Monday, May 30, 2016

On Kris Kristofferson's "Vietnam Blues"

Listen to "Vietnam Blues". It's a talking country song, about a soldier who returns home and encounters hippie protesters who care more about the North Vietnamese than his fallen comrades. Kris Kristofferson, a combat veteran but no war monger, wrote it. He later disowned it. He discusses the song in a documentary clip from the early 1990s. He tries to play the song, but he stops. He says that it reflected an anger he felt at the time, an anger which he now feels was misdirected.

I think it's a brilliant song. It forces you inside the mind of a man  who has suffered severe traumas that you have not suffered. He lives in pain, for himself and for his lost friends. He meets people from a different social class who don't understand and don't seem to much care for his pain. The hero of the song may believe in a war you don't believe in, but surely, if you give your self five seconds, you can relate to his rage and his contempt for people who don't understand him. "All I mean to say is, I don't like dying either. But man, I ain't gonna crawl." I can be a sucker for right-wing kitsch, but this isn't kitsch. This is raw storytelling.

Sometimes I connect to a great work of art in part if not wholly because it comports with my political worldview. Like a lot of people, I forgave a lot of problems in The Wire because it understood Baltimore. I like stories because they tell me a little about myself. I like stories because they tell me about people I don't know and who might have more in common with myself than I know or would like to know.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

On X-Men: Apocalypse

The always wonderful David Edelstein has a damn good review of X-Men: Apocalypse, which I saw last night. It may have taken several dozen reviews for him to get there, but he's become one of the few film critics who don't read comics who understand the virtues of superhero movies. No, a bad superhero movie isn't bad because it is bloated. Man of Steel sucks because it is a miserable, empty, humorless film, not because of its ridiculous go-for-broke plot. And special effects can be wonderful in and of themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse has a lot going for it. Singer understands the pleasure of dipping into the movie, hanging out in the mythical universe for awhile and meeting some friendly acquaintances. There's nothing all that new here. You don't know anything about the main players you didn't know before. Still there are three separate issues with the movie Edelstein touches on that are worth thinking about.

1. In the action-scene highlight, Evan Peters's Quicksilver saves (spoiler) almost everyone in the Xavier's mansion from an explosion. Apparently it took three and a half months to make this scene work. The filmmakers used a 3100 fps camera which moved at 50 mph in order to get the extreme, meticulous slow-motion. I don't know what else was involved. I'd like to know more, but it's amazing to watch these bodies negotiate their place against the backgrounds.  I noted in my discussion of The Jungle Book, that the multiplanar effects turned the jungle into a space that constantly switched between the 2D and the 3D. Something similar is happening here. It's not clear whether the bodies or the backgrounds are flattened, but the bodies remain frozen as they gently move in space, like still drawings on the page. 

Peters is what Jake Gyllenhaal would be if Gyllenhaal had a little more wit and if his weirdness didn't come across as a put-on.

2. In the emotional high-point of the film, a group of his fellow Polish factory workers, who have just discovered Magneto's identity and his powers, lure him into the woods by taking his daughter hostage. Things go awry. Even after Magneto surrenders, one of the men accidentally shoots a bow-and-arrow and kills Magneto's wife and daughter. Magneto kills the men, not in rage, but in sorrow. And as he holds the corpses of his second family, he wonders at a universe that is forcing him, over and over again, against all his wishes, to turn him into a monster. I've written about Magneto before, and about the problems and virtues of the uses of the Holocaust in Marvel Comics. I don't know what I can say that I haven't already said. I didn't much care for Singer's decision to return to Auschwitz, but the movie reaches its moral high point with this execution. Magneto is the most Shakespearean of the Marvel Comic villains, as well as the most Jewish. 

3. We will always be fascinated by the distance between the wheelchair-bound Christopher Reeve and the soaring, joyful Superman of the 1970s. In a few years, if we aren't already, we may be wondering at the distance between the X-Men movies' coming-out fairy tales populated with post-pubescent bodies, and the pool parties at Bryan Singer's mansion in which the average age lingers around 17.2. I don't think Singer has broken any laws. In fact, I'm pretty sure he hasn't. He seems to be the kind of guy who has read the laws very carefully and knows how much he can and how much he can't get away with. I'm also not sure if everything he's done should be illegal. I'm also not entirely sure he's outright destroyed the lives of every one of these young men he's touched, but I'm sure he's hurt a few of them. There's a long tradition in coming-out stories of young men who look to older mentors for their initiations. Some of these initiations have led to long and happy relationships. Some of these initiations involve exploitation and misery. Hollywood being Hollywood, I imagine there's more exploitation and misery and less healthy mentorship at Singer's mansion. In real life, coming-out and finding a place in the world, whether you are gay or straight, is messier and more miserable and humiliating than it is in the X-Men movies.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

