Archive for film studies

Islam, Masculinity, and Homoerotica

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , on October 3, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadhan is finally over. If there is a bizarre lesson to be learned, I think it is to problematize how the month always becomes the gayest of the year. Now in case you are one of those who would get offended and start imagining hate mail and violent attacks, cool down for a moment and take a look at the category this is posted under. Yes, I am here not talking about Islam in general, but instead of films produced specifically under the Islamic context in Indonesia. Whether this applies to other Islamic films as well will need more analysis on my part (or if you have any info, feel free to comment away!).

In Indonesia, there is every year films produced specifically for the month of Ramadhan. What is of particular interest to me is how in many of those films the entire coordinates of masculinity change. One needs not be an expert to notice how, suddenly, we have all sorts of stupid themes of a friendship of two men who go on an adventure helping people out and finding the meaning of life, etc. We no longer have the standard stereotype of men with all the toughness and individuality that poke fun at friends, women, and life in general. Instead, we have a couple of men that are casual but never poke too much fun at anything if that may cause them to miss out on God’s more important issues — and all the while the two of them go out and do everything (“discover life’s meaning”) together.

Yes, I understand that of course the men are not homosexual, they sometimes depicted having interest in women, even in some cases their friendship is nothing but a cause of them being brothers, etc. But nonetheless the spectacle remains: two men always loyally traveling together in romantic primeval settings (nature, villages, tranquil city spaces, small mosques, etc.) telling their what life and truth means to one another — unless depicting characters who are gay, would one such a setting be possible in a homophobic society such as the United States?

Islam becomes interesting when looked at this way. All the terrorism associated today with Islam in fact could not apply to these “soft male” film personas — for terrorism, one needs a militaristic, dominant masculinity. In many Muslim films, on the other hand, one gets figures of an effeminate, careful male and his couple companion as the main characters.

Who are the audience of the films? Presumably, as with all TV drama series, 80% of them are women. So I am not saying that these are films made specifically for sexually repressed men to secretly fantasize homosexual activities. The phenomena is much more complex — something more resembling homoerotic fanfiction of Japanese manga, more commonly known as yaoi, in the sense that it is women who enjoy them more. Does the Freudian notion of women constantly fantasizing themselves to be men not resonate perfectly in such phenomena?

It turns out that Islamic films give a perfect chance to do this, by giving fiction contexts that enact a romantic, emotional bonding of two men under a search of a transcendent, spiritual mysticism — a perfect female fantasy. And what do we have here? Suddenly, all the gender questions arising within the complicity of Islam, erotica, and film culture becomes much more interesting and problematic. So much for religious homophobia!

The Dora Democracy

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Dora the Explorer

Dora the Explorer

Our democracy today feels more and more like a derivation of the popular children’s show Dora the Explorer. The reason for this is clear: note how Dora interacts with the children as though they really have a role to play. Recall her catchphrase, in her awfully cute voice: “We could not have done it without your help!” — does this not echo our ironic presupposed faith today that our false democracy could not be possible without our help? In fact, as the show, it very well is possible.

The irony, of course, does not stop there. Are we not actually aware that there is something very wrong with democracy, as the viewers of Dora are aware that they are only playing games with the show (ask any children, they are not idiots)? The problem is thus not that our democracy is a false one, but how we react to the fact as such. Like watching Dora, the falseness of democracy itself seems to me to become more and more of a mere spectacle to today’s society — part of the entertainment comes from assuming that other subjects really believe in the spectacle. The problem is not that the show is purely a fake — if anything, we prefer fakes, in more senses than one — but that we view ourselves as subjects supposed to enjoy instead of active political agents, the latter replaced by a fantasy of subjects supposed to believe, i.e. the presupposed other children with whom Dora and Boots would not have made it past the three obstacles.

Let us go a little bit deeper and notice how cursors play a significant role in the show: Dora the Explorer introduces children to cyberculture. But at the same time, recall it’s message: your interaction is merely a fake (even in the games, I would argue, that take the form of non-avatarial play, but I will not develop that here) but nevertheless you must enjoy this fakeness! Topped with other warning messages in original DVDs and the now popular anti-piracy curriculum for kids, it seems that we are never supposed to actually play an active role in what seems to be an interactive realm.

I’m not putting up a case against Dora specifically here — in fact I actually like the show — but what I intend to bring into light here is that we should never dismiss the inherent ideologies that cultural artifacts for children play, despite its apparent cuteness and political correctness (the Hispanic Dora, etc.). If anything, we should not reject the conservative Right’s incessant ramblings of “What are they teaching children these days?” but instead turn the question around against them.

The Simulacrum’s True Lie

Posted in Pure Theory with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Jean Baudrillard is famous for his theories of the simulacrum, quoting from Ecclesiastes, which — to refresh your memories — goes as follows:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals the fact that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

A common reading of Baudrillard would be that the simulacrum is the empty appearance that disguises the hollow nothingness behind it. However, there is at least one problem that arise once we take this into the truly postmodern context. Frankly, are we today, in general, not already aware of the fact that there is none? If so, why should the simulacrum present itself as concealing this fact? It is here that we see the true trick of the simulacrum — the fact that it claims itself as a truth that conceals. It is therefore not the fact of nothingness itself that is the problem — it is the fact that the simulacrum has to present itself as concealing. It may conceal nothing behind it — but the verb remains. And, in a tautological turn, it is this predicate that defines the subject — the simulacrum is concealment, hence concealment is true.

The true perversion of the simulacrum thus lies in the act of proclaiming a third dimension to it, that it carries an empty world behind it — the Baudrillardian trompe-l’œil. Empty as it were, but it functions, and it functions very well precisely because it is conceived as empty, deep, impenetrable. This is why in the contemporary age we have an excessive dose of conspiracy theories, new age mysticism, individualist narcissism, and other symptoms that make global capitalism flourish in its current state of being. These modes, I argue, can only function when the simulacrum of our social sphere is conceived as a truth that conceals.

In fact, the simulacrum is not a truth that conceals. It is a lie that shows. There is nothing behind simulacrum, not in the sense that there is nothing behind it, but in the precise sense that even nothingness itself is impossible. It does not conceal because it cannot conceal — there is nothing to conceal, not even a dimension that legitimizes the linguistic possibility of concealment.

A great metaphor of this linguistic impossibility would be the case of General Relativity — recall the way Einstein treats the void in his astrophysical formulations as physical objects that can bend and stretch. Empty space, in relativistic astrophysics, is a tangible object. Opposed to this, we have absolute nothingness — that which lie beyond the universe, before the Big Bang, inside a black hole. In this second category, their very linguistic statement is a paradox — there cannot be such as “beyond” an all-encompassing universe, “before” time starts in a Big Bang, or “inside” the singularity of black hole cores. Likewise, the simulacrum cannot “conceal” — the statement is impossible. The simulacrum is flat, two-dimensional.

Recall a typical scene from old cartoons where the antagonists are trapped into running straight into a wall painted to look as if there is a tunnel through it that enters into another world. This painting does not conceal the fact that there is no world behind it — its very texture precisely shows that there is no world, it expects us beforehand to see that there is no world, and only the idiotic antagonist would believe that there is. If there is a thing it conceals, it is the fact that it does not conceal anything. The protagonists are never allowed to see through this obscene second-layer of lie, and can usually thus enter into this third dimension precisely because he knows that it does not exist, because he does not believe in it. The antagonist is the one who believes too much. The protagonist is the one who does not believes, but for whom things work precisely because he creates a self-distance from his own supposed belief. Hence ideology. Hence the true lie of the simulacrum.