The Worst Filing System Known To Humans
Reload the Canons!
This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.
Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.
Monday, November 7, 2016
Jared Dark'ness Dementia Raven Leto: Is Suicide Squad Mall Goth?
I think we have a sort of nebulous cultural idea of what Mall Goth is, but it's not something that exists in strict definitional terms but as a complex topology of different influences. Mall Goth is something you can interact with primarily through the vehicles of Hot Topic and to a lesser extent Spencer's Gifts. The delightful song by the Gothsicles "I Can Tell That You Shop At Hot Topic" describes the aesthetic of the store as looking "sorta skater punk rock and 40% gothic" and in the mid 2000s Hot Topic was the place to go for this vaguely sort of edgy alternative Extruded Teen Product.
Think MySpace. Remember MySpace? I remember MySpace. I'm horrified by the grim possibility that some of my readers might NOT actually remember MySpace but I'm going to try not to dwell on it. It's part of this whole sort of edgy culture that's still sort of firmly within the realms of marketability. Pon and Zi. Evanescence. Excessive black eyeliner. Nu metal. Slipknot. Chains. Invader Zim.
And... Suicide Squad?
There's certainly enough jokes about Suicide Squad resurrecting the aesthetics of mall goths and scene kids and so on to pique my interest. I'm sort of nebulously in the goth sphere myself, after all, and I actually wrote an honest to god essay in grad school about goth interior decorating (really), so when people immediately identified Suicide Squad as belonging in the milieu of Hot Topic and MySpace I couldn't ignore it.
I think it's pretty easy to look at Suicide Squad and identify immediately the try-hard aspects of the film that associate it with this dark era of teen culture. This is a movie in which someone says, I shit you not, "Normal is just a setting on your dryer." Now listen. Don't get me wrong, as someone who's pretty much always leaned towards the weird, I think the "You're nonconforming but you're all exactly the same" is nonsense, and there's plenty of warrant I'd say to draw some dividing lines between goth and other ways of interacting with material and popular culture (which would be, logically, "prep," I guess). But honest to god, I don't know if I actually have, in reality, read "Normal is just a setting on your dryer" on someone's MySpace page next to a blinking gif possibly of Marilyn Manson, but the line is so hauntingly familiar that I may as well have. It is a phrase that most properly should be in red font on a black background.
The film is full of this kind of thing.
While we could just say this is super MySpacey, though, I think we can dig a little further into what about this film feels like a horrifying reject clawing its way out of a Slipknot concert circa 2004. And to dig into that I think we need to go back a step and figure out what the heck Goth is.
Goth is a culture that doesn't strive towards a single frame of reference that it's working from aesthetically. It's really sort of all over the map, actually. If you pick up books on goth the cultural references that tend to crop up are wildly anachronistic, which goth navigates by presenting divergent influences as just sort of raw material from which new aesthetics can be developed.
Goth looks at the world and sees possible aesthetic tools.
This is what we see in Goth homemaking guides. Which are a real thing, which I studied in college for an actual honest to god course. We could look, for example, to famous brain-eating weirdo Voltaire's book Paint It Black, or the incredible website "What If Martha Stewart Was A Goth?" These are absolutely, undeniably tongue in cheek projects, but what's really interesting to me with this stuff is the heavy emphasis on craft as the medium through which goth is created. Paint It Black of course is a book that you almost don't have to read, because the core instruction is right in the title. Voltaire quite happily proclaims that the best strategy for goth home decorating, when in doubt, is to take an object and simply spray paint it black and slap a skull on it. Both books go into more depth than this of course. The gothic Martha Stewart site goes into topics like decoupage and instructions for creating suitably spooky slipcovers (SLIPKNOT COVERS?) for your furniture, and similarly delightful things.
So this is all sort of predicated on the understanding that you can't go to a store and buy all your goth home funishings. Or your fashion for that matter. This is something that I found pretty consistently with goth, and post-punk, and punk, and batcave, and so on: there's a heavy emphasis DIY culture. This is a culture that encourages scrounging and scavenging and finding shit by the side of the road to convert into your aesthetic. I relate to that, as someone whose furniture is almost exclusively scavenged from the curb.
