Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Hurting Teachers

There have been a few times when I enjoyed complete and total authority over my syllabus.  I decided how many conferences I would have with my students.  I decided how many films they would watch, the nature of the assignments, their length, the readings.  I do not want to discuss any theoretical questions as to how my authority would be questioned by the limitations of discourse in a university setting...blah...blah...blah...For all intents and purposes, I controlled a lot of what happened in a room with 22 students for four hours a week.  That's an enormous amount of power.

Of course, that sounds disturbing, but the truth is I design my classes so that my students have enough space to take as much ownership over the class as is necessary, with myself serving as a guide.  My classes involve a lot of group work.  I often start class discussions by refusing to talk at all for five minutes straight, forcing them to talk amongst themselves while I just sit there in listen.  Sometimes that works.  Sometimes it doesn't.  It depends on the group.  So what I really mean to say when I say that I have an enormous amount of power in that room is this: I decide what's on the agenda.  I decide how we initially frame discussions.  My students, in turn, decide how they will handle that agenda, and how they will respond to that frame or, in some rare wonderful cases, change the frame altogether.  So I have power but not total power.

Still, the power is there, and I think it can be toxic, and I hate having to use it, as when I tell my students on the first day that I am a hard grader so that they will be encouraged to work hard.  That power creates a barrier between them and me.  And by my responsibility to grade my students, I have an even greater power both over my students' career trajectories in college as well as over their emotional well-being.  I hate grading.

I'm the kind of person who can hold a grudge for decades over a slight, but I realized recently that I have never had lingering rage at the very very few students who have behaved terribly in class and disrespected me in appalling ways.  A teacher can hurt a student in ways a student can never hurt a teacher.  That is something to remember and never ever forget.


What I just wrote should be true, but isn't in the current climate in which student evaluations have become a more popular method of determining a teacher's employment.  It's not true in an environment in which an off-color comment that offends a student may earn you censure from a higher authority.  It's not true when a student can demean the teacher anonymously, with no threat to his own well-being, with nasty comments on evaluations, which sometimes veer into vicious racist attacks or attacks on the teacher's gender or the teacher's looks.

So maybe there's a better way of putting things: Just as a teacher can hurt a student in ways a student can never a hurt a teacher, a student can hurt a teacher in ways a teacher can never hurt a student.  If I've never felt any lingering rage against a student for any slight, it may be because they have never managed to hurt me in ways that they have hurt some of my colleagues.  Maybe I'm just lucky.

It's a miserable system.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

On Anomalisa

I saw Anomalisa last week.  It left me uncomfortable and empty.   I've seen a fair amount of puppet and stop-motion animation, a medium that lets animators reinvent the figure placement and composition of live-action films.  (I suggest you plug the name Jiri Trnka into YouTube and watch everything that comes up.  You might also consider watching Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which is not animation, but uses hand-held Barbie dolls to...oh just watch it, everyone loves it.)  I saw no cleverness here.  Every single camera angle and physical interaction could have found a direct analogue in productions of Kaufman's other screenplays.  The form didn't do anything live-action film couldn't do, and if anything the movie only highlights the problems, the non-genius in the compositions of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.   

I'm not a huge fan of either movie now, but the premises of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind worked in that they both tapped into universal, maybe too-universal experiences.  Most people desire, at some point in their lives, to live in the body and within the consciousness of someone else.  Most people have mixed feelings about their relationships.  I didn't relate to the dilemma of Anomalisa's protagonist. I have never felt that everyone around me is the same.  The best misanthropes, and I like to think that I'm a pretty good one, hate everyone for different reasons.  That's the major flaw in Anomalisa.  It used the medium to make an argument that wasn't very strong to begin with, and the argument doesn't allow for much experimentation with the form.

Gotta admit though, it had a damn good trailer!

