Misc.: Some songs, the arrow of time, and stairways

We haven’t talked much about songs and music videos as narratives, but as we’ve already seen with the Bob Dylan anti-romcom and the “It’s Time” ad in favour of marriage equality, these forms can be very persuasive anti-plots, in part because music genres and ads have such easily-recognizable structures, iconographies and rhetorical moves associated with them–this makes them particularly amenable to subversion.

Here is a link to Steve Grand’s “All -American Boy,” a new internet sensation that uses but also radically rethinks the genre and associated ideologies of New Country. Watching this video, note how Grand re-purposes classic country iconography (American flags, rural settings, farmhand bodies, campfires, male bonding) to his own ends, not least that of questioning the “all-American,” wholesome image that country often projects. Take a moment to consider how homophobia forces homoerotic dynamics into a stance dangerously similar to misogyny: that is, in a homophobic culture like that promulgated in New Country culture, one of the only ways that homoerotic desire can manifest itself is by using female characters as decoys (this variant of the love triangle has been called the “homoerotic triangle”–famous examples include Luke Skywalker/Han Solo/Princess Leia in Star Wars and Gino/Philip/Caroline in E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread). I hope we have time to discuss this in class, because it suggests an underlying similarity and source for various forms of discrimination.

The other song, “Time’s Arrow” by the Canadian band The Weakerthans, uses some of Martin Amis’s techniques to a very different effect. You might also check out Peter Norman’s poem “Recursion,” which is analyzed on UofT alumnus Stewart Cole’s poetry blog “The Urge.”

Finally, a bit on Martha Marcy May Marlene–the film, for those who weren’t in class today, that we watched and discussed (it’s on Netflix). We briefly chatted about some aspects of the film, pertaining mainly to its ability to formally enact, through non-chronology and associative rather than causal connections, some of the features of Martha’s traumatized mind. I asked why the movie so insistently uses the motif of stairways, and some excellent answers about male-female hierarchies in the cult were proposed. To take this a bit further, I’ll suggest that stairs are more generally used as an allegory of power: this view encompasses the specifically gendered power relations in the cult, but it also allows us to see connections between that hierarchy and others that are less easily understood in terms of male-female. Think of the power invested in the character of cult-leader Patrick as he watches, aloof and superior on the stairs, as the younger cult members have sex. Or Martha’s instinctive lunge for the top of the stairs when she confusedly tries to escape from Ted (it strikes me as significant that Martha resorts to an act of violence unfortunately associated in popular consciousness with domestic abuse). To reverse the power dynamic, think about the top of the stairs as one of the only places where little children can peek into the strange world of adults after they’ve gone to bed, a world they barely understand and from which they are largely excluded; this seems more of a stretch, except that Martha is repeatedly infantilized by her sister, her brother-in-law and by Patrick and even some of the other women in the cult.

On another note, I wanted to clarify what I mean about the movie enacting Martha’s internal mental state through form–that is, by manipulating temporal structure (i.e, the relation between story and discourse) in ways that show her traumatized mind, thus saving the characters from having to tellus about it. Some of the associative leaps into flashback are easy to explain as the discourse following the trajectory of Martha’s memory; but when the time-shifts are in the other direction, memory is not a good explanation. (David Lodge writes that in most non-chronological narratives, time-shift is naturalized as an operation of memory, but some, like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Time’s Arrow, foreground some time-shifts that can’t be naturalized in this way.) A particularly good illustration is the early scene in the movie when Martha first meets Patrick. As he walks away, we hear Ted’s voice from the future saying “Do you want to come in?” (meaning, do you want to come for a swim?) and Martha, in the past, turns her head, apparently towards the voice (but “really” towards Patrick), and says “Yes.” Which brings us to the swimming scene. To me, this suggests that the discourse (which only we, the viewers, can see–unlike Martha or Ted or Patrick) mimics certain psychological processes that, we can then infer, operate in Martha’s mind: a tendency towards making paranoid connections between unrelated things (Ted’s question and Martha’s answer are unrelated in the story, though their proximity and order in the discourse make it impossible not to see them as question and answer); an uncontrollable suggestiveness to the whims of association and memorial triggers; a compulsion to repeat traumatic events; and a likely but ultimately ambiguous inability to tell products of the mind from reality (remember when she asks Lucy whether she [Lucy] can’t differentiate between dreams and memories?).

Seen in this way, the form of Martha Marcy May Marlene is an outgrowth of its content (reciprocally, of course, we could say that its content emerges from the form–would the themes of paranoia, memory, etc, be as visible if the film were told in chronological order?). “Form is a kind of content.” I think Susan Sontag said that, though it’s a basic assumption of almost any good formalist analysis. Would Thinks… still be effective if there was a single, consistent narrator? I doubt it.

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