Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Why the Kids Will Win

Somber, statistically-based arguments: Mass shootings are the cause of an extremely tiny percentage of gun deaths in the U.S. You are much more likely be shot by a spouse, or accidentally and you are more likely to be killed by a gun no one is calling to ban. Prohibiting the mentally ill from owning guns is a terrible precedent. Not all forms of mental illness are the same. The mentally ill as a group — if you must group them together — are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. And even if we ban bump stocks, we will probably save only a few hundred lives a year. Our country's gun culture will remain in place.

Are the kids wrong? No. They're right. (Except for that whole mental illness thing, but their ideas can be honed.) They know bullshit when they smell it. They aren't calling to ban all guns. They are calling to ban military-grade weapons from private hands so as to make our country just a little less berserk. The cold, hard statistician argues that we should be focussing less on mass shootings and more on suicide-related gun deaths. The more empathetic, good citizen understands that mass shootings instill a perpetual fear and that it's an intrinsic good to save a few hundred people every year, particularly if saving those few hundred people involves no significant loss to society.

Do you agree with me? My guess is that most people reading this post do, more or less. But if you really like those bullshit-wary kids on television, this post irritates you. It's too clinical. It doesn't have catchy lines that assert a simple moral stance. It lacks the call to urgency.

The kids know better. They know how to win. There's a place for my arguments, but the kids don't need them. They have charisma, moral intelligence, and a lack of cynicism. They are willing to tell the senator in a suit-and-tie that he's a shill and to ignore that self-important CNN jerk who tries to explain to them the rules of debate. There's a time and place for this kind of behavior. This is that time. This is that place.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Jessica Chastain

"When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their 'pheonix' [sic] moment for women. We don't need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are." — Jessica Chastain.

She is absolutely right. ABSOLUTELY!


This is a scene from Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2013), which starred Chastain and was directed by a woman.

Zero Dark Thirty teaches that those who were sent to find and kill Osama bin Laden had to be tough   and brutal in order to achieve a greater good. The Nazis lived by a similar creed. Bigelow is a feminist icon, like Leni Riefenstahl.

I look forward to Chastain's reappraisal of one of her most famous roles. I look forward to the moment Americans figure out they aren't supposed to enjoy the torture and killing of brown people. Hashtag white feminism or something.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

On Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino

Uma Thurman has finally told her story, or at least a summary of her story — there's probably even more we don't know about — to Maureen Dowd. The accusations against Harvey Weinstein are obviously true, part of a pattern, something we all know about. The accusations against Quentin Tarantino are different. Thurman paints Tarantino as Weinstein's enabler, perhaps quiet co-conspirator, someone with his own violent fantasies towards women which he enacts in more twisted ways entwined with his art.

Tarantino has a long history of standing in for the male sexual predators in his films. Those are Tarantino's hands, not Christoph Waltz's, choking the double agent in Inglourious Basterds (2008). Dowd summarizes the other instances in the two Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004). But Tarantino apparently went one step further in Kill Bill vol. 2, when he pressured Thurman to drive in an unstable car, recently converted from shift to automatic, on a dusty highway in Mexico just so he could get the exact right close-up with her hair blowing just right in the wind. Thurman had an accident. She could have died. She still suffers from her injuries. The same Tarantino who more or less knew about or at very least turned a blind eye to Weinstein's history of rape also pressured/forced his muse to almost get herself killed. Eli Wallach was almost beheaded during a scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966). When asked to reshoot the scene, he refused and everyone listened. Thurman's protests fell on deaf ears.

I've noted before that it's harder to watch a movie with horrifying backstories than it is to read a book. There's a disconnection between the body of the author and the words on the page, or at least the potential to disconnect the two. Movies are different. In Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Mariel Hemingway plays Tracy, the middle-aged Isaac's (Allen) 17-year-old love interest and, in real life, Hemingway, age 16, was mortified/humiliated on set when Allen kissed her. Allen's camera makes delicious love to Hemingway, and he's asking you to fuck her too. I saw The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) for the first time in 25 years the other night at Ark Lodge Cinemas in Seattle. Jesus Christ, Bernard Herrmann's screeching bird sound effects freaked me out. The movie was even more depressing when I remembered that Tippi Hedren would be sexually assaulted by Hitchcock on their next film together, Marnie (1964).

