Saturday, August 19, 2017

On Schwarzenegger

In politics and in culture, we all have the memory of fish.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in 2003, his candidacy was (barely) troubled by numerous allegations of sexual harassment. The stories were about as bad as those that (barely) troubled Donald Trump in 2016. Schwarzenegger (sorta) apologized, saying that he had behaved badly.

He had a disastrous governorship, during which he bullied decent public servants and revealed that a professional politician probably should be the one running a state that would make the top ten for largest economies in the world if it was its own country. At the end of his tenure we found out that he had fathered a child with his housekeeper, revealing himself to be exactly the man we knew he was in 2003, more or less the kind of narcissistic bully he revealed himself to be all the way back in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron (George Butler and Robert Fiore). When I heard the story, all I could think was, "Was there really any way a housekeeper could have said no to Schwarzenegger and have hoped to keep her job?" To paraphrase one writer at the time, there were star athletes, politicians, and movie stars who don't cheat on their wives. Schwarzenegger, unfortunately, was all three. He didn't stand a chance.

He returned to the movies. In 1989, every 10-year-old would have reached puberty two years early over a movie starring Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. In 2013, no one cared about Escape Plan (Mikael Hafstrom). I don't know how many people on earth could name any of his non-Expendables post-governorship movies. He was a short-lived replacement for Trump on The Apprentice (2004-), which seems to be the best thing that's happened for his reputation in years. Trump tweeted mean things about Schwarzenegger, reminding everyone that the current president has himself a bottomless capacity of narcissism. Schwarzenegger got to be the hero, by making a lame-o one-liner offering Trump the opportunity to switch jobs. The Internet cheered, because the Internet is stupid; it's hard to imagine a Schwarzenegger Administration as any kind of paragon of genius leadership. Now Schwarzenegger, who happens to literally be the son of a Nazi, and who, way way way back when in the 1980s came to the defense of Kurt Waldheim, after it was discovered that Waldheim was a Nazi, has rebranded himself in 2017 as a fierce, fearless opponent of Nazism. The Internet cheers. In the end of the day, Americans consider fame and success a virtue in and of itself. If he manages to live long enough and doesn't end up in prison, we'll learn to love Former President Trump.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu backed a Nazi sympathizer for president of the United States.

On Why You Should Leave Facebook

Every post about the tragedy in Charlottesville included the pronoun "I."

Feel free to share this post on Facebook.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Writers Who Don't Try to Get It Right

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.” -- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
What do you get from The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Deadwood (2004-2006), or Breaking Bad (2008-2013)? What makes critics say that these shows are equal or superior to the best dramas in the movies? Why does Salman Rushdie say that the best storytelling of our time can be found on television, not in novels? There is much to love in these shows, but mostly I just like being around characters who keep changing, keep rounding themselves out from one episode to the next. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are unstable. There is more hell than heaven in them, but there is always plenty of heaven. These characters aren't sentences. They aren't paragraphs. They are books that could go on forever if not for the fact of death that inevitable. I've spent more time with Tony Soprano than with many people whom I would call good friends.

Have you heard of Klara Bowman? She's not a character in a show. She was a real life person, but she got famous for a short while. She was the kindergarten teacher from Tacoma, Washington who showed up drunk for work. A horrible person, really. A hateful bitch! A disgusting piece of trash.  Child abuser. Pathetic. Loser! Scum! That was more or less the gist of the comments sections in the articles about her. Everyone knew that Klara Bowman was a kindergarten teacher who showed up drunk to work. They didn't know much else.

Of course, she was more than that. After Bowman committed suicide, Matt Driscoll, a writer at the News Tribune in Tacoma learned more about her. He learned that her alcoholism began in her teenage years after she watched her little sister die of cancer. He learned that many of her colleagues admired her as someone who truly loved and cared for her students. No one thought she should keep her job, but they didn't think the reaction to her story on the internet was proportionate to her misdeeds. They wished her the best. Driscoll talked to experts on alcoholism who discussed America's hypocrisy, its condemnation of alcoholism and its casual acceptance of binge-drinking culture. As someone who despises -- DESPISES -- our drinking culture, I have a lot of sympathy. This is all a way of saying that Klara Bowman was a full, interesting, complex, sad, noble, loving, not always upright woman. She deserved the consideration we give Tony Soprano.

I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I am amazed by their willingness to assume a clear 1:1, cause-and-effect, linear narrative once they hear about a crime. Bowman's crime is apolitical. Liberals and conservatives can come together and hate on any kindergarten teacher who shows up drunk at work. But then there's the misogynist who goes on a rampage in Santa Barbara and releases an appalling video. Everyone follows up by ripping into Judd Apatow movies because clearly this is the story of nerd-bro-ness gone to extremes. No one bothered to do any research. They didn't study his history. They didn't talk to psychologists. They didn't do the hard work of learning about the particular schools he attended, the movies he liked, why he may have thought he was unattractive. Nope! We got a video. We got a murder! And everyone KNEW the story, because, as some sanctimoniously put it, they took the killer at his word. And all these years later, we don't know anything more about the shooter other than his crime.

Or how about Michael Derrick Hudson? You may remember him as the white poet who pretended to be Asian so he could get published by editors who were looking for a more diverse group. I don't know much about Hudson other than his one big-time jerk move. I don't know what made him want to pursue a career in literature, what he thinks about poets of color, what he thinks about authorship, what he thinks about literary fame, what led him to commit this most foul of deeds. I do know everyone's hot take about cultural appropriation because people love to write about what they already know.

Have you ever done something wrong or stupid and then watched as a large group of people create a narrative about you and your crime that you knew did not comport with the facts? Shorter question: Did you attend middle school?

