Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What's New in Post-9/11 Culture?

Brothers and Sisters

Why is that when American popular culture (especially television and film) reference the present war in Iraq, it does so in an overly self-conscious, corny and clich├ęd manner? For some time the Artswipe has been deeply suspicious of the tendency to interpret culture within a "post-9/11" frame. Of course it's important for art and culture to reflect the political and social conditions of the present day, but frankly, it just irks me that so much cultural production becomes a beacon for a "post-9/11" paradigm shift either because such themes are deliberately implied by a producer or because said themes are unpacked by a zealous critic. Understandably most culture that is produced or interpreted in this manner derives from the United States. And sure enough, we live in a "post-9/11" world because American critics and/or publications repeatedly say so.

A case in point: if you type "post-9/11" into the embedded Google search engine of the online magazine PopMatters, you get "about 500 results". PopMatters is self-described as "an international magazine of cultural criticism", with global focus and reach, but featuring mostly US writers and published in Illinois. It usually casts a fairly sharp and entertaining eye over the landscape of global popular culture, but often gets caught up in the convenient dogma of the day, which most notably according to Artswipe, is rendering the world at large a post-9/11 vessel adrift in its own complex quagmire of contradictory politics. Then again, PopMatters ain't alone. Evidently, the phrase "post-9/11" is a convenient moniker espoused on a widespread level: if you abandon the Google powered PopMatters search engine and enter "post 9/11" into Google proper you can expect "about 46,000,000" results. If Artswipe felt "terrorism fatigue" five months ago when the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 Twin Towers attack unfurled worldwide as media spectacle, then suffice to say, Artswipe is now asleep at the wheel.

Describing culture in "post-9/11" terms is certainly not new. Surely some doctoral student somewhere is researching the origins of the term and its cultural application as we speak. But why now does Artswipe feel so compelled to speak about it? The "post-9/11" US series Brothers and Sisters premiered on Australian television on Monday night (Seven Network, 5 February 2007, 9:30pm), five months after its "post-five-years-after-9/11" US release date of 24 September 2006. Finally it is safe to say that this tv series lays claim to being embalmed in the most ridiculously saturated gloss of "post-9/11" jingoism.

Sure, I waited with bridal anticipation the entire week before it aired because I have had a huge crush on Rachel Griffiths ever since she played the fucked up slut guts Brenda Chenowith on HBO's Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Since that show drew its last epic breath, I have been in deep grief and nothing televisual (not even Dancing with the Stars) can inspire me to shake it off. But Australian advertising is insistent – it cashes in on nationalistic intertextuality by up-selling the presence of Australian actors who adorn new US or UK tv productions. Clearly Calista Flockhart is the star of Brothers and Sisters (though perhaps its undoing) but on Australian screens "Our Rachel Griffiths" is its draw card. Translation for non-Australian readers: "Our Media" heralds the work of any Aussie artist whose stardom has come about after leaving the Antipodean shores. It's about ownership – we must never to forget that Rachel Griffiths, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crow, Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Naomi Watts, etc. are "ours", "we own them", "hands off". It's as if "Our Media" is reminding the stars more than the audiences that "we made you, we will break you if we have to".

At PopMatters, Michael Abernethy rightly notes that Brothers and Sisters is a convoluted mess of a show (despite Aussie TV critic Robin Oliver from the Herald's Guide calling it a "spine-tingling experience"). My spine certainly tingled but only because of the confusion one might expect when a vast cast and complex plot lines are being introduced in a pilot episode. When the first episode was over, I was so confused I went to the official site for the show to get the official plot synopsis. Considering it revealed more than I managed to decipher while viewing it, I have quoted it for you below (and to save me paraphrasing dull narrative exposition):

"Brothers and Sisters follows the Walkers through the maze of American life today - the pressures, limitless options and the struggle to grow beyond our backgrounds into ourselves. Through these fascinating siblings - Sarah (Rachel Griffiths), the corporate VP struggling to balance motherhood with career; Tommy (Balthazar Getty), the loyal son and seeming heir to the family business; Kevin (Matthew Rhys), the gay lawyer cautiously learning about love; Justin (Dave Annable), the baby of the family, grappling with war trauma and addiction; and Kitty (Calista Flockhart), right-wing radio host turned TV pundit who has always been Daddy's little girl - the show explores what it means to be a family in the 21st century, and how these brothers and sisters balance their own lives as they strive to accept their parents as people - flawed, contradictory and forgivable - rather than just as a father and mother. The parents are Tom Skerritt as William Walker, the larger-than-life patriarch and president of the family business, and Sally Field as Nora Holden, the opinionated wife and mother to the five Walker siblings."

Silly me, how did I miss it? Obviously, considering my "post-9/11" introduction, the younger brother as Iraq war veteran is what caught my eye the most (well, second to my lust for Rachel Griffiths). But seriously, I thought he was dead - a casualty of war - because it seemed as if he was being regarded in the past tense. Clearly I nodded off in the split second where his character is introduced. You see, the show revolves around Kitty, the dumbfuck right wing radio diva whose heart of gold accommodates the brightest shades of red, white and blue, even if she's despised by her mother, Nora, for her political views. In the episode's most dramatic moment, Kitty and Nora have a showdown, and Nora explodes because of the heartache a mother experiences when a son is fighting in a war she doesn't agree with. Together they acknowledge that Kitty had a hard time living in New York when the World Trade Centre was attacked, especially because poor Kitty lived just down the street from Ground Zero. Nora was there for Kitty then – she felt her pain because it was everyone's pain. Re. the war in Iraq – the pain feels more like abuse than grief. Kitty suspects the strain wedged between this mother/daughter relationship is not politically driven: "I don't know what it's about but it's not about the war". What a corker of a line! I must use that one whenever anything is described as "post-9/11". It's almost as good a line as the one Kitty says repeatedly to various family members when they challenge her: "It's not about my politics".

Perhaps, then, Brothers and Sisters works on one level at least. It reminds me why I am so vehemently opposed to US right wing propaganda. I'm with Nora: Kitty is a nasty piece of work and undeserving of a mother's genuine love. Even though it's probably preaching to the converted and even though Kitty is probably redeemed somehow (such is narrative convention) I must marvel at this "post-9/11" melodrama for explaining the denial mechanisms embedded in right wing views: how everything is simultaneously about and not about the war; about and not about "my politics". Maybe by next episode it will explain why we are meant to believe Kitty is 31 years of age, when Calista Flockhart looks every bit her 42 years despite her undoubted penchant for cosmetic enhancement.


Ian Milliss said...

I didn't get past the first ten minutes. West Wing is bad enough as propaganda (let alone the truly vomitous Jack and Bobby which ended this week). Incidentally, did you notice this,0,7267967.story
it seems that even americans are starting to get sick of the narcissistic 9/11 propaganda.

grice said...

Where's Wendie Malick these days? Who wants to watch Calista Flockhart, anyway?

Skanky Jane said...

We live in a post-Six-four (Tiananmen Square Massacre) world. We live in a post-6/4 (East Timor Massacre) world. We live in a post-19/3 (US invasion of Iraq) world.

This list is endless.....

Liina's said...

Nice one, (review that is). We actually watched this one and did so only because we read about Ms. Griffiths being in it, and there was some confusion, such as spending the whole time trying to work out which were the actual siblings and who were the ring in partners ..... too many to concentrate. Although the family has "tv problems" it still just seemed so nice, like most shows, nice house, nice things, & nice pool to drown in. Anyway we will watch the second episode in half an hour and report back if it is better post first time around.