Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On a Claymation Adaptation of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger

This adaptation of The Mysterious Stranger was removed from a longer claymation anthology of Mark Twain's stories that came out in the 1980s. It has almost a half million views on YouTube. I doubt that many people saw the rest of the film.

No matter how much our culture expands its tolerance for sex and gratuitous violence, we are still fascinated by the nasty and the cruel in children's stories. Who doesn't like to tell the "real" story of The Little Mermaid or Sleeping Beauty to their kids once they've turned 10? I'm not immune to this fascination at all. The episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (1968-2001) about the nuclear arms race. The early episode of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), starring George Reeves, in which the hero let's a few mobsters who've learned his secret identity die.

The Mysterious Stranger was not one of Twain's children's stories, assuming you believe The Prince and the Pauper and Tom Sawyer can be classified as such. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and I saw that the story didn't teach me anything I didn't already know. Humans are more afraid of social condemnation than they are of doing evil. It doesn't take all that much to make us hurt one another, and not much more than that to kill one another. The book is a cackle from the greatest American humorist who had lived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and finally the terrible birth of American imperialism, and who was on his way out the door. I wonder if it would have been better for the literary set in the Upper West Side to have read The Mysterious Stranger in the months after September 11 than Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. The Secret Agent is about "them." The Mysterious Stranger was about "us": the cowards who are too afraid to scream that a country that tortures in order to maintain its security probably has no right to exist; the cowards who are too afraid to admit that their government would bomb a village or two for 40 barrels of oil, as long as they never had to learn those villages' names. The Mysterious Stranger is the greatest fuck you of American literature.

The Mysterious Stranger is hilarious. If I were casting a live-action movie version, the title character would be played by Matthew McConaughey doing his nihilist act from True Detective. Just read this passage in McConaughey's voice and see what happens:

"Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell—mouths mercy and invented hell—mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites a poor, abused slave to worship him!"

This claymation short is just as funny, but for entirely different reasons. You laugh because it seems misplaced. How dare anyone confront a child with such a nightmare! You also laugh because it's self-reflexive of the animation or claymation media, which are both predicated on the animator's ability to give life to inorganic materials. The hand of the animator was a powerful trope throughout the silent era. Winsor McCay's first short presented McCay himself as a hardworking craftsman who breathes life into Little Nemo by drawing him thousands and thousands of times. In Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck (1953), the animator is an abusive father. In Mysterious Stranger, the animator has become the devil giving life to organisms -- out of clay! -- who don't deserve to live. In The Mysterious Stranger, the animator reinvents himself as much as he does what appears on the screen. He's a cruel adult, but also a nasty little child. And his motives are never clear. The children stare out into a void, into a mise-en-scène that lacks any finitude.

Children would understand the message better than most adults. They love to mutilate their dolls.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

On Figuring Out What to Say to That Chicago Dean and What to Say to Kevin Gannon

I read that letter from the University of Chicago dean. I think this is the summary: the dean believes a university is a place for intellectual inquiry, rigorous debate, and a commitment to developing human knowledge. It is not committed to protecting your precious feelings. If you have a problem with that, there are many other schools you could attend. I am sympathetic, because I hate the point where debates become about personal feelings, the point where intellectual debates become about "you." And hell, I even like the dean's jerk tone, because, yeah, I've felt that way too.

But I also want to respond to Kevin Gannon's response in Vox, to which, after a couple of reads and a short email exchange with a friend who teaches middle school students in a private school, I'm sympathetic as well. Gannon calls for more complexity and nuance in considering the role of education. Of course you should offer "content advisories" -- a phrase Gannon prefers to "trigger warnings" -- if you're teaching material that depicts a rape scene. You never know where your students are coming from. And why the hell wouldn't students protest a visit from Charles Murray, whom Gannon calls a "racist charlatan"? I can say that I have worked through some issues with students in the past, and I haven't always done the work I should have done to prepare them for particularly difficult material. I've tried to correct for these shortcomings, which I mostly attribute to a complete and total desensitization to film violence that I had acquired by the time I was 18 and a general tolerance for casual bigotry that I had acquired as a means of maintaining my sanity during my years in Eastern Europe.