When I first entered graduate school in 2010, when I first read Laura Mulvey's attack on visual pleasure and I listened to my colleagues attack their students' budding cinephilia, I was appalled. I found their instinct to master and attack works of genius for their insufficient moral intelligence a symptom of resentment. Now, I can't escape the possibility that Kill Bill vol. 2 and Manhattan have at least a little in common with snuff films.

The Super Bowl is tomorrow. I hate football. I think the millions of people who are tuning in tomorrow will be watching a snuff film in which men will be destroying each other. I often use my hatred of football to get self-righteous with my self-righteous liberal friends. "Oh, you are upset because a celebrity everyone loves said something racist/sexist/homophobic. Well, you get off watching outright violence. You like to watch men hurt each other. You are an actual sick puppy!" But I'm not all that different from them. I'm addicted to pleasure. We all are.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Ursula K. Le Guin

I interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin five years ago.  

TM: I know you’ve written that science-fiction writers are not prophets. But is there any thing that has happened in your society during your writing life that has happily surprised you?
UKLG: Hmm…That’s not particularly a question to me as a writer, is it? Just to me as an American.
TM: Yes. Just curious.
UKLG: Well, pure happiness is such an endangered thing. This may sound sort of trivial, but I took geology in college, one semester. And I liked it but I couldn’t stick with it. I didn’t want to be a scientist anyway. But when they began figuring out plate tectonics, when they began figuring out how the Earth is put together, why we have mountain ranges, why continents drift and so on…That was an intellectual revolution that I lived through week by week as it developed. And it was wonderful. It was so terrific to realize that geology of all the stable solid sciences was just coming to pieces at the seams and discovering the world all over again and finally getting its feet right on the real world instead of on a lot of theory. That was so cool. I think science – not technology — science is one of the best things we do. And then there are artists who have come along in my lifetime, like Saramago, [who I wouldn’t have discovered] if they hadn’t Nobel-ed him. “Wow! There’s a man like that, writing like that, in his 80s.” I don’t know if things are better or worse. It’s always the best of times and the worst of times, isn’t it? But I’ve been glad to be alive while things like plate tectonics and Saramago were going on.
That wasn't our only interaction. After the interview, she asked to see the transcript before it went to print. Most writers don't make this request, but I agreed with the understanding that any corrections she wanted would have to meet my approval. My integrity was at stake. There weren't many problems. She was bothered by the many times in the transcript I had mentioned moments in which she laughed, noted as "[laughs]." She thought it was a feminine affectation. I let it go. Her other complaints were extremely minor. All of them were noted with brackets. 

A year later, I assigned my freshman comp class "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." They had to adapt the story into a film. In a separate analysis they had to explain how their decisions regarding script, mise-en-scene, editing, and cinematography changed the point of the story. In another class that I've taught four times on the relationship between live-action film, animation, and comics, I asked my students to adapt the story into a film or comic. Again, they had to provide an analysis of how their choices regarding form changed the story. In the end, I've read upwards of 200 adaptations, some set in the world of modern anime, others in Ancient China, and in modern-day American cities. Some adaptations have featured a multi-ethnic cast, others an all-white cast. Some feature characters of indeterminate gender. Some are in black-and-white, others in color. Every adaptation has a completely different interpretation of a phrase that appears in the opening line of the story to describe Omelas — "bright-towered by the sea" — and of the small child in the basement, whose suffering is necessary for the utopia of the town to survive. I sent Le Guin one particularly remarkable adaptation from a talented architecture student. She wrote back, "I am touched, and moved, and honored." She had a couple of criticisms regarding the adaptation's depiction of gender and what she thought might be an overuse of blank panels, but she ended the email, "I never thought of Omelas as a graphic before. It works just fine!"

I emailed her again in the fall of 2016, after The New Yorker published a profile of her that hit me hard. Her experiences of Radcliffe weren't all that different from mine in college, and her insecurities spoke to my own and to those of many of my friends. Bob Dylan had just been honored with a Nobel. I told her that I had been rooting for her or Dylan and now that Dylan had won, I wished it had been her. Some remembrances these past few days have mentioned the terrible injustice that she had not been given a Nobel Prize, blaming the Academy's prejudice against genre fiction. She wrote me, "David Streitfeld told me that I was 24th in line in the Nobel betting, so I told him, all I have to do is outlive the other 23. I must say Bob Dylan's inability to just say thanks is painful and pitiful. Anyhow, if we're nobelling bards now, Springsteen would be my pick. And he'd go to Stockholm with the E Street Band and sing 'My Beautiful Reward' to the king...Perfectimundo!" 