Many years ago, during my early years in graduate school, a colleague got drunk one night, fell down on the street. A policeman found him. In order to avoid a public drunkenness charge, my colleague told him that he was the victim of a gay bashing. He described a black suspect. That's at least the barebones narrative as I understand it. In the meanwhile, I heard rumors of all kinds, none of which were fully corroborated. That a security camera caught him falling down drunk. That he was a child predator who tried to sleep with his students. Some of these claims showed up in comments sections on news articles about him.

I did not like my colleague. I thought he was a superior, pompous, arrogant jerk who liked power. I knew he was a heavy drinker and drug addict. I knew that he hung out and developed relationships with undergraduate students that were inappropriate, though I don't know if he was sleeping with students while they were his students. The fact that his scholarship was uncompelling was a misdemeanor.

I also know that he was an excellent teacher. I knew that he cared about his students. Within the space of the classroom, I didn't see him play any favorites based on whom he would have found more or less sexually attractive. I knew that he was capable of being kind and helpful to people who would have had nothing to give him in return. He may have been a horrible person, but he was a complicated horrible person.

I don't know if I can expect much from the general population. But I would say that the many journalists, academics, writers, and anyone in any profession which requires you to bang your head against the wall, trying, hope against hope, to get it right and not get it wrong, have a responsibility to set an example. Think before you shout. Do your research or support others who do great research. You're more than two paragraphs. You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. You don't have to love people who do terrible things. But try to know them, if not for them, then for yourself.

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Modern-Day Lynching

I read about 20-30 pages of non-fiction every morning, something that has nothing to do with what I'm writing about. Here is a page from Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns:

"[N]ewspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff's deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view. 
"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, 'Burn, burn, burn!' as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it. 
"'My son can't learn too young,' the father said. 
"Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as 'stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks' or 'trying to act like a white person.' Sixty-six were killed after being accused of 'insult to a white person.' One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents. 
"Like the cotton growing in the field, violence had become so much a part of hte landscape that 'perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,' wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. 'All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.'"
I don't like the term "Know your history!" The people who scream it aren't asking you to know history as much as "your heritage," a fixed story that offers clear direction for how you should and shouldn't behave in the present. We should listen to Jefferson, the heritage-mongers say, and try to work against naked partisanship and honor our farmers. We should remember the Holocaust, other heritage-mongers say, and treat every human rights violation as a possible genocide. Heritage leaves inconvenient truths out. History acknowledges the complications.

And I write this because I have always been put off by the term "modern-day lynching" as it is used to describe the police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. I know the lineage these sloganeers are referencing. Fox News focused on everything "wrong" about Trayvon Martin after his death. He had smoked marijuana. He wore a hoodie. His "crimes" were even more absurd than "stealing seventy-five cents." And as George Zimmerman, like so many other shooters, was not successfully prosecuted, it does start to look like the murder of Jesse Washington.

But it's just as important to see the differences. The video of Eric Garner's death may not have worked in court. But was there really an equivalent of fathers forcing their sons to watch Garner's murder? Of all the high-profile deaths of the last ten years, have any of them occassioned, via the video filter, anything like the grotesque spectacle of Jesse Washington's lyching? We can see monstrous comments on news stories about these shootings, but the commenters are cowards. They don't leave their names. They don't want to be seen, because they know they will face public condemnation. They are not the same as that father, hoisting his son on his shoulders.

I write this post not to diminish the terror of these police and vigilante killings, but to say that if we are honest with ourselves, we may want a different word, something other than lynching. The lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 was not the same as a brutal execution of a slave in 1816, which is also not the same as the shooting death of Philandro Castile in 2016. We live in a different world with different media and different murders.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

On Dunkirk

Spoilers aplenty:

I didn't like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). Tom Hardy's Bane is terrifying, a high-school kid's image of what the psychotic jock will eventually become, white America's idea of a white terrorist. Heath Ledger's Joker is fun, a clown from a Stephen King novel, but in the end he's a cypher. Hans Zimmer's scores were oppressive. The acts of violence were brutal, swift, poorly timed, and meaningless. Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow should have been scary. Christian Bale's Batman sounded like a world-weary queen. I couldn't quite get the political points the script was describing, other than that fascism is sometimes necessary. I'll go a little Godwin here. I recently learned that the Nazis claimed that they had to be more "tough" than the average German in order to commit the violence necessary for the society as a whole to survive. Ever since, I've had a hard time watching pro-torture scenes in superhero movies without thinking "Send this sadistic, costumed freak to Nuremberg." Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) and Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) were humane and weird. Maybe Nolan's attempt to create a more naturalistic Batman, a Gotham City which is almost realizable -- except for the touches of the supernatural -- was a mistake.

I thought Nolan's Inception (2010) was neat for the first hour, and I dug the zero-gravity scene in the hallway. Tom Hardy was hilarious. He should have been the star. But at some point I just kept thinking that my dreams were much more interesting. 

Have you ever cried at a Nolan movie? Did you give a good goddamn about the death of the hero's love interest in The Dark Knight (2008), the suicide of the hero's lover in Inception, or the sad reunion of father and daughter in Interstellar (2015)? I felt nothing. At best his movies are cool, in the way Ralph Lauren ads are cool, which is another way of saying pretty but not powerful enough to enter your fantasy life. Shallow as fuck.