The problem here is that the Chicago dean doesn't recognize the many intelligent, thoughtful, and considered students of various backgrounds that Gannon and I know. I would describe most of my students as relatively open-minded, at least within the confines of my classroom. I would say they're not precious little flowers whose feelings I have to nurture.

The problem is also that Gannon doesn't quite acknowledge that the student the Chicago dean describes exists too. I've met that student.

That's the student at Columbia who claimed the Core Curriculum was essentially white supremacist, without noticing or accepting any changes or reforms. Never mind the fact that the Core Curriculum at Columbia has been constantly changing for decades. When I went, the syllabus included W.E.B. Dubois and the Koran. Neither were leaving anytime soon. Never mind that the Core Curriculum, by emphasizing the Greeks, was really LGBTQ-friendly. Never mind that Columbia had actually added other course requirements to the Core so that students would also know about the rest of the world. I remember taking two great books equivalents of Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Indian literature, which, yeah, were every bit as rewarding as what I got from the dead white males. Now, I would have wished those non-dead-white-male courses were as well-funded and had the small class sizes as those on the dead white males. And I wouldn't mind if the dead-white-male course replaced Thomas Aquinas and Herodotus with James Baldwin or, to be a little more provocative, Louis Armstrong. But these changes are matters of reform not revolution.

Now those changes did occur at Columbia and elsewhere because of a lot of shouting as well as a hunger strike, but also because of a lot of intelligent writing from the likes of Edward Said and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., both of whom had read their Henry James and their Shakespeare with far more diligence than some of these shouters ever had or ever will. I don't think the issue is that students are coddled and demand that their feelings not be hurt. I think there are a small group of fundamentalists of a certain stripe, who like all fundamentalists, can never be appeased and who will never accept compromise, and who don't know how to take yes for an answer.

I would happily live in a world in which all campuses refused to invite Charles Murray, as well as professional hate mongers like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos. I'm not sure if I'm totally in line with Gannon's first point, that inviting Murray tells minority students they don't belong there. But I do agree that keeping those jerks away effectively contributes to the spirit of intelligent scholarship, that it acknowledges that certain ideologies are wrong and toxic, and that they don't belong in a community committed to honest, intellectual inquiry. But I have another question for Gannon: Would he be just as willing to refuse invitations to William J. Bratton and Condoleeza Rice?

Well, Gannon is calling for more complexity and more nuance. I'm sure he'd disagree with some of what I've written, but I'm not sure he would disagree with all of it.

Monday, August 22, 2016

On a Charismatic Church Service

I was in Portland on Saturday night. I was about to go to a movie, but I passed a beautiful, ornate theater advertising an evening of worship. I thought it was black gospel and I love black gospel. So I paid, went in and discovered a theater packed with 20- and 30-somethings in pseudo hipster gear. I was in for an evening of Christian contemporary music and charismatic preaching.

No one was bashing the queers or baby killers. There wasn't even a vague suggestion of praying for those sinners who weren't within those walls. There were prayers given out for those who were starting businesses in the audience. And in the middle of the service, there was a massive prayer for miracles, to heal those in the audience with dyslexia and scoliosis. We laid hands on each other to cure our neighbors of suicidal thoughts and depression. A very loving old man who was standing next to me laid a hard hand on my shoulder and, actually, it kind of worked. I did feel a little happier. There was something nice about being in an enormous, gorgeous theater, surrounded by people who wished each other well, even if I was bombarded by three hours of terrible, terrible music. I listen to the Staple Singers or Russian Orthodox chants and I want to convert. I don't know how this music inspires anyone.

Of course, the ethics were terrible, and I couldn't get behind this theology. It was depressing to see a room filled with people who wished each other well, who had an amazing capacity for generosity, be taught all the wrong lessons. Instead of praying for success in your business, shouldn't you be praying that your success or failure will come to you honestly, one way or another, and that you will remember to take care of others who are less fortunate, to not look down on those who look up to you. This wasn't the worst version of the prosperity gospel, but it was bad. And where are god's priorities, by the way? I mean, I know people with dyslexia. I've had students with dyslexia. It's a problem. It needs to be treated. It's not fun to have dyslexia. But should god really be spending all that time on your dyslexia, considering you live in a city with excellent educational resources to handle that problem, when he could be helping a starving child in North Korea?

