Wholphin, Eggers and Why I Can’t Believe

I picked up the January 2005 issue of The Believer, partly with the intention of seeing if the magazine was showing any signs of shedding its feel-good trappings (short answer: not really but not entirely worthless either) and partly because it included the first issue of Wholphin, a new quarterly “DVD Magazine of Unseen Things.” I like the idea behind Wholphin, which involves collecting a good deal of film shorts and assorted narratives that don’t really have a place outside of their initial small venues. But unfortunately, like almost anything that comes from the McSweeney’s Empire, the DVD carries the uncomfortable stamp of films that are just too safe to be innovative. In watching the material, I got the sense of holding an interesting object, but with the edges and the unique texture sanded down for non-offensive mass consumption. And in transposing the McSweeney’s watered down Barthelme voice to the film world, Wholphin offers a number of revelations which recall what Curtis White has identified as the Middle Mind. It is my sad duty to report that Wholphin is wholly disingenuous about its intent. It is neither explicitly intellectual nor explicitly for the masses. Sure, it’s a beautiful looking dinghy sailing with a directionless rudder. But unless it shakes off the Eggers yoke, it will be just another indistinct echo in the wind. A good idea that didn’t have to die.

Perhaps the problem with Wholphin (as with many McSweeney’s products) is its distressing inability to trust its readership. Indeed, the separation between the art offered and the marketing copy which accompanies it is entirely incongruous. It takes a hell of a conceit to tell an audience precisely how it should feel about something. And yet within Wholphin‘s accompanying booklet, this is exactly what goes down. “The House in the Middle” is described, “Your horror, shock, and rage at the country’s inability to help tax-paying citizens prepare for natural or man-made disaster will not be calmed by this film. But it is funny.” Note that it automatically assumes that its audience is composed entirely of good liberal thinkers who will automatically recontextualize the film within the framework of the Katrina fuckup. Note also the sanction to laugh, but whether the humor is directed at the film’s horrible depiction of how people should maintain their homes or presumably the now patented tone of the 1950s government-sponsored film, who can say? (And more anon on this tone when I get to the Spike Jonze film.)

Indeed, the interviews in the accompanying booklet make the reasons for spawning the art suspect. Scott Prendergast reveals that he made “The Delicious” because he wanted to “dress up in crazy costumes and act like a weirdo.” And indeed his film is nothing more than that: a paper-thin premise unfolding at a snail’s pace in which Prendergast, whose bemused expressions and wiry physicality aren’t entirely unlaudable, quickly wears out his welcome.

When you put the DVD into your player, you get a menu of the choices. One of three different films (two apparently by Jeroen Offerman) plays. And if, like me, you’re the kind of person who likes getting the DVD set up for viewing (due in large part to those irritating trailers you can’t skip through anymore that are put on most DVDs) while you go into the other room and grab a glass of wine (or two), you’re probably going to be as irritated as I was that a film starts playing if you’re not exactly trigger-happy with the remote. Meaning that instead of getting to experience a short film in its entirety, you walk in to your surprise and find that you’re midway through a guy singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards. This forces you to hit the stop button and try to access the aforementioned film (“Stairway at Saint Paul”), only to find that there’s no option to go directly to the film (whose bright idea was that?) and that if you’re interested in the film, you will be subject to one of the three random films, who knows which one, playing from the beginning. If the idea here is that Wholphin is meant to be experienced without interruption, I have news for editor Brent Hoff. Understand that some of us out here don’ t need to be barraged by data at every minute and, in fact, we want to experience the art in toto.

The first offering is Miguel Arteta’s “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?,” a collaboration with filmmaker/Believer contributor Miranda July. (This is one of many suspicious Eggers connections that accompany the disc. It’s not so much celebrating innovation, but also keeping promoting the efforts of those “in the family.”) A man who looks suspiciously like Friend of Eggers Stephen Elliott can be seen in three quarters profile, until he turns around and we realize that it’s actually John C. Reilly. Whether this was intentional (and it’s certainly a thesis for an Auctorial Doppelganger that will likely never happen) or not remains a mystery. But the material itself, despite the presence of the always good Reilly, comes across as a tossed off and entirely insubstantial home movie. The titular question could have been used as a way to expose how shallow the process of introspection can be (apposite rhetoric for the 826 Valencia crowd, I think), but it becomes instead the basis for a vanity project that isn’t particularly penetrating. Heads talking insubstantially about insubstantial topics. The gimmick of Reilly with a clipboard. Ha ha. Perhaps the question was intended to be presented to the viewer with unintentional irony. Why else would it have been placed first on the menu? We’re all friends here, right? You’ll enjoy us without question, yes? Because we here are your favorite people in the world!

Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Sigel’s “The Big Empty” shows more promise, both as an interesting way of producing filmed versions of McSweeney’s stories (it comes from Alison Smith’s “The Specialist,” which originally appeared in McSweeney’s #11) and as a way of profiling unusual material. Sadly, this too comes across as a vanity project, despite the fact that Selma Blair is utterly right for the part of a woman who has an arctic wasteland inside her that can only be accessed through her vagina. And if that premise sounds edgy or dangerous, let me assure you that it’s not. Or at least it doesn’t come across that way when it should. The film in general is seriously undermined by its Wes Anderson-style obsession with ostentatious perfection (books lined up meticulously in square piles with the camera dollying across as if the atmosphere is more important than the human moment), along with the distracting presence of Haskell Wexler as a bookstore customer and the uncomfortably carnal quid-pro-quo credit of “Executive Producers: George Clooney Steven Soderbergh.” This is clearly a film that values style over substance, a catastrophic emphasis given its high-concept premise. It has all the tricks that money will buy, but it is soulless even in its one modest moment of earnestness (a dorky guy asking Blair how she feels).

Another case of style killing pith is Brian Dewan‘s “The Death of the Hen,” which contextualizes a tale in the form of a filmstrip (complete with the beeps preceding the switch of the slide). Again, the stylistic idea here, presumably intended for those who remain mired by elementary school nostalgia from the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, is an interesting one. But the tale’s details are so digressive that it once again becomes difficult to get attuned to the story. At one point, a fox asks to hop into a carriage pulled by six mice. Agreement is made. And then without warning or explanation, the carriage is filled up with all manner of animals. Are we supposed to laugh at the fact that such a digressive detail is thrown into the mix? Yes, it fits into some of the inexplicable narratives featured in filmstrips. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting, indeed more audacious, if Dewan actually accepted the medium of the filmstrip on its own terms? What of a filmstrip that used the cheery tone and the formality to tell a bleak tale inside a crackhouse, an ironic metaphor on the failed drug wars of the time? Now that would be innovative!

One of the most problematic inclusions here is an episode of Talti Hayat, billed here as “the Turkish Jeffersons,” which is a specious comparison at best. For one thing, the couple of this series is not radically different in ethnicity, but are essentially an upper-class couple living “the sweet life,” surrounded by amicable maids and the goofy guy in a red sweater next door. In other words, what we’re dealing with here is a very banal and pretty run-of-the-mill sitcom, not terribly interesting, unless of course you’re one of those base humans who believes that all Asian women are bad rivers and thinks that listening to a Turkish sentence that you don’t understand is the most hilarious thing you’ve heard since the dead parrot sketch (or, failing that, a Jerky Boys routine).

What makes this exercise tasteless is the fact that the McSweeney’s people have hired various writers to provide alternative subtitle tracks. This might have been a good idea, but none of the translations hold a candle to MST3K and they are all designed to mock material which is simply too insubstantial to skewer. And even though the liner notes say, “No offense whatsoever is intended by the writers towards the actors, the Turkish people, Germans, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, fans of Gilmore Girls, or any other group,” the statement is suspect when the alternative subtitle tracks contain such racist lines as “Menskshe! Where did you hide my water pipe? I left it there on the dresser” (as penned by A.G. Pasquella), essentially implying that all Turks are bonged out scatterbrains. I suspect that this represents the dark underbelly of the so-called McSweeney’s feel-good beat. On one hand, don’t offer anything with edge. But when immersed within the exercise of groping for free associative humor, you can hide behind that comfy mask of irony, claiming that a particularly uncreative and racist line isn’t really racist. and that it was all in good fun.

The two strongest segments on Wholphin are, interestingly enough, the ones by major filmmakers. David O. Russell (a Friend of Spike, who is a Friend of Eggers) offers excerpts from his documentary Soldier’s Pay. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the film in its entirety and can recommend it. While the excerpts here to some degree reflects the “good thoughtful liberal” audience impression frequently assumed by the McSweeney’s editorship, it’s still a welcome inclusion.

But Spike Jonze’s documentary on Al Gore demonstrates not only Wholphin‘s potential but its failings. The story was this: In 2000, Spike Jonze, hot off the success of Being John Malkovich, was commissioned by the Gore for President campaign to make a documentary to be shown at the National Democratic Convention, presumably because this would help Gore’s “stiff” image problem and get him down with the kids. Jonze, relatively stunned by all this (one gets the sense that he was a bit clueless actually), decided to simply drive up to the Gore family house with his tiny video camera and shoot whatever struck his fancy.

The result is a fascinating little film. One sees Gore remaining guarded even during private family moments. The film can be viewed as a stunning revelation (in hindsight, at least) about how a politician, constantly concerned with his image even while letting his guard down bodysurfing and selecting a VHS tape for family movie night, could never really loosen up. But it’s clear from the tape that he wants to loosen up. But he can’t. It’s impossible in the age of soundbytes. And because there are invisible antennae protruding from just behind Gore’s head, always cognizant of a camera or journalist in the room or from sixty miles away, Jonez’s film, perhaps unintentionally, is the study of what life must be like to have absolutely no privacy, to kiss your wife when you know there is somebody watching. I suppose in this sense, Gore’s stiffness actually made him more real than the competition. For how can any of us really remain true and spontaneous if there will be constant cameras and stenographers recording our every move?