So what did I think of Dunkirk (2017)? I thought Nolan had gorgeous establishing shots. The best part of the movie was the opening scene, the rain of leaflets on a quiet street, the weary pretty boys in soldier uniforms. You know it must be a narrow street in real life, but the lens made it enormous because war makes small places enormous. I dug the first image of the beech, the crowd of soldiers on the docks. And as usual I did not dig the editing, or the oppressive score which had one message and one message only, "This is intense! This is intense! Oh, my god, have I mentioned to you that this is intense!" Every bullet in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) is a threat to your mortal existence. When I saw the boys trapped in a hull, dodging the bullets that pierce the side of the ship, it looked like a dangerous game that I knew most of the players would win. I knew that pilot would eventually escape that plane, that he wasn't going to drown. I also knew that that brave, not-too-pretty teenage boy was marked for death the minute he was told he was off to war. 

Saving Private Ryan depicts men as animals. In Dunkirk, every man is an athlete. In Dunkirk, you are observing men in the military caring for one another, while slightly removed from the horrors. You think, why can't I be part of a community where people take care of one another? Shallow as fuck.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On Vigilantism

This is about the Emma Sulkowicz case. It is a response to Columbia's recent settlement with the man Sulkowicz accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. I don't feel like giving a summary. You can look up the reporting online. 

There's a rhetorical move I and many others find irritating, something along the lines of, "Well, you know, I hate extremism on the left just as much as I hate extremism on the right." Unfortunately, this post is in that territory.

I also hate vigilantism.

I've heard a lot of defenses of Emma Sulkowicz. That she stood up for herself and the rights of rape victims as a whole. That she fought for her freedom of speech when she took the mattress with her to graduation and Lee Bollinger disrespected her freedom of speech when he refused to shake her hand. That it's not her job to be reasonable or polite. That she wasn't standing up to Paul Nungesser, her alleged rapist, so much as an entire system that refused to punish her rapist. 

And I had a hard time buying it all. I wasn't sure if the laws and regulations she wanted passed were the right ones. As someone who believes in respecting the rights of the accused in all cases, I am nervous that we are heading into ugly territory in how we adjudicate campus rape cases. Columbia University disrespected Sulkowicz's freedom of speech when it told students not to bring large objects on stage during the graduation, but security didn't stop her, and Bollinger's refusal to shake her hand did not prevent or hinder her own speech. I agree that she doesn't have to be reasonable or polite. But, frankly, whatever her original intentions, Nungesser had a good case that Sulkowicz encouraged a mob of vigilantes. They plastered his face on boards. One dropped a mattress either next to or in the room of a class he was taking. If that's not intimidation or harrassment, an attempt to drive someone out from a community, I don't know what is.

Did Nungesser rape Sulkowicz? I think he did. Even if he didn't, it seems clear he has a history of being a creepy guy who sexually assaults women. He may have moved on. He may not assault women anymore. It's possible he became a better person. Did he deserve the harassment? If he raped Sulkowicz, and I think he did, the answer is, of course, yes.  Hell, he deserved a lot worse than a nightmarish two years at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, at the end of which he obtained a degree.   

But can we at least be honest and admit that vigilantism played a role here, that Sulkowicz and company were using their own methods to right a wrong the legal system both at Columbia and in the city of New York as a whole were not able to right? That's the very definition of vigilantism.

I don't like vigilantism. I don't like mobs. You may not give a damn about Nungesser, but you should give a damn about the next alleged who turns out to be innocent.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On Underdogs

The valiant underdog is played by a strikingly charming, funny, good-looking, often well-dressed actor who gets paid more than anyone else in the cast. The rich bully is played by an actor who makes less money and often has less charisma, who is good-looking, but not too good-looking. The plain girl love interest is played by a supermodel. All three actors survive on a miserable diet and exercise regimen. In the movie, they eat Doritos. In interviews the actors who play the valiant underdog and the plain girl talk about how they were once victims of bullying and had a hard time getting dates in high school. The actor who plays the bully tells everyone that he's a nice guy in real life. Two years later, the Internet has stories about how all three actors are jerks. The valiant underdog slept with prostitutes while shooting a movie on location in Thailand.

You have drinks with a young Los Angeleno in Bulgaria, where a lot of movies are shot because of the tax breaks. He is the assistant to a woman who performs weight-loss wrap therapy for stars. He came to Los Angeles to make it as an actor, and he spends a lot of time looking at his skin. He's staying at one of the nicer hotels in Sofia. The two suites for his boss and for him are being paid for by the star they are serving while they are in town. You ask if the star, who is best-known for playing a valiant underdog in an '80s comedy, is a nice guy? You ask if another star, who is one of the most popular actors of his generation, and who they are meeting in London next week for his therapy session, is a nice guy? And you already know the answers. You think, well, in real life there are plenty of underdogs who are total jerks too.

On Piccolo

I first heard Shostakovich's Jazz Suite when I saw Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999). I'm pretty sure Kubrick introduced me to a lot of the Golden Oldies of classical music, like Strauss's waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Handel's Sarabande in Barry Lyndon (1975). I connect to the music, and I don't think the tunes are interchangable from one film to the next. The Sarabande would have made the spaceships' dance to Strauss ominous. Shostakovich suggests animal energy, whatever his original intention. As a matter of cultural reference, I don't know if there is much of a difference between Shostakovich, Handel, and Strauss in the three films. I listen to classical music, but I'm a classical music ignoramus. And I wonder if each of these tunes means more or less the same thing across all of his films, namely a juxtaposition of high civilization as something pure with a culture of violence (Barry Lyndon) or as something of the past with the future (2001), or as something that a futurist dystopia will remake in its own image, as in the case of Wendy Carlos's take on Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Does recognizable classical music in film mean anything other than "classical"?

I offer this question as a lead-in to a passage in my dissertation on Dušan Vukotić's Piccolo (1959).

