Notes on (Online) Aesthetics

Here is an excerpt from a Pinterest board I made featuring ‘my’ current aesthetic, which is based on the surreal and questionably medieval dream-landscapes of 60s/70s Italian, Czech and Russian arthouse cinema. Some photos were specifically chosen by me and some were generated automatically as a result (computers are better at doing this than people)… I’ve deleted my Tumblr but if I had one right now it would look like this. The closest musical equivalents are the soundtracks of the same films (menacing chamber music, organs, Luboš Fišer, Nino Rota etc). See also Byzantine paintings, Hungarian royal ephemera, Klimt, old fairytale illustrations…

An ‘aesthetic’ is a stylistically consistent, multimodal manifestation of an imagined lifeworld. This is probably incoherent to anyone who hasn’t been up at 3am thinking about it like I have. Here are two examples:

  1. Early-2010s Bambi-Gypsy Tumblr

I panicked because initial research on this led me absolutely nowhere (surely every self-respecting participant, including me, must have deleted all their content by now?) but just stumbled upon a treasure trove of nostalgia! Thank you, random users who probably lost their passwords and are immortalised on the internet as a result. (I won’t lie, I still think this is all very cute and have cried a little bit).

This aesthetic, which now appears to be completely dead, was a manifestation of a dream minimal-surreal indie-pop desert California lifestyle. It boasted a pastel colour palette and was sprinkled with gold star stickers, pictures of oil spills, 90s cartoons and cacti. In retrospect, this was strange because, as cohesive as it was, there seemed to be no cultural precursor for it beyond a few Rookie Magazine editorials. We only liked modern pop music (Lorde, the Arctic Monkeys, golden-age Lana Del Rey) and 1990s throwback television (The Simpsons, Daria). Was this an effort to feminise the fake-quirky ultra-minimalism of trendy Silicon Valley companies, or to sterilise 60s free love? Were we distancing ourselves from everything we knew?

Here’s a telling screenshot from Tumblr user stahry. See: cacti, jelly shoes, very feminine colour palette, eye glitter, deserts, Polyvore edits, hand-embroidery.

Seven or eight years later, in 2021, these pictures together still make me feel very blissed-out and happy. They are so surreal – the lack of perceptible shadow, the pastels, the girls who dress as alien ravers without being under coloured lights or doing drugs or apparently eating, the 90s Simpsons nostalgia (not pictured) – that they suddenly become very engrossing. The Bambi-Gypsy universe existed in an in-between state: we named our blogs things like ‘clouhd’ or ‘stahrs’ or ‘flowerii’ but refused to acknowledge or post the natural world if it wasn’t the arid American desert, and LOVED oil spills and shoes made of transparent plastic.

Another screenshot from Tumblr user pizaeh. Note: more cacti, line drawings, glitter and sew-on patches, minimalist promotional photography, modelesque and carefree girls.

Bambi-Gypsy was multimodal, expressed stylistically through photos, text and music: pastel imagery, aspirated nature words, the minimal quirk of contemporary indie pop. It manifested on thousands of Tumblr blogs, and sometimes in advertising, and later (too late) its motifs were found decorating mass-produced clothing – but it never really came up anywhere else.

We all went on Polyvore and made blog banners that looked like this (we were copying each other). This screenshot is from labanners on Tumblr. Most URLs followed the formula of ‘random plant/nature word with a few random Hs and Is’. Mine was ‘succuleii’…

It was a lifeworld, too much of a wonderland to really exist and yet planned out in full. The Bambi-Gypsy heroine ate snack food, collected succulents, put glitter around her eyes, lived somewhere near Los Angeles, was always dressed for a rave, worked as a model or freeloader and always felt alienated and strangely surreal. It was imagined, and we imagined it together, memetically, building on her lifestyle with each iteration…

2. Lana Del Rey and Born to Die

Here’s another multimodal imagined lifeworld: this one is rooted in some variation of mid-century Americana that exists entirely in its creator’s head. The lifeworld is that of a young, glamorous ingenue who (you guessed it) loves older men. This pretend woman’s visual, emotional and stylistic experiences are reflected in evocative lyrics, in purposely-aged music videos and in the sound of the music itself. In sync with internet users, the aesthetic filters from the music industry and makes its way online. Del Rey takes misremembered Old Hollywood films, misinterpreted books and misunderstood history – like a neural network, she generates enough imagery to spit back out and turn into nearly a complete lifeworld…

In the textual mode of her song lyrics, we encounter the first trappings of this imaginary life: it is specially curated and all incredibly anachronistic. Del Rey is always filmed at this stage wearing 1960s hair and makeup, but the Chateau Marmont had fallen into disrepair by that decade; she tacks together her infamous Lolita quote (from a fictional pedophile of letters) and the AAVE of ‘give me them coins’. Walt Whitman, Monaco, Marilyn Monroe musicals, and the Grand Ole Opry never occupied the same cultural sphere; she is merely saying old things and hoping they will stick (while somehow impersonating both Monroe and Barbara Jean from the film Nashville, which heavily featured the Grand Ole Opry but happened to come out in the 70s). Her stage name brings to mind Old Hollywood, but it’s an unrealistic, accepting Old Hollywood: the ‘Del Rey’ tacked on to exoticise would probably never have brought her the era of mainstream glamour shown in her music videos, and would only have entailed racist typecasting (Rita Hayworth had to change her name from the localising Margarita Carmen Cansino to be considered a sex symbol). The imagery nevertheless fits together, as if her songs are slapdash Pinterest boards, cohesive in their mistakes. Anachronism is the style. Accuracy is not an aesthetic; facts must be stylised too. A heavily-perfumed woman cuts a hole in a piece of paper and walks through it.