On Indignation

I saw James Schamus's adaptation of Philip Roth's Indignation last night. It's part of SIFF, a huge film festival in Seattle. Schamus was there to take questions. I read the novel when it came out and unfortunately my memory of it seven years later isn't strong enough for me to make an adequate comparison to the movie. But what the hell...

Spoilers: Both the novel and film take place at a small WASPy college in Ohio during the Korean War. The protagonist is a smart-alecky nice Jewish boy from Newark. He becomes involved with a sexy, psychotic blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christian girl. He makes some bad alliances, some bad choices, and in the end he dies a virgin -- well, maybe not, it depends on your definition of sex -- in Korea.

There's one fantastic extended scene between the hero, played by Logan Lerman, and the dean, played by Tracy Letts, in which almost all the dialogue, according to Schamus, was lifted from the book. It's an elliptical debate in which you hear the dance of language and you can sense the joy in the actors as they chew on each piece of dialogue, as they talk around issues of sex and the claims to territory between dominant and non-dominant groups. You don't see enough of this kind of thing in mainstream American cinema outside of Tarantino movies. 

But the rest of the movie is boring and bloodless. Adaptations are not about realizing an ur-text in a new medium. They are about using a source text to describe something new. Still, there's so much more Schamus could have lifted from Roth. I don't expect him to adapt the long description from the novel about the workings of a kosher butcher shop, although, now that I think of it, a long 15-minute mini-documentary about life in a kosher butcher shop stuck right in the middle of a movie like this would have been wonderful. I do expect him to try to realize some of Roth's sexual madness. No self-respecting gay man, or human being in general, liked the sex scene in the Schamus-written Brokeback Mountain. You didn't believe for one second that Jake Gyllenhaal was taking anything from Heath Ledger. Where were the bodily fluids? What exactly was at stake? Indignation has the lamest blow job and lamest hand job I have ever seen on the screen. Roth can't help but describe cum in his prose. You need to go broad to make these scenes work. I needed something like Vince Vaughan's near-ejaculation face from Wedding Crashers or the masturbation scene at the end of Happiness. I needed to see some cum on the screen, dripping off a lip or soiling a hand. 

Roth's heroes die because they need to cum. You need to show that cum on the screen. Without it, you just can't get the comedy, nor the tragedy.   

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On A Rap on Race

Last night I saw A Rap on Race, a new performance/play/whatever from the always wonderful Anna Deveare Smith and Donald Byrd. The play dramatizes the famous marathon conversation/debate between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin that was first distilled into a collection of LPs and then transcribed into a book. Except for one or two cues, the entirety of the dialogue is lifted word-for-word from the original LPs. The conversations are interspersed with violent dance numbers choreographed by Byrd and set to Charles Mingus. Julie Briskman plays Mead as a professor, always poised, always ready to pounce and defend herself when she must. Byrd himself plays Baldwin, effete, ironic, fun, and a little melancholic, constantly composing his sentences in his head, free styling in a voice that is one part gospel, one part Henry James, and one part what one critic once called "high faggot."

I never read the book or listened to the original conversation. I know very little about Mead. I've read I think six of Baldwin's books, but only one of them, Giovanni's Room, at all carefully. There's a lot of charisma in his prose as there was in Baldwin the man, but I've puzzled over many of his sentences through the years and I've still only been able gleam some of their meaning. He's an enigmatic man and an enigmatic thinker, refusing over and over again to fall back on any conventional wisdom. I find the comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Baldwin annoying because Coates is anything but enigmatic and is quite happy to serve as the town herald. I guess I have enough knowledge to guess that Mead's claims about how various cultures engage with white skin have probably been disproven and I know enough to know the voice of a white liberal when I hear it. But Mead comes across as the kind of intellectual who is most brilliant when she is wrong. 

In the post-play discussion an audience member said exactly what someone always needs to say when asked why they would adapt a conversation from 1970 for the stage. "Because it's still relevant and isn't that depressing." Byrd himself has an interest in many academic debates in the African-American Studies departments, particularly of "Afro-pessimism." I would like to offer at least one other reason why the play is so significant.

