"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 3 June 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

A Bad Case of Midrash


[It's a Skull Baby]

Somewhere between the relative

treatability of a mild case of

semiotic scabies and the near

incurability of a full-blown

case of the cultural critical

crabs lies a topical condition

known as midrash, aka Luc

Besson's Disease.


The symptoms of a bad midrash

include persistent, yet mostly

meaningless, intertextual

commentary and a strong penchant

for random pastiche. In its

final, most debilitating phase,

the more demanding qualities of

linear narrative give way to an

insatiable thirst for hackneyed

cliché and ill-conceived

myth. If left untreated, a

relatively minor case of

artistic appropriation can

result in megalomaniacal acts of

runaway referencing so feverish

it can look as if Joseph

Campbell threw up after mixing

his Jung with his Philip K.



Students of the interpretive

disorders should note the

distinction between Luc Besson's

Disease and traditional

midrashic literature. Midrashic

texts typically exemplify

inventiveness, originality, and

the ability to recombine various

elements for the purpose of

enlightenment, instruction, or

spiritual solace. As opposed to

the Talmud, which is more

concerned with religious law,

the Midrash contains mostly

glosses, expositions, and

speculations of an ethical or

folkloric nature. As a generic

term, however, "midrash" may

legitimately be applied to

almost any offhanded gloss.


[Naked People]

Thus, one may plausibly argue

that Messrs. Beavis and

Butt-head brought midrash to the

masses back in 1993. That show's

novel premise - now endemic to

nearly all network television

and antinomian advertising, from

Nike to Volkswagen to Sprite to

Red Kamels - was to show us not

prepackaged music videos, but

humorously inane (and sometimes

remarkably profound) glosses on

those videos. For all of us who

had ever found ourselves staring

blankly at the television, here

was a libidinal mirror to amaze

even Jacques Lacan.


Since then, glossing garbage has

become the parlor game of choice

for overbearing adolescents of

all ages, from Quentin

Tarantino to Mike Myers to James

Wolcott and John Leonard. Luc

Besson's The Fifth Element is

only the latest in a trajectory

that promises to connect every

bit of mass culture to every

other bit by the time Jim

Carrey's Hamlet hits movie

theaters in the summer of 2003.


[Good Guy]

Even the opening shot of The

Fifth Element is a throwaway

reference - to La Femme Nikita,

one of Besson's own films. This

time, though, instead of a

camera rushing along wet

pavement stones in Paris, one

gets a camera rushing along a

belt of asteroids: Clever, yes,

but also perhaps an indicator

that a Hollywood blockbuster

budget doesn't necessarily

provoke a director to any

additional heights of

creativity. The movie is

compulsively watchable, but

narratively more ludicrous than

anything since The Incredible

Mr. Limpet, wherein Don Knotts

found himself, willy-nilly,

transformed into a cartoon fish.

Gary Oldman, reprising his

travesty of the villain role in

The Professional, plays

Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg as

an haute-couture Hitler with a

Ross Perot accent (Galliano to

Bruce Willis's Gaultier).

Another cute touch: For some

reason, the act of talking to

Absolute Evil (a sort of

suppurating planetoid

reminiscent of the Shoggoths in

H. P. Lovecraft's fiction) makes

chocolate syrup drip from your

pineal gland.


[Strange Phenomenon]

In any case, over-the-top

allusions have been a prevalent

symptom of recent cultural

artifacts for long enough now

that we've already forgotten

that there is, in fact, a

disease involved: We're all

suffering from an unhealthy

infatuation with

interconnectedness at the

expense of any consideration of

what it is that's being

interconnected. The Web is only

the most extreme example, but

now one can hear even hip hop

artists like DJ Shadow talk, on

MTV News, about

"decontextualizing sounds from

their environment." Since when

is it no longer called sampling?

Did we miss a meeting?


[A Chair and Eyeball]

Or perhaps it's just that

pop-cultural midrash is finally

beginning to reach its zenith.

Having run their course through

academia, art, and architecture,

now allusivenes and iteration

have entered the public domain

like intellectual ebola.

Traditional midrashic aggadata

derive didactic implications

from a primary biblical text,

but we don't share a central

cultural text anymore, except

for the empire of bankable signs

shopped by Time Warner and

Disney. Where once stood the

belief that no word in the Torah

is superfluous, now the

operating principles of synergy

and leveraged branding make for

secular stand-ins. And thus did

Bernard Shaw interrupt The Lost

World; thus did Jerry Seinfeld appear on

News Radio; and the selfsame

progeny of other shows were also



Really, who needs the Dennis

Miller Routine-o-Tron when TV,

movies, and even books have all

become one great big

Midrash-a-thon? To connect

ourselves to the world gives us

comfort, but the only lesson

being taught is that our

enjoyment of such one-upmanship

has increased even as our

knowledge of real history has



[Television Screen]

This is not to say one should

prefer the reification of a

single communal text. In a

universe of ever-proliferating

markup languages, perhaps it's

enough to acknowledge that not

every textual gloss is worthy of

scrutiny to the point of

intellectual orgasm. Not every

itch is worth scratching - it

may merely be a sign that you've

brushed up against a kind of

aesthetic poison ivy. That

tickle in your pants may just be

a sign you've got a full bladder

after more than two hours of

sitting in the dark, entertained

but ultimately unenlightened.

courtesy of LeTeXan

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