I Spoke too Soon. The Fact of My Creating the Aesthetics Wiki has Vanished Into Dust. What is an Aesthetic Anyway?

My hero Nina Hagen foresaw my fate back in 1984, when she said ‘And our children live in danger and in sorrow!’ Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children??? (I’ve just realised that my Chinese name translates perfectly to Lovejoy, which is incredible)

Would you ever agree to administrate a database of something you knew nothing about? Do you often speak authoritatively of this thing about which you know nothing, while using totally punctuated sentences in a chatroom (please get a life, you total weirdo)? Do you assume to know more about something you know nothing about than someone who has created a website about the thing you know nothing about? Yes? Then you’d feel at home at the Aesthetics Wiki!

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the moderators themselves have absolutely no idea what an aesthetic is. Is it a music genre? No. Is it a type of Japanese fashion? No. Is it a random thing you like with ‘core’ on the end? No. Is it just any subculture, anywhere? No. And yet these pages make up the extreme majority of wiki content, and when you delete them – you, the creator of the Wiki, have to be thrown out, not the people who lack basic understanding of the concept of the website they’ve agreed to moderate.

What is an aesthetic? An aesthetic is a coherent multimodal schema based on a certain, often fantastical, life-world. You should be able to look at a picture posted online and say ‘that’s [my aesthetic]’ without it needing to contain any one certain element; while aesthetics are dictated by visuals, you should be able to find music that fits just as well. Things that have been mistakenly been called aesthetics by people who deem themselves experts: pictures of food, the entirety of Korean culture, punk music, studying science, liking holographic surfaces.

Things that actually are aesthetics: Dark Academia (an audiovisual manifestation of being in a specific literary genre), Cottagecore (an audiovisual manifestation of a bucolic life-world), American Gothic, the 2014 Tumblr fluorescent-Arctic Monkeys-alien phase, speculative but highly visual genres like steampunk, the Virgin Suicides phase where everyone fantasised about being 70s suburbanite Catholic teenagers, film noir, the Gothic Art Nouveau in the film Secret Ceremony, the idea of being a cowboy on the prairie as in, specifically, a Spaghetti Western.

That’s my contribution to the field – perhaps I will do for aesthetics what Sontag did for camp. Why do we fetishise total ignorance on the part of grown adults? Why are we expected to condescend to people who know nothing and are seemingly proud of it? My guess is that I’ve made myself the villain again – I am usually the villain – simply for pointing out the basic concept or truth behind something instead of condescending to the illusions of the self-assured and misinformed. At least – as always – I’m right, and am not someone who learns about the world from sixty-second videos, someone on Letterboxd with ‘Hamilton’ in their favourites section, a Twitter user, or a gamer.

I Created the Aesthetics Wiki. No, It’s Not Easy Being Really Cool

This is me. Born in the 1890s and so behind the times that I make Lubitsch references that only I can understand – unable to keep up with real events, I make a brief segue back to the opulent world I love so much, except I can’t walk properly or really move my face… (PLEASE watch the 1978 Mae West film Sextette)

It’s true! It was me, me, a teenage outcast, an underqualified linguistics research assistant, a student journalist. I was up in the very early hours and thought it might be a good idea. Now it’s becoming a phenomenon. We had around four million pageviews in January 2021, according to this Atlantic article about us, which I also only found out about today. I checked my email a few hours ago and found an information request from American Vogue, which I managed to totally overlook for nearly two weeks.

The truth is, I can go for months without ever organically thinking about the website, which has morphed from something full of slightly ironic familiarity into something completely foreign to me. I spent New Year’s Eve on Tumblr in 2013 and 2014, and lived my life on the site up until 2020; I saw Cottagecore and Lovecore and Dark Academia and Pastel Grunge erupt in real time. I even participated in that really strange and totally memory-holed ‘gypsy’ aesthetic where people went on Polyvore and cut typographic letters out of photos of oil spills. At 19, I’m obsessed with being behind the times and feel far too old for any of this; I get my aesthetic fix from old Italian and Czech films, currently refuse to use any social media or watch movies made after 1979, and have disabled my YouTube recommendations so the only ‘new’ material I see is Nina Hagen archival footage. I feel more technologically skilled than the users of the Aesthetics Wiki (while they are stuck in an algorithmic Tik Tok cycle, I often provide my classmates with textbook downloads and have employed MI5-level tactics to successfully locate my crush’s LiveJournal from 2006) but have literally no idea what any of them are on about, ever. Perhaps this is the real generational gap.

