende wijze de precaire praktijk van de hedendaagse mecenas. Hoewel de
combinatie van mecenaat en rock&roll ongebruikelijk lijkt, is ’t Hoen zeker
niet de enige weldoener die in de rock actief is. Ook de Nijmeegse ondernemer
Robert Korstanje is een onvervalste rockmecenas. Hij pakt
het echter anders aan dan ’t Hoen. Wat bij ’t Hoen ongemakkelijk en precair is,
is bij Korstanje doordacht en soepel. Waar we ’t Hoen in de documentaire ad hoc
en vanuit controledwang lijken te zien handelen, probeert Korstanje
weloverwogen en bedaard met oog voor het collectief zijn strategische doelen te behalen. Het kan dus wel: een geloofwaardige gever zijn in de popmuziek.

Op voorhand lijkt de combinatie tussen mecenaat
en popmuziek gedoemd te mislukken. In de popmuziek is voor de
meeste bands het opbouwen van reputatie en credibility, oftewel het
boeken van symbolische winst, de heilige graal. Tegelijk ligt de focus op het
scoren van hits, het op de korte termijn nastreven van commerciële doeleinden.
Dat lijkt elkaar te bijten. 

Die gerichtheid op commercieel succes schrikt de
meeste mecenassen af. Zij zijn immers uit op iets anders. Voor hen is juist het
mogen opgaan in de romantische sfeer van grensoverschrijdend, gevaarlijk en authentiek kunstenaarschap die om popmuziek heen
hangt het ultieme doel. Via hun connectie met de band geven ze vorm aan hun eigen identiteit en nodigen
ze anderen uit hun positie te bevestigen. Dat is de manier waarop ze als
rockmecenas hun slag denken te kunnen slaan – door mee te draaien in de
waardeproducerende carroussel van het culturele veld.

Wat er bij ’t Hoen lijkt mis te gaan is
dat hij ongegeneerd en openlijk zijn doelen nastreeft, terwijl het veld nou juist van hem vraagt
dit op tactvolle en verhulde wijze te doen. De documentaire laat ons zien dat
hij allereerst uit is op distinctie. Uit de documentaire lijken we op te kunnen
maken dat hij zijn betrokkenheid bij de Wild Romance gebruikt om zich niet
alleen in het culturele veld, maar vooral ook tegenover de buitenwereld te
onderscheiden. Hij lijkt daarbij te vergeten dat je distinctie gelegitimeerd
moet verdienen, door blijk te geven van (bijvoorbeeld) passie en
onbaatzuchtigheid. Waarden die in het culturele veld wel, maar daarbuiten een
minder grote rol spelen. Zijn wens om dicht bij de band te staan en samen
creatief te zijn zet hij er schijnbaar mee onder druk.

Al even precair is zijn wens om alles en iedereen
om hem heen te controleren. ’t Hoen heeft het niet op met de seks, drugs en
rock&roll die nu juist onlosmakelijk zijn verbonden met de Wild Romance en
probeert de bandleden op dat gebied droog
te leggen
. Het is tragisch en zelfs wat ontroerend dat hij
daarmee de band juist het authentieke en gevaarlijke kunstenaarschap ontneemt
waar hij onderdeel van wil uitmaken – maar wellicht schetst de documentaire op
dit punt een wat vertekend beeld.

Dat er duidelijke succesverhalen te vertellen
zijn over mecenaat in de popmuziek bewijst Robert Korstanje. Hij steunt al
vanaf 2006 de metalscene door dan een samenwerking aan te gaan met Doornroosje die uitgroeit tot het Nijmeegse metalfestival Fortarock. Ook gaat hij een geefrelatie aan met de symfonische metalband Delain.

