Wednesday, February 24, 2016

On a Bad Debater

The rules of discussion: I respect the other person and I am interested in what that person has to say. That person respects me and is interested in what I have to say. If I did not respect him or was not interested in what he had to say, or vice versa, there would be no point in having a discussion. If I partake in a discussion, I hope to learn from the other person, as well as to teach the other person some of my ideas.

The rules of compromise: I want something. The other person wants something. Unfortunately, for me to get everything I want would deny the other person everything that he wants. If I can accept living in a world in which I do not get this particular thing that I want, I am willing to enter into a compromise.

The rules of debate: I have a belief that I hold very strongly. The other person holds a belief that he holds very strongly. We argue, using evidence and logic, as well as our own intelligence. And hopefully, I am able to prove my point and "win" in the judgement of a third party.

It's rare for a conversation in our political culture to only be a discussion, a compromise, or a debate. It's actually healthy to combine each of these three categories, depending on the situation or the topic at hand.

Donald Trump is not a good compromiser or discusser (apparently, that's a word). He disrespects almost all of his interlocutors. And, by the standards of academia, he's a terrible debater. He doesn't rely on evidence, facts, or logic, and he assumes anyone with a different opinion is stupid.

And that's why he'll win.

The pundit class is naive to think that Hillary Clinton, with all her intelligence, would destroy him in a debate. As far as the general populace is concerned, a good debater doesn't stand a chance against a bad debater. Donald Trump is not a civilized man. And you can't use civilization's tools to defeat him.

Friday, February 12, 2016

On Deadpool

I miss opening credits. They were the show openers, and superhero movies had some great ones. The opening of Superman began with a young boy reading Action Comics #1.  The camera pans up to outer space and we see the cast and crew named one-by-one, through silver three-dimensional font that shoots on the screen in laser effect. Soundtrack: John Williams. Batman Returns is more gonzo/gothic. The shadow of baby Penguin's carriage looms through the sewers of Gotham. Soundtrack: Danny Elfman. The opening credits of Spider-Man 2 was a montage of Alex Ross paintings. Soundtrack: Elfman, again.

There are opening credits for Deadpool, but I found that odd, as the superhero movies of the past ten years, the movies it parodies, don't have opening credits or memorable scores. The camera shifts around a still of a set-piece action scene in the movie. A car filled with goons is suspended in air, Deadpool with them.  The camera captures every CGI detail, the bullet, the blood and the in-jokes. The credits don't name anyone but the archetypes that we know from superhero movies, like the "British villain", the "moody teenager", and the "comic relief." The movie is directed by "some douchebag." I wanted to engage with the spectacle and I wanted to laugh. I really really wanted to laugh, but I couldn't.


I got into Marvel Comics when I was in fifth grade in 1991, which was the nadir in the history of Marvel Comics. Its most celebrated artist at the time was Todd McFarlane, who turned Spider-Man into a dumb jock, diminished his wit and accentuated his sadism. There was a new character named Cable who was just a big guy with guns. My mom didn't want me reading any of the violent comics. I read them anyway, in secret, though I honestly didn't like them that much. I preferred the reprints of the '60s comics, the humanism of Jack Kirby, or my brother's comics from the '80s, the S and M of Claremont's X-Men. (When I got older, I realized that Claremont is a miserable writer.) 

I stopped reading comics when I was in sixth grade. I wanted to spend my money on CDs. The comics all started sounding the same, and the plots weren't that imaginative. I wanted to read "real books." I read The Sun Also Rises when I was in seventh grade and I related more to Robert Cohn's pathetic attempts at heroism than I did Peter Parker's. I got back into comics when I was in college, and I loved Mark Millar's take on the X-Men and the Avengers (Ultimates) and Bendis's Spider-Man. 

So I more or less skipped over the age of Deadpool in the '90s. I picked up an issue a few years ago just to see what it was all about and I saw the in-jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall, and I thought, these jokes are old. They are literally 60 years old. Self-reflexivity has been part of superhero comics since at least the 1940s, when Clark Kent and Lois Lane walked into a movie theater and watched a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon.  Deadpool's breaking of the fourth wall, his hipster jokes about the superhero genre, weren't that clever. Alan Moore's were better. 

The comics did have some good violence, but I wasn't that into it. It's not that I was opposed to violence. I rocked out to A Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs like everyone else, and later on, Blood Meridian became my favorite novel for about two months, but Marvel Comics violence in that era was rarely placed well within the genre. There was no ritual around it. It was random, empty. 
We don't just love violence. We love violence that is designed, placed within a narrative. We love it when the Bride slices off the limbs of the Crazy 88s, and we love Darryl Hannah's short-circuit in Blade Runner because Tarantino and Ridley Scott, respectively, have been preparing that dance, the moment when these human characters get their Gene Kelly moment, and become something sublime.  You remember the ending of Bonnie and Clyde because the entire two hours of the movie has been building towards a moment in which hundreds of squib shots destroy a beautiful young couple. 

The violence of Deadpool is constant, random and meaningless. Or rather, it's only meaning lies in its meaninglessness, of the constant joking from Deadpool that it's just fun to watch and that it is meaningless. The violence in Deadpool all comes from CGI. It looks like a computer game. Nothing is at stake in Deadpool and it offers you no physical sensations, because CGI fails the body genre.  And the movie remains fully aware of that fact, and it can't stop joking about it. It's like a frat boy who tells racist jokes, and laughs at them as post-racism, all as a protection against his actual racism. 