On Tina Fey's Palin

I just watched Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin on Hulu.  The impression was deadly accurate.  She got the accent, the R's, and the dialogue was cribbed from Palin's real-life endorsement speech, a sign from Fey and the SNL writers that their gifts for satire can't add to anything that's already there.  Larry David's Bernie Sanders is only slightly more imaginative.  The writers sprinkle his dialogue with old Jewish guy jokes that only barely rise above dad humor.  I didn't laugh at either impression.

I don't love Kate McKinnon's Hilary, nor Amy Poehler's, but I think they are more interesting.  Both of them avoid pure mimesis.  They attempt to dig into the unsettling combination of entitlement, calculation, and legitimate if over-indulged second-wave feminist rage that defines her psychology.  They still go for the easy jokes, but Poehler's cackle and McKinnon's unpleasant smile speaks to what we think lies beneath Hillary's mask, not so much what exists on the surface.  They're not as good as the legendary caricatural performances from American film history, Charlie Chaplin's version of Hitler, Peter Sellers's riff on von Braun or George C. Scott's riff on LeMay, but they take a risk, and they try to get at something that we should fear in a woman who still stands a good shot of being the most powerful leader in the world.    

That's the aesthetic argument against Fey's Palin.  There might be a moral argument against Fey's performance, inasmuch as it answers the horror represented by Palin's American fascism with a brand of anti-intellectual humor.  Fey and the SNL writers attack Palin's body.  They don't go after her terrifying mind.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

On Hurting Students

I have made it a point through the years to avoid discussing my students both for good or for ill on social media or in any of my other writing.  I don't believe the classroom is an absolute private space, but I believe it should be semi-private.  As a teacher, I need to be able to take a risk and fall flat on my face without fearing public humiliation outside the classroom.  My students deserve that same right.  I have many colleagues who feel differently, who make fun of students who grade grub, students who write ignorant things on their papers, students who behave inappropriately in class.  No, they don't use names, but it still makes me uncomfortable.  If a student discovered that a teacher complained about him or her even without using a proper name, I imagine that student would feel miserable.  Many of these colleagues are great teachers, certainly more skilled in their craft than I am in mine, as well as great and generous people, which only makes that behavior more unsettling.

I always lay out these ideas on the first day of each quarter.  I tell my students that I believe a classroom is a semi-private space in which we can take risks and fall flat on our faces.  In order that we maintain such a space, I tell them that it is important that both they and I refrain from discussing each other on social media.  I don't know how well they take it or whether they walk away shocked that a teacher would ever feel the need to set such a rule.  Still, in the current climate, in which the noise of the outside world grows ever louder, impinging on the classroom, I find it necessary to do so.    

We were assigned Death in Venice in my senior year of high school.  I don't think there is anything wrong with assigning Death in Venice.  I think it is a good, interesting novel and that it considers sexuality at an intriguing slant, but the conversation in the classroom led by a woman I always thought of as an intelligent if elitist white feminist was shot through with ignorance.  The love object in the novel is a beautiful 14-year-old boy, and we readers, as we were told in the classroom, were supposed to consider the irony inherent in an old German writer whose prose was filled with intelligence but no eroticism, falling in love with such an object.  I heard plenty of snickers about the whole thing throughout that class, and at one point our teacher brought in an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue to show us that the Tadzio ideal existed today.  She laughed at the prospect.  

Let's unpack that.  There were gay kids in that classroom, ages 17-18.  I was one of them.  There were gay kids in that classroom who might have shown a passing interest for some of their schoolmates who were 14 or 15, just as their straight classmates had shown a passing interest for freshman girls.  If not, those gay kids had almost certainly been attracted to 14-15 year olds when they were themselves 14 or 15.  If our teacher really had any guts and really wanted to see the Tadzio ideal, she could have gone to the gay bookstore in Dupont Circle and picked up a copy of XY, a magazine geared toward the gay teenage set, a magazine I read surreptitiously.  Was there anything intrinsically wrong about being attracted to a 14-15 year old especially if you were 17-18?  I don't think so.  But I was around a lot of people who believed differently.  On some level we were reading the novel on its own terms, which is fine, but that conversation was profoundly ignorant and that ignorance was reflected in the conversation in that classroom.  Is it possible to read that novel non-ironically?  I think the novel could allow for such a reading, but to make that claim in that classroom would have earned you a savage and disgusted look from the authority figure before you and your classmates.  