The wild appropriation of actual objects from anywhere and everywhere that's convenient is paralleled with a similar scrounging from culture. I recently picked up a whole book detailing goth aesthetics, and I was fascinated by how blithely they discussed ultra-minimalist modernist aesthetics next to fin-de-siecle decadence next to romantic horror paintings from folks like Goya and Fuseli next to actual Gothic cathedrals. It's nuts! Like, it's totally incoherent and it only really feels connected notionally because goth fuses them together culturally to a point where we can look at them now and despite the fact that they have little to no relationship to each other, and are often even diametrically opposed ideologically, we can look at the ubiquitous black everything is painted in and go, of course, it's goth.
One of the fascinating things about goth I think is that it's an aesthetic that can take and fuse together practically anything and result in something that is still at least vaguely recognizable as part of the aesthetic. That's petty wild.
It also makes the question of authenticity kind of weird.
Now, I'm drawing some of this from the scholar Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. In this text he basically argues that subcultures have a pretty predictable arc to their development: a period of unique creative activity in which the style takes form, followed by a period when that aesthetic is capitalized upon and becomes something standardized and made marketable. So, there's an authentic phase, and an inauthentic phase. And I think we can see that with Mall Goth--a transformation of something driven by craftiness and taking that which has been discarded (both in terms of objects and aesthetics) into something consolidated around sets of things established specifically to be part of Marketed Counterculture.
I think it's pretty easy to see in Suicide Squad as well. Convention is the rule of the day within the film itself, despite its at least somewhat promisingly garish promo materials. The cinematography is Generic Superhero Extruded Product, and ditto goes for the set design. Costumes like Harley Quinn's lack any individuality instead opting for jerkoff material designed to enable the many, many, MANY slow panning shots of Harley's (sometimes unconscious) body. There is not a single truly memorable shot in the film outside those memorable for their sheer offensiveness. The stamp of focus testing is all over this film. It is clearly a movie that has been produced by a committee of advertisers.
This total failure to do anything one iota outside the mainstream, despite the fact that the film and its marketing flail around constantly screaming how Edgy everything is, reaches its apex in the mindbendingly generic soundtrack. I mean this is a film where upon moving the scene to New Orleans they start playing The House of the fucking Rising Sun. Now I almost can't imagine a more hollowly generic music choice here, besides maybe using something from Eminem, say "Without Me" maybe.
The film uses that song too.
It also features, I shit you not, AC DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheep," The Rolling Stone's "Sympathy for the Devil," Rick James's "Superfreak," Norman Fucking Greenbaum's "Spirit In The" Fucking "Sky," a song whose ubiquity is paralleled only by its mediocrity, Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz," Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"... like do you see a pattern here? The pattern is that this is mainstream as shit.
This is some of the most shallow, mass-appealing stuff I can possibly imagine! If you picture the platonic ideal of Movie Trailerness, this is the soundtrack to that movie trailer. This makes sense because apparently Suicide Squad was put together as a film BY A MOVIE TRAILER COMPANY.
And believe me. It fucking shows.
The film reads like a catalogue of every possible cultural signifier of Edginess that is still within acceptable marketable bounds, a hodgepodge of symbols desperately kludged together into something Warner Brothers hopes will add up to mass appeal.
This kludging together of signs is of major interest to theorist Jean Baudrillard, whose book The System Of Objects is particularly focused upon our culture of consumption. For Baudrillard, what we're consuming when we're buying and decorating with objects is not the objects themselves but the objects-as-symbols, symbols we use to construct and proclaim a kind of mastery over identity. Not to get all Marxist on you folks, but a core idea from Marx is that under capitalism we are alienated from our labor, not creating for the sake of creation, or creating things stemming from ourselves, but producing things (or increasingly, experiences) that we have no control over, no real say in, and no real investment in for that matter. We don't have any REAL control over things we create under capitalism, so we create by proxy, by cobbling together an #aesthetic from the stuff other people have created under similarly alienated conditions and then sold to us.
We consume symbols, not objects, because we hunger for expression.
But a sign is an intangible thing, Baudrillard points out. A sign can never satisfy.
