November 15, 2002

What Kind of Total Disregard For Humanity Do You Have?

The reviews have been unilaterally pretty good—The New Yorker raved, as did Salon. Even Johnathan Rosenbaum wrote a pretty positive capsule for the Reader. Perhaps the excitement could be best captured by the sentiment my roommate expressed in his weblog: "The degree to which I am geeked out about 8 Mile, the Eminem movie, is embarrassing." It's sort of true for nearly everyone I've talked to, including myself (yes, I talk to myself often)—as soon as I started seeing commercials for the movie, even I, who'd sort of gotten distant from young Em since the Marshal Mathers LP, started to flip out a bit. Add to that a weekend of doing little other than watching the 8 Mile hypemachine on Much Music, and, well, I was stoked.

Ultimately, the movie, of course, delivers. I have yet to hear anyone say much of anything bad about it, even anecdotally, and I find myself still perplexed by a lot of the questions raised in the movie. A lot of people, it seems, have flocked to the movie to watch Eminem as he takes over the world (the most recent Esquire includes an article that predicts as much-the world-taking-over that is-without even seeing 8 Mile). Some, like Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, want to use (or discuss conceiving of using) the movie to further obscure or clarify their understanding of Em/Marshall/Slim. Yet in making the persona of Eminem the center of the movie (even bothering to mention, for example, that the movie is a sort of biopic) seems to take away from a lot of what the movie suggests, criticizes, and offers as a solution to questions of class. The movie is more of a pop-culture-fueled event than a brooding contemplation.

Of course, as a pop culture event, the movie will serve to earn everyone involved lots and lots of money. The movie topped the box office last weekend, and is buoyed by both the universally good reviews and endless fascination with Eminem. Everyone is interested in the story of the modern-day Elvis, the white guy who succeeded at a black form—and then enjoyed success, unlike Elvis, among the very demographic whose art form he [insert past tense verb representing your political opinion of Paul Simon's actions in creating Graceland]. A friend of mine is writing his B.A. on different representations of Eminem in magazines depending on their target demographic, and he pointed out that the majority of the opening audience for 8 Mile was not white—I didn't ask for specifics or details, but just took it in stride to mean that Em was adored by all, from the largely minority audience of his first weekend to the young girls who read the Lithuanian magazine Juste, who were treated this August to a two-page pull out poster of young Em—suitable for framing!

The problem with limiting reception and discussion to the person of Eminem, however, (that is to say, treating the movie solely as a Mathers vehicle) is that that kind of attitude loses what the movie says generally about class (much more so than race) and class mobility and social change in the United States. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Curtis Hanson has more or less reformed the "star is born" genre—a sort of deft move expected from the fellow who brought us L.A. Confidential, but a startling move nonetheless. Or maybe reformed is not quite right—he has fooled us into expecting a certain movie (based on the "biopic" silliness) and delivering something quite different. It's tough to tell how much of this is Em's work, and how much is Hanson's, but the result is astounding.

From here on, this column assumes a reader who has seen the movie or doesn't care about plot being revealed. Why this is respected for "reviews" but not for "criticism" is beyond me, but all but my least clued-in fans should expect criticism and not reviews. So, hence, there are spoilers from here on.

Most startling about the movie is its ending—the genre demands Rabbit's final battle to be a sort of vindication of everything—not just of his own previous choking (and the other things that were folded into his lashing out at Papa Doc). That is, the genre demands that there be an A&R guy (or radio DJ) at the battle to offer Rabbit a deal, or some free studio time. Hell, that's how Eminem's story went—he cut a demo, but it was after being noticed battling that he was allowed to come under Dr. Dre's wing. Sure, Rabbit might still say no to the A&R guy—continuing the "birth of the bourgeois subject," as a prof called it, by going it alone—but at least, at the very least, let the boy end up with the girl! Genre demands, dammit! Satisfy us!

