Issue #227: A Trip to a Suburban AMC Theater
Welcome to something totally new. A table of contents! Here for the foreseeable and at the top of the page for every newsletter. I requested this feature myself, so thanks to the Substack team for setting this up for me.
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Table of Contents:
My usual introductions will remain ungovernably untitled beneath the TOC.
Speaking of which, I want to give a wholehearted recommendation to the Fire Emblem: Three Hopes (2022) demo that is available for free on the Nintendo Switch eShop. It is a very robust sampling of the game. If you are as busy as I am, you might even end up playing it until the game comes out. I have put about four hours into it and haven’t gotten to the end. Not only is it free, but you’ll also carry over your progress to the full game if you decide to purchase. The game itself releases on June 24th, so in a little less than two weeks.
Elements of Satire in The Boys
If “Payback” is an episode focused on appearance and reality — both the gulf between them and the way one informs the other — then “The Only Man In The Sky,” the second episode of The Boys’ third season, is focused more on appearance than reality. One of the formal elements the show always entails, one I didn’t discuss last week, is satire. “The Only Man In The Sky” is, above all, about the appearances of moralism that sustain social life. This facade is one maintained by ultimately self-interested social media posts of individuals and branded advertising campaigns of corporations.
The most emphatic exploration of this idea is near the episode’s opening. Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Kimiko fka The Female (Karen Fukuhara) visit a Vought sponsored amusement park that serves a number of… “inclusive” food items, and not in the sense that they are free with the cost of admission.
Despite the litany of egregiously recuperated commodities for consumption, Frenchie isn’t very interested in the branding — suggesting it is commonplace in the world of The Boys. Instead, he recoils in horror at the sight of a young child eating a burger with a donut for a bun.
Frenchie’s reaction, saying “there is no God here,” is a clever screenwriting move to put the episode’s two themes together from the outset. This satirical corporate “virtue signaling” has something to do, in the view of the episode, with the absence of God. “The only man in the sky” to which the episode title refers is not a deity.
Before considering the relationship between these two ideas, it is worth remarking on the mechanics of satire itself. “WokeWok” and the other food stalls seem to resemble the satirical sophistication of the background locations in the Grand Theft Auto series:
Even as the background businesses have some ostensible similarities, the mode of humor is distinctive. The Boys exaggerates the modern trend of “rainbow capitalism,” whereas GTA is focused on plays-on-words that are obviously ridiculous but are unremarkable in the context of the fiction. Theorists such as Theodor Adorno have commented on the challenge of administering satire. He writes in Minima Moralia (2006):
Difficult to write satire. Not only because our situation … makes a mockery of mockery. The medium of irony has itself come into contradiction with truth. Irony convicts its object by present it as what it purports to be; and without passing judgement, as if leaving a blank for the observing subject, measures it against its being-in-itself. It shows up the negative by confronting the positive with its own claim to positivity. It cancels itself out the moment it adds a word of interpretation. (209-210)
Although this comment is a product of anxiety about postmodernism (characteristic of Adorno’s work), he is right to suggest that a society of free-floating signifiers and the constant evolution of capitalism makes satire challenging. Looking at advertising discourse, which governs a great deal, one finds everything from totally un-self-aware ad campaigns that are indistinguishable from satire to self-satirizing absurdism.
Satire’s effectiveness often comes down to a question of taste, and A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) appeals to taste in posing a rebrand to Vaught that focuses on his race.
The content here is obviously satirical, but the character’s reactions are telling. Unlike Frenchie, what A-Train suggests seems both audacious and stupid.
And yet, is this really that far off from the food stalls at the amusement park? Either way, it doesn’t seem like an issue to A-Train, who not only believes his ideas are good but also that they are well-received (like Adorno says, “difficult to write satire”). There are depths to which even Vought cannot sink.
Vought’s strategies for superhero publicity stunt seem a little more sophisticated than their targeted advertising. To celebrate Homelander’s birthday, following the same logic of the meaningless gestures of “inclusion” at the theme park, he attempts to save a young woman attempting to kill herself.