Yet, Spencer's and Hot Topic offer one stop shops for all your goth needs, creating a profoundly inauthentic cultural aesthetic in the process. Hot Topic by virtue of the fact that it's a one stop shop inherently narrows down the aesthetic space of the otherwise hugely anachronistic and weird, trading the difficulty inherently in craft for the ease of mall shopping. Not that this is the worst thing on earth. I have some real nice dragon jewelry from Hot Topic! I love dragons! I'm not going to boycott Hot Topic because it's a late capitalist institution--so is everything else, after all.
But we can be real about the fact that what we're getting is not rebellion but a focus tested market aesthetic. This is essentially what Suicide Squad is doing. It's in love with the idea of being edgy without actually ever being edgy. This is somewhat inevitable for a film produced by Warner Brothers, soon to be subsumed into the all-consuming hell vortex that is AT&T. There's something deeply perverse about a small number of corporations gobbling up every single media outlet they can get their grubby paws on and then, as we become more and more alienated from our own labor, selling us an experience of Edginess. Y'all want a single? Say fuck that.
For this reason I'm somewhat skeptical of the idea that anyone can ever set out to create a goth blockbuster, or a goth bestseller, or a goth platinum record. Goth as an audience-centered subculture arguably might only ever adopt media--goth media might best be defined as that which goth subculture has welcomed into the fold, rather than what has set out to be goth. After all, it's hard to ignore the fact that loads of the canonical founders of goth--Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Siouxie Sioux, Nick Cave--have all claimed that they were never goth and have nothing to do with the subculture whatsoever. And yet nevertheless, Hot Topic, and Suicide Squad, promise an easy source for all your Edge needs, a cultural engagement where you can consume the visuals of Harley Quinn and feel satisfied that you are different and rebellious.
But let's ask the inevitable killer question: is goth really free of this dynamic of endlessly unfulfilling symbolic consumption itself? both goth and mall goth are essentially hodgpodges of random stuff thrown together. Goth is primarily engaged with culture in terms of its semiotic content. We're still ensconced in the late capitalist idea that all objects are there for our manipulation. Goth isn't distinct from that process, it's just altering the source of its objects. And in fact I'd argue that one of the key points of goth is its ability to take even mall goth and suck it back into itself, re-adopting even Evanescence and Korn and Invader Zim.
It's actually that adoption that suggests to me the difference in engagement goth offers. By embracing craft, goth demands a hands-on approach to creation that exists uneasily alongside alienation. If goth is taking a thing, spraypainting it black, and painting a skull on it, then goth is at least an ACTIVE engagement with signs, an engagement that demands we brush, press, staple, slice, turn, tilt, burn, wilt, cleanse fold and manipulate. In this view of goth, goth isn't something a thing is so much as what is done to a thing. Things are not goth but goth'd.
But let's concede the point to Baudrillard. Maybe goth and mall goth aren't all that different when you zoom out and think about what it means to be in a culture of consumption.
Even if we accept this, I think there's still a tangible difference between what goth and mall goth are doing that we can feel as viewers--we can sense a difference. Within the shallowness of Suicide Squad I think we can see a profound lack of self awareness, an absence of engagement with signs consciously. That's just not the case with goth. In my experience, and certainly in what we can see evidentially in goth homemaking guides, the emphasis is on a conscious, often knowing and somewhat ironic engagement with semiotics. Like, obviously there's something absurd about taking bauhaus aesthetics and then gluing on Victorian drapes. There's something inherently stupid about that. But that's part of the fun, that's part of the gag.
Goth is a performance for the end of history, a postmodern act for a postmodern age. Even if we level at goth the charge that it's insufficiently fulfilling because it, like everything else in late capitalism, is just an endless game of signs, goth can fire back a charge of its own:
Of course the goth experience is an experience of eternal hunger.
That's what it means to be one of the Undead.
Goth is not authentic because of its materials--though they are often an indicator--nor because it finds some deeper window into the human soul--goth is more interested in selling souls than exploring their transcendental beauty--but because it strips away feigned "realness" and reveals contemporary aesthetics for what they are: a continuous performance, a put on, something ridiculous and theatrical and horrific and absurd. And if we're going to be putting on a show, goth says, we might as well make it the most weirdly entertaining show that we can.
Suicide Squad, if nothing else, is an astoundingly boring film.