Was I the only one who felt that way? I may have been.  Did I deserve to feel bad about myself because of that conversation?  No.  Perhaps I was misreading the conversation.  Perhaps my memory today misses some key moments in the conversation that, had I paid better attention, would have made my discomfort less terrible.  Still, I remember two students behind me saying faggot.  Our teacher created an environment that made that ok.

Now let's flash forward to last October.  I assigned my students an infamous late-'80s Batman comic The Killing Joke which includes a brutal violation of a woman's body, a comic which later on became a focal point for a feminist backlash to superhero comics.  Visual media can be, probably is more visceral than the printed word, and I can only imagine those images might have been terrible for a woman - or man for that matter - who had suffered any kind of sexual violation.  I did not lead the conversation very well.  I apologized for those images.  I laughed nervously.  I steered away from those pages to discuss other parts of the comic, which is probably the last thing I should have done.  I was admittedly underprepared to discuss those images.  I took a risk.  I fell flat on my face.  And I may have hurt some students.   

Will I teach The Killing Joke again?  I think I will, and I will come in next time better prepared, armed with more research, so that when I take that risk, I won't fail and my students will walk away with a better understanding of the text. 

The media is raging at these entitled Millennials who don't want to read books that hurt their feelings.  Women at Columbia complained that their rights were violated by having to read about a rape scene in Ovid.  From personal experience, I've heard some uncomfortable stories here and there, but I tend not to hear such rage from any of my students, even after assigning them such material.  They may be desensitized to this material, which is a problem.  They may be cowed by my authority, which is a problem.  Or they may be mature enough to handle disturbing material and an awkward underprepared teacher who sometimes makes them feel bad about themselves.   

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

On Degrassi

About six years ago, I binge-watched the entirety of the original "Degrassi Junior High" and "Degrassi High" from the 1980s and early 90s.  The show was a neorealist epic.  It starred actual high school students, some of whom were fat and ugly.  The prettiest were only as pretty as anyone could be in the high-school twerp phase.  The actors wore little make-up.  The show was shot on location at a poorly lit but by no means run-down high school.  The actors' awkward delivery was charmingly unprofessional and sounded just like smart teenagers who were trying and failing to realize their smartness.  The cool kid was cool because he found a cool hat and dressed as well as a middle-class white kid could realistically dress in the 1980s.  Class discussions in the show were wayward.  The nerds may have been nerdy, but they didn't match the ugly, borderline anti-Semitic stereotypes that consumed "Saved by the Bell".

When I watched it at age 29, I found myself identifying with the teachers, who came in with prepared lesson plans, who liked the company of their students, but knew how to keep them at professional distances, and who were often unsure of how exactly they were supposed to handle their authority.  In one episode, the PTA bans a pregnant student from attending the school because it feels she would be a bad influence on the other students.  The students are furious and are prepared to protesr.  The young hippie teacher, who clearly disagrees with the decision but doesn't explicitly state her beliefs, lowers the temperature.  She asks them to consider what they can do for their classmate at that given moment, steering them away from such a dramatic confrontation.  Is she right?  Is she wrong?  The show depicted the years when adolescents learn that their parents have a lot of things wrong and a lot of things right, and that the rest of their lives will be spent trying to figure out who is wrong and who is right.

The best plots were the mundane ones, the one where the kids organize a porn viewing party, the one about the kid who steals $20 from his friend's parent, the fight between two girlfriends on one of the "important" issues of the day, animal testing.  A girl can't handle living with her miserable, hapless divorced father and moves out only to discover the difficulty of making rent.  She moves back home with her father, who she loves, under the condition that she pay rent and they set up a series of rules that she and her father can abide by.  On Saturday nights, kids just hung out in their parents' basements bored out of their minds.  Their parties were lame.  The suicide episode understood the affect of suicide on friends and even casual acquaintances.