The dramatic high-point of the play comes as Mead and Baldwin debate the meaning of the word "exile." Baldwin calls himself an "exile" and demands that Mead call herself that as well. She denies the word over and over again, saying that she is at home everywhere, in Samoa and the States. In the post-play discussion Briskman claimed that on the original tapes Mead, that intellectual giant, is reduced to a four-year-old girl. She almost sounds meek as she sees her white liberal bullshit exposed. But Briskman doesn't play Mead as meek. In the play she is petulant and the repetition of the word "exile" between Mead and Baldwin does something on the stage it can't do on the page. The word takes on so many different meanings. It falls apart. You begin to ask, "If everyone can be an exile, does that mean no one is?" "If the black man must consider himself an exile in America, does the white man become an exile too the more he contemplates the black man, the more determined he becomes to explain why the black man is different?" "Who has claim to the continent and at what point if any does history stop impinging on the present?" 

Why do we need this play so much today? In an era in which our discourse has been reduced to "I Talk. You Listen" and in which we are constantly searching for the next successful white person to say something stupid so we can force him or her to wear the Scarlet Letter "R" and in which the word "privilege" has become a trite expression used by the self-important and which has itself been divorced of any meaning, it's a great pleasure to hear an interesting debate. Baldwin wins. He beats Mead, not because he is black and therefore the real expert on the subject of race. He wins because he understands the concept of irony and the elasticity of language, which is another way of saying that, unlike Mead the anthropologist, he understands what it means to be human, what it means to not have all the answers nor all of the questions.  

There are two more performances of A Rap on Race, tonight and tomorrow afternoon. You should see  it if you can. Hopefully, there will be more productions.

Monday, May 16, 2016

On the Gold-Star Pedophile

I've been watching The Family on ABC. It's not a good show, but it highlights a figure who exists in our world that we tend to ignore in our fiction, a figure Dan Savage has called the gold-star pedophile. The gold-star pedophile wants to molest/have sex with children, but has the moral character to not act upon his impulses. Andrew McCarthy is excellent. He plays his pedophile as a lonely, emasculated middle-aged man with childlike qualities. He loves puppies and ships-in-a-bottle. He desires a certain kind of touch he will never know. He's wrongly convicted of kidnapping and raping a child and spends 10 years in prison. His exoneration is not enough for redemption, at least in the eyes of the virtuous society. He is still on the sex offender registry for a more minor crime, masturbating in a car while watching children play in the park. He didn't hurt any of the children, but the behavior was inappropriate and it betrayed his evil desires.

You can't control your sexual desires. I'm of the belief that sexual desires develop with a combination of nature and nurture. Gay-rights activists want to tell you differently, but their message is wrong. The question is not whether or not you are, as Lady Gaga says, "born this way." The question is whether or not the act is in and of itself wrong. Gay sex between consenting adults is not wrong. It is an intrinsic good.

I try to avoid universalizing statements. It's possible, I believe, for a pre-pubescent child to not suffer long-term psychological damage from molestation. But the probability of such psychological damage is high enough that I condemn the act.

I think that many people have had a passing desire for a pre-pubescent, maybe during the early stages of their own puberty. The vast majority of them will never admit to these desires. Surmise what you want from reading this post. If I ever had these desires myself, I'm smart enough not to admit it.

It's possible to be born a raging pedophile I suppose, and if so, puberty must really suck for people whose primary desire is for children. They know by that point that sex with children can have destructive consequences. And if their primary sexual urges are for inherently evil acts they must accept a life without experiencing a certain kind of touch.

Society's disgust for anyone who admits to these desires might be rooted in a hatred for the crime. Parents feel a particular rage and that's understandable. The disgust may also be rooted in an anger at ourselves for having these evil thoughts. All those cop shows about child molestation, rape, and murder...All those gangster flicks...Do people watch them because they identify with the police?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

On Cults

Put together a group of 100 people. Give these 100 people one relatively controversial topic. Maybe it's abortion, the existence of god, the uses of affirmative action, the progressive income tax, the flat tax, the use of prisons and the police, or the right to burn a country's flag. It's understandable, and I would say acceptable, for all 100 of these people to have the exact same opinion of this particular controversial topic, to feel emotional about the subject, and to believe in the exact same remedy to the problem if a remedy is needed.