The opening credits of Piccolo depict a screen split between blocks of green and light purple, cut at once in a vertical line, then horizontally, and then diagonally. The order is achieved with the exhiliration of pop art. The story opens on a house divided on each side by green and purple, with one wall separating the two sides. In the background of the green side, there are other green houses. In the background of the purple side, there are purple houses. The setting is simple, and suggests a small, but growing city, much like Zagreb at the time of the film’s production, with faint black outlines of nearly identical houses.
Two men, one short and fat, the other tall and thin, live on respectives sides of the house. They are friends. When a storm bursts out and the short man’s roof starts to leak, the tall man, in an exercise of self-reflexive flat-graphic humor, cuts the lines of rain which border his side of the house with a pair of scissors. They shake hands. A small bird appears on a tree near the short man’s house and sings a tune, first harshly and out of tune, marked by a harmonica-shriek on the soundtrack, and then, after clearing his throat with egg yolk, more smoothly. The tall man loves the tune and the short man, employing again the convenient rules of the animation form, removes the tree to the tall man’s side. The bird flies away. The tall man buys a harmonica in order to enjoy the sound of music again. The movements of the man and the bird jump from one frame to the next in pace with the simple jumps of the tune. The music is grounded in folk life. It is grounded in the body.
When the tall man plays his harmonica, he disrupts the short man’s peace, and thus  a war begins and escalates between the two men, as each attacks the other one with a different tune from a different instrument as a weapon. Eventually, the two men invite choruses that reflect their respective identities -- the short man invites short men and the tall man invites tall men -- and they destroy each other in a crescendo in a blast from the Overture of 1812.
The Zagreb School would employ several music genres through its history, including classical music, jazz, and pop music, almost all of it from Yugoslav composers and musicians. The music can be grotesque and the sound can be purposely grating, but it can just as easily be exuberant, a celebration of the mixtures of the popular music of the era. Kostelac’s Zbog jednog tanjura / All Because of a Plate (1959), but the possibility of treating music as a source of horror is just as common. Piccolo, though it indulges the audience’s desire for visual pleasure, is a self-reflexive film about the possibilities of music to become a weapon. “When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature,” the music critic Alex Ross writes. “We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill.”
Music, as a cultural force, is presented as simply an idea of the cultural landscape. There’s not an obvious source for most of the music in Piccolo. The harmonica evokes folk music. The jazz drumming is relatively generic. Some of the tunes on the piano and the cello contain possible references to Chopin and Liszt. In the final minutes, the sources are more obvious. The men battle each other with choruses singing the “Toreador Song” from Carmen and the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, and then the small man recruits an orchestra to play the Overture of 1812.  Some of the music is played competently. Some of it grates, or at very least is meant to suggest the idea of music grating, and is comically out of tune. The use of music in relation to the visual movements recalls McLaren’s experiments from the period. The dividing line between their sides of the house changes shape, at one moment pointed, at another curved to match the rhythm and quality of the instruments. But the synchronization between the music and the line changes is not as precise. The film, lying somewhere between the idea of a gag film and a high-art film, pokes fun at the Zagreb School’s aesthetic pretensions. Unlike Premijera, Piccolo does not dramatize a fight between various forms of cosmopolitanism. It is a fight between all sounds, brought down to their lowest, most primitive essence.
Of all the films discussed in this chapter, Piccolo comes closest to depicting at least an idea of interethnic conflict, a failure of the brastvo in the slogan of Titoist Yugoslavia. It is rare for the Zagreb School to depict any specifically Yugoslav regional, ethnic, or national identity in its films. As noted in the previous chapter, although the cities of Yugoslavia underwent a massive population surge in the years after World War II, a surge that involved a massive internal migration of and then mixing of ethnic groups to the cities, the Zagreb School does not depict the idea of a city as a site of interethnic relationships. Still, the original script, written by Vukotić, suggests a possible reference to regional history and culture in its choice of music and characters. In the final film, the choirs which accompany the respective adversaries are identical with them, but the original script called for either a choir of gypsies or a choir of don cossacks. If one of the choirs had been made up of gypsies, the film would have grounded the story in an identifiably Balkan context. The use of cossacks may reference the Russian division of the Nazi army that fought the Partisans during World War II or the larger history of the cossack army in Tsarist Russia. The sidenote suggest a subliminal reference in the film not so much to interethnic strife, but to something exotic or identifiably “eastern.” The erasure of these possibilities in the final film speaks to the approach to universalize the themes of the Zagreb School’s films, but the suggestions of the theme remains.
The film is about the fragility of the project of civilization and, in the context of Yugoslavia, of the project of nation-building. It notes the thin line not just between high and low culture, all of which was consumed and celebrated in Yugoslavia, but of peace and war.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

On Doritos

Michael Jordan used to do McDonald's commercials. He also modeled for Hanes. The Hanes ads made sense. We all want to look good in underwear. The McDonald's commercials did not make sense. Jordan has a killer body, maybe a mutant one, and it's possible that it could withstand all the harmful effects of garbage food. Unfortunately, the bodies of most children and almost every adult past the age of 25 cannot withstand the harmful effects of garbage food. Eating McDonald's is a great way not to be like Mike.

The product placement in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), which I liked, is more shameless than usual. There's a loving close-up on the gummies Peter Parker (Tom Holland) buys at a corner deli. While hanging out in his room, he digs into a bag of Doritos, placed at the bottom of the screen, lit so that you damn well will notice that beautiful, crinkly bag. At 20 (when the movie was shot), Holland has a dancer-sculpted body. I've met many dancers. They tend to avoid Doritos and gummies. 