What a terrible waste of communal fellow feeling.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On Professor Balthazar

The following is a distillation of a section of my dissertation:

Profesor Balthazar / Professor Balthazar (1967-1978), a series of shorts about a lovable inventor who lives in a mythical Zagreb-type town, was the most widely seen of all the Zagreb School productions. Professor Balthazar, a short, bald, bearded, bespectacled man is a gentle figure in a world threatened by unhappiness. He is one of the most recognizable symbols of Titoist culture, as prominent in 1970s and 1980s Yugoslavia as Mickey Mouse in Depression-era US. Zlatko Grgić created the character, but the series involved the collaboration of many of Zagreb Film's auteurs. 

At home, the shorts often played on Yugoslav television at 7:15 pm during a slot designated for cartoons before the nightly newscast at 7:30. Its voice-over narrations – the shorts were among the small percentage of the Zagreb Film's shorts to include spoken narration or dialogue -- were translated into several languages, among them English, Farsi, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, and distributed abroad to be shown on television. The foreign versions of the films were dubbed, not subtitled. In the United States it appeared on the ABC series Curiosity Shop (1971-1973), a variety children’s program produced by Chuck Jones; a puppet named Baron Balthazar who hailed from “Downtown Bosnia” introduced the stories. The Yugoslav-ness of the show was just as important for viewers in Yugoslavia. It was a recognizably domestic production in its designated time slot, alternating on different nights with American series such as The Flintstones (1960-1966) and Tom and Jerry (1940-1967). 

Curiosity Shop may have exoticized the series as a product of Southeastern Europe, but the scripts of Profesor Balthazar never give a proper name to its hero’s city. Both the Croato-Serbian and English-language versions of the shorts refer only to “Professor Balthazar’s town.” Still, the film's designer Zlatko Bourek created as a funky, pastel-colored version of Zagreb in which post-war office buildings curve and merge with factory towers and Austro-Hungarian museums and theaters. In early seasons, the shorts open with Bourek’s drawing of a mountain of buildings, tunnels, roads and towers. A fountain in a town square lies hidden among massive structures. One building imitates the flow of water. A giant clown’s face adorns the side of an apartment building. Tunnels lie in the middle of nowhere and appear to lead to nowhere in particular. In later seasons, the series open on a courtyard of an Austro-Hungarian building, with skyscrapers, museums and houses emerging behind it. The establishing shots offer no sense of perspective, much like the backdrops Bourek designed for the live theater, and the shapes of the city lie flat against the screen. The street-level backgrounds present a more familiar city, though the lampposts are not straight and train tracks often lead directly to the doors of houses. The series riffs on other images of Zagreb. The trolleys were crude but fun to ride, and the depictions of the landscape at the last stations on any given line were appropriately barren.  There is a unified logic to the city’s madness. Professor Balthazar depicts Zagreb as a children’s playground, one with its own rules of order that are constantly under negotiation.  

The Yugoslav series has hints of melancholy. The shorts depict the dissatisfactions of daily urban life. The modern city dweller in Profesor Balthazar has an idiosyncratic personality and interesting talents, and he is always searching for a satisfying and proper place in his society. Yes, Professor Balthazar’s town is very much a playground, but like all playgrounds, it is home to many unhappy children, as well as happy children. 