My hero from the age of 11 onwards was Tavi Gevinson, the child-prodigy blogger and editor of Rookie magazine. It was at her beckoning that I listened to my first Hole album, read and watched The Virgin Suicides, and learnt to make moodboards, to identify some visual element from some bygone period that I liked and stick with it. My pre-adolescence was built of homemade shrines, suburban impalement fantasies and Courtney Love’s screams. It was sensational – I had so much fun! I suppose I could have been considered precocious, except I spent too much time writing out Lana Del Rey lyrics and making my own zines to actually concentrate or do well at school. The Aesthetics Wiki was an attempt to stick to the Gevinson tradition, to identify things I saw every day and turn them into something coherent and special.

I am sad to say that many of the articles today do not go along with this scheme whatsoever. Some are ramblings from twelve-year-olds who have been allowed to spend too much time online; some are by older people who should know better. Instead of categorising things that already exist, our website is full of imaginary figments. It also exists as a fashion advice repository, because our users love to define themselves by what they buy. Thousands flock to our forum and comment section, listing totally irrelevant information in a bid to discover what ‘their aesthetic’ is. Gone are the days of free exploration or experimentation, or even very basic cultural context!

The aesthetic subcultures of Tumblr have been politicised by people with a five-year-old’s understanding of politics. Cottagecore is for Nazis, they shout, unaware that rural living has been romanticised for millennia by everyone from Tibullus to Mao to the second-wave feminists. No, it’s very special to lesbians, others reply, having no concept of what a lesbian actually is beyond someone who is annoying on Tik Tok. Lesbians are very protective of their aesthetic, they say, as if we are all Tumblr users who are under sixteen years old (for the record, I am a lesbian who exists in the cultural sphere of Old Hollywood actresses and fin de siècle painters; I have never felt any desire to work on a farm and I can’t listen to Girl in Red, their gold standard of cultural lesbianism, without wanting to vomit). Young people are probably about to go into debt because of Dark Academia: they like the idea of studying and being eccentric more than they are actually willing to devote themselves to academic interests or develop any real eccentricities. In a few decades, our university professors will know practically nothing, but will at least dress well and have some suitable music playing in the background.

I have created a monster – a database for people who want to be exactly the same. Tumblr aesthetics barely provide visual pleasure anymore; they are merely a way to categorise yourself in relation to others. Teenagers on the site who want to pick one and stick to it should stop being so silly. Watch films from periods that aren’t your own! Read books! Learn about art history! Be original for once! This would never have happened back in my day.

Selected Korean Music Videos: Essential Viewings for Serious Study

K-pop videos should be written about more by critics and academics. I’ve loved the high production value, intense cultural borrowing and forced innovation of the genre for years now, and have come here to share my expertise with you.

I’m just focusing on videos here, so the music featured within them doesn’t come into play in my decision. This is also a very personal list. I do not aim for objectivity. My criteria include: general aesthetic appeal, originality, shock value, ability to stand the test of time, and a certain je nais se quois. Also this is very (entirely?) biased towards videos made for girl groups and female artists – because that’s all I listen to. Sorry men.

CLC – Hobgoblin (2017, dir. Vikings League)

Where do I start? This video is a masterclass in angles and camera movement. Just the thumbnail itself (Yujin holding a pink baseball bat towards the camera – it is wrapped in barbed wire) is, to use Twitter parlance, iconic. The director has taken the age-old Western ‘girl crush’ schema and magnified every bit of it. CLC have never been the most popular group in their five-year run, but has anyone ever watched this video and forgotten any part of it afterwards? I doubt it. It also features one of the most memorable styling jobs in history – none of the outfits seem to work together, but they do for some reason, and it is this series of arbitrary choices that tie the entire comeback together.

LOONA – Girl Front (2017, dir. Digipedi)

I have loved LOONA since pre-2018 full group debut, so I obviously have a slight tendency to favour their videos over others – this MV probably wouldn’t have made it into my top 20 had I not already fully understood and obsessed over the story behind it, which features magic powers, travel between universes, a search for alter egos, and so on, imbuing every scene with self-important cryptic value. But I also think it’s made a huge impact, with instantly-recognisable scenery and outfits and a brilliant sense of space. It truly brings me joy!

HyunA – Lip & Hip (2017, dir. Lumpens)

For HyunA, whose videos has been famously provocative throughout all living memory, even this is a bit out-there: while her MVs were originally designed to show off her sexual appeal, this production uses visual puns, exaggerated sets and some of the weirdest camera angles in the genre to make (or pretend to make) a statement on the taboos of sexuality. The result is grotesque, unsettling and one of the most memorable K-pop videos ever made. Did you see the toilet scene? It seems almost like a genre first, even though it probably isn’t.