There's been a push back against us obesity fearmongers and moral scolds, but I'm sorry, junk food is disgusting and the industry that produces it is terrible. Junk food made my life worse. At 36, I'm maintaining a healthy BMI, but I still get cravings at night and I wonder if the way my appetite was trained during my childhood has made it harder to manage my weight as an adult. Doritos are the cocaine we give to five-year-olds. Some people got really excited about a tie-in cereal commercial featuring a black boy in a Spider-Man costume. They thought it was inclusive. I just saw another attempt to get children to poison their bodies.

We accept product placements as facts of modern entertainment to the point where we enjoy even the consciously ironized advertising in Mad Men (2007-2015) and Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). It doesn't bother me that Hollywood studio execs are cynical. The blithe acceptance of absurdity bothers me. We accept the lie. We allow the lie to work on our subconscious, and we continue to eat Doritos and Big Macs. It bothers me that we have an entire system designed to keep poor people in food deserts. They may not have access to proper nutrition, but they'll be able to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, if not at the local theater, then later, on a DVD which they'll get from a Redbox at the local 7-11, where they can also buy a bag of Doritos. Two for the price of one.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

On Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spoiler-Heavy Warning

How much realism do you need in a superhero movie? Why do you need any realism in the first place? When it comes to Spider-Man, the superhero who could be you, the superhero with complex psychological motivations, a certain kind of realism matters. He has to live in an actual city we know, and he has to have problems most of us would relate to. The appeal of Peter Parker isn't that different from the appeal of Tony Soprano. Their work life involves doing something you would never be able to do, but their homelife and the family dynamics they have to negotiate are familiar.

So what works in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), the newest iteration of Peter Parker, here played by Tom Holland? Well, to slightly rework the metaphor from the previous paragraph, it did indulge something Tony Soprano-like in its villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). Toomes tries to be as non-flashy as possible, though he still enjoys wearing that Vulture costume. He's a businessman who is frustrated by his incompetent employees but treats his good employees fairly. When he kills someone, he either does so accidentally, because that's what happens when you hang around high-tech weaponry you don't know that much about, or because he has to. He has a homelife, with a loving wife and daughter. Toomes is not as interesting as Tony Soprano or Walter White, but I think he's more intriguing and more witty than Vincent D'Onfrio's Kingpin in Daredevil (2015-).  

I dug Parker and Toomes's interactions. During their back-and-forth in the car, when Toomes doubles his role as intimidating but friendly father of your girlfriend and supervillain adversary, it was clear the movie got Spider-Man. It understood how every part of Peter Parker's body and his life is a metaphor for puberty. Keaton is great, with his freaky, could-have-just-as-easily-been-cast-as-the-Joker smile. His face is nicely lined. He's gone bald. He has a paunch. But he's still handsome and funny. He's almost the guy you wish was your girlfriend's dad. I kept on hoping Peter would turn his back on Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and join the dark side. Hell, Toomes's politics aren't all that different from mine. 

What else works? Peter's loving gestures towards small animals. An uncomfortable interaction with a neighborhood deli-owner. There's stuff that they try to make work. The movie gets that the modern-day Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) is more of a verbal than a physical bully, but his put-downs are lame and Peter isn't weird enough to be a target, especially at a magnet school. Zendaya plays MJ -- here named Michelle -- as the self-serious, arrogant, smart girl who reads Of Human Bondage and one-ups her teachers. I know the type. I was that type. But I would have liked her to play it down just a little. The quiz bowl team I was captain of in high school was a hell of a lot more immature than the one here, but then again, mine might have been the exception.

What else did it get right? After the final battle on Coney Island: Parker carries Toomes's limp body which he has just rescued, lays him on the sand, and then promptly collapses right next to him. It reminds me of the moment after the final arrest in Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949). The game is over. One has won. The other has lost and his life has been destroyed. But they are both just too exhausted and they share a brief, unspoken connection.

Andrew Garfield picked up on Parker's narcissism and he understood how to connect his teenage shuffle with the superhero's elegance. I liked him more. But Holland turns Parker into a lovable geek from an '80s teen comedy. I kept thinking of Three O'Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987).

The movie didn't get to me the way the Lee/Romita run got to me, nor the way the subway sequence in Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) got to me. I'm older and jaded, and I don't like being pandered to. I don't like the fact that every superhero movie is starting not to look like a supehero movie but supehero movies. (Logan [James Mangold, 2017] was the wonderful exception.) So I am left with looking for everything in a Spider-Man movie that I could get better somewhere else. Still, I love seeing it all put together -- a little bit of Tony Soprano, a little bit of Kurosawa, a little bit of John Hughes, a little bit of Stan Lee -- and seeing most of it work, really well.

Update: This post was a little too cool for school. I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't make me smile from ear to ear more than once.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

On Patriotism

When I was a kid, and I was in a room with a lot of people I didn't much relate to, and who were not always nice to me or to each other, and I was told that I was supposed to feel connected to them as members of the same entity, I wasn't willing to follow along. I knew too many jerks in all my schools to feel much in the way of school pride. I knew too many Americans to believe that there was anything inherently good about Americans.

I believed in the fundamental values of freedom of speech and the ability to call authority figures to account, but schools, like families, are not democracies. They don't offer students absolute free speech. It's hard to call your authority figures to account. I've sometimes wondered if the inability of most Americans to appreciate freedom of speech and the other Enlightenment goodies in the Bill of Rights comes from the tragic fact of human nature. You don't get your basic rights until you're an adult. To embrace those rights at 18 to 21 is a rebellion against everything you have been taught.