Now give these 100 people two controversial topics. If they still have the exact same opinion, feel emotional about the subject, and believe in the exact same remedy...that is still okay. It is possible and acceptable for 100 people to have the exact same opinion on two topics and to respond similarly.

Give them three topics, then four, then five, then 10. If they respond in the exact same way to 10 controversial topics, we should start to worry. These 100 people may not be thinking for themselves. They may be developing a fundamentalist system whereby every question, no matter how ambiguous, must have a definite answer. They may be creating a group that discourages dissent.

20 topics. 40 topics. 100 topics. 1000 topics...

Now you might say that certain movements are so clearly righteous that it is perfectly acceptable for such a large number of people to hold the exact same opinion on these subjects. The histories of the best movements, like say the civil rights movement, with its many often embittered factions, suggest otherwise.

I don't think I have ever been in a room of more than five people who share my opinion on even 10 controversial topics. If you have been in such a room, we probably aren't friends.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Zimmerman's Gun

My old friend Thomas Vinciguerra wrote a piece for the Times five years ago about "murderabilia." He posted it on Facebook after it was announced that George Zimmerman would be auctioning the gun he used to shoot Trayvon Martin. [As of this writing, the gun has been taken off the auction site.] Zimmerman's behavior is despicable and downright strange. He might be a more complex figure than we know, but as of now, he has "crossed that line between everyday villain and cartoonish super-villainy." I'm more interested in the mindset of the kind of person who would buy this gun.

I don't quite know who's buying the murderabilia described in Vinciguerra's article, but the history of the market for Nazi artifacts may offer a clue. That market had two kinds of buyers, anti-Semites and Jews. The anti-Semites made a fetish out of objects that encapsulated their worldview. The Jews obtained such material in the interest of analyzing them, distilling them and hopefully depriving them of their power. Zimmerman's gun may be of interest to racists. It may be of interest to black people who want to better understand the power of this banal object.

The binary doesn't quite work. There are those who collect Nazi memorabilia along with World War II American propaganda. In Tallinn in 2006, I went to a shop which sold military wear and paraphernalia, including Soviet and Nazi artifacts. I bought a 1990s Estonian military hat with the Estonian flag right on the front. No one in the States knew where it was from and that was the fun of wearing it. No, I can't believe I gave my money, even for an object that to me at the time represented democracy and a new ideal of Europe, to someone who sold Nazi paraphernalia either. I talked to the owner later by phone for a story that ran in the Baltic Times, which doesn't seem to be available online. He was an old soldier from the Soviet period and he said he didn't much care for Nazis or Communists. By selling all these objects together, the shop owner was commodifying them and divorcing them of any history. Together these objects depicted an idea of conflict, of war, of the nation-state, but they didn't allow for any value judgements one way or another. Remove any one of those objects individually from the store, place them in a private home and they become something else entirely.  

I recognize that these analogies don't entirely work. There's a difference between selling material weapons that we know were used for killing people and icons of violence. But I do wonder if there's a possible buyer of Zimmerman's gun who is not a raging racist or gun nut who wants to fetishize the object, nor a civil rights or anti-violence activist who wants to divorce it of power, but a collector shockingly ignorant of its historical and moral weight.

Part of me thinks Zimmerman's gun belongs in a museum. I don't know how much educational value such a gun would have, but it may contain the aura of America's insane gun culture. Future generations may regard it with the same mixture of disgust and morbid curiosity with which we now consider overseer whips and hangman nooses.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On Microaggressions

Microaggressions are real. If you are a person of color, a woman, a follower of a non-Christian religion, a member of the LGBT community, an immigrant, a person with a disability, or a person with a high BMI you have suffered a microaggression.

I'm not being facetious. We are always hurting each other. We are always saying something stupid about groups of people we don't know that much about.

Microaggressions affect everyone differently. If you tell me that you knew I was gay when you saw me try to throw a football, I'll be pretty pissed off. A gay friend of mine wouldn't care. I saw a documentary about Berkeley a couple of years ago. A black student mentioned that people were often surprised to see him in advanced math classes, but he shrugged it off. A black woman was furious with the assumptions people had of her due to her race.

The problem with microaggressions lie in the accumulation and, yes, they did affect me at one time in my life. I'm 35. I'm too old to care now. I try not to judge whether microaggressions upset you or not or whether the accumulation of these microaggressions weighs on you or not.