Like, let me give you an example that should illustrate why this article on Suicide Squad barely talks about the damn movie. There's a scene where the Joker is being told about where Harley Quinn has been taken to prison, and he's like luxuriating on the floor with a pattern of knives around him. And I was like oh hey I like this scene, or at least I did, back when it was in Pink Floyd's The Wall! You've got a problem when one of the only memorable scenes in the film is interesting because it's basically a shallow copy of a scene in a much more excitingly weird movie. I mean, in The Wall the protagonist Pink arranges the shattered remains of his hotel room into a maniacally constructed diorama depicting a fascist rally with himself as the demagogue leading the proceedings. The idea is that Pink has systematically destroyed everything around him, his entire life has fallen to pieces, and he's literally taking the material components of his surroundings (appropriating them much like goth does) and reconstructing them into an authoritarian power fantasy where he can never be hurt! It's genius!
In Suicide Squad the message is that Joker is crazy, and has many knives, and has questionable interior decorating strategies. There's just... no way it can come out well from that comparison.
If goth is something done to things, if rebellious subculture for that matter is something done to things, this film doesn't really do rebellion, or do much else for that matter. It's a bizarrely hollow film, certainly unsuccessful but unsuccessful in ways that don't ever feel particularly interesting.
I think you can sometimes approach the kind of process- and performance-driven stuff I'm interested in even in corporate media. Otherwise there'd really be NOTHING for me to watch. And I think you can even do it with DC characters!
The proof is in the much maligned 'Gotham,' a show that claims to be about Bruce Wayne as a child slowly turning into Batman. Apparently a lot of people seem to take that claim at face value despite the fact that it's ACTUALLY a show about an entire city rapidly losing its fucking mind, and cool weirdos making funny murders happen. It feels often like some bizarre con being played on everyone, this bait and switch that offered Kid Bruce Wayne and Dark Gritty Aesthetics and then when we weren't expecting it dropped psychic undead part-cuttlefish mob bosses and Burtonesque neon weirdness into our laps.
To return briefly to the music cues, this is a show that gleefully pulls shit like having a cellphone activated bomb go off to a midi version of "The Final Countdown." Victor Zsasz's ringtone in this damn show is "Funkytown." At one point in the series, there's an art opening which features a giant, cartoonish model bomb labeled, helpfully, "This Is A Real Bomb," which turns out to, yes, be an actual bomb. Everyone seems to live in Victorian-era buildings, everyone has contemporary cell phones, I can't remember the last time someone actually used a computer for anything, and mobsters in 70s suits employ assassins dressed in black leather gimp suits or 1920s strongman costumes.
It probably goes without saying but this is not a show that cares very much about whether its stories do anything as trivial and pedestrian as "make any god damn sense."
What Gotham offers us is an example of what it might be to do goth to the DC universe. I'm not saying Gotham is goth necessarily--I hope it's clear by now that goth is to some extent in the eye of the beholder--and I'm not even saying it's always good necessarily, but in its wild anachronism and willingness to chase after the absurd and the aesthetically engaging I think we get some measure of the spirit that makes goth what it is.
At the end of the day I don't really have any beef with mall goth, beyond an interest in how we culturally parse it out from goth on an unconscious level. I still know all the lyrics to a truly embarrassing number of Evanescence songs.
But man I can't pretend I don't have a beef with Suicide Squad. It's not just that it's mall goth, it's the apex of mall goth, the apotheosis. Everything cynical, shallow, acquisitive, and hollow, all of the worst impulses of mall goth, are on display, with some racism, exploitation of mental illness, and misogyny thrown in for good measure. DC's bumbling, desperate attempts to create a franchise just continue to be more insulting as they scramble after anything and everything that might sell. Of all the offensive things in the film, perhaps the most viscerally offensive to me is how deathly dull it is. Something this aesthetically incoherent shouldn't be this aesthetically dead.
Suicide Squad is a film that repulses me because, at its core, it is the obnoxious teenager of superhero films: desperate to prove to the world how hardcore it is by grasping at whatever's easiest to access. This, I think, is why this film reminds so many people of mall goth: isn't it, at its heart, all the most embarrassing parts of our own awkward teenage rebellions?