I'm amazed by the willingness of human beings to join groups, how willing they are to enter into cults led by charismatic preachers and teachers, how willing they are to turn every radical thinker who refused any clear ideological identification into an avatar of their own movement. This goes for everybody. The opening minutes of I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) depicts the Black Lives Matter movement as a continuation of James Baldwin's struggle, despite the fact that Baldwin refused to align himself with any of the major black liberation movements of his own time. He would probably have written about BLM with great admiration and would have also happily ripped it apart. I'm amazed by Americans' willingness to surrender themselves to the myths propogated by Joseph Ellis, their, in retrospect, hilarious refusal to believe Thomas Jefferson fucked his slaves. (Overheard at the Jefferson Memorial in the Summer of 1997: "Didn't Jefferson own slaves?" "Yeah, but he was nice to them.") I'm amazed by how willing people are to surrender their voice to a narrow vocabulary, whether it be one made up of words like "sin" and "redemption" or one made up of "privilege" and "trauma." How afraid they are to admit to ideas that are so obviously true, like the fact that not every soldier is a hero.

I'm amazed by how easily the fundamental ideas of patriotism crosses borders. Go to museums in honor of soldiers in Croatia, Serbia, the U.K., Vietnam, and the U.S. and you will hear the same ideas spoken over and over again to the point where they lose all meaning. Slobodan Milošević's first name means "free" in his native language.

I may have an allergy to joining groups, but I'm not a total misanthrope. I've grown to appreciate  certain kinds of fellow feeling through the years. The best part for me from John Roberts's recent celebrated speech to a bunch of super-privileged ninth graders was not his hope that the students would feel misery so that one day that would develop some form of empathy. Oppression doesn't make people better. The opposite is true. I preferred his call to learn the names of janitors and to smile at them in the hallway.

Sometimes I give panhandlers money and sometimes I don't, but I've learned to look them in the eye and apologize if I don't want to give them anything. I've learned to be polite when I ask people to be more polite. I've learned that you always tip a dollar to the barista and that when you divide a bill you don't split it down to the dollar, or even the five dollar mark. I've learned that you gently call people out on their prejudices if you can. I've learned that you don't resent the presence of fat people or autistic children on airplanes. Talk to everyone at parties, especially the most introverted, but let people be if they don't want to talk. Small, non-aggressive touches can mean a lot if you know how to touch without being threatening. Tonight there will be fireworks here in Seattle. I won't be going to Gasworks Park, where there will be a loud, crowded gathering with bad, expensive food, and the view will be great. I will be watching the fireworks from a distance at a small dock near my home where Lake Union and Portage Bay meet. I will light up a joint and pass it to whoever is near me.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Salaita

Steven Salaita put up the following Facebook post. I added the numbers.
Don't ask me to define liberalism. I can't. I won't even try. But I can identify a liberal whenever somebody... 
1. ..chooses to ally with reactionaries rather than leftists
2. ...adamantly defends the speech rights of fascists while ignoring people of color punished for speaking up 
3. ...angrily blames horrible rightwing policies on leftists rather than on the people who actually implement them 
4. ...can't get past the idea of voting as the core expression of political life 
5. ...pounces on any opportunity, however dubious, to condemn Palestinians as inherently anti-Semitic 
6. ...says #AllLivesMatter, we're all originally from Africa, I don't see color, let the justice system take its course, Martin Luther King would have..., or suchandsuch is so divisive 
7. always on about dialogue but never discusses relations of power 
8. ...thinks Donald Trump is the worst thing that's ever happened in the United States 
9. ...modifies "capitalism" with adjectives like "crony," "excessive," or "unchecked"  
10. ...doesn't know that North America is still colonized but really digs Native American folklore

1.  I don't know whom he defines as a reactionary. As a Sanders supporter, I agree with about 75-80 percent of the beliefs of the left, although I don't even know how it's defined at the moment. I went for Clinton in the general. I hate to admit it, but reactionaries got one or two things right in the last 100 years.

2.  I am a free speech extremist, not an absolutist. I believe Charles Murray should have been allowed to speak at Middlebury. I felt the same about Ann Coulter at Berkeley. I am all for people who want to speak out against these figures. I am opposed to physical violence in campus debate.

3.  A Hillary Clinton presidency would have been better than a Donald Trump presidency. There is plenty of blame to go around for her loss. I'm a leftist who canvassed for Obama in 2008, but didn't phone bank for Clinton in 2016. I should have done more. All of us should have done more. And the people who chose not to vote at all piss me off.

4. I guess I know people who pounce at every opportunity to call the Palestinians anti-Semitic. I wouldn't call those people liberal, let alone leftist. But to claim that Hamas is not an anti-Semitic organization is inherently dishonest. Would Salaita care to name the instances in which he has heard Palestinians say anti-Semitic beliefs? I would be happy to offer the long list of Israelis and American Jews who have expressed hatred for Arabs.

5. I happen to believe we need to have some trust in the justice system. Frankly, I know too many people who have devoted themselves to the justice system in order to better serve their communities to have much patience for Salaita's bs. As for the rest, we're on the same side.

6. We're on the same side here.

7. He's not. But he's pretty goddamn bad.

8. Got me there. I'm not a socialist.

9. We're on the same side.

Liberal/leftist. Good/bad. This all reminds me of Bill O'Reilly's traditionalists/secular progressive trope from a few years back. I know Salaita is a martyr for every mistreated academic, but I honestly don't get the love for this lousy writer or for the tendency of otherwise smart people to adopt binary thinking. Oh, and if you don't think this tweet is anti-Semitic, we don't have much to talk about: "Zionism: transforming 'anti-semitism' from something horrible to something honorable since 1948."

By the way, I was appalled by Salaita's firing too. I still get to call him an asshole.

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Superhero Movies I Would Like to See

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

On Why I Won't Go to the Pride Parade

It's boring.

