Monday, February 17, 2014

The Selective Tradition of Be Kind Rewind

As the community in this film rallies behind the idea of creating their own text, illustrating their folk stories about Fats Waller, one character proclaims, “Our past belongs to us. We can change it.”  “Ours” and “Us” in this sentence appear to belong to the community of Passaic, New Jersey.  And this quote is being used to justify their liberties taken in telling a history of Fats Waller, who was born and raised (and had his ashes scattered) in Harlem and had no factual ties to Passaic.

The way this community participates in this project is fairly illustrative of the selective tradition discussed by Williams.[1] “The selective tradition thus creates, at one level, a general human culture; at another level, the historical record of a particular society; at a third level, most difficult to accept and assess, a rejection of considerable areas of what was once a living culture.”   As the community embraces and indulges in this folk myth, they illustrate the “extent to which the cultural tradition is not only a selection but also an interpretation.”

According to the indulgent plot of the film, the community found themselves at that juncture because their earlier interpretations of existing works were outside of the hegemonic expectation for interaction with the media.  While the film shows characters being legally prosecuted for violating copyright (which is curiously not resisted much, though of all the oppressive structures in the film it seemed the most likely to have been successfully withstood.)  It seems that what is happening is that the Passaic community (and especially Mike and Jerry) have “failed to [interact with the texts] as [the creators] intended.  What [the creators of the original texts/ or the studio system] really meant to say is that [these] viewers are not operating within the ‘dominant’ or ‘preferred’ code.  The ideal of [the studio system] is ‘perfectly transparent communication’ . Instead, what they have to confront is ‘systematically distorted communication’,” [2]which in the case of the “sweded” tapes is not only a decoding of meaning that is not transparent, but also a re-encoding that provides a typically passive consumer into a creator, articulating with the text and his community in an empowered way.

But, after giving up on their re-imaginings of existing texts, Mike and Jerry and their community take on the task of illustrating their imagined past in a manner full of elements of the present.  While there are certainly efforts made to use aesthetic cues or symbols that communicate the time period and culture they desire to illustrate, these come across as two-dimensional and constructed compared to the energy and culture of the present that manifests itself in the film created within this film.  So while the group seemed to be intentionally embracing “things” “symbols” and “signs”[3] that would correlate to the subculture of a poor black urban community in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, what proves its presence in this project is the “Structure of feeling” of a 2006 community, presumably because as Williams said, “Once the carriers of such a structure [of feeling] die, the nearest we can get to this vital element is in the documentary culture…but if we reflect on the nature of a structure of feeling, and see how it can fail to be fully understood even by living people in close contact with it, with ample material at their disposal, including contemporary arts, we shall not suppose that we can ever do more than make an approach, and approximation, using any channels. 

And so the 2006 structure of feeling is present in the Fats Waller Film not only in the obvious forms required by a lack of budget (use of a modern locomotive) and by lack of continuity personnel (breakdancing), but also by the body language between individuals, the self-reflexivity of the piece, the very medium of the piece, and the intentional and affected treatment of the story and material as being illustrative of something “long past.”  Theoretically, the Mr. Fletcher character ought to be some sort of a point of reference, since the film infers that he was alive during this period, but it appears that in this context, the structure of a feeling of a time and place may be lost long before all those that lived it have passed away, as they go on to live through a continuous evolution of structures of feeling, and placing anything with precision in that spectrum proves problematic.

Thus, despite the involvement of characters with living memory of that era, the film, and by extension the “traditional culture of a society tend[s] to correspond to its contemporary system of interests and values, for it is not an absolute body of work but a continual selection and interpretation.” Thus the Fats Waller film becomes a part of the selection process – not only selecting what information is included in the selective tradition, but what is rejected and in this case even changed. 

Interestingly, the film ends with a song performed by Fats Waller played over the credits. While Fats was generally known as composer, this song, “Your Feets’ Too Big, “ is actually credited to Fred Fisher and Ada Benson, although Fats’ version of this song includes a bridge that he is known to have improvised, “Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me you look just like a fossil.”  The history of Fats’ own compositional work is difficult to reconstruct in an area where improvisation was popular, and wherein Fats’ sold the rights to a number of his works during times of hardship, and lost ownership of his own work.  So the ambiguity of the Passaic community’s treatment of Fats’ biography is consistent, after a fashion, with the lack of concrete data available to construct a history. He was, after a fashion, the perfect subject for such an interpretive treatment.

[1] Williams, Raymond. "The Analysis of Culture." Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. 4th ed. Harlow: Longman, 2009. 32-40. Print.

[2] Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/Decoding*." Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Comp. Meenakshi Gigi. Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 166-76. Print.

[3] Clarke, John, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, and Brian Roberts. “Subcultures, Cultures and Class.” The Subcultures Reader. 2nd ed. Comp. Gelder, Ken. Taylor & Francis, 2005. 100-111. Print.

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