The worst plots were the stuff of melodrama.  The show was not above the anti-drug hysteria of the late '80s, and in one episode a bright student takes some acid and jumps off a bridge, suffering permanent brain damage. Still, in many ways, its missteps were a perfect portrait of its time.  There were no gay characters in its cast, just as there were very few out gay people in high school during that era.  The only gay character who showed up was the older brother of one of the leads.

The biggest failure was the lack of shits and fucks and general dirty jokes in the dialogue.

Most of the episodes ended on an ambiguous note.  Life is a series of compromises and middle and high school are no different.  Still, I don't know if I personally recognize myself in any of the characters.  Those were miserable years for me.  My ennui was worse than the ennui of this high school.  I also had some terrible teachers, the like of which do not appear in this show.  I don't remember much physical bullying as much as emotional, mean-girl bullying (which was actually enacted by both boys and girls), and this show depicted the opposite.  I also knew a lot of eccentrics, giant personalities in high school and middle school, but  "Degrassi" just depicted the average-ness of average students.

The show was rebooted in the '00s and I found it painful to watch.  In the pilot episode a girl who has just evaded an Internet predator screams at her mother - the pregnant teenager from the first series -- that "she doesn't know what it means to be 12".  That line would have been killed by the original series' writers, though I don't know if they would have avoided such a sensational topic.  The bigger failings of the show lay in the pretty costume choices, the hyper-performances of the actors, actors who were just short of starring in a Disney Channel show, Drake.

Netflix has just revived the series again, and I watched a couple of episodes last night.  The new show is obsessed with the corrosive effects of social media, but it doesn't quite get the way kids will just stare and stare and stare and stare at a screen.  In the third episode, a student who wants to avoid an intramural sports convinces his friend to break his finger with a hammer.  Maybe such a thing would happen, but I didn't buy it.  The show did not earn that detail.

I also didn't buy the depiction of a rich kid, with his enormous house and pool, throwing a party to get everyone to vote for him in the high school election.  I didn't buy anyone caring about the high school election.  (My favorite part of the original Degrassi Junior High: An announcement in which the principal pleads with the students to attend a pep rally.  The announcement is so faint you can barely hear it.)  I didn't buy a a white girl convincing her drop-dead gorgeous black friend that she needed a bigger booty to attract the object of her affections.

Here's what I did buy: The rich kid's sexuality.  He's young, good-looking as hell and a sorta-out, not-quite-fully-out, not-that-it-really-matters bisexual. He's neither proud nor ashamed.  No one even thinks to ask him the details of his sexual desires or questions that such sexual fluidity can be possible.  (Granted I'm only three episodes in, I don't know where this is going, and I'm not sure I really need to.)  It's a portrait of its own time in a way.  I realized recently that 2015 is just as distant from 1990 as 1975 was from 1950.  We've lived through major sexual and technological revolutions in youth culture.  Degrassi did get a couple of things right.

Monday, January 18, 2016

On the Oscars

I can begin with stating the obvious without being too smug about it: The lily-white Oscars are not the biggest problem facing people of color.  Still, I think about movies for a living, and I do so because I think they are important on some level, though I don't know which level that would be, and I might as well say one or two things about the Oscars.

Let's begin by saying that the Academy is bullshit and has always been bullshit.  It's gotten far more wrong than right, and the definition of "right" is crazy to begin with.  For every Daniel Day-Lewis honor there have been at least five Sandra Bullocks, who won for her role as obnoxious Southern racist-not-racist in Gone With the Birth of a Blind Side.  With very very very few exceptions (Midnight Cowboy), the Oscars don't nominate difficult movies, like Pink Flamingos, Killer of Sheep and Stranger Than Paradise.  The Academy's favorite Holocaust movie has a happy ending.  The Academy considers humanitarian behavior an important part of what it means to be part of the industry, and yet it still managed to give a Best Director Oscar to a child rapist.  