On David Edelstein and Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Only Yesterday

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

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

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

The past never stays the same.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Walking on the Wild Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Movies That Get "It" Right

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

On What Happens to Blockbusters

You see a blockbuster on the opening midnight screening at an IMAX theater in, let's say, Pittsburgh in the summer of 2012. The movie is disappointing, but when you get out sometime between 2 and 3 am, you feel like you had a pleasant collective experience and you tell yourself that the 15-20 dollars you just spent was worthwhile. Three years later, you're at a bar in, let's say, Portland, and the TV is on. You see part of the same movie, on a small scale, with the sound off, with commercials. 

I feel nostalgia for the poor black-and-white televisions that were out-of-date in the eighties and nineties, but which were still around in our basements, and on which we sometimes saw sanitized versions of Magnum Force (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1973) and Halloween III (Ted Post, 1982). Everytime I watch a VHS tape -- usually because there's something available on them I can't get anywhere else and which I need for my dissertation -- I remember how I discovered movies when I was a kid. I'm already feeling nostalgia for the bizarre rise-and-fall of these multi-million-dollar-plus works of entertainment, from the IMAX theater to a set of images everyone is ignoring at a bar because they're too busy talking to each other or looking at their phones.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

On Slaveowners

In an introduction for an anniversary edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron wrote about his grandmother and the first time he learned that this woman, who had been a child during the Civil War and had witnessed Sherman's March, had once owned slaves. This was in the 1930s, and he was amazed that right before him, in the flesh, was this relic of a long ancient history.

I never had anything quite like that in my childhood, although I did come close once. A white elementary-school teacher who had grown up in Georgia in the 1950s and '60s told us a devastating story about how she once demanded that a black person take a seat in the back of the bus so she and her white friend could take seats in the front. As someone who only heard stories about white racist ogres, the story was surprising for two reasons. One, my elementary-school teacher was a warm, affectionate woman. Second, in her telling, the other white passengers on the bus were disgusted by her behavior, and the white bus driver gave her an ugly look that she would never forget. Of course, those passengers still let the cruelty to happen. No one got off the bus in protest. The lived experience of segregation was more complex than what we had been taught up to that point.

I haven't read that much history about slavery, but what little I've read suggests that the emotional havoc the system enacted on white slaveholders as well as on black slaves is difficult to sort out. Eighteen fifty America is a foreign country with its own codes of conduct. The Romanian movie Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015), which tells the story of a bounty hunter who hunts down a slave and returns him to a boyar gets at the problem. How do people with a conscience function in a society in which moral codes are so different? What does morality in the past mean? A Southern lady who abuses a house slave in 1850 America is a product of her time. A housewife who abuses her Filipino nanny in 2017 is a psychopath.

The truth is, of course, that there are more slaves alive in the world than there have ever been at any other point in human history. Some of those slaves helped build NYU's satellite campus in Dubai. Some of them picked the oranges I buy at Safeway. And some of them are caught in situations you don't even think about. Alex Tizon describes his life with his parents' slave Lola who had been gifted to his mother by his grandfather in the Phillipines in 1942. When the family emigrated to the U.S., they took Lola with them. She remained a slave until Tizon's mother's death in 1999. She lived with Tizon for the remaining 12 years of her life.

The article is being talked about everywhere on earth. It's a shame that Tizon did not live long enough to see it make print. He died less than two months ago. I won't go into any details about the article, and I can't even begin to touch on what it says about the psychology of a slave. But if we try to figure out what the hell went on in the head of a Mississippi slaveowner in the 1850s, we can see some hints in the story of Tizon's mother. Here's the first chilling moment. 

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie -- something to do with a boy she wasn't supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to "stand at the table." Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound. 
My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that? When I brought it up with Lola, she asked to hear Mom's version. She listened intently, eyes lowered, and afterward she looked at me with sadness and said simply, "Yes. It was like that."
Tizon's mother doesn't sound all that different from a grown woman who laughs off something terrible and traumatic she did to her younger sibling. I've met many such people.

But there is another side to Tizon's mother. Lower down:
She'd come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She'd worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institutions for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together -- shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another's homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Talk of but not about your sins. Keep the evil you do contained to a specific part of your life. Laugh at the weak. I doubt the slaveowners of the past were any different.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On Jokes in Superhero Movies

A taxonomy of jokes in superhero movies and television shows:

