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“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part two

Tropico p2 lead

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

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.

This is the second part of our conversation. Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in:

Gabe: So far we’ve covered one song. There are still three poems and two songs to get through.

Cleopatra: Can I just say how much I like the part when Lana Del Rey bites the apple? Marilyn Monroe screams and Elvis does a kung fu move. That’s the best part.

Gabe: You guys like John Wayne and Elvis way more than I do. I think it’s interesting that she shifts right from the song “Body Electric” to the Whitman poem, but Whitman is absolutely not my forte.

Cleopatra: He based a whole bunch of poetry on the Bible. A lot of it supports ideas in it, but in a lot of it he rejects the Bible, too.

[Here’s an excellent article in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on that topic.]

Gabe: On what grounds?

Cleopatra: Whitman said that people’s own souls should be their spiritual connection to God. He was anti-authority. He talked about people coming to their own beliefs about God and the universe, and how they should find an understanding of the universe through themselves instead of through what somebody else tells them.

Gabe: It’s like the Gospel of Thomas – “The kingdom of God is within you and all around you. It is not within buildings of wood or stone. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Look beneath a stone and I am there.”

Tropico mid 1

Cleopatra: Where is that?

Gabe: Thomas is one of the Gnostic gospels. It’s one of several gospels the Catholic Church never accepted as canon. There are various arguments about why. Some are faith-based, some aren’t, but one of the major ones is that it quotes Jesus as saying houses of worship were bunk and people who tell you how to worship shouldn’t be trusted. You should find your own path to worship through experiencing nature and hard work. I won’t get into the politics of it-

Vanessa: Too late.

Gabe: But if it were ever accepted into the Bible, it would basically acknowledge that Jesus told people not to go to Church or listen to priests, because it would make them further from God. There are arguments for its inclusion and against, but let’s get back to Whitman and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Obviously, Lana Del Rey isn’t comparing Whitman’s views with going to a strip club.

Vanessa: Are you sure? Whitman was fired when Leaves of Grass was published.

Cleopatra: It was criticized for being indecent. A lot of people burned it.

Gabe: So what’s Lana Del Rey saying here?

Vanessa: Like I said, it links to the position men are taught to put women into because of what the Garden of Eden story says.

Gabe: You don’t agree.

Cleopatra: Maybe the strip club is just another house of wood and stone, but it’s not the Church’s house. It’s the new one we’ve built.

Gabe: The same thing the Church allegedly does to Thomas by rejecting him and building a central authority out from Jesus?

Cleopatra: With celebrity standing in for religion.

Gabe: So we’ve taken what Whitman said and, essentially, rejected him the same way the Church rejected Thomas. We’ve sort of bastardized his teachings to suit the powerful. That finds a way to marry your two interpretations, doesn’t it?

Vanessa: I like where it’s going.

Tropico connection

Gabe: So we have Eve put into a specific place in which men are trained to treat her a certain way, and we have Whitman being recited over this montage that runs counter to the meaning of the poem – and the store – Shaun Ross, the guy who plays Adam – he’s trapped in this cashier job at a mini-mart, in another house of brick and- sorry, wood and stone. Here you have the two people who commit sin, not against God necessarily – maybe it’s not a retelling of original sin. It’s a telling of our sin against Whitman and the idea of America – there’s the John Mitchum poem later, “America, Why I Love Her,” that leads up to Lana Del Rey’s rapture scene at the end. If these celebrities have become our religious icons, maybe the sin we’ve committed is against that early notion of the American ideal.

Cleopatra: I can’t really see Whitman and John Wayne in bed together.

Vanessa: I bet Whitman could imagine it.

Gabe: OK, but – look, Lana Del Rey’s obviously saying that our religion is celebrity, but she’s also saying that we’ve committed an original sin in that religion, too, that of – to go back to Warhol – that the purpose of each of our lives is to become celebrities, that that’s how we emulate our religious icons – we seek to be like them, and being like them is being beautiful and exaggerating our image.

Vanessa: Which means Facebook and Twitter are two more houses of wood and stone.

Gabe: Right, it’s the damn Richard Marshall article all over again. We’re haunted by the double we create to represent ourselves, and with Whitman involved, how do we find our own personal understanding of God if we’re busy replacing who we are as a person with that exaggerated double?

Cleopatra: We’ve sinned against Whitman. The house of worship is the strip club-

Gabe: It’s designed to make you feel like a celebrity, to practice making the body a commodity instead of something holy-

Cleopatra: -and the mini mart.

Tropico commodity religion

Gabe: “In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel.” That’s how the next song begins.

Vanessa: There’s a place where it goes “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.” The only way for her to achieve emotional reaction or catharsis is through sexual affirmation. And earlier in the song she says fame- the feeling of fame is something sex stirs up, and that it’s a medicine. “You got that medicine I need, fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly.”

Gabe: Then it goes “Like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer, life imitates art.” It’s autobiographical, but it plays into the Warhol universe she’s posed as the reality of the film. She specifically says, “God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me.’ No one’s gonna take my soul away, I’m living like Jim Morrison. Headed towards a fucked up holiday.” The double’s taken over.

Cleopatra: And “innocence lost” is the refrain.

Gabe: So this middle section – and I had this whole bit ready to go about tribalism in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure we just sent that interpretation right out the window. The middle section is all about refining that original sin, that sin against John Wayne and Whitman and all the ideas we once thought the American dream represented.

Vanessa: I like your Book of Thomas- Gospel of Thomas reference.

Gabe: This is all really depressing stuff, right?

Cleopatra: She gets through it in the end. They both do. There’s a rapture scene.

Gabe: During the return to nature.

Cleopatra: And they each embrace themselves.

Gabe: They get away from the emulation and being haunted by their false self-images and finally get a chance to have that personal understanding of the universe. And we haven’t even talked about how she uses Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the mugging scene. I think we’re all treading lightly around that one.

Vanessa: I had a good idea for that.

Gabe: I’m beginning to lean toward Tropico being one of the best half-hours of film I’ve seen in my life.

Cleopatra: Yeah.

Vanessa: Agreed.

Gabe: So what about “Howl?”

Once again, watch Tropico here. The third part of this conversation will be posted on Tuesday, May 6.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part one

Tropico

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?

Vanessa: Yes.

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.

Tropico 1

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…”

Vanessa: Thackeray.

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.

Tropico 2

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?

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Cleopatra: An image that isn’t there. I don’t see how you could say anything else.

Tropico 3

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.

Tropico 4

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?

Vanessa: Yes.

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.