by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez
A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a 27-minute musical film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico on YouTube here. Here’s what those writers had to say:
Gabe: The Daily Beast called this “so bad it might be good.” Billboard called it “daring…a work of overflowing, era-traversing passion.” What three words would you use to describe it?
Vanessa: Lots of tits.
Gabe: Is that really how you want to start the article?
Gabe: Using more than three words?
Vanessa: It’s pretentious. It’s not my kind of movie. It gave me epilepsy. But it was pretty brilliant anyway. I love the idea of John Wayne as God.
Gabe: To clarify for readers, Tropico opens with John Wayne creating the universe. He’s accompanied by Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, and a unicorn. Lana Del Rey plays Eve, and model Shaun Ross is Adam.
Cleopatra: It uses Andy Warhol’s idea of celebrity replacing God.
Vanessa: Regurgitated images we place onto God. How Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins for Americans. If the real Jesus walked into an airport, the TSA would strip-search him.
Gabe: Do you mean John Wayne is a stand-in for God, or that for Lana Del Rey’s character, he is God? I think he represents a set of values that were important in Del Rey’s cultural upbringing. And he stands in for how any celebrity – Kardashian, Bieber, LeBron – becomes the moral standard we start using to make decisions.
Vanessa: Is there a difference? If we’re raised by the TV and YouTube, and “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children,” the result is that God or whatever you believe in for a higher power gets replaced by celebrity.
Gabe: Is that a Crow reference? “Mother is the name for God…”
Cleopatra: You don’t mean just for image. Like it assimilates the whole meaning.
Vanessa: Religious meaning? That’s what I’m saying – there’s no daylight. That’s what she’s saying. You posted a few days ago about Lana Del Rey being some weird dark mirror for the American dream.
Gabe: The Richard Marshall article. Her persona for Born to Die [her first album] is basically a ghost that’s constantly haunting her, sort of replacing her personality, yeah. It’s a perfect article. It’s perfect.
Vanessa: That’s the same ghost that’s replacing all our personalities. We get…we get reflected, a reflection of ourselves, and especially with Facebook and Twitter and all these things we can use to portray an image of ourselves that’s exaggerated-
Gabe: That’s more perfect and more celebritized, yeah. I mean, do you think, in that way, we’re trying to pose ourselves as gods? Celebrity becomes God, then if we become celebrity, we become God-
Vanessa: Not for ourselves. Maybe for ourselves, but mostly for someone else. It’s an emulation of God. It’s what we’re taught. You airbrush the crap out of these beautiful people for the purpose of making them into Gods, and if we’re supposed to emulate our religious icons, and our religion is celebrity, then we need to be beautiful, too.
Cleopatra: That takes sexism to a whole other level. I just got depressed.
Gabe: So it’s religiously reinforced for celebrity and follower, and our Church is Facebook and our apostles are TMZ?
Cleopatra: Facebook’s more like Babel.
Gabe: I know you want to talk about the bikini, but to go back to Richard Marshall for a minute – he compares Born to Die to Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive. Those are avant garde films by David Lynch, in which – theoretically, the main characters are stuck in limbos. OK, if our religion is celebrity and our form of worship is social networking and seeking to celebritize ourselves, does Born to Die say that we’re stuck in a limbo pursuing the American Dream, seeking to become gods?
Cleopatra: An image that isn’t there. I don’t see how you could say anything else.
Gabe: The leaf bikini.
Vanessa: The leaf bikini. The fucking leaf bikini is everything, that’s just everything the movie’s about.
Gabe: The one Lana Del Rey wears in John Wayne’s Garden of Eden. And we talked about this before, but specifically how it cuts to her life as a stripper. We go from Garden of Eden bikini to stripper bikini.
Vanessa: The Garden of Eden one is more revealing. It’s sexier, and the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis is one that punishes and subjugates women at the end. It sexualizes subjugation. Makes it hot. Not that it can’t be as a choice by two adults, but doesn’t Genesis make it a requirement? Not just socially, like the man runs the house. God lays that all out. Sexually. Subjugation and painful childbirth are Eve’s punishments. If childbirth is an oppression and sex is required for childbirth, then sex should be oppressive. That’s what the Bible says to a lot of people. Lana Del Rey equates Eve to a fucking stripper, and it’s right.
Cleopatra: I read that as her falling from Paradise into sin.
Vanessa: It is, but even as Eve, she’s sexualized – that’s the important part. Eve is always sexualized. And I want to say that stripper is a viable choice. I’m not saying all strippers are sinful people.
Gabe: You’re saying that Tropico uses it as shorthand for sin.
Vanessa: No, I don’t think so. Tropico uses it as shorthand for the male – I don’t want to say tendency or the need. It uses strippers as shorthand for the training we give males to oppress and be violent. Strippers aren’t naturally sinful, whatever “sin” is supposed to mean, but they let men play out their fantasy to- I’m losing my thought.
Gabe: To oppress and dominate?
Vanessa: That’s Biblically justified, and one component of what she’s saying.
Cleopatra: I agree with the idea, like what you have to say about the subject, but I disagree that’s what Lana Del Rey’s saying here.
Gabe: You think it’s a more natural fall into sin? More straightforward, narratively?
Cleopatra: I think that her becoming a stripper is her, yeah, falling out of the Garden of Eden. She copes however she can. She struggles and goes through sin so she can come out the other side.
Vanessa: It’s the same thing. Her punishment could be working in a coal mine, but it’s not. It’s – I want to be careful here because I don’t want to judge a whole profession that a lot of people work.
Gabe: Just say, “In the film.” It’s what I do all the time. Blame the film.
Vanessa: In the film, she has to perform in a sexually submissive manner. Her struggle is her relationship and the gang tensions, but it’s also this sexually debased place John Wayne puts her into.
Cleopatra: But John Wayne shakes his head-
Gabe: When she bites the apple. What I find interesting is that she also plays Mary, mother of Jesus. Is that a reflection of the perfection and lack of sin that she can’t get back to? An ideal of what she was in the past?
Vanessa: Yeah. That or a judge, but like a soft judge. Someone who’s impossible to measure up to. The idea of what women are supposed to be.
Gabe: Fetishized as both a saint and a whore, you mean?
Cleopatra: It’s struggle. It’s not what John Wayne, or God, puts her into. It’s what she has to undergo.
Vanessa: But it’s the society that looks up to John Wayne, or God – they’re all shooting guns in the air, they all look tough like him – it’s their idea of how to emulate God that says women belong in that place.
Gabe: I like both perspectives because yours is a very Old Testament interpretation and Cleopatra’s is a very New Testament interpretation of what Eve does and goes through, and there’s a point at which Tropico shifts from Old Testament to New Testament. It’s just that we may disagree where that point is…
Once again, you can watch Tropico here. The second part of this conversation will be posted on Thursday, May 1.