1. Supposed inside jokes meant for people with cursory knowledge of the superheroes' origins in comics and/or comics history in general.
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) tells Aunt May (Sally Field) that no one has gotten a decent pay for freelance photography since 1962. Nineteen sixty-two is the year that Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. This joke functions to flatter comics readers, remind them that they are smarter than the people in the theater who do not read comics. 
2. References to previous film or animation depictions of superheroes.
In Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), a street violinist (Elyse Dinh) plays the theme song from the animated series Spider-Man, which ran from 1967-1970. This is a nostalgic joke. 
3. Jokes about male costumes.
In the first season of The Flash (2014-2015), The Flash (Grant Gustin) says that he's not wearing a leather suit, but rather a polymer fabric that serves a functional purpose. The joke tries to defuse gay panic, while still winkingly admitting to the inherent eroticism of superhero costumes. You can hear similar jokes during interviews with Olympic athletes every four years. 
4. Jokes about female costumes.
In the first season of Supergirl (2015-2016), Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) tries to find a costume that is tasteful and not too revealing. The joke apologizes for the male gaze.  
5. Jokes about navigating the same world the rest of us navigate.
In Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) fight over leg space in a tiny European car. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
6. Jokes about heroes behaving pathetically.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015), the Avengers take turns trying to pick up Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) hammer in a hold my beer competition. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
7. Fish-out-of-water jokes.
In Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), Thor behaves like a god, swilling beer in the middle of a quiet all-American cafe.  These jokes play to the fantasy of having a friend from another world whom you can teach the ways of your own. 
8. Celebrity cameo appearance humor. 
In Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Bill O'Reilly has a cameo as himself. The superheroes are grounded in our world.
9. Stan Lee appearance humor.
It's mostly about ritual at this point. His appearance Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) is also a point 1 joke.
10. Calling into question the vanity of superheroes and supervillains.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) makes fun of Taserface's (Chris Sullivan) name. Taserface, despite putting on the airs as a great supervillain, is humiliated.  
11. Pop-music jokes.
The soundtrack from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes a lot of uncool people feel more cool. 
12. Lovable-jerk jokes.
One-liners from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in The Avengers films (2012-2015), Iron Man films (2008-2013), and Captain America: Civil War. Tony Stark is fun on screen. You would punch him in the face in real life and you would be right to. 
13. Judd Apatow-movie humor
In Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013), a poor schmuck named Richard (Chris O'Dowd) just can't compete with the object of his affection's true love, Thor. These jokes often work.
14. Sex jokes.
In The Incredible Hulk (Louis Letterier, 2008), Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) stops himself from having sex with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) when it becomes clear that he might end up becoming the Hulk. These jokes never go too far. No one ever wonders how bad things could go if a well-endowed Hulk had sex. No one ever thinks about the bedroom possibilities offered by the many characters' abilities. 
15. Out-of-nowhere, hey-that's-good humor
Ben Kingsley's genius performance in Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013); Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) just hitting a computer keyboard in Iron Man 2. These jokes show up once in every 400 minutes of screentime.
The funniest and best superhero movie is Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). It either avoids or transcends most of this humor. I dig the light touches in the better X-Men movies (2000-2017). In X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), Magneto (Ian McKellen) faces off with the X-Men in the Statue of Liberty. When they threaten to zap him with a lightning bolt, Magneto says, "Oh yes! A bolt of lightning through a copper conductor. I thought you lived in a school."

The movies could be better and smarter, but we don't want them to be.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On Schindler's List

At the end of 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) and The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), it's clear that the heroes have been robbed of their homes, that something inside them has been murdered and can never be resurrected.

At the end of Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), the Holocaust is just a bad dream. It's The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) in reverse. When the Schindler Jews place stones on their savior's grave, you can practically hear them: "And you were there! And you were there! And you! And you!"

On Anthony Weiner

In 50 years, Miami will cease to exist and the UK, Italy, and the Middle East will cease to be inhabitable, because the current president refuses to do what is necessary to combat climate change. The president is in office because he ran against a woman who had a close confidante who had a husband who texted a teenage girl with his rape fantasies. 

Humans, man. "Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On My Hard Questions

Hi. I'm a good liberal. Some questions are easy for me. Should the government guarantee basic nutrition for all citizens? Yep. Should the death penalty be banned? Yep.

Some questions are hard for me.

1. As someone who believes in affirmative action, I'm not always so sure about the guidelines for its implementation. I also fear that a reliance on affirmative action to correct for injustices has proven inadequate and may have made some things worse. Am I wrong?

2. I'm glad that the acceptance of transgender people troubles the gender binary. How long can we assume the gender binary doesn't exist in any manifestation? What do biologists say?

3. If art can hurt people in material, physical ways, is there ever a case in which we should consider total censorship of a work of art?

4. Can we treat extremely homophobic parents of gay kids as child abusers?

5. How do we balance the rights of the accused and the rights of the accuser in rape cases?

6. Two-state solution? One-state solution?

7. Who isn't a war criminal?

8. How do you measure good teaching? Can it be measured?

9. Priorities: How much energy should we put into solving any other problem besides climate change?

On the Dangers of Art

I already ripped into the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017). Most of my criticisms were aesthetic, but at the end of my post I wrote the following:
Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous? Maybe. Despite its stated intensions to complicate the issue, it operates on the assumption that suicide can be clearly explained, that there is always an obvious cause and effect, which is just not the case. The show enacts the suicide victim's fantasy, that their death will cause overwhelming suffering and guilt in others, that they will inflict all the pain that has been inflicted on themselves. Hannah's death in the final episode may not be beautiful, but it is pretty.
Yesterday, Slate published a lengthy article claiming that the answer to my question is not a maybe. The article expands on my concerns, and notes that suicide-prevention advocates are trying to undo the damange done by the show. A superintendant has reported a rise in at-risk behavior. The depiction of the incompetent guidance counselor in the show makes the work of actual, very good, highly professional guidance counselors more difficult.

No one can be a free speech absolutist, but as a free speech extremist, I find stories like these troubling. I believe artists need to be allowed to create art. The concept of "art for art's sake" appeals to me. Philip Roth once noted that writing and reading needed no more justification than sex, and I agree with him. It's an appealing idea, because it lets me live in a universe in which the novels I read and enjoy can't do any harm. Still, it seems dishonest to believe that novels, television shows, and movies are harmless. Of course, a novel can hurt your feelings. Of course, unrelenting depictions of black criminals will affect how black kids might see themselves. Why wouldn't that be the case? Inputs matter. I'm part of a school of thought that believes culture should not be the site of major political change. I'm glad Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) won Best Picture, but the hard socialist in me screams that the Oscar hasn't gotten a job for one gay black man living in the Miami ghetto. The other part of me knows that Moonlight made that one gay black man in Miami a little less anxious and may have saved his life. The people behind Moonlight had power. They used it well.

The power that at least some filmmakers hold should terrify them. I'm sure the people behind 13 Reasons Why thought they were participating in a noble project. It must be devastating to know that their work may have hurt more people than it helped. It would be a little less devastating if they had made a masterpiece, like The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Art heals. Art kills.