Ook Korstanje is uit op distinctie. Via zijn festival en
zijn steun aan Delain probeert hij allereerst de metalscene ervan te overtuigen
dat hij meer is dan een kille geldschieter. Hij toont zich een betrokken
insider die zich met liefde conformeert aan de manier waarop in de metalscene
de zaken geregeld zijn. In tegenstelling tot ’t Hoen denkt hij vanuit het
collectief en is hij niet bang om keuzes te maken die niet zozeer zijn
eigenbelang lijken te dienen maar vooral de bands en het publiek ten
goede komen
. Of zijn onbaatzuchtigheid echt is of niet doet
er dan weinig toe – zijn gedrag past zo goed bij de culturele code van het veld
dat de symbolische winst toch al binnen is. Korstanje geeft ons dus het idee
perfect te weten hoe je je distinctie gelegitimeerd moet verdienen.

Vergis je niet: ook Korstanje wil macht en
controle. Maar anders dan ’t Hoen lijkt hij de bands die hij ondersteunt meer
ruimte te bieden. Bij zijn steun aan Delain heeft hij oog voor de wensen van de bandleden en
doet hij zijn best om een vruchtbare voedingsbodem te bieden voor hun ambities.
Zo zorgt hij ervoor dat ze opbloeien en uitbotten: door oog te hebben voor hun
essentie doet hij recht aan het potentieel van de muzikanten. Mecenas en band
geven zo samen blijk van de waardescheppende mogelijkheden van de scene en
plukken daar allebei de vruchten van. Korstanje slaagt er op deze manier in
zich de nabijheid toe te eigenen waar we ’t
Hoen in de documentaire naast zien grijpen.

Het tijdperk van de retro-reboot

Door: Annemiek Arfman 

Na het doorslaande succes van de Netflix serie Stranger
Things
, vol “easter eggs” voor
liefhebbers van kinder- en horrorfilms uit de jaren tachtig, kwam de streamingdienst
eerder deze maand met Everything Sucks. Een High School serie die als feest der
herkenning moest dienen voor wie opgroeide in de jaren negentig. Met alleen
maar evergreens als Tori Amos’ Cornflake Girl, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Wonderwall en Fire Water Burn van the Bloodhound Gang (om er maar een paar te noemen)
voelt de serie soms als een veredelde jaren negentig alternative playlist op
spotify, met, toegeven, de nodige guilty pleasures als gevolg. En dat is
precies de reden dat Everything Sucks een beetje wringt. De serie speelt zich
namelijk niet af in de jaren negentig, maar in een door een nostalgische bril
bekeken droom-nineties waarin de nerds zegevieren en iedereen wordt
geaccepteerd zoals hij of zij is. Waar de serie op papier lijkt op de
(daadwerkelijk uit de jaren negentig stammende) culthit Freaks and Geeks, met
een vergelijkbare setting en vergelijkbare personages, is

Everything Sucks een stuk braver en
rooskleuriger.

Stranger Things en Everything Sucks zijn nog maar een paar
voorbeelden van de eighties en nineties revivaltrend die overheerst in serieland.
Waar kostuumdrama’s zoals Downton Abbey en Mr Selfridge (begin 21e
eeuw) en retroseries over de na-oorlogse periode (Call The Midwife, Mad Men of
hun humoristische tegenhangers ‘Allo ‘Allo en Dad’s Army) al jaren een vast
onderdeel uitmaken van het repertoire, wordt het kostuumdrama in de afgelopen
jaren opgerekt naar de jaren zeventig (bijvoorbeeld met hitserie This Is Us), jaren
tachtig (met voorbeelden als GLOW en White Gold) en ondertussen dus ook de
jaren negentig.

Deze nieuwe vorm van historisch geïnspireerde series is één
van de vele voorbeelden van de populariteit van nostalgie, die al geruime tijd
niet meer weg te denken is uit het straatbeeld, op internet, onze tv en onze
algehele belevingswereld. Niet voor niets boekte Donald Trump veel succes met
zijn slogan “make America great again”, waarover the Daily Show een gevatte video maakte.
Net als bij Everything Sucks overheerst hier het
vroeger-was-alles-beter-gevoel. Maar is dit ook de overheersende motivatie om
dergelijke series te kijken? Series als This is Us en Mad Men problematiseren
immers ook het verleden. En hoe zit het dan met alle revivals die de afgelopen
jaren als paddestoelen uit de grond schieten? Van The X-Files tot Fuller House en
van Gilmore Girls tot Twin Peaks, worden allerlei oude series weer uit de oude
doos getrokken. Deze series lijken in het zelfde nostalgische rijtje thuis te
horen als Stranger Things, terwijl ze zich niet in het verleden afspelen.