I never met a less pretentious human being. She gave the most lucid arguments for the gender-neutral pronoun and the diversification of the science-fiction genre I've ever heard. She was a woman of goodwill. I compared her optimism to that of the Christian Tolstoy in my interview with her and I stand by the comparison, even though she was an atheist. I believe many young men and women remained attracted to her not just for her humanism, but for her humanity, for the joy she took in everything: her translation of the Tao Te Ching, language-creation, Orsinia, and her relationship with her cat Pard.  

We talked about the archetype of the beautiful man in our interview, of men like Primo Levi, and her own contribution to the tradition with Shevek, the hero of The Dispossessed, whom she had based on Robert Oppenheimer, a friend of her father's. The term "beautiful woman" has a different connotation in our culture, a connotation she and her fellow feminists fought against, but I will gladly call Le Guin — wrinkled, honest, angry, loving, and brilliant — a beautiful woman.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

On the Religion of Equality

I would like to articulate as well as I can a way to think not so much about racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and whatever you would like to add, but about how to fight these sicknesses. I will speak in terms of religion.

Racism has been described repeatedly as the original sin of my country's founding and as such we are all fallen, black and white, straight and gay, male and female. We are all sinners. If you become a member of my proposed religion, which I will call Equality, you recognize that you are a sinner and that these illnesses constitute an ever-present sin. I am a member of this religion, more or less, and so are most of the people in the circles in which I move.

How do we fight the sin? First, there is introspection, recognition of one's own sins, confessions, and hopefully redemption. There will be guilt, at least some guilt, but not too much guilt. Next we must fight the sin when we see it. Sometimes the sin is minor, and so you gently correct your friend who uses a slur. Often you don't fight these minor sins through reaction, but by action, by quietly setting an example of how one can behave in the world. Sometimes the sin is great. The sinner bullies people because of their race or gender identity. They commit rape. They burn a cross. They wear a swastika. Here the member of the religion called Equality must decide how to handle such a sinner. Is the sinner beyond redemption? And if not, how can they be converted? Does screaming at the sinner and calling the sinner evil help matters? Or should we step back and remember that we are not there to fight the sinner but to fight the sin?

In the religion called Equality it is not always clear which sins are minor and which are major. A parent telling his son that it is wrong to be gay has committed a sin, but is their sin as egregious or less egregious than the sin the playground bully commits when he hits the child and calls him a faggot? Has the stupid college kid who puts a noose in a tree without knowing its meaning just as sinful as the klansman who knows exactly what he is doing? How do we convert such sinners into the religion of Equality?

In order for the religion of Equality to survive it must continue to pose as many questions as possible. It must acknowledge that certain sins are mortal and can never be forgiven, or at least only be forgiven in extraordinary circumstances. It must avoid zealotry and fundamentalism. It must not eat its own. In order to avoid fundamentalism, it should not seek a system in which all questions have answers. If it should ever become such a religion it will drive away the intelligent, the introspective, and the good, who will in turn, perhaps, found a sect, one which might not contain some of the better qualities of the orthodox faith.

The religion should be generous to all. It should recognize that all suffer, that all are hurt, even if some suffer more than others, and that some are sinned against more than others.

The religion can have saints, but it cannot have kings, for kings are contrary to the very idea of Equality. The religion can have intellectuals, but it cannot have geniuses.

The religion should inspire great art and culture — if it doesn't, it will not survive — but its followers should not dismiss art and culture inspired by other religions. It should consider other religions' art and culture and ask what it can learn from other religions.

The religion cannot ignore the material. It must constantly attend to the day-to-day dignity of all peoples. In fact, the material should be the top concern of Equality's followers. Those who believe in fighting these sicknesses but ignore the material are members of a separate religion.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Cultural Appropriation Again

If you asked me 15 years ago whether I believed institutions should impose gender-neutral language, I would have rolled my eyes. These days I believe gender-neutral language is good and have started to use the pronouns "they" and "them" as opposed to "he/she" and "him/her" in my writing. If you had asked me if Apu was a racist caricature, I would have said, eh, get over it. Thanks to a certain comedian who will soon become a household name, I now feel a little ill for laughing at a few too many of the lazy, so-called "post-racist" jokes on The Simpsons (1989-).