The question of the "girl," is probably the first place to look for confusion about the movie. It's completely unclear why Rabbit and Janeane are no longer together—it's even initially unclear (at least it was to me) who dumped whom. Only once Janeane comes to the plant and asks Rabbit if he left her because of the threatened pregnancy (which Rabbit doesn't seem to believe) is it totally clear that he abandoned her. Yet what value that abandoning? He follows seeing Alex's infidelity with a trip to watch Janeane sitting on her couch in her apartment—his gaze moves from a betrayal of him to a betrayal by him. Alex is off a-schtuppin', but Janeane pines away, probably. What keeps Rabbit in his car is unclear—it could be a fear of recidivism, or it could be a fear of attachment. If one of the theses of the movie is "go it alone," then Rabbit doesn't need a hanger-on like Janeane. This also explains his flicking off of Alex at the end—sure, it's a little code between them (and I have a tough time believing that Rabbit went to battle without thinking that he was doing so, in part, just to show Alex that he can perform both onstage and deeply-hidden in the plant, as it were), but it's also a blow-off. Alex is already leaving, but there's a sense (at least to me) that she might stick around if Rabbit wanted her to. He doesn't—he doesn't need her cheating self or her self in any means. Again…go it alone.

And by going it alone, Rabbit abandons everything around him, even, perhaps, his sister, as he will undoubtedly move away. The moms will continue with her disastrous life (inflicting whatever damage it will on the little one), but Rabbit wants out. Additionally, he leaves his entire crew—in closing the movie, Hanson shows Rabbit leaving his friends behind—just as he did after his initial choking—but he doesn't make the slight gesture of bringing the peace sign back down to his head like rabbit ears—thereby acknowledging the specific nature of the farewell given by his friends. But this leaving is not quite so much an eagerness for creative control (maybe to a bit…don't forget that "'Free' comes with a dick already in your ass") or not wanting to owe—because what Rabbit leaves is not the scene. What he leaves is the class.

What 8 Mile suggests to me, more than anything, is the worry that class mobility (and social change) can only come on the individual level. It's this rationale that Kracauer criticises in "Little Shopgirls go to the Movies," wherein he complains that movies are selling a vision to the shopgirls wherein their only chance for social change/advancement is not by voting in reformers or the like but rather by having each little shopgirl find her own knight in shining armor and, simply put, marry up. The movies do duty for the men, too, arguing that if the executive makes lots of money and buys einen großen, schwarzen Mercedes, then he, too, will have unbearably cute shopgirls eager to fall over themselves looking in his pockets for a diamond ring.

The view of American society proposed by 8 Mile, then, is a deeply cynical one. Rabbit cannot hope for class mobility for him and his friends—there can be only one star, and, so, only one person will advance. Rabbit's mom is the same way—she can only imagine her own, personal social mobility—she'll marry the guy getting a lot of money real soon now, or she'll luck out and win at bingo, thereby becoming that one-in-a-million who breaks out of the ghetto to play in the NBA. Additionally, when there is a mass-aware criticism of society, the man giving the criticism is shot down, told to stop preaching, or is called Farrakhan. The workers at the stamping plant, additionally, are too busy dissing each other and pissing over each other's paychecks to notice that though one may make more than another, none of them are making anywhere near what they should. One would hope that collective action could dislodge this paralysis in Detroit, but it doesn't seem likely—everyone just wants to leave the 313 by him- or herself; there's no way to do it otherwise.

Of course, here's where the earlier idea of the bourgeois subject comes in—in leaving the mass of "poor trash," one develops an identity and can begin to demand the rights of an individual (something Rabbit demonstrates when he shows the audience at the Shelter that he is more than just the mass of poor, white trash). That is, as he figures that his class star will rise, he will have to abandon mass collectivity in exchange for being a specific entity (who can vote, etc.). So in a sense, then, 8 Mile has a happy ending—since we can feel that Rabbit will eventually move up. But think of whom he leaves behind and why, and then re-evaluate the message. 8 Mile is not about race (much), the exploitation of racial tropes, or even of the other penetrating into the center. It's about how broken the American class system is, and how we're not even close to figuring out how to fix it.