Monday, June 26, 2017

On Superhero Movies I Would Like to See

A Facebook friend recently told me that I didn't like superhero movies. Here are the superhero movies I would like to see:

1. A superhero movie without supervillains and no human adversaries of any kind, as in The Neverending Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984) or Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series.
2. A superhero movie that actively opposes the prison industrial complex.
3. A superhero movie featuring plain actors and actresses. No one remarks on their plainness.
4. A superhero movie with various kinds of body types and shapes. No one remarks on these body types and shapes.
5. A superhero movie which approaches science in the manner of The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). In other words, a movie that tries to get the science right.
6. A superhero movie with an editor who knows how to cut an action sequence.
7. A superhero movie in which characters burst into song and dance, as in American Horror Story (2011-), because why not. (This happens in the third season of The Flash [2016-2017].)
8. A superhero movie that doesn't pander to "nerds" and doesn't indulge what it perceives to be nerd culture.
9. A superhero movie with costumes designed either by Danilo Donati (who actually designed the costumes for Flash Gordon [Mike Hodges, 1980]), or Sarah Edwards (Michael Clayton [Tony Gilroy, 2007]).
10. A superhero movie which approaches identity in the spirit of Los Bros. Hernandez, not in the spirit of Chris Claremont.
11. A superhero movie that is an inverse of Breaking Bad (2008-2013). All the characters are complex, charismatic, and fascinating, but they break good.
12. A superhero movie with semi-coherent politics.
13. A superhero movie in which Anthony Quinn, Toshiro Mifune, Montgomery Clift, Anthony Perkins, Sessue Hayakawa, Takashi Shimura, Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Marcello Mastroianni, Peter Ustinov, Paul Newman, Richard Basehart, Broderick Crawford, Gene Kelly, Klaus Kinski, Frank Sinatra, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Mitchum, and Lee J. Cobb all get together to do a job.

Friday, June 23, 2017

On Why I Won't Go to the Pride Parade

It's boring.

On David Edelstein and Wonder Woman

Here was my favorite part of Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017): Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in her civilian gear is about to board a train. She eats an ice cream for the first time. As a goddess who has lived far away from us mere mortals she has never experienced this simple joy. She turns to the vendor and says, "You should be very proud." I saw this scene played more broadly in an animated mini-film a few years ago. I prefer this version. Gadot plays Diana as a genuinely kind person. She's not naive in this moment. She is taking pleasure in something new. And why shouldn't the ice-cream vendor feel proud of his work? She accords him the respect he deserves, what no one else on the platform bothers to offer.

This is the Wonder Woman so many of the critics and fans have fallen in love with these past three weeks. She's a feminist, who doesn't need men, but she loves them anyway, in the same spirit of a Buddhist monk. Equality between genders is a given. She believes in ending war and honors the few men she meets who agree with her. She is as impressive in her civilian suffragette uniform, if not moreso, than in her Wonder Woman outfit. That Gadot is more beautiful than the average woman -- she's a model -- and thus more appealing is treated as a sign of female power, not as something for the male gaze.

That's one reading. Still, can you expect every heterosexual male viewer not to be turned on by Gadot in her Wonder Woman outfit? It's not just that mainstream Hollywood objectifies woman. The entire superhero genre is predicated on libidinal desires. Jokes about superhero costumes attempt to apologize for an embarrassing truth. There's a reason Chris Pratt had to go on an excrutiating diet to star in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014-). 

So, now we come to David Edelstein, my favorite mainstream movie critic, who got himself into a boiling cauldron of water with his take on Wonder Woman a few weeks ago. Here were the gems:
She’s a treat here with her raspy accented voice and driving delivery. (Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.)...
While this Wonder Woman is still into ropes (Diana’s lasso both catches bad guys and squeezes the truth out of them), fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness. With a female director, Patty Jenkins, at the helm, Diana isn’t even photographed to elicit slobbers. Slobbering, S&M-oriented American patriots will be even more put out, given that WW is no longer dressed in red, white, and blue but golden-toned for the international — and perhaps these days less American-friendly — ticket buyers. I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup, though. It was worth waiting for Gadot...
[Gadot] looks fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs, but it’s not until she strips down to her superheroine bodice and shorts, pulls out her sword, and leaps into the fray, that she comes into her own. More focused on world peace than bombs and bullets, she’s on an ecstatic plane of her own. 
When I first entered graduate school, a professor warned me that the students wouldn't have a sophisticated take on movies. Many if not most of them were still at the "Brad Pitt is hot!" stage in movie criticism. I kept my mouth shut because I thought "Brad Pitt is hot!" was a perfectly legitimate critical response. I may struggle with difficult ideas, but in the end I am, like most people, a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang filmgoer. I'm not going to deny the fact that I find Rebel Without a Cause (Nicolas Ray, 1955) and Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969) arousing. I don't think Edelstein should ignore what he finds arousing either. I still remember his review of the forgettable Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002): "The movie isn't unwatchable. It's clumsily good-natured, the actors are appealing, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than looking at pretty young girls in shorts kicking balls." This is how I talk about movies too, if from the slightly more acceptable position of a male homosexual viewer, unburdened by the fear of protecting the patriarchy. The art historian Kenneth Clarke criticized the tendency among art historians to deny the excitement of nude paintings back in the 1950s. I get annoyed at people who go to the ballet and deny the fact that they enjoy watching lithe bodies. There's something a little puritanical in this attack on Edelstein. I mean, honestly, Wonder Woman would be a very different movie if it cast someone less oh-my-god beautiful than Gadot. Frankly, Edelstein is taking Wonder Woman on its own terms. (A Facebook friend recently fantasized about a superhero movie starring either ugly or conventionally plain people. I would like to see such a movie too. And I expect it would illicit condescending reviews.)