Most Oscar winners are boring.  Did you see Jamie Foxx in Ray 12 years ago?  Do you have any desire to see it again?  If you were putting together a quick list of fun movies for your friend would you put on Ray?  If you wanted to give your friend a list of good music movies would you have him watch Ray?  No.  The answer is no.  You would not, because Ray sucked and everyone knows Ray sucked, but Jamie Foxx did a pretty gosh darn good impression of Ray and so he won, but even his gosh darn good impression of Ray wasn't good enough to hold anyone's attention for that long.  This was a movie about one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century but we somehow got a lameass drug-addiction redemption story.  How about Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line?  No.  They both got awards for what old rich people in LA think is great about acting, namely good mimetic impressions of famous people that lack any internality, and not what anyone actually looks for in a great performance.  Yes, I know that it's not a movie, but David Bowie's last music video features him in old age, dying of cancer, putting his hand on his hip and sashaying like a drag queen while reminiscing about once being a "king" in New York.  Those two seconds of screen time that I watched on YouTube last week was more interesting than anything - ANYTHING - Jamie Foxx did in Ray or Reese Witherspoon did in Walk the Line.

The Academy does not stand for excellence.  It stands for making money in an industry that is designed to make money.  If they give an award to a high-art movie, or a movie with high-art pretensions that didn't make money, it's only because they need the lie that the organization is about art, so that you will watch the Oscars, and consider all the terrible movies it nominates great art and that you will watch those movies.  

There are great movies made every year, from all around the world.  Some of these are animated features, some are documentaries, which tend not to get nominated for Best Picture.  My favorite comedy of the last 15 years was 12:08 East of Bucharest, which was made for under 200,000 dollars and came out of Romania.  Am I being a snob for telling you to watch a low-budget Romanian comedy instead of The Danish Girl, which I haven't seen but probably sucks?  Maybe.  But in the Netflix era, in which all movies are easily and cheaply available to you, there is no excuse for not challenging yourself.  If six months from now, you want to watch The Danish Girl -- which again, probably sucks, but which I admit I don't know because I haven't seen it, although yet again, I'm pretty sure it sucks  -- instead of 12:08 East of Bucharest, then you are making a decision not to challenge yourself with an interesting, brilliant, hilarious film from a country you don't know that much about, and instead watch something a large group of old people in LA has decided is good because it's 2016 and we have to pretend that we aren't all a bunch of transphobic jerks anymore.  You are choosing to be bored. 

The Oscars are based on publicity campaigns that ape any presidential election, although the attack ads are more subtle.  The Oscars make you care about the feelings of rich people who don't care about you.  The Oscars make an argument for the American meritocracy, but are themselves the embodiment of "the-fix-is-in" capitalism.

The Oscars are boring as hell to watch, which is amazing for an industry that prides itself on entertaining people.

So when you are angry about the lack of people of color at the Academy Awards, you are angry that there aren't as many black people being honored for being part of mediocre garbage as white people.  You are angry that we didn't have anyone this year like Jamie Foxx who won an award for doing an excellent impression that didn't actually do all that much for you in a mediocre movie you (probably) didn't like that much.

There's the old saw that Jim Crow-gave-us-the-blues.  In other words, oppression and marginalization force groups to develop extraordinary cultural products outside the constraints of capitalism.  There're a lot of problems with that concept, but I think we can agree that there's something to that.  The problem, I acknowledge, is that movies cost a lot of money, so it's very hard for marginalized groups to make movies with budgets of even relatively small sizes by Hollywood standards, say $10 million.  And I acknowledge that there are amazing movies that were made because they had enormous budgets.  I get that.  I get all that.  But at this point, the best reaction to the Oscars is to ignore them, listen to people like me who tell you to watch something weird, wonderful, new, and that wasn't made for a lot of money, and to support filmmakers from marginalized groups who want to make movies.  Let's have more transgendered cowboys in black-and-white movies.  Yes, most of those movies suck too, but the best of them are wonderful.  Yes, I'm a goddamn snob, but capitalism has failed culture.

Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have decided to boycott the Oscars this year.  The truth is any white actor with self-respect should boycott them too, not just for the Academy and Hollywood's racism, but because the Oscars have proven again and again and again, that they can't properly judge whether or not a work is important, interesting or lasting.

Now, go read an essay bout lead poisoning in Flint's tap water.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

On My First Academic Publication

I received the proofs today for what will be my first peer-reviewed publication.  The article is about 7500 words long.  It is based on research that I conducted eight years ago.  It took me many years of thinking, writing, thinking some more, studying for my exams, and writing again, and then re-writing and more re-writing, to get it right.  I am a fast writer in at least one sense.  I stand up, walk around my room for an hour or three, listen to music, all while thinking about what I want to say.  I let my mind trail off into areas that have nothing to do with what I’m trying to write and then, after all that, I will sit down and bang out words and words and words, at a rate of about 750 an hour, thinking in terms of paragraphs, not sentences.  Then I stand up and walk around some more.  Some of those words are good.  Most of them are not good.  I worked harder and longer on these 7500 words than I have on anything else – journalism, teaching, hiking, learning a language, yoga, improving social skills -- in my life.

The article is set in fine type and it includes seven beautiful images for which I paid a significant amount of cash out of my own pocket.  In order to finish this work, I relied on the unpaid labor of many friends and generous souls.  I am not being paid a single cent for these 7500 words.  Professionally, this article is good for a line on my resume and, hopefully, the intellectual interest of higher-ranked academics who may consider me for a job.  I don’t expect to have that many readers beyond my wonderful editors, copy editor and anonymous peer reviewers.  This is unfortunate and sad, as I believe I have worked hard to express interesting and new ideas about a subject few people know about, and I would like the world to pay attention to these ideas, to pay attention to me, and even more so to the Hungarian animator who is the subject of this piece.  The article may garner some interest in Hungary and among animation enthusiasts…The key word is "may."  At the moment, I’m taking a great pleasure in proofreading and just looking at my article set in beautiful type.

You are supposed to get more conservative with age.  I would say that I’m more doubting and less sure of my ideas as I get older and that politically I’ve grown to be far more liberal.  Part of this has to do with the company I keep in grad school.  Part of this has to do with the major debacles that have shadowed my entire adult life.  Part of this has to do with an increasing suspicion of capitalism and a bit of narcissism and anger that I live in a system that only values craftsmanship if it offers an obvious social utility.  I would like to think that these 7500 words do some good work for the world, that they educate other people about a wonderful artist and an interesting culture, that they express complicated ideas in an interesting way, that they offer some pleasure to a certain group of people.  Still, I hate the fact that, in most circles, I have to make argument for why these 7500 words provide any such uses.  I wish we could just support craftsmanship for its own sake.   

Monday, January 11, 2016

On David Bowie

I knew a lot of people who loved the way he dressed, but it was at least 20 years since Ziggy Stardust, and no one really aspired to imitate him, his looks, or his elegance.  I knew a lot of people who thought his androgyny was kind of cool, people who also got off on fag jokes.  He was a dandy, of course, but to call him our Oscar Wilde doesn't make sense.  Oscar Wilde was never a deity.  Bowie was, but no one really listened to his message, which is the case with most deities.  He didn't change the way people lived their lives.  He gave the weirdos some comfort, but the homophobes liked him just as much.  CCR, Motown and John Lennon didn't stop the Vietnam War, and, according to the statistics, the world was just as uptight about sex and gender fluidity after Bowie's major breakthrough as it was before.  Things did change for the better, but not because of him.

