Italy has discovered its newest star -- Joan Ellis. You haven't heard of her? You are out of the loop, my friends, because Joan Ellis is it. She's captured the imagination of an entire country, birthplace of strong coffee and sunglasses with attitude. Not bad for a 64-year-old mother of three from Redbank, N.J.
You see, Joan's got herself a home page. That's right, a little Jersey DIY has become all the rage in Rome. Joan's weekly film reviews have even earned her the sobriquet "The Pauline Kael of the Internet," according to Virtual City magazine. They call her cinematic criticism "surprisingly witty and literate." Hungry for a sample? Me too. Here's a tidbit from a recent assessment of The Bridges of Madison County:
"That bad book has come a long way."
Can we finally say it? Yes we can. DIY has gone tits up. It's played out. Artistically bankrupt. Intellectually flat-lined.
DIY was an inspiring buzzword a few years ago: Zines! Punk! Grunge! Pirate radio! Public-access television! Throw it back in the face of the man! No sucking corporate cock, we got our own thing going! We don't need to depend on anybody to get the message out there, and if you don't like it, well, then you're an asshole! Whaddya think of that?
Now DIY has come down to a New Jersey housewife writing movie reviews for salivating Italians.
Don't misunderstand. The DIY impulse is a great one, and has produced many worthy offspring: the Rhino DIY punk anthology; quality low-budget films; how-to books on suicide and selling one's body parts -- even Sunset magazine suggestions on how to build attractive household additions out of redwood. But let's not kid ourselves: "DIY" is now a shorthand keystroke for editors at Newsweek.
Affordable technology, much of it centered in the Bay Area, is largely to blame for the DIY explosion -- desktop publishing, DAT recorders, HTML editors. According to one insider, the postal system circulates roughly between 20,000 and 50,000 zines across the globe. Conservative estimates place the number of e-zines at several thousand, and anyone with a modem has the potential to slap together his own home page ("Hi, I'm Kevin, and this is a picture of myself as a 7-year-old -- here's a list of my favorite bands!"). If you've surfed the Web, you've witnessed the damage. And how about that cutout section at the CD store? Isn't it a treasure trove?
"We are becoming boisterous and arrogant in the pride of a too speedily assumed literary freedom," wrote Edgar Allan Poe back in 1836, who might as well have been discussing the DIY media. "So far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American."
(Of course, Poe never experienced the sheer ecstasy of his own home page. He died in a gutter in Baltimore before the invention of the "turbo-mouse.")
The current tsunami of homemade information can also be traced to Dr. Spock, the Dr. Frankenstein of DIY, who assured parents it was perfectly OK to provide unjustified positive reinforcement for their children. Legions of youth came of age in the '60s and '70s, teeming with overconfidence and false encouragement. Getting patted on the head as a child does not a genius make, especially in our SAT-saddened Golden State of California, but thanks to Dr. Spock's evil advice, this deluded self-perception of creativity will carry us into the next millennium. And as long as we're pointing the finger of blame, let's not forget our nation's art schools, which have jettisoned scads of young bohos eager for a medium in which to express themselves, because, you see, their ideas are new. Turning society on its ear. They've studied it!
Clearly we've succumbed to the banality of bandwidth. The public can't endure many more zines of shitty poetry, lousy bands, boring camcorder video "projects," or lame Web sites that take forever to download a photo of somebody's beer bottle collection.
Of course the DIY impulse has been influential in our popular culture, but the essential truth is obvious. It isn't for everybody. Some of us are inferior. We can't help it. Some of us are terrible editors, publishers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and "multimedia" artisans. Many of us just don't belong in the business of presenting information. We should shut the fuck up and go sell fish in a pet store.
But you wouldn't recognize a glut of genius from the DIY industry itself. Magazine after magazine runs absurdly glowing reviews of sloppy bands, blurry slapdash videos, Junior's kooky Web site, and zine after zine of putrid nonsense barely legible even to its creator. These zines then offer reciprocal blow jobs to other zines, and Web sites gleefully link to other sites without thought or logic. And Joan Ellis sits at her kitchen table in Jersey, bravely pounding out another concise appraisal of Hollywood's newest.