Everyone is guilty of committing microaggressions, whether they recognize their guilt or not. I don't like the word "microaggression," as it suggests intent on the part of the perpetrator. We need a better word.

I don't believe you solve the problem of microaggressions with committees or virtue classes. Certain kinds of microaggressions come and go with changes in culture. Model proper behavior for one another. If you are a teacher, try to be respectful and avoid stereotyping your students. You'll still make plenty of mistakes. But if you make fewer assumptions, you'll make fewer mistakes. Your students will in turn learn to make fewer assumptions and they will make fewer mistakes.

There is a difference between active bullying and microaggressions. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell the difference.

There are times you want to scream at someone if they commit a microaggression against you. You can do that if you want. You may be fully justified. I once said something dickish to a friend about his race. He could have screamed at me. Considering what I said, he damn well had the right. But he just quietly pointed it out, shamed me a little. I learned. We're still friends. I recently said something dickish about someone's disability. A friend gently corrected me. I was ashamed. I'm still ashamed. I learned. A lot of people very close to me have said dickish things to me about my sexuality. I gently but firmly told them that the things they said were wrong. They were defensive, but they never said those things again. We're still friends.

Here are things you should fight for at the ballot box: the right of every woman to get an abortion, the closure of the gender wage gap, the eradication of gay conversion therapy for adolescents, the end of the prison industrial complex, peace, school lunches, better health care, universal college tuition, police accountability, a more progressive income tax, a higher minimum wage, more union power, global warming. Workplace discrimination sucks. Fight workplace discrimination, but focus on the unfair denial of promotions, unfair hiring practices, and the wage gap. Focus on material consequences and less so on psychological pain.

I sympathize with you. If you are a woman or a member of a minority group, this society will hurt you and hurt you. It will humiliate you and humiliate you and then, when you think it can't humiliate you anymore, it will find a way to humiliate you again. You have every right to feel hurt. But be careful about adjudicating microaggressions. You don't get to penalize people for being human.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

On Language and Violence

I first heard that language could be a form of violence when I came to graduate school six years ago. Oh, I knew that the "n-word" could be the equivalent of a punch in the face for a black person, but beyond that, the rhetoric that claimed that stupid ideas and dickish language could physically hurt someone was not really part of my worldview. I read "Politics and the English Language". I thought the lesson was clear. "Let's torture people" was preferable to "Let's commit enhanced interrogation." You could debate and hopefully defeat the former. The latter subverted the English language itself and made evil respectable.

I guess I could put together a more reasoned argument as to why I don't think "That's so gay!", "These college rape statistics may be inflated", and "Greek philosophy is more important than jazz music" are violent, but I don't feel like doing so. 

In Latvia I was neighbors with an Indian who was beaten up on the streets of Riga because of his skin color. I saw skinheads attack a gay pride parade in Tallinn. I know people who can't get up in the morning because they were raped. I know people who were severely beaten as kids. I have friends in Sarajevo who suffer from PTSD after living through a genocidal civil war.  

Violence is violence. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

On Republican Academics and Liberal Academics

Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed in today's Times decrying the prejudice conservatives face in academia. A Facebook friend highlighted this howler: "My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination." Still, as is often the case with Kristof, the smug king of white straight male liberal guilt, he has something approximating a point.

Should we have more Republicans in academia? Sure. I had friends/friendly debating partners throughout high school and college who leaned far to the right. A couple are now voting for Sanders. Some of them are still fighting the old fight. All of them taught me a great deal. This includes my closest friend from high school who at the time had terrible views of gay people, as well as a history teacher who was casually homophobic. Both forced me to redefine my positions, to hone my arguments. Bigots can be great teachers, often better than "woke" professors.

Kristof is most concerned for professors who are afraid to voice their political beliefs for fear of their job security. I'm sympathetic on this one, and I would say that everyone in academia, no matter what their political position might be, has this fear.

An example: At this point, you can find plenty of professors in academia who still believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You also have professors who believe in a single bi-national state. I am of the belief that neither position is disqualifying for any academic job. But if you have ever written about the conflict and taken one or the other position, you almost certainly risk someone on a hiring committee turning you down. The academic hiring process is non-transparent and infamously petty. You never know who you may be upsetting.