Do you not like Edelstein's leer? That's fine. Do you think he doesn't quite get his position of power? You're probably right. Was it kind of a dick move to do what he's always done in a review of the first major feminist superhero movie? Probably. Is his approach all that different from John Updike's infamous assessment of Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell, in which the straight writer declared his lack of interest in any gay characters? Not as much as Edelstein would like. Like Pauline Kael, Edelstein indulges his id, which I've always found kind of awesome. Your jaw may drop at his line about Israeli women. As someone who knows quite a few Israeli women, I will remain silent, and I can see the insult. But I will say his joke hearkens back to the final pages of Portnoy's Complaint, the Great American classic of id indulgence, which still makes me laugh eighteen years after I first read it.

So now you're asking if Edelstein is right or wrong? Good or bad? You're asserting a binary that my critical faculties won't accept. I'll just say that Edelstein is one of the most honest writers I've ever read. I prefer honest critics to respectable ones.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Only Yesterday

In American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson (2016), the filmmakers draw our attention to outmoded technology. The young people who alert the police when they see Simpson on the highway, escaping a warrant for his arrest, use an emergency call box on the side of the road. People don't watch high-definition flatscreen TVs. The show doesn't show it, but I'm sure at least a few people saw the verdict read on the tiny black-and-white televisions you could still see in your friends' basements, barbershops, and the offices of custodians at bus stations in the '90s. In the last episode of the third season of Better Call Saul (2017), which aired on Monday night, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) visits a Blockbuster to grab nine DVDs so she can veg out on the couch. (The scene is set in 2003.) I like it when recently outmoded if not entirely disappeared technology -- there are still Blockbusters in Alaska and you still need call boxes in areas without cell phone service -- are used for dramatic purposes in what are effectively historical dramas.

The shows exist in the recent past and they understand something about how technology is lived, partly because the writers experienced the period. People had cell phones in 1994, but not everyone used them. Netflix was around in 2003, but it was still a few years away from destroying Blockbuster. I got my first cell phone in 1997. It was a pay-as-you-go phone. I had to keep it in my car at all times and could only use it to call my mother in case of emergency. I used it twice in two years. I didn't get a regular cell phone until 2000, which I used with the same regularity I used my landline in my college dorm for the next three years. I last used a Blockbuster in 2009, but I still occassionally use the massive, wonderful Scarecrow Video here in Seattle every now and then.

I'm not sure if movies and shows in the more distant past capture these details so well. John Adams (2008) takes great pains to depict the changing fashions from 1770 to 1826, but weren't there some people in 1820 who still dressed like it was 1795? L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997), on the other hand, takes place in the 1950s, but the movie is smart enough to show plenty of car models from the '30s and '40s which could still be seen in Los Angeles at the time.

The past never stays the same.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Walking on the Wild Side

Let's say, in one way or another, you're an 18-year-old queer. Maybe you're bisexual. Maybe you're straight-up gay. Maybe you're transgender. You're just starting to figure things out. You may be fighting any voice telling you that you have to think a certain way or be a certain way because of your identity. And let's say, you are one of those kids who, exercising a bit of nostalgia, got really into Lou Reed and David Bowie in middle school. Maybe you survived high school by watching Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1971) and Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969). Hell, maybe you read the actual Satyricon, or the Symposium,  or The Immortalist. These works of art didn't do gay pride. They did gay shame and they revelled in it. They were you.

And then this happens at your college campus during your freshman year:
The Guelph Central Student Association, a group at the University of Guelph in Ontario, apologised for including the song on a playlist at a campus event. 
In an apology published to Facebook and subsequently removed, the group said: “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement.” 
The lyrics in question focus on Reed’s friends from Andy Warhol’s Factory, among them transgender “superstars” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. 
“Holly came from Miami, FLA,” Reed sings. “Hitchhiked her way across the USA/ Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she/ She says, ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”
And now, you have to step back and re-assess at a moment in your life when you are seriously struggling with so much garbage that hit you in your previous 18 years. What am I supposed to like? Am I bad person for looking to "Walk on the Wild Side," a wonderful celebration of letting your freak fly, as a means of "saving" myself?