Instead of being able to keep up appearances, his encounter with the woman frustrates him as he learns his super powered ex-girlfriend has killed herself. Homelander then compels the woman to kill herself. When she says “oh God,” he delivers the line for which the episode is named.
Homelander is hardly the comforting presence of an omniscient deity, though. Nor does he serve the same symbolic purpose. But this idea of an absent god in a world of effusive discourse is where the two themes of the episode relate.
“LGBTurkey Legs” and “WokeWok” emerge as signifiers because they are so far divorced from meaning. Not any particular meaning, but any meaning at all. The position of these signifiers is meant to suggest that they are “inclusion,” an individual’s identitarian definition reproduced in the name and advertising imagery means “representation.” But in reality, it simply means nothing. What, indeed, is a “BLM BLT”? The linguistic equivocation of the two matching acronyms (both three letters, both including “BL” with a different third letter) is what demonstrates this absolute incoherence. Despite the minor substitution, a “BLT” and “BLM” can’t mean anything in relation to one another. Perhaps there is the possibility that such a menu item would entail the donation of a certain amount of profits to a charity that supports racial justice, but that is certainly not the case in The Boys.
The signifying nonsense is clever, but there’s the question as to whether or not The Boys’ satire passes the eye test. Is it distinctive enough from actual advertising campaigns that exist? Does it need to be? In Adorno’s description of irony, perhaps all that is necessary is the positioning within the text. Like a burger with a donut for a bun, a “BLM BLT” and the like are depicted as objects of criticism insofar as they fail to move the needle regarding any social issue. It may simply be the pointedness of the show’s judgment that renders something satirical that is striking in its similarity to reality.
“Watch what you flush”: Uterus Envy in Alex Garland’s Men
Let me tell you a story about seeing Alex Garland’s Men (2022). I drove to a Methuen AMC Theater to see the very last theatrical showing in my region — at 9:55 on a Thursday before every AMC gave up more screens to Jurassic World and Buzz Lightyear. I went by myself, because Erin didn’t want to see a movie so late. I ordered my kid’s pack popcorn and drink ($7!) and took my seat in the nearly empty theater. I very glad I made the trip.
This is a film about the menacing, malignant social position of masculinity and the interchangeability of individuals within that structure. This is not the first film to approach the issue of masculinity in precisely this way — last year, Lucky (2021) did so to great effect. But Men introduces several ideas that are distinct from anatomizing this social problem. One of the most important is addressing what the film positions as the fundamental anxiety of masculinity — the inability to reproduce. Many films’ villains have set out to overcome this perceived lack with the ur-example being Doctor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. This villain origin story abounds in science fiction, with examples like Eldon Tyrell and Alex Harris. Garland himself has also dealt with this idea in Ex Machina (2014). This character archetype is productively understood through the lens of psychoanalytic theory, particularly the notion of castration and the phallus.
Following Freudian logic, the castration complex and so-called “penis envy” is a result of the child being subject to law. Castration is a punishment that comes from law’s capriciousness — the child knows not what might lead to (or has already occasioned) their severing. For those born with a vagina rather than a penis, and particularly those who identify as women, this entails some internalized guilt. The young girl might believe herself to have been already castrated. Freud, here, reproduces the logic of the always-already guilty under the regime of divine law. God punishes woman for her consumption of the forbidden fruit and discovery of knowledge, but woman was destined to be tempted. Her punishment is rooted in fantasy rather than sin, thus the two are made coextensive. The missing phallus, for certain subjects, could allow the uterus and the capacity for reproduction to function as its substitute.
None of this is lost on Garland and Men. Harper (Jessie Buckley) is blamed (and, not incidentally, suffers unconscious feelings of guilt) for her husband’s desire to kill himself (which is, itself, posited to her in an abusive manner), his actual killing of himself, and other supposed transgressions. The men who aggressively pursue Harper suggest she is to blame, that she has somehow forced them to pursue her. Their pursuit of her is driven by both the demands of punishment and envy.
