Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the affect of re-enactment. On Wednesday night I went to a screening at the Jam Factory. For some reason, film distributors always want to stage their screenings there, which is very inconvenient for me but it's given me a chance to refamiliarise myself with a space that I hadn't regularly visited since the '90s.

It's a bizzarely ahistorical space because it is tasteless by any era's standards, although it was opened as a shopping mall in 1979. The lurid colours, all purple, aqua, mustard and salmon-pink; the absurd colonnade; the piazza that reminds me vaguely of the World Expo '88 piazza; bizarre rococo touches of the Village cinema corridors themselves, with gold trim and squiggly patterned carpets.

Does anyone remember when it had those slightly wrong-looking, life-sized statues of Hollywood characters? Marilyn Monroe gamely holding down her white gauzy skirts in the entrance (I remember her white knickers); the Mask and Catwoman swinging from the rafters. There were probably more, but I can't think what they were.

So I left the cinema and got to the tram stop, where I realised it was about 15 minutes until the next tram. On the corner is this insane '50s-themed American diner called Soda Rock. I decided to go in there for a bite to eat (I hadn't had dinner and it was getting on for 9pm).

Soda Rock used to be a Johnny Rockets, but they don't operate in Australia any more. I went for a job interview there in the summer of 1996. They asked me why I wanted to work at Johnny Rockets and I said, "I want to be a singing, dancing waitress!" (Serenading the customers used to be one of the job requirements, sort of like flair bartending at TGI Friday's or dancing about on the giant keyboard at FAO Schwartz.) This did not appear to impress them and I did not get the job.

When I walked in, it felt almost hallucinatory, like a scene from a David Lynch movie, or perhaps the famous Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. This wasn't just because it was night-time, or because the place was brightly lit yet almost deserted (a couple were sitting quietly in a booth at the end of the restaurant and I couldn't immediately see any staff). And it wasn't just the life-size Elvis statue that could've been transplanted from the Jam Factory:

It was also because it seemed to emit a melancholy air of time and place being suspended. I felt as if I'd entered a weird cultural capsule. Popular songs from the '50s were softly playing in a way that made me recall dream sequences from films and TV shows, especially the ones in Carnivale that are soundtracked by Ruth Etting's 'Love Me Or Leave Me'.

Because the walls are mirrored, the floor tiled and the ceiling panelled in some laminated substance, the room seems much larger than it is. There's also an odd contrast between this mood and the restaurant's calculatedly jaunty fitout, all glinting chrome and red-and-blue vinyl booths.

I slid into a booth and ordered a sloppy joe combo ("hot" – and they weren't kidding, the chilli was very spicy). Funnily enough, I happen to be reading Fast Food Nation at the moment. As I ate, and read about the history of the great American fast-food chains, I wondered about the anachronism and anatopism of what I was doing.

I felt as though I was re-enacting some imagined notion of a specifically American youth culture. I haven't made a comparative study that maps culinary history on social life, but it's my impression that we never had the jolly diner/malt shop culture of mid-century America – the sort you see on Happy Days and Back To The Future where diners are hangouts for kids.

Instead, I imagine that until those Eye-ties came along after WWII to teach us how to enjoy espresso, we had dingy "tea rooms" and "coffee lounges" that were more like British-style greasy-spoon caffs. These were the sorts of places where lonely workers or itinerants would wander in to eat in silence and solitude, and as that link celebrates, there's an affective aesthetic to these places:

Tea Rooms lovers will not readily forget the lingering air of inertia and lost souls: the murmur of the long, atrophied afternoons, dolour condensing on the windows...

It seems to me that Britain has its own cultural traditions around these places, but the British caff falls into traditions of shabby, working-class stoicism in the face of relentless, bureaucratic social decay. I was also thinking in particular of William Trevor's short story 'Lovers Of Their Time', which appears in the anthology My Mistress' Sparrow Is Dead and details a doomed affair that plays out over lunch breaks in London's dingy pubs and cafes.

The other day I was reading Daniel Neville's thoughts about a discussion of Australian modernism he went to, associated with the Modern Times exhibition at Heide (which I still haven't seen because without a car it's near-impossible to get there. I feel very aggrieved that Connex is an event sponsor, because you can't even get to Heide on the train). Ultimately the discussion revealed a disconnect between modernism-as-aesthetic and modernism-as-socio-political-project.

I have thought about nostalgia a fair bit, mainly in emails to Ben, for whom it's an academic project. He has done the reading, you see. But at the moment I'm writing an article for The Age about why people love Mad Men themed parties, and so I'm interested in nostalgia in terms of historical re-enactment rituals: the ways that we insert ourselves into an imaginary but nonetheless corporeal and hence affective past. I know that Laura has thought about these issues before.

Perhaps Mad Men parties display the same kind of disconnect as the designers who love modernism – we focus on the era's glossy look and don't consider the politics. That's part of the ambivalence of the series itself. But nonetheless I think Mad Men appeals to people in an affective way. Dressing like this, and being in these stylised environments, has visual and tactile pleasures.

This is what I was thinking about as I sat in my booth at Soda Rock – the ways that being physically present in these environments sharpens your view of the relationship between past and present.

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