The plotlines of the shorts follow a similar pattern. An eccentric character from Professor Balthazar’s town confronts a problem. Balthazar uses a bizarre contraption made up of umbrellas, clocks, a giant human ear, and assorted tubes to create a new invention which solves the problem. The films follow the tradition of the gag film, complete with visual puns and gentle slapstick. But the gags are rooted in the whimsy of the narratives. The stories are quickly paced, and made up of a series of bizarre twists and seeming non sequiturs that are always quickly explained and absorbed into the logic of the narrative’s trajectory. Balthazar’s neighbors, like small children, cry when faced with troubles, but only for a few seconds of screen time, often for just a few frames, before Balthazar helps. The form his assistance takes is always surprising and often offers a new set of gags. Like the country in which Balthazar lives, the inventor is always searching for or accidentally discovering an interesting third way solution to the problems of modernity.

Horacijev uspon i pad / The Rise and Fall of Horatio (Zlatko Grgić, Boris Kolar, and Ante Zaninović, 1969) (The film shown above) begins with a reminiscence of Balthazar’s childhood and his friendship with a young man named Horatio, an aspiring conductor. As an adult, Horatio achieves considerable success as a conductor, but his achievements are soon thwarted, as his pants fall down every time he performs, turning him into a target of ridicule. The buildings of Balthazar’s town shake with laughter as the population witnesses a mishap on live television. Horatio changes professions and becomes a chimney sweeper. His pants still fall down and he doesn’t like the job, but at least, as the narrator intones, he is “alone, far from the laughter of the crowds.” One day, he falls down a chimney of Balthazar’s house and encounters his old childhood friend. Balthazar hears his complaint and helps him by inventing “everlasting super suspenders.” Horatio tries them on and returns to the top of the building. They catch on the top of the chimney, and Horatio swings up and down, like a bungee jumper, high into the sky and then falling almost touching the ground. It’s a joyful experience. Horatio giggles uncontrollably. The other citizens of the town notice his unrestrained joy, and eventually everyone obtains Balthazar’s new suspenders for themselves. Balthazar and Horatio have accidentally invented a new sport. The fad spreads to the entire world. The final scene shows men and women swinging up and down from the surface of planet Earth.   

Horacijev depicts a lonely modern city. Horatio is a child with no friends on the playground. He is also an adult alienated from the day-to-day functions of urban life. The short has a happy ending, but the limits of Balthazar's genius are apparent. Balthazar may have (accidentally) given Horatio an ability to be an athletic genius and an example to his fellow citizens, but Horatio’s musical genius is still wasted due to society’s inability to accept a different kind of eccentricity. Professor Balthazar’s town is not an evil place, but one can never assume the moral wisdom of its masses. At best, Balthazar’s inventions can only inspire goodwill. It is up to the masses themselves to see what they can do with the inspiration.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

On Donald Trump and Travis Bickle

You don't really know Travis Bickle's origin story, but there are a few things we can surmise. Unlike Robert De Niro, the actor who played him, he wasn't born and raised in New York, but rather came there later in life. He claims to have been an ex-marine, but he may also have been involved in right-wing militia or hate groups. He's probably a virgin. He currently avoids any hard drugs, but it's possible he used hallucinogens in the past.

He moves in a world of surfaces. The black people of New York are only scum to him. Palatine, the presidential candidate is a fake spewer of platitudes. He is no different as a taxi cab passenger than he is as an image on television. Bickle lacks any aesthetic interests, beyond his two romantic interests, Betsy, the prim Madonna he wishes to violate, and Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute he wishes to rescue. Scorsese's camera may discover the ugly beauty in the crime-ridden, impoverished New York on the brink, but Travis Bickle can't access any of it. The only movies that interest him describe the sexual experiences he will never know. He doesn't care for music or dancing.

His closest friend is Wizard, who is at best a hapless uncle who reaches out, but only so much, to a lost nephew.

When he finally kills, he experiences the equivalent of an orgasm and then peace.

He is a lonely man who knows he is lonely, and who tries to be a "person like other people." For a psychopath, he has striking fits of self-awareness.

Travis Bickle may be a product of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate insanity, but today, it's impossible to read Taxi Driver without thinking of mass shootings, our increasingly insane gun culture, and racial paranoia. Travis Bickle would have hated Obama with far more rage than he ever could have hated Palantine.