Red Velvet – Peek-A-Boo (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)

I’m including this MV for two reasons: its colour scheme, which is barely seen in girl group MVs to this day, and its bizarre story – a gang of girls who conspire to murder pizza men? Where was the idea formulated? It seems as if the director was in the midst of shooting an actual feature film about pizza murderers and took time out so the actresses could mouth lines to a song on set. It’s almost too well-fleshed-out to be a video less than four minutes long.

LOONA/Heejin – ViViD (2016, dir. VM Project Architecture)

The very first video in the LOONA canon, ViViD mixes together a million different influences (the late Victorian era, mid-century fashion, Alice in Wonderland, Clueless, a little-known Magritte painting with lots of little rainbow bunnies) and it somehow all works perfectly. The set design, with its exaggerated shapes and toned-down colour scheme, reminds me of a 1950s cartoon. Also – the scene where Heejin is going through a door, and the rabbit next to her is also going through a tiny little door at the same time! Inspired!

Red Velvet – Russian Roulette (2016, dir. Shin Hee-won)

Finally! I would go as far as to call this the most recognisable and influential Korean MV ever – every shot, transition, outfit and set you see here has no doubt been copied by another group in the last four years since its release (see CLC for one incredibly blatant example). The fact that someone was asked to direct a video for a girl group and decided to a) base it around the idea that each member was plotting to murder another, b) make it look like this, is incredible. The muted colour palette and quick transitions help viewers to grasp the plot of Russian Roulette without distraction, and it is remarkable that it is always aesthetically consistent despite switching from one aspect ratio to another, from handheld-camera dance scenes to Wes Anderson-style tableaus, and even from the real to the cartoon world. It is also brilliant in its supposed timeframe – it is clearly and believably ‘vintage’, but not specific enough to allow viewers to relate to it or point out anachronisms. A masterpiece!

WJSN – I Wish (2017, dir. Ziyong Kim)

This one should need no introduction – just look at it and you’ll find out…

I have to say, though, that I love the way the director has synthesised the predominant ‘kawaii’ 2010s Tumblr visual scheme into a high-budget video and consistent imaginary landscape. It doesn’t feel trashy or dated, and it definitely doesn’t feel like an attempt to keep up with the younger generation. I love the scenes with the unicorn standing in pink grass. Also worth mentioning is Secret (same group, same director) – I haven’t given it its own entry because it actually is starting to look dated to me, but it’s constructed along similar lines.

LOONA/Chuu – Heart Attack (2017, dir. Digipedi)

I’m including this video not because of the ‘representation is important’ cliche, but because it’s incredibly clever. Here’s another example of a very vague 50s/60s pastiche, except this time, as per Late Phase Predebut LOONA, it’s wrapped up in a million cultural references: Magritte and Hopper paintings (both are adapted into actual scenes), Clueless, real Penguin crime novels, The Little Match Girl, and even the group’s own Christmas single from the previous year. The colour palette is consistent, unusual and puts the video into its own visual universe. Also – note that the video clearly takes place over one day, with the lighting adjusted consistently until Chuu ends up in the dead of night! The attention to detail amazes me.

EXID – DDD (2017, dir. Digipedi)

To be fair, it would be hard to make an EXID video without totally engaging your viewers in some way – they were arguably the most charismatic K-pop group ever, both on and off the stage. DDD is sexually loaded in both a latent and blatant sense. The scenes with Hani in a red-painted room are genius. The scene where her facial expression turns sour is genius. The appropriation of fetish imagery and bizarre angle is risky and genius. The nervous cuts from shot to shot are genius. It’s just genius!

Gugudan – A Girl Like Me (2017, dir. Digipedi)

This was impressive three years ago and it’s impressive now. Most of the individual scenes are without precursor or offspring in K-pop as a whole (the yellow room and photocopier, the green room with mirrors, circus psychedelia hell). The cuts and angles are perfect. Another of these productions where 20th century throwback elements are present, but not actually identifiable. It works very well here.

IU – Last Night Story (2017, dir. BTS Film)

Everything about this video is legitimately perfect to me – a cover of a late 80s song, it blends aesthetic elements from the 60s, 70s and 80s together in a way that seems lovingly researched, while aiming to create a ‘vibe’ rather than anything accurate that might challenge historical memory. The result is similar to Russian Roulette‘s, but the overpowering colour scheme and cluttered sets make it even more successful at building a lived-in universe. It is quirky but still stylish and ironic without being mocking – when will the Anglosphere ever manage to produce a historical pastiche like this? IU’s black dress and gloves are also the kind of thing an actress might wear in a film and be remembered for forever. It’s too bad that the director’s name is basically unsearchable – here’s a Vimeo link.