I hate the rhetoric of "micro aggressions" and "safe spaces" and I fear that by writing this sentence I may be pissing off someone whose scholarship assumes the importance of the micro aggression rhetoric, someone who might one day be looking for an animation studies hire. I do not want to play a martyr. My colleagues who are involved with the BDS, BLM, and anti-sexual harassment movements are taking bigger risks. I have reservations about all three movements -- another phrase that may one day get me into trouble -- but I respect their decision to go loud.

It's depressing that scholars have to grit their teeth through polite political discussions and never reveal their serious differences. It's depressing that my 18-year-old students feel more free to express their core, crazy, weird beliefs than many of my colleagues. I don't know how you solve this problem or if it can be solved.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

On Captain America: Civil War, continued

The Covered Wagon, a 1923 Hollywood Western, is sympathetic to its Indian antagonists. When the film introduces them, they stand stone-faced and mad and complain about the theft of their lands. These aren't simple savages. The movie acknowledges their legitimate complaint. We tend to mark the beginnings of the revisionist western -- the western which called into question the genre's celebration of racial purity, violence, and Manichaeism -- in the 1950s, with movies like The Searchers. But you can find hints of such self-awareness before that if you look hard enough.

Superhero comics have been mildly self-critical about their politics for a long time. In the late 1970s, it was clear that a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam Captain America had to break his ties with the U.S. government. But we tend to think that Watchmen, which came out in 1986, was the true beginning of the ultraviolet revisionist superhero comic. In Watchmen, the heroes are sexually frustrated. They are willing tools of America's military industrial complex. They enjoy violence. In the climax, a superhero is arrogant enough to believe he can save the world by killing 3 million people. He succeeds and suffers no consequences. 

There followed many decades of self-questioning in the DC and Marvel Universes. Marvel had a comic about an agency tasked with cleaning up the wreckage from superhero fights. Marvel comics writers, aware that real American bombs had killed quite a few people in the 20th century, started thinking more about the many civilians their superheroes might have failed to save and may have accidentally killed. Superhero writers in story after story indulged their inner J. Jonah Jameson to the point where they seemed to hate their own fantasies and themselves for valorizing characters who in the real world would be considered monsters.

The superhero movies started posing these moral dilemmas in the mid-2000s with Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which amounted to almost 8 hours of screen time with maybe 20 minutes of tedious action action sequences. It had some macabre jokes, but the best one was unintentional, namely Christian Bale's impression of a worldweary drag queen. Man of Steel was joyless. I haven't seen Batman v. Superman and I won't, but from the reviews I know that it too attempts to face the hard questions a superhero film must face in the era of 9/11 and Iraq. 

I wrote yesterday about the incompetent politics of Captain America: Civil War, which also tried to face the important hard questions. I suggested yesterday that the movie works in spite of its own bullshit and its unwillingness to go the full Watchmen. These heroes like to play. Their fight scenes are close to what Scott Bukatman wants them to be, musical numbers. If Paul Rudd's Ant-Man running through Iron Man's armor and telling Tony Stark that he's the voice of his conscience doesn't make you smile, I don't know what will. I was a little annoyed with Tom Holland's Spider-Man, but I did like his barely out of puberty voice, and it was hilarious seeing him ejaculate over and over again. Captain America has what should be a boring superpower, but, for the first time, it was interesting to watch Chris Evans figure out how to use his shield. 

But I'd like to amend what I wrote yesterday, in that I think Civil War actually works because of its half-assed revisionism. If you think of superhero movies as carnivalesque orgies -- and I do -- than this movie is brilliant. Our heroes are facing extinction-threatening crises, and they are treating the violence they must commit with uninhibited joy. They are laughing and fucking in the face of armageddon. Fellini loved Marvel Comics. Imagine what the director of Fellini Satyricon could have done with this material.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

On Captain America: Civil War

In a 2013 review for Sean Howe's wonderful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, I wrote the following:

"For most of its history, Marvel Comics, practicing good business sense, tried not to alienate its readers for political reasons. In the ’60s, Captain America, who had killed thousands of long-toothed Japs in World War II, did not travel to Vietnam. Peter Parker avoided joining the Columbia University-like protests that raged at his own school. More than a decade into the AIDS epidemic, the company flinched but finally relented when one of its writers wanted a minor superhero to come out, though they balked at permitting a superhero with HIV. Like half the Democratic Party, the company would come to embrace the gay-rights movement only when it seemed absolutely safe to do so. There’s an anecdote that Howe tells early in his history that we just want to be true. About a year before Captain America punched out Hitler in 1941, one of Timely’s forgotten heroes punched out a dictator named Hiller. Why not Hitler? “Goodman, it was said, was afraid Adolf might sue.”
"These political restrictions, despite their amorality, strengthened the comics. Gay readers didn’t have an out hero in the Marvel Universe until the ’90s, but they also knew that every one of the X-Men, teenage outcasts who run off to a special school where they wear tight clothes and kick ass, had a lot in common with themselves. Captain America never talked about Vietnam, but readers could imagine the pathos he could not voice when he thought about the atrocities committed in the name of the flag he wore. Save for Ditko’s weird interjections, Peter Parker’s failure to take a strong political stand only cemented his loner status. Strong myths are democratic. They allow enough space for the reader to do his own writing.
The newer comics are more ballsy. Mark Millar’s take on the Avengers and X-Men, in particular, depicted a post-9/11 dystopia. Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red, White and Black riffed on the story of the Tuskegee airmen and inserted the history of eugenics into Captain America’s origin story. The recent film adaptations, which must appeal to an enormous audience, are more careful. The premise of Iron Man – a reckless weapons manufacturer whose enemies either employ or are inspired by the technology he creates – could have made Jon Favreau and Shane Black’s movies more cynical. The first hour of Joe Johnston’s Captain America was a nostalgic blast, even if its depiction of World War II-America was lily-white. The gay-rights drama in Bryan Singer’s first two X-Menmovies are a happy exception. Still the Marvel movies are at their best when they overcome the confines of their political moment. When Ian Mckellen’s Magneto breaks out of his plastic prison, he exudes a royal contempt for humanity. When Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man submits himself to the bosom of New York subway riders, he surrenders to his fellow man. Again, the openness of these myths allows us to identify with both hero and villain, to examine the divisions within our own selves. At these moments, the stories are Shakespearean."
I'm not all that happy with any of this, but the third paragraph might seem particularly un-prescient with the release this weekend of Captain America: Civil War. I never read the series upon which the movie is based, so I can only talk about the movie. 
The premise is as follows. The Avengers' various adventures, both as a group and as solo heroes, killed a lot of civilians. No one is throwing around hard numbers in the film, but you can guess that there were many dead bodies we never saw in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The team is operating as an unchecked force, and 117 of the world's governments including the US have decided that such an organization, which has been created to fight massive threats, must answer to a larger international authority. The teammates take sides for reasons that are both personal and political. 
The hero most willing to accept such oversight turns out to be Tony Stark, whose conscience troubles him. He comes face-to-face with the mother of a civilian who was killed in a previous battle. Several super villains have used his weaponry. In Iron Man 3, he suffered from PTSD from his experiences in The Avengers.  
Captain America is resistant. He agrees that such a higher entity sounds like a good idea, but he's not sure exactly who is behind this plan. Call him a vigilante if you want, but he trusts himself to make the right decision and he knows that he has saved a lot more people than he's ever hurt.
The Black Panther is the son of an African king, who is learning the rudiments of diplomacy as he ascends this country's throne. His father was the voice of this new international prerogative and after witnessing his violent death, he believes it is right.
 We learn that an old Sokovian agent, an unflashy man with no superpowers, has engineered a situation that makes their debate more violent and eventually, more tragic. The Sokovian saw his entire family killed in the battle of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and he wants to see the Avengers hurt as much as he did.
In real-world terms, this is the fight between the guys who think that internationalist organizations like the EU, the UN, and NATO, prove feckless in crises, and the guys who think that the equivalent of nuclear weapons should not be entrusted to an unchecked group of people who are tragically human and thus unpredictable. The problem with the metaphor should be obvious. In the real world, the EU, the UN, and NATO and they have proven feckless at moments of crisis, as in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and now Syria.  There have been stories about UN peacekeepers who tried and failed to prevent horrors occurring just miles from them due to bureaucracy, but those peacekeepers weren't walking around with The Avengers' firepower, the equivalent of America's nuclear arsenal. And Black Panther might be cool, and I know it's canon in the Marvel Universe, but I would hope in 2016 that we could avoid celebrating the world's remaining monarchies. So yeah, it's hard for me to see any hard questions here...
And yet...
Watch Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D. There are no dead bodies in Bicycle Thieves, but there are long long takes that capture the West's most beautiful city in ruins. A people destroyed by hunger. Peeling walls. Insects on food. Broken windows. Broken faces. This is a city whose destruction is captured without what we think of as special effects. The mise-en-scene was created by objects placed in front of the camera, not by a computer with the aid of a camera. The destruction in The Avengers: Age of Ultron never really convinces you of any real horrors. It's a simulation of a war game. And the interior logic of The Avengers: Age of Ultron ignores these dead civilians. Only one person dies who we didn't want to see die. Civil War confronts our heroes with people who have lived and are living Bicycle Thieves.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an appalling film morally and a boring film aesthetically. Civil War is a good movie. It has an interesting dilemma, which offers some character development. The fight scenes are fun. The film dramatizes our heroes' powers. But in the end it's as clueless about the state of the world as the previous film. The filmmakers might have included some characters who are living Bicycle Thieves, but it's pretty obvious the filmmakers never saw Bicycle Thieves and never will. And in an attempt to obtain gravitas, they valorize a lunatic who they think of as an exemplar from a kinder, more honorable time, namely the 1940s, when Jim Crow was still a thing and the US was putting its Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. 
Side note: Andrew Garfield is beautiful man. His Spider-Man was a 30-something's idea of an 18-year-old, which means he was just a little bit of an adult. He worked. Tom Holland is a sweet, good-looking kid and he's fun to watch, but he's an 85-year-old's idea of a 16-year-old. His jokes are lame. He's excited by all the cool stuff he sees, and he loves old computers and DVDs and stuff and Tony Stark and Captain America and wowee that's a cool toy and that's a cool superpower and did he say "shit"? He said "shit"! Oh my god, he said "shit"! 
I hate jokes for people who are afraid of not getting jokes.   