Is Donald Trump -- a junk-food addict, a man who lacks internality, a monster who spews hatred but wouldn't know what to do with a gun -- as De Niro has recently said, Travis Bickle? Maybe not. But Travis Bickle's descendants make up a good part of his base.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

On Lisa Hanawalt

Full Stop has posted my interview with Lisa Hanawalt, comics creator and BoJack Horseman designer.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Why People Get Bullied

I've taught four courses on comics, animation, and live-action film in the past two years. My courses concentrate on formalism. What strategies do comics artists use that live-action filmmakers also use? What's different? Can we ever draw a clear border between these media? It's been a rewarding experience. I may not be the one who should be saying so, but I think my students have gotten a lot from the many hours they spend with me, reading, talking, and writing about comics, watching, talking, and writing about movies. 

Most of my students did not grow up reading comics. I always ask for a show of hands at the beginning of the quarter and at most, maybe one student says they were really into superhero comics back in elementary or middle school. I had one student who loved Jeff Smith's Bone. Those students like to geek out, and they know they can do so without fear of ostracization.

Does anyone still get bullied for reading comics? I can say that I read comics growing up, but only at specific times in my life, in fifth grade and again during my senior year of high school. I returned to Marvel Comics in time for the Ultimate line when I was in college, and also discovered the world of Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. Now, I took a lot of bullshit during those years, mostly related to general weirdness, awkwardness, and lack of athletic ability. You adapt to your role in life, I guess. No, I can only remember one person who made fun of me for reading comics, but I didn't much care for her anyway. 

Who were the bullies? I can remember a few mean girls in middle school, one of whom went on to a career in Gawker, where she honed her skills into a pretty successful writing career. She's published three books, two of which were widely publicized and poorly reviewed. There was an ugly little twerp in high school who figured out that the best defense was a good offense. When we were voting on senior superlatives, he campaigned to get a well-built female athlete the "best male body," and an awkward chubby boy the "best female body." No one else thought this was funny, but he just couldn't stop. There were others, who could be decent folk in other facets of their lives, I'm sure, and who hopefully grew out of their youthful dalliance with sociopathy. And then there was everyone else, who, frankly, at some time or other, made fun of people they shouldn't have made fun of, and who joined the howling crowd even when they knew it was wrong. I can force myself to admit that I have been the member of this latter crowd, at least a couple of times in my life.

Who were the people getting bullied? The autistic and the mentally disabled were always the primary victims. I have a sense that I got it worse than others due to, as I said, weirdness, awkwardness, lack of athletic ability, inability to dress well, and pseudo-autism that wasn't actually autism. In sixth grade, I was called a fag by a lot of people who didn't actually think I was gay, because the '90s. The bullying was subtle, the leading question here, the vague suggestion there. But I'm sure, plenty of people got the same to varying degrees. That horrendous video of the middle-school boys humiliating a school-bus aide that made the rounds on the Internet four years ago brought back awful memories. Nothing about it shocked me.  

I've seen this garbage as an adult. Someone once described academia as the home for people who got bullied by mean girls in middle school who are now all grown up and out for revenge. ("God, he totally doesn't get Walter Benjamin. Yeah, he'll never get a job." - near-accurate quote [accompanied by disgusted expression.])  

People get bullied for being gay or effeminate. It takes a hell of a lot more balls for the average 13-year-old to study ballet than to walk into school with a Spider-Man comic. They get bullied for being fat, for being small, or for being big. They get bullied in locker rooms. They get bullied for smelling. It's not that people get bullied for being weak. Everyone has weaknesses. It's just that the bullied are more sensitive to their weaknesses than others. And bullies always know who those people are.

I can't say bullying hasn't fucked up at least part of my life. I'm haunted by night-thoughts. And when I have problems in my writing life/dissertation work/teaching career/personal relationships, I hear the many voices who've reminded me through the years about my inadequacies. But it's something of a comfort to know that there isn't a single bully I remember who I would have wanted to have had as a friend even if I hadn't been his or her victim. It's not been that much of a comfort to know that many others have suffered similar abuse. I know that the pastimes I've enjoyed and have continued to pursue were not the cause of the abuse. Even if they were, it wouldn't matter.