Red Velvet – Automatic (2015, dir. Shin Hee-won)

Here’s another ambiguously 60s/70s video from the mastermind behind Russian Roulette – except this time it’s gorgeously, L’Atalante-underwater-scene style lyrical, and cites endlessly from all manner of cinematic sources. Every shot here is beautiful and gentle, and I appreciate the whole thing more the older I get and the more films I watch. The darkened, aged colour scheme is so rare for a girl group to use and immediately distinguishes this MV from the crowd. I’m not even sure how to write about it properly for fear of getting overwhelmed, but here are some scenes of note:

  • About 35 seconds in: shot with Wendy looking into the camera, posed behind a bowl of lemons. Looks like an actual Rembrandt painting. Unbelievable
  • At around 1:10, the girls dancing form a diagonal line across the screen from background to foreground, which should be utilised more in MVs. It is especially eye-catching here as they’ve been styled to look identical.
  • At 1:40, Irene’s face in the rear-view mirror surrounded by the blue which breaks up the darker scenes
  • At 2:10, Joy turns her head while dancing and seemingly falls straight into bed – onto a tapestry, which gives enough visual interest by itself to instantly make the shot powerful
  • At 2:42, the camera pans around a new pink room and lands on Wendy.

The entire thing fulfils every cultural need I could possibly have.

I have a theory that the elements characteristic of Old Hollywood (restrictive management, genre and typecasting, attempts to broadcast sexuality and sexual mores despite restrictive censorship) did not merely die out along with the studio system, but slowly (metaphorically) trickled over to South Korea instead, when the resulting brilliant storytelling and stylish aesthetics would manifest themselves in the girl group music videos of the late 2010s. These videos will no doubt be shown in film classes in a century or so, when the world has finally woken up.

Oh No! Another Drunken Exploit from Li Qingzhao! Ru Meng Ling 2: Electric Boogaloo

(featured image by Chen Zhengming)

Remember Li Qingzhao? Of course you do, because I posted about her famous, incredibly relatable ‘Ru Meng Ling’ merely hours ago! But here is another poem, with the same name and meter, except it’s purely about her getting so drunk (900 years ago) that she accidentally rows her boat into some flowers. I think I have found a new role model.

Characters, pinyin, grammatical gloss

My prose translation:

I often remember the time I watched the sunset on the pavilion by the stream – so drunk that I had forgotten my own way home. Full of joy, I returned to the boat that evening, but accidentally entered an area entangled with lotus flowers. I struggled, struggled to row through it, frightening a flock of herons and gulls up into the air.

Another limerick (just to keep up the trend):

There once was a day by the stream

drunkened as if in a dream –

The boat homewards did float us

but then hit a lotus –

The herons and gulls, did they scream!

I actually am sorry about that one, that was terrible.

To conclude: at this point, Li Qingzhao is starting to feel like a good friend who possibly sort of has an alcohol problem.

It’s Twelfth Century China, And This Female Poet Wants You To Know That She Has A Hangover – A Short Poem By Li Qingzhao Translated (Plus Bonus Limerick)

I spent a lot of time this summer self-studying the poetry of the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD). While I fell in love with Bai Juyi, various natural riddles and a certain paltry ode by Luo Binwang (Goose! Goose! Goose! Your song to the sky I sing!), my favourite discovery of all was a short poem by the female writer Li Qingzhao, who lived from 1084 to 1155. In this poem, ‘Ru Meng Ling’ (如梦令 – lit. ‘As if in a Dream’, but one of two poems she wrote that has this title, because it’s also the name for the sort of poetic meter she uses ) she switches effortlessly from a rich literary style to a natural recounting of daily life, and back again. Li fulfils my natural need for unreliable narration – joining a large cast of characters, such as Humbert Humbert and Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, in the process – as she describes the painful morning after a comforting drink, and her subsequent worries about the crab-apple tree outside her window.

In Ru Meng Ling, alcohol is framed as a temporary escape from nature and the elements, even overpowering human sleep – but it is no stronger than the belief and meaning the poet holds for her tree. The underlying meaning of this poem is incredibly cryptic. Given that crab-apple flowers often symbolise female youth in Chinese literature, I personally believe Li is using the analogy to talk about her beauty: her drowsy but astute realisation that it has left her, while her servants continue to engage in flattery.

As if in a Dream (grammatical gloss by me)

As if in a Dream (my translation)

Last night brought rain in sprinkles and an onslaught of wind, and heavy sleep was no match for the liquor I drank. I try to ask her* as she rolls back the curtains, and she insists that the crab-apple tree is as it was before.

Doesn’t she know, doesn’t she know? It should be plump with foliage, with its red fruit wasted away.

*TN. although in the original poem the author uses 人, which is gender-neutral, every Chinese analysis I have read claims the person rolling back the curtains is Li’s maid

As if in a Dream (but it’s a limerick) (I’m not sorry and I absolutely will do it again)

Last night brought some blustery wind,

No alcohol did I rescind,

My tree – is it there?

The housemaid did glare!

What a lie – of red it’s been skinned!

I really do think this is the sort of cultural discovery that can change a person for the better – I relate so very much to this woman from 900 years ago. I like that Tang and Song poetry is so focused on pure, relatable human experience (drunkenness, appreciation of nature, existential dread) – it is possible to just ‘click’ with it to an extent that I couldn’t really do all the time while reading a lot of Roman poetry (with all its mythological names). I sort of appreciate that Chinese culture had its supposed ‘golden age’ of poetry synchronous to the West’s ‘dark age’, because it means there is another place to look to find out about the constant beauty of nature and the fact that all people are actually the same.

I Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

I gasped in audiovisual delight at the end of this film! Just as a higher expression of praise, I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence for me, but it isn’t – I am currently going through the top 250 films on Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics’ poll at the speed of light (only 47 left now!) and thus have experiences like this roughly three times a week. But let me disregard all that! This film, the story of a ruined premature love, has made me happy beyond measure!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was my first Jacques Demy film, my second film starring Catherine Deneuve (after watching Bunuel’s grumpier Belle de Jour (1967), where she plays a disaffected housewife-prostitute) and a brilliant journey into a parallel realm of wallpaper, mid-century French singing, Disney-tier costume design and melodrama. I say Disney-tier – at different points, Deneuve’s styling reminded me of Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Sleeping Beauty (1959). I have no doubt this was intentional. These were my favourite films as a very young child, and I think I finally understand the cult of adult Disney fans: it was lovely to see my first memories of visual storytelling brought back in live-action, while gaining extra cultural profit from the film’s Nouvelle Vague associations. (Everyone will think I’m so sophisticated for watching another 1960s French film, says my inherently sneaky consciousness, when really it was just as easy to sit through as any American Technicolor musical! I am pulling off a long con!)

Vos Más Que Vos — Catherine Deneuve - Les parapluies de Cherbourg...
Please just try to tell me this staging, costume, makeup, hair etc. isn’t incredibly ‘sketches for a new Disney film by Mary Blair’. I am beginning to fall in love with 1960s continental movie styling as a whole but this is exceptional….

Obviously I went immediately to Google Scholar and made a desperate ‘jacques demy’ search afterwards, trying to scrape some random knowledge together to justify what I had seen and to make amends to this man, whom I had sadly overlooked for my entire film-watching life. I dodged past several ‘Look at This Super Queer Cinema, This Analysis Isn’t Regressive At All’ type articles (though happily learning that some critics call his cinematic universe the ‘Demy-Monde’) and finally managed to find something interesting on JSTOR, a Cinema Journal article by Rodney Hill which contextualised his films in relation to the rest of the French New Wave.

I was, it can be said, taken aback by Umbrellas and its total contrast to everything I knew of this period of French cinema. I was half-expecting one of the characters to turn around and pull out a gun, or to sink into a discussion of Jean Paul Sartre, or for the film’s narrative to loop back on itself. Why isn’t Catherine Deneuve getting stomped on by some random man, I thought to myself, recalling Belle de Jour and sadly going back to my old habit of assigning every actor their own special archetype based on the only film I’d seen them in. Anyway, as I learnt from Hill’s article, Umbrellas is a sort of fusion of the Nouvelle Vague and the older, glossier French ‘Tradition of Quality’, contrasting a teenage pregnancy storyline and raw heartbreak with smooth art design and very pretty singing. By mixing these two traditions, Demy betrays both the realist New Wave and the uptight Tradition of Quality. And is this not the ultimate French New Wave – the Nouveau Tsunami?

(This is not why we purchased an institutional subscription to JSTOR, my university screeches in protest. Go and download some papers on morphological ergativity instead.)

Here are some visual things I liked:

Movie Monday: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - Making Nice in the Midwest

I absolutely love Chinoiserie and Oriental elements in Western interior design, and obviously that extends to film. There are legitimate aesthetic reasons to enjoy these things, and I am actually not a nineteenth-century Orientalist, even though I very often pretend to be (I watched this film in Chinese subtitles because it was easier to find that way!). Anyway, I loved Genevieve’s writing set and this is probably why.

Fashion & Film: Colour and Costume from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to La La  Land | The Big Picture Magazine

I was generally obsessed with the fact that the characters lived in this apartment, which struck me as a scaled-down Versailles, and could even match their outfits to the wallpaper, but were also so destitute that they had to sell off jewellery in little shops? It struck me as wonderfully haughty and campy and was the kind of plot hole I wholeheartedly appreciate. It seemed as if Demy was so fixated on aesthetic value that he was opposed to showing any physical degradation on-screen – the film rotates around a war in Algeria which we never really see, but only hear about from a cursive letter – and that makes me love him.

Film Fridays: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg 1964 | Umbrellas of cherbourg,  Film inspiration, Film aesthetic

I could sort of sense some timely psychedelia coming through, ie. sometimes the colours all bled into each other and just looked like this. Interesting. Usually the makeup, hair and colour grading in 1960s films is very distinctive and instantly dates the production compared to any other decade of cinema (I plan to look into this, but you might know what I mean?), but I do feel that Umbrellas could have been made at any point in either the 60s or 70s, which is quite special – relative timelessness. 1960 Citroën ID 19 in "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964"

a) I love snow and ice in films and have done since the post-duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and b), Cherbourgeoise??? Hello??? Truly a filmmaker after my own heart.