The best joke in the movie may or may not be intentional, and lies in the hilarious cheapness of its CGI Colossus, a reminder that this is a low-rent Marvel movie, one that, Deadpool reminds us, can't afford more than the rights to two X-Men characters. The movie tells jokes about Ryan Reynolds's poor acting, and how its hot-chick lead fits every nerd desire, and it drops the names of Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy and alludes to some homoerotic weirdness with Hugh Jackman, and not one of those jokes has any wit. It makes fun of the Reynolds's animated costume in Green Lantern, which in itself, is a joke on the animated awfulness of Deadpool.  

I guess this is all the point of the movie, and it's your choice to surrender to the pandering, the violence, and the meta-ness. Well, I don't really want to surrender to it. I have enough faith that someone besides Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi can still make a fun and interesting superhero movie, and I don't want to accept a movie that celebrates the genre's badness and tries to convince you that it's not actually bad.

It's been almost 20 years since the Marvel revival began with Blade, and that's long enough ago that we can have something bordering on nostalgia for that sorta-kinda-golden-age-compared-to-what-we-have-now.  And, frankly, just as comics have always been self-reflexive, superhero movies have been telling jokes about themselves since Clark Kent couldn't find a phone booth in the first Superman movie.  So if you want wit, I'll give you wit. I'll give you evidence that you can be amused by something semi-intelligent in a moment of extreme tension, that you can have something of what Claude Rains has in Casablanca buried right there in a superhero movie.  

In the denouement in X-Men, Magneto faces off with Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and Phoenix in the Statue of Liberty:

Cyclops: Storm, fry him!
Magneto: Oh yes! A bolt of lightning through a copper conductor. I thought you lived at a school?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Football

I was never a football fan.  I think it's in my genes.  Forgetting the emptiness of the rhetoric around its violence, I usually just found it boring to watch.  I've never been a big sports fan in general, but I could get into soccer during the World Cup.  A good baseball game gives me joy.  Maybe I like sports in which you can see the faces of the players.  Maybe that adds to the drama.

There have been a lot of flare-ups in the NFL and college football these last few years.  My hometown football team has been defending its right to advertise itself with an ugly racist symbol.  A promising openly gay football player proved not to be quite good enough to make it.  A major state university turned a blind eye to a serial child molester in order to save its program.  Exploitation of college players!  Bullying in the locker room!  Destroying the economics of the university system!  White Male Capitalist Patriarchy! It's all connected! It's all connected! It's all connected!

I would care about any or all of these issues if not for the one big one. No football fan can plead ignorance anymore. When you watch a game, you are watching people destroy themselves and each other, hit by hit, concussion by concussion, blood by blood. I am TAing a class on Cult Cinema this quarter.  The professor and I were chatting recently about how cult cinema barely exists for the younger generation of filmgoers.  When snapshots from snuff films can appear on the cover of daily newspapers, there's really not much you can do to shock anyone with stylized violence, fictional constructions.

So, I don't care if football players can be homophobic, or if that whole cheerleading thing is sexist, or if the whole system screws up the economics of the modern university system, or the racism that continues to haunt the institution. None of that matters, when you are surrounded by millions and millions of people who get off on watching a snuff film in slow time.

Monday, February 1, 2016

On Trump

Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, once said, "All politics is identity politics."  Sure, there were plenty of black voters in Chicago who were voting for him because he was black, he was saying, but there were plenty of white voters who were voting for his opponents because they were white.  More significantly, voters are always seeking for some way to identify with their candidate. Policies mattered, but so did a belief that the candidate in question knew and understood who you were and that you knew and understood who he was in a spirit of mutual respect and empathy.

I had that with Obama in 2008.  He could have been a guy on my dorm.  Every upper-middle-class white intellectual had a sucker moment with him.  Mine came in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which he mentioned his love for Philip Roth novels.  I liked Philip Roth novels too!  We could be friends!  I don't think he's a bad president, but my identification has soured in recent years.  He and his wife voice contempt for the humanities in favor of STEM, a philosophy that threatens everything I hold dear about academic life.  He tells jokes about drone warfare.  I'd vote for a third term, I guess, but I wouldn't do so with much excitement.

I am well aware of the difference between persona and person, but the subconscious is working on you whether or not you know it's working on you.  Bernie Sanders's goofball biography (Kibbutz for a year, a bad folk album) makes him the kind of guy I would keep as a lifelong friend.  Hilary Clinton's nose-to-the-grindstone, resume-padding, status-seeking, 17-hour/day, 40-year-long working life makes her the kind of person I would have known and respected in high school and probably never have seen again.  So, Bernie for me.  (Yes, I do prefer his policies, want to see the country move left, all the rest.)

There have been a lot of arguments as to why so many people identify with Donald Trump.  Who are these people?  I've never met any.  Have you?  They're all racists and xenophobes and assholes.  They are a bunch of old white people who are angry that the world hasn't given them what they want.  They are the kind of people who would blow their lottery winnings at Caesars Palace.

Some of that's true, some of it is more complicated. If you wonder why a rude, bigoted, obnoxious, know-nothing jerk could excite the love of so many, consider this about yourself:

Do you like listening to people who disagree with you?  Do you like listening to people who make you feel stupid?  Do you like listening to people who act like they know who you are but don't have the slightest idea?  Do you like it when these people try to become the most powerful person in the world?  Have you never wanted to go on stage during a debate, punch every single one of them in the face, tell everyone there to go fuck themselves?

What do these people see when they look at Trump?  They see themselves cursing with impotent rage at the TV.