Toch zijn juist deze remakes zo mogelijk nog regressiever
dan de zogenaamde original scripted series die nu worden gemaakt en zich in het
verleden afspelen. We kennen de personages, hun catchphrases en omgeving en de
manier waarop het verhaal wordt verteld. Vaak zijn we opgegroeid met deze
verhalen en bezitten ze een emotionele waarde. Een reboot van onze gouwe ouwen
is daarmee in staat om ons een beetje terug te transporteren naar een vroegere
(en vaak beleefd als simpele of gelukkige) tijd en geeft ons het genot van
herkenning en een ingeloste verwachting. Streamingdiensten en televisienetworks kunnen
er daarom op rekenen dat we bij een reboot als een soort teletubbies (nog keer
nog keer nog keer) massaal achter onze schermpjes kruipen.

Door de enorme hoeveelheid reboots lijkt het welhaast dat
men in televisieland niet meer in staat is om iets nieuws te maken, maar dit
blijkt juist niet het geval. Volgens Kathleen Loock, die onderzoek
deed naar Amerikaanse TV revivals
, zijn dit soort series juist een
succesvolle manier voor networks en streamingdiensten om op te vallen in een
tijd waarin het serie-aanbod ontzettend groot is. Dit soort series profiteren
van brand familiarity en networks kunnen zich richten op een al bestaande en
vaak hardnekkige fanbase met een grote online aanwezigheid. (Loock, 2017) Streamingdiensten
zijn daarbij helemaal in het voordeel. De
populariteit van de oude seizoenen Gilmore Girls onder Netflixabonnee’s droeg bijvoorbeeld bij aan de beslissing een
reboot te maken.
Met een groot arsenaal aan oude series, heeft de
streaminggigant een sterke marketingtool in handen bij het terughalen van
series. Voor de klassieke tv-netwerken speelt bovendien een extra financiële
reden mee: zij bezitten de rechten van oude publieksfavorieten en kunnen,
wanneer het lukt de oude cast weer bij elkaar krijgen, voor relatief weinig
geld een serie maken met een gegarandeerde publieksbasis.

Met vooruitzichten op goede kijkcijfers, gratis publiciteit
op social media en relatief lage productiekosten lijkt succes verzekerd voor de
reboot. Toch kleven er volgens Loock risico’s aan het fenomeen. Vanwege de
sterke aanwezigheid van het verleden van de serie, dreigen reboots terecht te
komen in een “nostalgic limbo” waarbij ze zowel de relevantie voor het verleden
als het heden verliezen. Een reboot moet dus herkenbaar en nostalgisch zijn, de
continuïteit mag niet worden verbroken én het moet tegelijkertijd voldoende een
nieuw seizoen zijn en voldoen aan moderne eisen van vorm en tempo. (Loock,
2017). Een reboot die teveel breekt met
het verleden (ook
al zijn de redenen nobel te noemen zoals bij de vrouwelijke cast van de nieuwe
ghostbusters)
kan dan ook vaak op kritiek rekenen.

Hoewel ik enorm heb genoten van de Gilmore Girls revival en
ook Everything Sucks heb gebinged, blijf ik hopen dat Netflix in de toekomst risico’s
blijft nemen
met series die meer te bieden hebben dan louter nostalgie. Een
ding is zeker: nu het decennium van mijn jeugd is verworden tot een nieuw genre
historische serie, begin ik me ineens aardig oud te voelen!

Gebruikte literatuur

Loock, Kathleen. (2017) ‘American TV Series Revivals: Introduction’, in: Television & New Media.