by Douglas Lain
The last time I visited Chuck E Cheese I experienced a scene that was like something out of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. I don’t know why I ended up there, why I had to attend the neighbor kid’s birthday party, but I found myself sitting next to the skeeball lanes, between those and whack-a-mole, and it all seemed inevitable, even fated. Eating greasy pizza and sipping Dr. Pepper through a straw I arrived at what Burrough’s called “a frozen moment.” That is, I arrived at a moment of realization when I saw what was on the end of my fork or, in this case, what was on my soggy slice of pizza. (The birthday girl had a dairy allergy and the pizza was cheeseless and limp.)
The animatronic mouse on stage was dusty; it looked like it hadn’t moved in some time, like maybe it had rusted together inside. If the Chuck E Cheese robots of my youth were creepy when they sang “Happy Birthday” or “Rock Around the Clock” it was because there was something not quite alive about them. The power of the original monstrosity known as Chuck E Cheese and Munch’s Make Believe Band was how these cartoonish and lumbering machines managed to land inside the uncanny valley, but the apparently broken down remains of these same machines decades later only had power in so much as they were unseen.
The energy of the place, all of the flashing lights and video game noises that I remembered from the early 80s, were gone from this 21st century Chuck E Cheese, and what was left in its place were prize ticket slot machines and an atmosphere more that of a food court in a mall or a hospital cafeteria than a fun house. Handing out the tokens for games my kids could’ve just as easily played on my phone, holding onto the tickets my younger sons collected, I sort of felt like I’d been erased. It wasn’t that I was having a bad time, but more that I felt that I wasn’t having any kind of time at all.
I found myself unable to really respond to the moment, to feel disappointed, or amused, or even to be cynical. It seemed like I just disappeared inside that Chuck E Cheese. During previous visits of birthday parties past, the place had had a disturbing quality, there had been a menace to it as though there was a conspiracy working itself out behind the scenes. The aim had been to terrify children with teenagers dressed in Chucke E costumes, to pop out from behind the shadows, from behind the karate and zombie games. There was something going on that was a step above and beyond your everyday life. But this well lit Chuck E Cheese that smelled of bleach inspired nothing. There was no dread, no awe, no over-stimulated euphoria. Nothing.
I could not tell if it was boredom or disenchantment, or I had. For Chuck E Cheese it was about getting rid of the dim lights, changing the layout, shutting down the creepy robots, and for me this process of disenchantment was about feeling my age, feeling myself as a thing that could easily be snuffed out. In both cases the disenchantment is about being reduced to some merely contingent thing. If I was a personality, a character, I had been reduced to a position in my family, in the economy, in the material world. At Chuck E Cheese I was just a bunch of tissue, organs, salavia, and preprogamed attitudes, sloshing about. And somehow I felt like this sensation of being identical with the world I was in, this sensation of being flat, might be precisely what it was like be an abstract expressionist painting.
It was a strange thought, but I recalled something Clement Greenberg said about Manet being the first modernist painter.
For Greenberg, what defined modern art was self-reflection or self-criticism. Modern art was an art that used its own artifice to criticize and define itself. It was an art that aimed to expose its own methods and practices. What this meant, ultimately, was that for Greenberg modernism created images that were flat.
“Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art. […] Manetʼs became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted. The Impressionists, in Manetʼs wake, abjured underpainting and glazes, to leave the eye under no doubt as to the fact that the colors they used were made of paint that came from tubes or pots.”
Manet aimed to expose the surface. His art that brought forward what was real by getting out of its own way and abandoning the pretense of depth, the pretense that there was a naturalness the artist’s methods.
This was my problem. It wasn’t a personal issue, some psychological quirk or neurosis on my part, but rather the ennui was really there. It was built into the scene. For instance, along the back wall, near the restrooms, there is a row of brightly colored poster, scenes of merriment that illustrated just how Chuck E Cheese was a multicultural experience of universal fun. One of them, an image of a black boy in a number seven jersey who is holding prize tickets in his right hand while giving a raised fist salute with his left, is pictured below. Note the caption reads,
Now, to compare these posters with Greenberg’s modernism, with the abstract expressionist paintings he so admired, might seem to ignore the distinctions he makes between high and low art, between the avant garde and kitsch, between legitimate aesthetic experience and mass produced pseudo-experience, however I would argue that at Chuck E Cheese, in these posters, we can see how the imperatives of modernism have led us to the erasure of the distinctions Greenberg wanted to maintain. We might say that this “Winning” poster is modernist in so much as it is flat. There is no depth of field in this poster, not even a sketchy set of lines that might suggest filling in an environment or scene for the winning boy, but rather there is merely a yellow and white pattern, a pure abstraction, backing him up. Now this abstraction alone, this flatness, isn’t strictly modernist, but it is rather something achieved after modernism is finished. That is the modernist trajectory, the questing after a naked lunch, a truth laid bare, we end up back in a religious experience, but one that can’t quite be recognized as such. These posters are rather like Orthodox icons, the flat space in which the cartoon customers appear is the same as the space in a icon of Christ.
The art historian Alex Boguslawski wrote “an icon painting deliberately disregards the principle of natural perspective in order to avoid at any cost the illusion of three-dimensionality. Instead, it gives the impression of complete flatness and the lack of perspective. However, icon painting does use a perspective, called by scholars either reversed or inverted, just to indicate that this perspective is different than the illusionist perspective of the Italian masters. Inverted perspective depends on multiple points of view. But these multiple points of view are placed in front of the painting, not behind it, which results in background objects often being larger than the foreground ones and in distortions in shapes of some of the objects.”
What we can see by comparing the religious icons of Orthodoxy and the Chuck E Cheese posters to one of Greenberg masterpieces is how the abandonment of “naturalism” the putting aside of theatrical painting, the flattening of the space on the canvas, led to the creation of a new perspective, but one that is taken to be “real.” Consider, these Chuck E Cheese posters deliver imperatives, tell us how to feel, what to think, but the posters don’t attempt to naturalize or justify these imperatives. Instead we get Chuck E Cheese propaganda for its own sake.
For the past few months I’ve been writing essays about ideology, about how it might be possible to think past the ideology we’re in and create something new. But at the Chuck E Cheese I reached an impasse. I reached the limit of my own modernist sensibilities when the neighbor girl’s older brother stepped into the Ticket Blaster. He looked confused and maybe a bit skeptical as the staff including one anonymous man or woman in an original Chuck E Cheese costume, encouraged him to grab the tickets, to get all he could. I watched it all play out and remembered something Rick Roderick said back in 1991:
“[This new world of simulation] tries to interpret itself to us, bypassing the upper brain functions and directly feeding into our minds. This is why I said – off camera between classes – that Orwell was a pie-eyed optimist. 1984 arrived in sort of the early 70′s, and ah, Orwell’s vision of a horrible future which was a boot stomping on a human face forever is a utopian image because he assumes there would be resistance and human faces.”
I think about writing this out as something else, of prodding this experience for something more. Could I build a sympathetic character around this problem? Could a protagonist who found himself feeling out of sorts in a Chuck E Cheese and made tired by an animatronic rat, be made to act in such a way where something actually happened? Could I start from this experience and lead a reader through an emotional arc? Is it still impossible to go anywhere?
If I were to write such a story, I’d want it to be about a guy who learns that seeing what’s at the end of your fork isn’t enough. It would be about a guy who learns that every lunch is naked, and that a naked lunch still gets eaten.