If you asked me five years ago whether I thought "cultural appropriation" was a problem, I would have rolled my eyes. These days, I am willing to listen. But whereas there are certain subjects upon which I feel I have no right to add my voice, on this one I do have that right. I have a stake in the conversation.

I suppose my biggest complaint about cultural appropriation is that the term is too broad. I don't think blackface, or what we are now calling redface, brownface, gayface, or transface, is a form of cultural appropriation, at least as I understand the term. I don't think a white person wearing blackface is appropriating any form of blackness, stealing from black culture. Why? Because blackface in its classic form, is emphatically not black culture. Black minstrelsy is a creation of white people, a means of keeping black people regulated to specific roles. When black actors are forced to perform black minstrelsy themselves, they are being asked to perform the white-cultural-idea-of-blackness. I would say the same for the Washington Redskins and a sombrero party. When a bunch of "woo" girls walk into a gay club and start off with the "Heya girlfrieeeennnnnddddd!" b.s. I'm not looking at cultural appropriation. I'm looking at plain old bigots who engage in stereotypes, who define and control people they know nothing about.

What would be cultural appropriation? Well, a few years ago I interviewed Craig Thompson, a white American, about his book Habibi, an Arabian Nights-inspired tale. Thompson employed Arab designs and reconsidered the Arabian Nights as a kind of proto-superhero-comics story, noting that like superhero comics, the Arabian Nights can be a little gaudy, sexed-up and comic-book-like. Is this a form of cultural appropriation? I would say yes. He is appropriating art work from a tradition he was not born into, that is not inherent to the tradition in which he works, and creating something new. He claimed that he had great respect for the unnamed Arab artists he was imitating and I'm sure he did. The question is not whether or not this is cultural appropriation. The question is if this cultural appropriation is wrong? And the answer is a resounding..."I don't know."

How about Poland's contemporary klezmer scene? Many if not most of the klezmer musicians in Poland are not Jewish. They are playing music from a tradition that is not only not their own, per se, but was born out of a tradition of a people who were historically not allowed to define themselves as Polish even though they lived within the borders of the country. Now that most of those Jews are gone, do contemporary Polish musicians have a "right" to play klezmer, to be the keepers of the tradition in Poland? It disturbs me to see Polish teenagers vote for anti-Semitic politicians and also somehow fall in love with klezmer. But as a klezmer fan, if not a fanatic, I have to admit that non-Jewish klezmer musicians have done a lot more to learn about this music than I have. Whatever my reservations, I like the idea of Jewish culture living on, in some vestigial form, in contemporary Poland.

The questions become more complicated. Do the anti-cultural-appropriators hate a major achievement like The Wire (2002-2008), a show mostly about black people written, directed, and shot mostly by white people? And what about food? Why doesn't a white guy get to open a sushi fusion restaurant? Not all cultural-appropriation easily fits our definition of power, such as a black artist appropriating American Indian artwork.

The term "cultural appropriation" suggests a essentialist definition of a people, and essentialism, at some point, maybe at the earliest point, becomes its own form of racism. Cultures aren't static. Black gospel will always change, the Talmud is always open to interpretation, and the American Indian oral tradition, like all oral traditions, is defined by the fact that it can't be pinned down to a precise historical moment. Stiff approaches to the concept of "cultural appropriation" suggest a narrowing of culture rather than a democratic approach to cultural exchange,  the latter of which, admittedly, may be impossible within our current system.

I also have to admit that the debate does not strike me as the most important one to have in regards to achieving a more just, equitable society. I met someone who was very proud of the fact that he paid a hell of a lot of money to cover up one of his old Indian tattoos. I think there are more than a few Indians who would have preferred he had sent the money for the tattoo removal to the protesters at Standing Rock.

So where am I on whether or not I believe cultural appropriation is a real thing? The answer is that I don't immediately roll my eyes when someone complains of cultural appropriation. The answer is also that I am afraid of those who shout "cultural appropriation" without questioning the term for themselves.