Did he want to be a deity?  I don't think so.  You got the sense in his interviews that he was a "real person", well aware of the absurdity of celebrity, and his odd status, from his mid-30s on, as the glam-rock equivalent of the aging hippie.

In Velvet Goldmine, Christian Bale runs his hands sensually over a record by Johnathan Rhys Meyer's Bowie stand-in.  A few shots later, he's screaming.  "That's me, dad.  That's me."  That was never my experience with Bowie.  (I had that with Dylan and Johnny Cash.  I still love the former, but I outgrew my desire to be him.  My envy of the latter increases with age.)  It's sacrilege, but to me, Bowie will always be my Goblin King, an awesome, mysterious adult friend, who would say that he liked you, but claim that he didn't need you.  Whether he meant it or not, I didn't really care.  I loved that man.  

Friday, January 8, 2016

On Star Wars and Cinephilia

I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my family in LA on Christmas Day.  Our reaction matched the critical consensus: It didn't do much new.  It was a nostalgic exercise.

There were a few new things.  I'll list them here:

1. Of the two leads, one was an ethnic minority.
2. The swashbuckling hero at its center was female.
3. JJ Abrams forefronts characters who adopt what is perceived to be nerd-like qualities in an attempt to flatter an audience of millions who somehow think of themselves as outcasts.  Kylo Ren is emo, which unfortunately diminishes his menace.  Finn is a bumbler who just can't listen to "the man" anymore.  The comic high point in the film features his juvenile acting-out against his former boss. Rey's first attempt to use the force is charmingly awkward, similar to a crash-and-burn montage in a superhero origin story.
4. Kylo Ren's light saber's deadly handles, which suggest that this "civilized weapon" is now just a cruel tool for mutilation, like the can openers of medieval Swedish soldiers.
5. Kylo Ren's methodical beating of his bloody wound during his climactic fight with Rey.  It looked like something Mifune would do in a Kurosawa fight scene.
6. Mark Hamill looking sort of cool. (I expect/hope that this movie along with his appearance in The Kingsman and the Flash tv series, will offer him a second career as a campy character actor in adventure movies.)
7. Slightly more brutal depictions of mass killings and genocide.
8. The racism was mostly limited to the yakuza-like gang that hunts down Han Solo.  At least, they aren't grotesque animalistic caricatures.  bell hooks would notice more problems, but I'll take this as a small victory.
9. Cameos by great actors who really wanted to be in a Star Wars movie. (Daniel Craig, Max von Sydow).
10. Old Mark Hamill, old Carrie Fischer, old Harrison Ford.  I liked old Mark Hamill and old Carrie Fischer.  Old Harrison Ford, who made his fantastic debut in Hollywood Homicide 12 years ago, but who lost his genius in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, bored me.

In short, the movie functions as solid but unimaginative fan fiction.  (Fan fiction can be very imaginative.  This wasn't.)  Abrams did for Star Wars what Bendis did for Spider-Man.  He placed the original fans within the narrative and put in some good ideas the fans might have hashed out.  He's intelligent, but he doesn't take any risks.  The prequels now seem almost admirable in their colossal failure.  There is something almost noble in George Lucas's decision to ignore the desires of his fans, indulge his inner Ed Wood and give them something completely      

The original trilogy is a triumph of excess.  It demands that the viewer watch it over and over again, study every little side character who appears for just a few seconds of screen time, and dig the landscapes that were shot on location in the Redwoods and Tunisia.  The Star Wars action figure line encouraged this excess.  Kids bought action figures of characters who appeared for only 10 seconds on screen and endowed them with narratives and backstories of their own.  At the time, Lucas was still a talented filmmaker.  He knew that he didn't need to show off Boba Fett's whole costume, or film the entirety of Jabba the Hut's ship, and that by denying the complete knowledge of his universe, he encouraged his viewers to indulge in the mise-en-scene.  You couldn't stop "looking" at the screen, or listening to the sound effects.