I can’t wait to delve further into the Demy-Monde! Goodbye for now,

I’m Quitting Instagram and Melding my Two Selves Together at Last in an Act that I Actually Have No Analogy to Describe

I didn’t know what to use as an illustration for this post because I need to sort some things out before I can actually post my own art here, but here’s a screencap from Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) that perfectly sums up how I feel about Instagram

Instagram updated yesterday! This could possibly have been a mild inconvenience, but I’ve decided it’s actually one of the worst things that has happened in the social media landscape in the past few years.

I have had an art account on the platform for the last six years (made when I was 13, meaning it’s been there for nearly my entire adolescence). It was fun at first making and posting fanart for the really questionable things I was into and receiving nice comments from my well-meaning little online friends. It became less fun when I decided I didn’t like making fanart all that much and started losing followers, and when the algorithm started messing with my self-esteem over time. I managed to draw and paint quite a lot this spring and summer, and it got depressing when I realised that a) barely any people who had originally followed me got to actually see my work, and b) although I made a few things I genuinely liked, I often only produced art to put on that page.

I also became disillusioned with the bite-sized format of Instagram and similar websites. I don’t think fine art should be displayed in isolation: anyone who is able to look at a painting should be able to access information about the visuals and worldview that inspired it. This isn’t in the interest of censorship or no-platforming, but in the tradition of museums and galleries, where the best curators arrange artwork thematically or in accordance with artistic inner circles to help visitors understand the links between different works. It might have been fine when I was still really interested in self-explanatory fanart, but my priorities are different now: I accidentally fell in love with the methodology I was taught during my Art A-Level, where you must reference existing pieces from art history at every stage of the creative process. There are so many masked statements that can be made from the very act of reference, and so many ways to distort, corrupt and appropriate any section of the artistic canon when making new work – so why limit art online to a photograph and a descriptive caption when you might be able to spell this out explicitly?

Instagram has replaced its central camera button (its original priority) with a rip-off of every other website at this point, eg. a scrolling list of inane videos to watch, all 15 seconds in length. I am just about the right age to appreciate one of twenty or thirty classic Vines, but beyond this point, these short videos can only spell danger to me – especially when they are starting to influence popular discourse on social justice and politics, as some of my braver friends have explained. What nuance, dignity or sophistication could there be in 15 seconds? How will the next generation talk, think and act if they are raised on this kind of entertainment, engineered precisely to keep their attention?

And the kicker: on Old Instagram, one tab showed you likes, comments and follows. Obviously there has been a lot of negative public discourse on this already, which I can’t say I disagree with, but it seems almost utopian in contrast with its replacement, a whole screen dedicated to online shopping. Goodbye narcissism and hello materialism! Here is a never-ending scroll of literal adverts for things our algorithm thinks you might want, and probably will want once we’ve shown them to you enough! And we also expect you to do free advertising, making public lists of products you like, pretending you work at some fancy magazine, when really all you are is bored on your phone.

Instagram’s aim to give its entire userbase a shopping addiction and an attention deficit by the year 2021 was the last straw in the stable of the horse of my disillusion. I have already decided to stop posting my art there and to put it here instead, and to start making it in a more organised, sequential way that might fit in a blog post instead of a single square. It will be very strange reconciling my two internet personalities, one with sort-of-objectionable opinions and one with some semblance of artistic skill, but I feel it must be done. My worldview and cultural tastes are starting to influence each other big time, so this seems at least slightly logical.

Welcome to Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone: Towards an Analysis of British Toothpaste Adverts

The UK advertising economy, claims the Creative Industries Council on their website, is one of the most sophisticated and dynamic in the world. Advertising adds £120 billion to the UK GDP, and in 2015, there were 499,000 advertising and marketing jobs in the UK creative economy. So why are our toothpaste adverts so absolutely shit?

Viewing an advert for any product produced by the dental sector is a sure-fire gateway into another world, a world whose only other port of entry is, to not sweeten the matter, fetish porn. The two genres overlap, complement each other and make up for each other’s shortcomings. In this toothpaste-deviance dimension, national priorities are overturned to fit the twisted fantasies of the producer: maybe dentists are elevated to the same social standing as professional footballers, or every woman likes it when random men lick her shoes, or it is suddenly fine to tie people up, or toothbrushes can enthusiastically be called ‘cool’ with little to no opposition. We enter Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone, and it is every normal person for themselves.

Goodbye, smooth camera movements of the sort designed to show off a product, or at least not show up the advertiser as a raging lunatic. We will set up a dentist’s surgery, or a pristine bathroom, and film it like we are actually doing a shot-by-shot remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Fetishists zoom in erratically on the body part of their choice, tooth magnates focus in on dental hygiene packaging as if the cameraman is fleeing from a cavity-ridden serial killer.

We won’t need good sound design in Fantasy Fetish Dental Zone, either. We are so nervous of our own credibility as a product (‘Toothpaste? What’s that?’, say audiences nationwide) that we always make sure to fill the set with echoes: perhaps if we multiply the resounding voices until all you hear is a swarm of toothy bees, the message will finally sink in. Dentists, like the at-risk participants of hardcore pornography, must provide testimonies in person. And how do we know that they really are real dentists, and not down-on-their-luck actors wearing discounted Halloween costumes? How do we know that they are there by choice, and not dragged from their surgeries, guns pointed to their heads as they stare at the camera, bathed in pure white light?

