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Switched On

Switched On

Let’s get personal.

fet-ish : [FET-ish, FEE-tish]

1. an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency.
2. any object, idea, etc., eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect, or devotion: to make a fetish of high grades.
3. Psychology. Any object or non-genital part of the body that causes a habitual erotic response or fixation.

Let’s get personal.

One of the slow-building revelations I have experienced this past year is a growing awareness that my relationship to the movies is a form of fetishism. I seem to experience movies and cinema-related thinking (blogs, criticism, discussion) in a way that touches upon all three of the classic definitions of ‘fetish’ listed above; I certainly believe in the transcendental power of cinema as a near-perfect delivery system for emotions and storytelling, I absolutely hold my trips to the movies with a secular form of reverence that I reserve only for cinema and, this one being the hardest to understand and admit, there seems to be a certain set of visual stimuli that I find to be a huge turn-on. I am slowly but surely coming to the realization that the design of an image– form, function, order– when integrated into the meaning of an image– context, story, tone– creates a clear stimulation of something in my head that just, well, turns me on. I haven’t reached the point where I understand the dynamics of the turn-on, which specific combination of design and meaning throw me into a Freudian spiral, but I know it when it happens. My body relaxes and I reach an almost ecstatic, blissful state of wonder that makes me feel incredible.

Recently, as I have come to recognize this sensation, I have been able to target the images that switch me on. By way of example, I can point to two disparate examples:

The images and trailer for the upcoming Speed Racer film and the on-air/on-line universe that houses Turner Classic Movies.

Speed Racer

When I was a little kid in the mid-1970’s, there was no cartoon I loved more than Speed Racer; The theme song, the simple drawings and nonsensical, repetitive story lines, the super cheap look and feel of the show were, taken as a whole, an incredible source of happiness for me. I loved that show. When I saw the early reports that the Wachowski Brothers were going to direct the film, I assumed it would be an exciting and reverent take on the cartoon. When I read that they were creating a new coloring and image layering process for the film, where backgrounds and foregrounds could be separated to give the film a cartoon feel, I started getting excited. When I saw the first trailer, I almost literally went numb.

Something inside of me just tingles when I see an impossible image like that; My brain goes a million directions at once. J Pop anime, 2046, Takashi Murakami, and then that light, those perfect, colored spheres, like a galaxy of exploding planets, a universe of lens flares. Or what about this?

That car in the foreground, the ratio of space between the three entryways in the back, the gothic arches (echoed in the ‘M’ on the hood of the Mach 5), columns and ceilings against the polished, reflective glow of the floor, the spheres of the headlights, the green and pink and teal against the reflective white of the Mach 5, and best of all, the perfect centering of Speed’s head in the frame, his face blocking out the middle archway and giving off a whiff of the Wachowski’s devotion to the iconography of religious mythology… I mean, come on!! The colors, the composition; Is there any doubt that Speed will be a savior? And that’s just one frame! The design in this film feels to me like something I’ve been waiting my whole life to see and when I see this…

…I am suddenly thrown back in time, to my childhood, to my love of Speed himself, to my own dreams of being a hero. One of the amazing dynamics of Speed Racer is Speed’s relationship with Racer X, his rival and protector. As my little brother started to grow up, I started having a deeper connection to the Racer X character. From Wikipedia:

“It was acknowledged by (Speed) over the years that Racer X was the superior driver of the two, and the greatest driver that (he) had ever seen, but Speed always vowed to defeat Racer X as the two vigorously competed. Speed was often suspicious of Racer X’s identity and motives because Racer X would repeatedly, and inexplicably, sacrifice winning races to protect Speed from drivers and others who tried to harm or even kill Speed. The assistance from Racer X nearly always led to Speed winning races, while Racer X came in second place. Racer X always left the scene unnoticed, receding into his secret life.”

Which, as an older brother, I can say was a model I tried to follow, even if my own über-competitive instincts often won out. Here again; The costume and the futuristic curve of the windshield rhyming with Speed’s helmet visor, the lavender and red just popping off the white of Speed’s suit and car, the curves of the car body, helmet, windshield, Hirsch’s jaw line? Every frame of this movie (that I’ve seen) has an overwhelming sense of design and composition that just fills me with ecstasy. Seeing Emile Hirsch as Speed throws me back to that fraternal instinct, and that near-Kubrickian stare (and the 2001-ish coloring and style of that close-up)?

And when you see the frames move? The circles, the colors, the curves, the arches, the lens flares? And the thunderous sound of the cars and the music? I think I’m in love.

Turner Classic Movies

On the other end of the spectrum, but similar in inspiring fits of devotion and passion in me, is the way in which the Turner Classic Movies network packages their programming. What the geniuses at the network have done is design an almost physical place, a fetishized, hyper-noir metropolis that exists in an almost timeless way, where movie stars from every era are silhouetted in the windows of tall apartment buildings and wise-guys prowl the streets. When you visit the website, you’re greeted by a sepia-toned, Charles Foster Kane-ish newspaper feeling that is both incredibly functional and ageless. The best part is the way in which the on-line experience feels like a natural extension of the on-air experience; While the clips, promos and interstitials on the network move and exist in this fabricated city of pure cinematic devotion (where rooftop billboards act as drive-in screens for coming attractions and the whole city seems alive with movie history), the website provides the news and analysis for this fictional world.

And the entire TCM world is built upon its own set of fetishized rules of slavish devotion to the history of celebrity; There may be no greater record of the story of the movie star than TCM’s catalogue of faces and names, films and trailers, stills and headshots. Wrap those elements in the look and feel of TCM’s antique modernity and you create an alternative universe, a new history of movies that is alive and kicking, glamorous and dazzling today without the specific context of any one time period. And so, you find images like this…

…coexisting in a cinephilic universe with images like this…

…and it all feels like one, single unified place. I have been immersed in the world of TCM for a few years now, but it is only recently that I understood how the design of the network and its ancillary outlets was tapping into my own feelings about cinema, how these images and ideas were essentially an extension of my own attraction to the story of movies.

These are only a few of the examples of this illogical harmony that images and movies can generate in me; The others may take forever to comprehend. What seems to be the common thread is this sense of alterity; A distinct, fully-realized other world that operates on an aesthetic level of visual order and, let’s just say it, cinematic worship. Each of these examples is really about a specific idea of movies, of the intersection between movie history and my own experience of it, of the structure of the moving image as an entire, self-contained universe of ideas.

The one artist whose work taps into this, but whose movies I really need to re-watch in order to properly understand, is Matthew Barney. The instant one of his films begins, I get that little vibration all over, the physical turn-on that only comes from a comprehensive sense of design tied directly into a fetishized understanding of cinema history. I don’t claim to ‘get’ everything about the Cremaster films, but there is no arguing that their self-contained logic and fully-realized universe of characters and ideas are tied directly to the history of movies. Matthew Barney’s films just flip my switches.

I am learning more about myself by thinking about how the way I see these images creates a physical and emotional response in me. I am clearly drawn to order and layers of meaning and I really love the way my brain can make my whole body hum when I really see things for what they are. Lots to learn about myself on this one, but you can bet I am hitting the IMAX on May 9 and letting Speed Racer kiss my eyes and tickle my brain stem. Can’t wait.

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