The prequels and reissues failed by overpopulating the screen with all the toys Lucas wanted to show off.  He was gosh darn proud of everything his team had produced in their workshops and he wanted you to see their work.  Abrams returns to the original trilogy's relative minimalism, but his team only managed to give us passable knock-offs of those awesome puppets.  I hated looking at Lucas's prequels.  I didn't hate looking at Abrams's movie, but I didn't have a burning desire to do so.

Star Wars was one of the first movies I ever loved.  The others were Little Shop of Horrors and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  The first adult (i.e. R-rated movie) I loved was Blade Runner.  All of them encouraged that "looking".  Every child is born a cinephile.  The trick is making him stay a cinephile.  So many of us become adults and decide to just kick back and enjoy a good story with our buddies.  I doubt Star Wars: The Force Awakens could encourage a future cinephile.  I don't know if there are any big budget movies made in the last 15 years that could.  The guys at Pixar try, but they never really succeed.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

On Death Valley

I spent the last three weeks on the road, driving from Seattle to Portland, along the Oregon coast, into the Redwoods, then San Francisco, along Big Sur, in LA for a few days, then up through Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Reno, Mt. Shasta, the scenic 99 corridor in central Oregon and finally back to Portland.  I am now 80 miles south of Seattle, in a motel room in Chehalis.  There's a snowstorm, a weather phenomenon this part of the country is not prepared for.  I nearly went into a skid and hit a truck.  I decided to take no more risks on this trip.  I'm here until the morning, then I head home for the final short leg of my trip.

I travelled with my mom from San Francisco along the Big Sur into LA.  We met my brother in LA, and together we spent five days discovering the second biggest city in the US: the Art Deco buildings in downtown LA, a screening of His Girl Friday at a small theater, drives along the Malibu coast, into the mountains, a house that looked like a Bond villain lair, the Getty, a shop run by a poster artist from Nashville, celebrity sightings of Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Alanis Morissette and Sam Elliott, a Warner Bros. studio tour which spent more time showing sets from sitcoms than movies.

The highlight was Death Valley.  For those of you who haven't been, there's a section of about 8 or so sights that you can drive to, experience and leave in a good eight hours.  It's a standard tour and I recommend it to everyone.  There's more I could write about and discuss, but I will just share one thought from this day of the trip.

I've done a lot of hiking in the mountains outside Seattle these past few years, always in Meetup groups.  I've seen some wonderful views.  I've met interesting people on Meetups, but for the most part, I prefer not to talk or hear people talk once we get to the top and experience the scenery, the moment, the spectacle.  The first site I went to at Death Valley was Badwater, the site of accumulated salt deposits.  It's the lowest point in North America and is about 40 or so square miles.  If you remain within 100 feet of the parking lot, like most of the visitors, you see a nice view, but you don't really experience the vastness or the emptiness, the silence, all those things about Death Valley that are celebrated at the Visitor Center.  To experience those things, you need to walk maybe 10 minutes away from the crowd.  I walked for 15 minutes.  I could still hear the crowds in the distance, but their voices were reduced to a low murmur.  There were about 10 other people who did what I did.  We could all see each other, but we all knew what we were doing and silently agreed to stay at least 200 feet away from each other at all times.  The Devil's Golf Course is a large rocky salt pan.  Again, the vastness, again the parking lot with the people.  You only had to walk 100 feet in order to escape the parking lot and feel a little bit alone.  (We read these moments in terms of our own experiences.  If I had grown up reading National Geographic and studying nature, I would probably not be treating these moments as science-fiction/fantasies.  [Star Wars was filmed in another part of the valley.])

All I'm saying is that there are times when it takes so little to escape a crowd, I don't understand why more people don't.  If you're a religious person, wouldn't you rather treat these places as churches and shut the hell up when you visit them?  There are so many places where you can talk about your daily life, why bring your political opinions, ideas, careers, everything to a national park which is, or should be, the great equalizer in American society?

I had a great time.