Wholphin, however, catastrophically ignores this salient revelation (and perhaps this revelation is what kept the film from speculation; nobody wants a candidate that appears even remotely nervous) in favor of the following text in its booklet:

This film might have wiped away, in twenty-two minutes*, Gore’s reputation as a robot. If nothing else, it might have at least calmed a few jumpy liberals into reconsidering their protest vote. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the film was shelved. (Dramatic pause.) Until now. It may seem like a sweet, simple study of a loving American family, but in our opinion, Jonze’s short film could have changed the world.

* — Nevermind that the film clocked in at sixteen minutes on my DVD player.

We’re now five years away from the damn Supreme Court decision and we’re still basking in this baffling, back-slapping “what the would could have been” liberal bullshit, in the same flag-wrapping manner that conservatives evoke September 11 to justify their latest fascist legislation. It is embarassing that such a jejune conclusion would accompany so fascinating a film. It is adolescent that such revolutionary claptrap would be uttered instead of sucking it up and facing the cold hard honesty: Al Gore wasn’t the one. So who might be the candidate for 2008? And what can we do to make the current situation better? (Not so subtle hint to those liberals clutching their blankets like Linus right now: Midterm elections are happening this year.)

Understand that for all of my criticisms of Eggers, McSweeney’s, The Believer and now Wholphin (and, for that matter, the n + 1 crowd), in my heart of hearts, I really want them to succeed. But if one wishes to remain truly independent, truly underground, and truly shake the foundations of intellectual thought, making assumptions about your audience, telling them exactly how they should think and exactly how they should feel and insisting that revolutionary zeal might have been in the air when the circumstances really can’t be proved is the kind of mentality I expect from a starry-eyed undergrad student clinging to his idealism, not the finest writers and editors of our time. It involves saying no to such bullshit as Snarkwatch, which places such restrictions on how one can think and how one should kvetch without considering that a little rant here and there isn’t entirely unhealthy. It involves actually listening to the “crazed maniacs” who denounce you and who disagree with you rather than keeping a Nixon-style Enemies List (various rumors have reported that Eggers keeps a list along these lines, but there is apparently nothing to corroborate this). And it involves considering dangerous topics, even pissing off a friend who disagrees with you on something. It involves considering all sides of the perspective, however difficult and painful. Nobody said thinking was easy.

Ask yourself this: wouldn’t the Believer, McSweeney’s and Wholphin be fantastic if they weren’t so afraid to walk on the wild side? If they took the 0bvious enthusiasm that’s there within its staffers and combined it with even the tinge of outrage?

So I publicly ask Heidi Julavits, Ed Park, Vendela Vida, Dave Eggers and Brent Hoff (and, for that matter, Ben Marcus) the following question: Why do you continue to commit hari-kari? Why can’t you be honest? Why must you steer the whims of your audience? Are you that insecure about the work in question? Why are you so terrified to express a few negative emotions from time to time? Were you all walked over as kids or something? Come on, you and I know that you’re better than these shaky presumptions and insular claptrap!

In short, why can’t I believe? Because I’d really like to.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the detailed critique — I’ve been curious (and skeptical) about Wholphin and so this has made for quite an intriguing read…

  2. Yes, it’s very helpful to have someone telling me what to think about Eggers et al. telling me what to think.

    P.S. It’s Vendela Vida as in La Vida Loca. Ole!

  3. Impressive post. I remember paging through Curtis White’s book a while back and seeing in the conlcusion that he described Eggers and what he called the MacSweeney’s [sic] set as being a legitimate alternative to the Middle Mind. That typo(?) alone probably nullifies such a statement, though I have to say that I still hold out a fair amount of hope for an Eggers-run enterprise and can routinely find enough in any given Believer issue to occupy me for about 30 minutes or more while paging through it at the bookstore.

  4. how right, how right. A paper thin premise, a snail’s pace, a worn out welcome. How can I ever make it up to you? Can I send you a check?
    s

  5. Hi Edward:

    I just now came across your blog via a google search and was horrified to see that you are accusing me of racism against Turkish people. I assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth. This seems to be a simple misunderstanding that hopefully I can set to rest.

    Here is the line you quote, followed by the next two lines:

    Ihsan: Where did you hide my water pipe? I left it right there on the dresser!
    Meneks(sh)e: I traded it to a gypsy for a pound of tobacco. Enjoy!
    Ihsan: How can I smoke with no pipe?

    You see, some Turkish people– and many other people– do smoke tobacco using water pipes. Nothing racist about that.

    Having Meneks(sh)e trade Ihsan’s pipe for tobacco (which Ihsan, having no pipe, is then unable to smoke) is a reference to O.Henry’s classic story ‘Gift of The Magi’. It has nothing to do with Turks being ‘bonged-out scatterbrains.’ Perhaps you were confused by the different cultural uses of water pipes, or perhaps you confused yourself by taking my original line out of context.

    Being called ‘uncreative’ I can live with. You can’t please all the people all the time and all that. But when someone mistakenly accuses me of writing racist lines I feel I must swoop in and set the record straight.

  6. The hardest thing about journalism is the goal of letting its readers believes what it says. Well if it’s a showbiz magazine, it can be easier but if it’s something unusual and extraordinary the writers should exert twice its usual effort in making it more believable.

    But you know what? With this review, it made me decide to check out the mag and see for myself its readership quality.

    John

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