Now, to be fair, I can see why a transgender person might not like "Walk on the Wild Side."  After all, if you are a transgender person who does not think your identity is about being a creature of the night in New York in the early 1970s, if you just, maybe, happen to be a transgender person who sees yourself one day joining the army or getting a job at McKinsey, this might be a cruel, mean-spirited song. And if there aren't enough images of transgender people in our media that avoid such grim, weirdo, hyper-sexed depictions, you might, as a means of making change, ask to put this kind of work aside for maybe a few years while society figures some things out. But I doubt that's the belief of every single transgender person. (A little bit of a hedge, I know. But anytime someone screams at me that I have no right to speak for trans people, or anyone else, I immediately think, "Wait a second! So does every trans person feel the exact same way about being trans, because god knows that is so obviously not the case.") Others may take this song, like so much of Lou Reed and David Bowie's work, as liberating.

So now this 18-year-old kid has to sit down and figure out what's okay to like and what is not okay to like and now, all of those people who for the previous 18 years were telling them that they were just a weirdo for digging the 1960s/1970s queer counterculture are now being replaced by a new group of people telling them that they are an oppressor.

If you've noticed, I'm trying to maintain gender netural pronouns in this post, something I haven't done in this blog, or in most of my writing, but which I am trying to change. I don't have a problem with most of the movement that is calling the gender binary into question. The University of Washington no longer lists my students as male or female. I'm all for it. KUOW, the local NPR station, now uses gender neutral pronouns. I think it's great. It all makes sense to me.

But stop and think how alienating these kinds of calls-to-action for every single instance of possible offensiveness can be for that 18-year-old kid. When I first saw this story all I could think, "How joyless..." And I could imagine the average 18-year-old queer weirdo thinking the same thing.

So what happens to that kid? Well, they may go knock on the door of the College Republicans, who these days are pretty cool with the gays -- to a degree -- even if they aren't so cool with transgender folk or everyone else. Or maybe, they just won't knock on any doors on campus. Screw those queer safe spaces and the feel-ins, they'll think. The people in Lou Reed's song sound wonderful. They must have so many interesting stories to tell and such a fascinating way of carrying themselves. Maybe they'll just go clubbing where they'll walk a little bit on the wild side, because, fuck it, those clubs where people give each other blow jobs in the bathroom look pretty safe at the moment.

On Movies That Get "It" Right

Everyone has a habit of declaring movies "real" or "unreal." If a movie comes from another culture, we attribute the mores and attitudes in the movie to a world that we don't know. Quite a few people who have seen Da hong deng long gao gao gua / Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991), often the first and only Chinese movie they have ever seen, and take it as non-fiction, ignoring the fantastic stylizations. Whenever students defend a movie by saying, "Yeah, but that's how it is in China/the inner city/Buenos Aires/Iran," I ask them, "How many of you have seen high school movies or TV shows?" All hands go up. "How many of you have ever seen a high school movie or TV show that accurately depicted your high school?" All hands go down.

For me there are a few movies and TV shows that do get middle school and high school right or right enough. The scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995) where a group of alpha girls asks Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) if she's a lesbian is a more honest depiction of the cruelty of bullying than anything I see in Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). The depiction of gay adolescence in the second season of American Crime (2016) is more accurate than the clean coming-out trajectories you see in any number of independent gay films from the 1990s and 2000s. As a teacher, I relate to Mr. Raditch (Dan Woods) in the original Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (1987-1991). The best depiction of the mess of teaching -- the drama of a classroom, the difficulty of bridging the distance between yourself and your students, and the painful inability to figure out if the students are getting anything from you -- is Entre les murs / The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008). Unlike the recent spate of gay TV, Nighthawks (Ron Peck, 1978) understands that gay clubs can be montonous and Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) understands that gay parties can be pleasant and very weird at the same time. The Sopranos (1999-2007) got enough right about the college search and hell of a lot right about my classmates from Columbia even if the campus scenes were shot up the street at the Union Theological Seminary. I hestitate to declare the recent Romanian films indicative of a Balkan mindset, but I have to say that I've had similar uncomfortable and hilarious conversations to the one that makes up the long comic sketch at the center of A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006). 

I have yet to see a good depiction of expat life in Europe or Southeast Asia. I have yet to see a good depiction of grad school life. I always think the scene in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) in which a teacher berates Ph.D. student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) for having a too specific thesis that doesn't take in the entire history of the twentieth century hilarious, just as I'm amused by the rapid four-to-six-year rise of a single mother from community-college student to tenure track professor in Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) inspiring. One day I may teach a class on movies that depict subcultures of New York: Parting Glances, Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990). They're great movies, but none of them feel exactly like my New York. I think law school students still relate to The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973) and wrestlers still relate to The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008). I'll take their word for it.