J. Ronald Green
Let Us Now Praise Famous Girls: The Sublime in Jennifer Reeder’s A Million Miles Away
Notes and Citations
1. The most substantial engagements with the sublime by scholars of avant-garde and experimental cinema include: Scott MacDonald, Garden in the Machine (Berkeley: University of California, 2001); William Wees, “Representing the Unrepresentable: Bruce Conner’s Crossroads and the Nuclear Sublime,” Incite!: Journal of Experimental Media and Radical Aesthetics, No. 2, Spring 2010, pp. 73-86; Daniel Birnbaum, “Subliminal Messages,” Artforum Sept 2012; Kim Knowles, “Tacita Dean Film,” Millennium Film Journal No. 56, Fall 2012. On the broader relationship between the sublime and the avant-garde, see for instance: Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” Artforum 22.8 (April 1984): 36-43.
2. Wees, “Nuclear Sublime,” op. cit..
3. Kant gives this succinct description of the dynamical sublime: “Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening, rocks; clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement (1892), Section 28, p. 125. Text of Kant’s Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (London: MacMillan, 1914), accessed online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/kant-the-critique-of-judgement on December 2, 2017.
4. Here is Benning’s description: “As for the smoking tower in Ruhr, it is a state-of-the-art cooling tower used to make coke. Coke is made by super heating coal (cooked for 23 hours) at an even heat. Then ‘pushed’ into a train car and driven under the cooling tower. 50,000 gallons of water are then dumped into the super-heated coal, now coke, to cool it. The coke explodes up inside the cooling tower and rains back down into the train car, the water turns to steam which escapes out of the tower. The sound you hear is not from the billowing smoke, but rather from the coke raining down inside the tower. The tower filters out most of the dangerous gases, although some escape into the air. After the coke refills the train car, it is driven off to be used in nearby blast furnaces to turn iron ore into pig iron, which is used to make steel. It is a continuous process. A ‘push’ is done approximately every 15 minutes. There are 96 ovens. All steel mills have coke plants nearby. This one in Duisburg is studied the world over” (Email communication with the author, 10 July 2017, slightly edited for clarity).
5. See Kant, The Critique, Section 26, “Of the magnitude of natural things which is a requisite for the Idea of the Sublime,” op. cit., p. 110.
6. From Barbra Streisand, Memories (Columbia, 1982). A video with the full lyrics can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78Ruh0ewBVo.
7. Longinus, On the Sublime, trans. H. L. Havell (London: Macmillan and Co., 1890), see Part IV.—cc. viii. Text accessible at Project Gutenberg EBook.
8. “For me, the Streisand voice is one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource” (Glenn Gould, “Streisand as Schwarzkopf,” in The Glenn Gould Reader, Tim Page, ed. [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989; orig. in High Fidelity, May 1976], pp. 308-312).
9. Thinking of the iconic image of Judith of Bethulia holding Holofernes’s severed head in D.W. Griffith’s eponymous Judith film and in numerous European paintings, Reeder’s chorus could be named “Judith Priest.” Indeed, in her recent film, All Small Bodies (2017), the Judith avatar returns. Instead of revising a heavy-metal song by a male artist, All Small Bodies appropriates the Grimm brothers’ Hansel and Gretel story, converts the crone/witch into a man, then literalizes the slang “hatchet wound” epithet and returns the compliment.
10. There are moments in non-experimental art films that invite comparison to Reeder’s sublime chorus. The scene in Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011) when an elderly Little Bob and his band perform hard-driving rock-and-roll for a grass-roots fund-raising benefit to support an African child seeking his parents comes to mind, given that it dramatizes a moment of awakening autonomy and is edited to a 4-minute diegetic musical performance that ends with the lead singer directly addressing the film viewer. This is a powerful scene that rhymes with Reeder’s, but it is only distantly related to the sublime—or better, it stands in the vicinity of the sublime, whereas A Million Miles Away fully occupies sublime territory. Similarly, mainstream cinema is replete with totally failed attempts to evoke sublime experiences, as in the love scenes and rituals of a work like City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998), which strives to convey blissful intensity through complete, non-diegetic songs as Benning did in Landscape Suicide, and glorifies the afterlife through short, drone-like choral music scenes, but forgets all of the difficulties, ugliness, and pain that accompany human relationships and violent death. While Silberling’s film deploys some of the elements of the successful scenes discussed above, City of Angels is kitsch: mass-produced art of exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama. In the realm of kitsch, true sentiment is diluted by idealization and over-simplification—the sublime is nowhere to be found.