This mysterious, industry-specific bizarrity deserves an explanation, and one could probably be imagined for it. In the eighteenth century, a Frenchman sits in jail dreaming about teeth – about cleaning them, about pulling them, about decorating his chambers in the latest neoclassical style and gluing thousands of little teeth to the wall in the shape of a laurel wreath or sacrificial lamb. Banished to the Bastille for unlicensed dentistry, he must resort to writing down his many vivid, violent fantasies on one huge roll of paper. It is lost for many years, but somehow ends up in the City of London, crumpled on the street between a Pret a Manger and the headquarters of a major global conglomerate.

‘Wow,’ says Ben from Marketing, ‘this is great!’

On /That/ Queer Public Sex Article, Media Disingenuity and Being Used as a Pawn

rainbow chess | Visual poi ZONE

The article I’m referring to is here, read at your own risk. I’m going to put ‘queer’ in quotes throughout because, while it’s relevant to discussion of the article, it’s so incredibly nebulous that I don’t think I can use it in good faith while writing out an actual argument.

I am fully aware of the implications of not only taking such obvious bait in the first place, but also typing out a lengthy reply. There has been enough backlash in the last two days, from both left and right, to Ana Valens’ article: I don’t want to slip into criticising the obvious, or reiterating talking points about its fundamental arguments. I would like to approach this from a birds-eye-view – taking into account the background and aims of such a piece, and what it might mean for the groups the author keeps mentioning. I’m doing this not as an outside observer, but as a lesbian woman skeptical of ‘queerness’ as a sociocultural concept in liberal media channels.

But a brief overview of the article and argument: Valens (a transgender woman hired by the Daily Dot specifically as an ‘NSFW reporter’ and self-identifying as ‘leatherdyke, furry, vorexpert’) identifies ‘public sex as integral to queerness’ (I am not able to specifically pick out which groups possess this ‘queerness’ – as I’ve said before, the very term is so nebulous and flexible that it’s hard to tell). Several ‘queer’ people provide their views on public sex, ranging from the disconcerted to the joyous. As pointed out in the Twitter replies, someone’s discomfort at being made to see public sex without being asked for consent is treated equally to someone else’s empowering experience at seeing it consensually. Valens explains this supposed penchant for sex in public, outlining historical public outlets for homoeroticism, and identifies more recent objections to sex in ‘queer spaces’ as ‘steeped in racism, classism, gentrification, and police surveillance’

I think Valens, as a white person with a background in a liberal and sophisticated niche of ‘queer’ BDSM and a job writing for the Daily Dot, is using the historical struggles of disenfranchised gay men, as well as recent racial tensions, to advocate for a very personal kind of sexual freedom. I was rather nervous to point this out – the ‘sex pest trans woman’ idea is fairly widespread nowadays – but I don’t think this is a gut reaction. I am concerned about Valens’ intentions in the same way I would be about any other writer attempting to rethink sexual boundaries. It is disturbing to me that someone listing their fetishes in the blurb of their Twitter account is using quasi-academic social justice language to call for a legitimisation of sex in public, and receiving a platform to do so.

The clear benefits that Valens, as a kink practicioner and fetishist, would receive from the normalisation of public sex are overshadowed in the article, seemingly on purpose. Although the author is rather pasty, almost all of the inset images are of black people, and it is this group who are repeatedly mentioned. A Foucaultian paragraph tenuously arguing about the links between modern tech surveillance, public policing and sex suddenly cuts to an interviewee’s specifically Black outlook on the subject in general, which then turns into the conclusion of the whole essay. ‘Queers of color’ are the only ‘queers’ mentioned in a point about homelessness and homophobia (do white people not get kicked out of their homes? Is the author suggesting people of colour are notably intolerant?). Valens veers towards using these groups to create legitimacy and relevance, a civil-rights veneer for a crumbling, yellowed incisor. This is, of course, especially despicable in the wake of BLM’s worldwide resurgence.

I also believe that the author’s use of ‘queer’ – and, in the plural, not ‘queer people’ but the rather demeaning ‘queers’ – serves to push my underlying point further. As I’ve said before, the word is a homogeniser, reducing a diverse range of people into a nebulous, docile mass. As someone with actual boundaries, I deeply dislike being drawn into this argument on behalf of a legion of fetishists who have nothing to do with me. I did not consent to it. This only backs up my original objection: this cloud of ‘queerness’, both easy and difficult to define, considered harmonious and cooperative, is only good for outside forces to use and manipulate. We are no longer independent people who happen to share a sexuality, but a useful consumer market and a tenderising buzzword.

When inflammatory articles like this appear – which they do, and regularly, in droves – we should not meet them halfway by simply arguing on the opposite side – as internet users, we should question the motivations of the writer to incite the argument in the first place. And so let that saying of Cassianus apply in this case: Cui bono fuerit?