A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.
In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.
We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”
Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.
Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.
Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.
Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.
Cleopatra: That’s what I think.
Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.
Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.
Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.
Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?
Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.
Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?
Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.
Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.
Gabe: Not all of them.
Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.
Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.
Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.
Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.
Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?
Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.
Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.
Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.
Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.
Gabe: And then it’s gone?
Vanessa: And then it’s gone.
Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.
Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….
Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.
Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.
Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.
Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.
Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?
Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?
Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.
Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.
Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.
Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.
Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?
Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.
Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.
Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.
Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?
Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.
Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.
Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.
Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?
Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.
Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?
Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.
Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.
Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.
Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.
Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”
Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.
Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.
Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.
Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.
Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-
Cleopatra: With our powers combined!
Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.
Vanessa: If it works with the theme.
A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.
We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.
We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.