Because Freud relates the castration complex to law partially accounts for why the judicial law is not engaged meaningfully in Harper’s husband’s suicide within the text. She is not investigated for wrongdoing, but the law evoked for her punishment is cosmic. Take the Vicar, for instance (another one of Rory Kinnear’s many characters). He first accuses Harper of driving her soon-to-be-ex-husband to suicide and then, latter in the film, blames her yet again for his sexual aggression toward her, branding her as a seductress. The Vicar’s deranged accusations signify the partiality of divine law. The film is firmly grounded in the Freudian understanding of castration, but there is some engagement with the notion of signification that invites a Lacanian reading.
Contrasting the Freudian view with the Lacanian one, castration is a product of not the divine law but the law of the signifier. Speech is what castrates the subject, and it is Harper’s speech that is at issue when she is unable express to her friend Riley her location. Her loss of speech, though, counterintuitively suggests the possible fullness of subjectivity, because speech is that for which the phallus is exchanged. Harper ends the film speechless, but perhaps more free than ever.
Divine law, the Freudian understanding of penis envy, seems to be a greater focus than the notion of castration as a product of the law of signification. This is the Frankenstein evocation. The men that pursue Harper and attempt to harm her are ultimately envious of her capacity to reproduce. They are experiencing a “uterus envy” that is the equivalent of the widespread misunderstanding of Freudian “penis envy.”
Men is relentless in its focus on the physical body, anxieties about it, and the misunderstanding of the function of organs one doesn’t have. Early in the film, Jeffrey (also Rory Kinnear), the owner of the house Harper rents, reminds her not to flush tampons and menstrual pads. Harper then goes on to explore the liminal space of a decommissioned railway tunnel. In other works like Howling Village (2019), Shin Megami Tensei V (2021), and Mob Psycho 100 (2016), the haunted tunnel is a regular fixture.
In Men, though, its evocation of the body’s orifices cannot be ignored. For the purposes of Harper’s own exploration, it could be a journey of self-discovery that perpetuates a stereotypical women’s mystique. The tunnel is the unknown space of femininity. But there is a more egalitarian possibility — and the plant-covered naked man that pursues Harper appears like so much excrement.
The movie is full of this scatological playfulness. Take, for instance, the point of ingress for the naked plant-covered man. He tries to enter the home through the mail slot, and one should not fail to hear the “male” in mail. Penetrating the male slot, this man is also penetrated himself by Harper stabbing him with a kitchen knife, a testament to masculinity’s porous nature despite the illusions of its solidity and impenetrability.
Jeffrey, the main character that Rory Kinnear plays, is worth some individual consideration. Unlike the rest of Kinnear’s roles, Jeffrey is ostensibly aligned with Harper until the end of the film. He also repeatedly fails to live up to certain masculine standards. He struggles to carry her bags, covered in sweat and dropping them as he enters the house. He reflects on his father asserting he has “precisely the qualities of a failed military man.” But his ascendancy to masculine dominance is coextensive with his attack on Harper, the movie’s final turned screw.
The triumph of the various characters Kinnear plays is their embodiment in a form that can reproduce, as each man has a vagina through which he births another, each shedding the skin of a different Kinnear incarnation. But none can escape the inferiority complex that is at the core of Men’s vision of masculinity — with each birth, the “father” dies. The final birth is not one of Kinnear’s characters, but James (Paapa Essiedu), Harper’s dead husband. This is the continuity of masculine violence that this form of social embodiment preserves.
Weekly Reading List
https://web.archive.org/web/20220611124805/https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/06/11/google-ai-lamda-blake-lemoine/ — Oh boy. Just read it and weep.
This week I had the pleasure of listening to this excellent Colombia hardcore compilation, La Ciudad Podrida. I was lucky enough to come across it through the General Speech Supplement, the semi-regular publication between General Speech zines.
https://www.generalspeech.com/store/p/gs-supplement-fanzine-1-year-subscription — La Ciudad Podrida is just the tip of the iceberg for what you’ll find here. All the stuff that’s too weird or too obscure to make it into the mainline zine makes its way into the Supplement.
Last week, I forgot to write about the continuation of Berserk.
The last time I wrote about Miura was last year:
RIP George Lamming, who we lost on June 4th.
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Until next time.