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Leisure, Reality

For the Birds

by Brandon Edmonds, images by Filipa Domingues / 22.07.2010

I was in an eatery called Birds recently. A sweet new friend took me there. I want to thank her, and trust we can still be friends. Anyway, it’s in Bree Street in Cape Town. Oh, it’s lovely. White walls, pretty black waitresses, dappled sunlight plopping in through giant bay windows. A winningly seductive patina of care and consciousness on everything. A quiet, homely space. Wooden floors and high ceilings. And the people. Wonderful. Skinny, accomplished, well dressed. People you’d love to meet, to know, to accompany. People who’ve been to Patagonia. Twice. People who know people in Spain. People with shoes hand-made in villages where running water is a recent blessing. People who make love with disarming tact and aplomb. Whose children are gorgeous and insightful. People who eat fried food on rare occasions outdoors, feeling like they’re slumming on our behalf. Who laugh at themselves when they fuss over place settings. People you wish would have kept in touch after graduation. People Woody Allen sees in the passing train in Stardust Memories (1980) the lucky, entitled few.

They were called “yuppies” once. Now they’re legion. Beyond nomenclature. They just are. Consummate consumers. The tasteful considerate foot soldiers of late capitalism. They make Checkers nervous. They keep Woolworths solvent. They accelerate past Pep stores. Black women iron their clothing. Such poised, easygoing certainty is terrifying. Given the facts. Regular readers will expect a litany of social data at this point: a trumpeting of statistically validated inequality. An inequality roving the globe and threatening all sorts of personal and political stability from Bogota to Sydney. Let’s take all that as a Marxist given. But it does make the self-consciously unclenched veneer of easeful tolerance in here, of enlightened enjoyment, asphyxiating.

Maybe I need to get out more. Birds. Okay, birds. Just an eatery. With lovely home-made pies and cakes. All sorts of quality tea. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for R12. A pancake with hummus and carrots topped with seeds. Dark chocolate milkshakes. It’s pleasant, it’s hearty, it’s all “good”. Pretty, as Larry David, that bald kvetching scold of the moneyed, would say, pretty, pretty good.

How about Hitchcock? He comes to mind when you love movies and walk into a place called Birds. That wonderfully menacing scene in The Birds (1963) – after Vertigo, and Psycho, his strongest film – when blackbirds gather outside the schoolhouse. The camera sees a single bird on the jungle gym. Pan back: many more. Pan back: a velvety black cloud of them! They’re here to peck out the eyes of schoolchildren. They’re here for blood. That sense of contagion coursing beneath suburban anonymity, that lurking darkness in the corners of civic spaces, is something David Lynch inherited directly from Hitchcock. They constitute a rich seam of American unease. Would we had homegrown Lynches and Hitchcocks emerging to delineate our own social disquiet.

Aptly, there are black birds strikingly painted on a white canvas scrim in the eatery. It’s as if hyper-controlling “tasteful” awareness neutralizes menace by “aestheticizing” it. Makes horror beautiful. Drains threats with graphic invention. Gives disquiet a pretty pattern. Interestingly, tastefulness, the ideology of tasteful consumption, associated with moneyed-educated-well situated thirty and forty something’s, and beyond, has a counterpart in the much younger, much poorer (but just as strictly conforming) hipster sensibility.

Both demographics tend to need experience pre-packaged and thought through on their behalf (by experts and style arbiters / or for hipsters alt.experts and alt.style arbiters). Both must be cushioned from the facts. So the searing reality of social problems is considered, if at all, only insofar as there’s an ‘interesting’ angle. Novelty – good packaging – makes boring, messy and stubbornly persistent inequalities cognitively palatable to both demographics. Young and old. Cue every ad campaign that ever got through to you. Every photograph that resonated. Every article that, cough, made you think.

In a recent Vice magazine feature, a poor African nation was mined for the irony of tons of discarded Western clothing – including T-shirts with incongruous quotations – a prepubescent girl (clearly starving, clearly desolate) is seen wearing one with a gruesomely inappropriate tagline (something like: Kiss me, Baby!) on it – being imported for re-sale. The point is the novelty of graphic dissonance. The glib frisson of Western excess amidst African suffering. Because, you know, it’s a fresh take, a good angle, on an old painful story. It’s also morally desolate.
There are bird sounds by the way. In the eatery. Piped in over the stereo. The sound of birds. Not fuck off birds like vultures or bald eagles, but little birds, garden birds, Disney birds, the kind that land on your shoulder and tweet your troubles away.

All images © Filipa Domingues.

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