11. Reeder is currently Professor and Acting Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, and one of her first projects as a film student was a no-budget, punk super-hero film titled White-Trash Girl, 1995.
12. Cf., Christine Gledhill, “Rethinking Genre” in Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, eds, Reinventing Film Studies (New York: Oxford, 2000), 221-243; and Linda Williams “Melodrama Revised” in Nick Browne, ed, , Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory (Berkeley: University of California, 1998), 42-88.
13. This political efficacy of choral singing is explicated meticulously in Jon Michael Spencer’s amazing book, Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990)
14. A number of this group’s performances can be sampled on YouTube. There are enough comparisons to be found in Zachery Woolfe’s article about “Toxic Psalms” (including Woolfe’s allusion to Pussy Riot’s use of Rachmaninoff) to justify citing his article here. See Woolfe, “A Visceral Slide Into Darkness: ‘Toxic Psalms,’ in the Prototype Festival, Explores Ethical Choices,” The New York Times (7 January 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/arts/music/toxic-psalms-in-the-prototype-festival-explores-ethical-choices.html?_r=0
15. This Lavender Menace sensibility is corroborated by an older film by Reeder, One Thousand Ways to Skin It (2011), which is also mean-girl Gothic and menacing. Like A Million Miles Away, it appropriates and spits back tough male music and features a narrative reversal as it moves into the “choral” scene (in this case, actually a duet). Reeder states on her Vimeo site: “This short music video is a reprise to a well-known piece from 2000 called NEVERMIND in which the artist is lip-syncing to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 1000 WAYS TO SKIN IT features two 13 year old girls dressed as Black Metal Brides lip synching a mash-up of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Bootylicious’ (by Destiny’s Child). The two tiny performers appear lost in the woods, alone with their boom-boxes. This video was shot with a Tyco toy camera.”
16. From Judas Priest, Screaming for Vengeance (Columbia, 1982). The full lyrics can be accessed on Judas Priest’s official website, at http://judaspriest.com/disc/scrlyr.asp
17. Kant, in his definition of the dynamical sublime quoted early in this essay, says that “the irresistibility of [nature’s] power certainly makes us . . . recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent . . . and [as having] a superiority . . . whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned.” And Marjorie Hope Nicholson, in her study of “new science” on 17th-century poetry, noted that the English poet, Henry More’s (1614–1687), “imagination expanded with the [newly verified] expansion of space [in the universe]. Exulting in spaciousness, he experienced an ‘enlarg’d delight’ as ‘unbounded joys’ filled his ‘boundlesse mind’. . . . He was the first English poet who attempted to put into language man’s feeling for what was not yet called Sublime—a Sublime which came from the ‘new Philosophy’ that no longer called all in doubt, but rather released human imagination to a spaciousness of thought man had not known before (pp. 164; 165).” Concluding her study, Nicholson says: “Pondering vastness, the soul of man became vast. Its essence was ‘capacitie.’ Man was discovering a new aesthetics… (p. 202).” A full-blown example of the new aesthetics that Nicholson is talking about can be found near the end of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812): “the dome—the vast and wondrous dome [of St. Peter’s]/. . ./Standest alone/. . .Of earthly structures/ . . . //Enter: its grandeur overwhelms thee not;/And why? It is not lessen’d; but thy mind,/Expanded by the genius of the spot/Has grown colossal, and can only find/A fit abode wherein appear enshrined/Thy hopes . . ./. . . and the greatest of the Greater Council Defies at first our Nature’s littleness./Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate/Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate [Cantos CLIII-CLVII].”
18. Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (New York :Vintage Books, Random House, 1992), pp. 161-162.