Friday, May 6, 2016

On What to Read

So many books, blogs, webpages. So little time on earth. If a piece of writing is worth my time, it will...

1. ...try to answer at least one hard question, even if there is no satisfactory answer.

2. ...use good grammar.

3. ...use bad grammar, as bad grammar can reveal multitudes.

4. ...only use the pronoun "I" if the person this "I" refers to is interesting.

5. ...not engage in language-policing.

6. ...treat at least one of its subjects, should its subjects be people, with humanity.

7. ...contain a mistake, as a piece of writing without a mistake is inhuman.

8. ...have at least one new idea.

9. ...not be required reading.

On the .00003 Percent.

There are 321,368,864 people in the United States of America.

Assuming you only surround yourself with your countrymen, you are likely to get to know -- really get to know -- at most 1000 Americans in your lifetime.

Those 1000 people are likely to come from your socioeconomic background.

You will die knowing .00003 percent of your countrymen.

This is why you didn't see Trump coming.

Monday, May 2, 2016

On Assassins

I went to see a local production of Assassins, the 1990 Stephen Sondheim musical in which infamous presidential assassins and would-be assassins congregate across time to talk about their hopes to be a somebody. The actor John Wilkes Boothe, for Sondheim, was as motivated by racism as he was by "bad reviews." The beat is creepy, carnivalesque and at times outright joyful. Lynette Fromme, a name I would never have learned if not for this musical, belts out a soulful paean to Charles Manson. Sondheim loved South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. I can see why.

There's a problem with depicting insanity in fiction. It's an arbitrary state. An insane person can do anything, which offers the author very little constraint. But Assassins solves the problem. Sondheim's assassins are mad, but they are all defined by their time and their ugly vision of America, a country that destroys those who suffer from mediocrity, seems downright reasonable.  I heard the soundtrack before I went and was unimpressed, but the performance made it different. This is a musical that needs to be seen as much as heard. The closing number of the show, "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy" is hilarious. It adopts the language of American enterprise for the murderous psychopath set:

Got the right
To be happy.
Don't stay mad,
Life's not as bad
As it seems.

"If you keep your
Goal in sight,
You can climb to
Any height.
Got the right
to their dreams..."

At the moment, a major political party is on the verge of nominating the love child of George Wallace and Silvio Berlusconi. In a long piece today, Andrew Sullivan just broke his silence to call Trump a tyrant and call for non-democratic means to stop his rise. I've heard plenty of intelligent people tell me, not too quietly, "Aren't you just hoping someone kills that guy."

Well, if someone did, I'm sure there'd be many pages written trying to explain the motives and I'm sure they'd be complicated. There are plenty of people in my circle who would consider such a man perfectly sane. If Trump survived the attempt, I don't think he'd call his would-be assassin crazy. He'd call him a loser.