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 illicit 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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Scholarship and Humility

The first issue of INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, a new peer-reviewed journal, has just been published. I read much of it last night. It's excellent.

The issue includes a review of Ramzi Fawaz's The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Fascination of American Comics by Marc Singer. Fawaz's book has gained a lot of attention both inside and outside academia. The book has earned an enormous amount of praise, but not so much from Singer. (Full disclosure: Singer is a friend. I have never met Fawaz.) I have not read Fawaz's book, and for that reason I can only offer so much judgement, but I find Singer's review convincing if only for his diligence in pointing out factual errors, errors which do, in fact, seem to undermine many of Fawaz's arguments. If you have access to a library research database, you should be able to find Singer's review along with the rest of the issue.

This sentence appears in the last paragraph of the review.
For all its faults, The New Mutants is a fine representative of a type of scholarship currently favored in certain sectors of the humanities: highly cultivated in its academic voice, though careless in its attention to textual and contextual detail; dedicated to sustaining its theoretical assumptions, but indifferent to other scholarship that might have complicated its arguments; daring in its impulse to overturn conventional wisdom, yet eminently safe in its unfailing confirmation of the ideological righteousness of its primary subjects. Fawaz’s careful performance of these standards has no doubt contributed to his book’s enthusiastic reception. 
One shouldn't take the artists' intention for his art at face value. Art lives. If scholarship stopped at artist statements there would be no need for scholarship. Still, I think studying art requires two steps. First, consider the questions the text asks itself. Second, impose whatever questions you want to upon the text. From what Singer describes, it sounds like Fawaz skipped the first part and went right to the second. Singer describes a scholar who didn't want to be taught anything by the object of his study, who didn't learn anything once he got to the end of his work that he didn't already know when he started, and who was deeply afraid that there might be one or two questions his scholarship couldn't answer. Singer describes a scholar who is clever, but lacks humility.

I'll keep this review in mind for a long time.

Friday, April 28, 2017

On Giving a Song New Life

UB40's Greatest Hits was my first album. I listened to it on cassette tape when I was eight years old. Ten years later, I saw Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999) with my brother in Manhattan. Towards the end of the movie, Frank Pierce, a crazed EMT played by Nicolas Cage, enters the den of a druglord after a bloody shootout. Blood is everywhere, mixing with spilled water from an aquarium. A steadicam captures everything, taking in every shade of red to the pace of the relaxed, steady beat of UB40's cover of "Red Red Wine."

This is the last time I was stunned to hear a piece of music matched to a particular set of images. 

Clip unavailable online.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Fire Island

On my first and only trip to Fire Island in the summer of 2001, I brought a copy of Desertion, Jack Todd's memoir of his move to Canada at the time of the Vietnam War. I was interning at Houghton Mifflin's New York office. The editor I was assigned pushed it on me. I read half the book on the LIRR, during my wait for the shuttle bus in Sayville, and the other wait for the ferry to the island. Almost everyone was silent on the ferry, except for someone who kept talking about why he went to Cornell over Columbia. The cutest guy on the ferry was a local kid who was working, tying and untying the knot for the ferry. He was reading Huck Finn. I assume it was summer reading.

When we got off the boat, I went to the grocery store. Everything cost fifty percent more than it did in Manhattan. So I left. There was an old man wearing a woman's one-piece bathing suit on the boardwalk. It is the only time I ever saw an old man wearing a woman's one-piece bathing suit. When I got to the beach, I realized that I had no place to keep my wallet safe while I went swimming, and even though the beach was mostly empty, I was nervous, so I stayed on the beach. It was a little chilly. Two middle-aged men were practicing meditation. I walked along the beach to the commercial district, where I had an early lunch at a terrible pizza place, the cheapest place in town. I walked back through the dunes, back to the beach, where I looked for someone, anyone to talk to. I found a cute young couple. I asked them if they could watch my stuff while I went swimming. The icebreaker worked. (When I went to clubs, I used to take my watch off and ask people the time. That usually worked too.)

The older member of the couple had a lot of muscles and was an idiot. The other was short and skinnier. He worked as a teacher.  As we chatted, he told me his resume and that he had a really great rapport with the students. All these years later, after many years working as a TA, I get why he felt the need to tell me that on our first meeting. They had an older friend, who was either 33 or 34. He wore a white speedo. The older friend was interested in me. They said they were all going into the water together and that no one steals anything on Fire Island. We went in the water and then came back. The older man went to sleep. They thought it was funny to sprinkle him with sand while he was asleep. I chatted with the idiot. It turns out he had dated a friend of mine. A few days later, I chatted with the friend and told him that I had met someone he had dated. My friend told me that the idiot was the reason he could never ever ever take a shower with another guy again. He did not elaborate.

While lying on the beach, a man in military pants came over and invited the four of us to a get together they were having around nine pm. We accepted his invitation. When he left, my new friends made fun of his military pants. I walked over to where military pants' friends were hanging out and introduced myself. They spent a lot of time in the gym. I asked them if I could leave my wallet and change of clothes somewhere with them. This was also an icebreaker and it worked. The man who owned the house was very nice. He put my stuff in the closet of his house. I went back to my new friends, because I really didn't know who it was worth hanging out with when I was 20. We walked around the dunes, where there was a lot cruising. Everything was happening behind the trees, just ten feet away from us. Most people were having oral sex. There was a couple having anal sex. I could see a ring of people around them watching. The older man in the white speedo decided to stay there and see if he could get any action. He insinuated that he would like to do something with me. I declined. We went back to the beach. I read Desertion, while trying to maintain a semi-comfortable posture.

At nine pm we went to the party.

The house was clean. There was a photograph of Bette Davis on the wall. There was a small dog. I tried to pet the small dog and the small dog tried to bite me.

The dog's name was Toto. The fucking dog's name was Toto.

The owner of the house lived in Los Angeles. He was either a lawyer or he worked in real estate or I can't even remember. He was a 40-year-old who did everything he could to look 20 and managed a 32. He was an unnatural blonde. We ate lasagna. The lasagna was good.

There was a fat man at our table. He went to Amherst and told us he didn't like Amherst, but he went to Columbia for either business or law school and he said he liked New York. He kept hitting on the young skinny teacher. He tried to get him to take a walk on the beach. The idiot didn't seem to mind. The guy who owned the house offered to let us stay overnight, but we declined. They were playing techno. Everyone was very nice. The idiot kept talking about how everyone was really cool and he kept telling his boyfriend they should hang out with their new friends more often. None of us stayed over. We took the last ferry to the last shuttle bus to the last LIRR train for the evening.

On the subway back home, I read the last bit of Desertion. Todd described his dad as a tough sonofabitch and I remember a scene in which his dad's fingers were cut off while handling a horse on the farm and how he kept working anyway. A few months later, I read Edmund White's Forgetting Elena, a novel about Fire Island, which described a world in which everyone was fascinated by surfaces. A few years after that, I saw Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986), which is one of my favorite '80s movies. The final scene takes place at a completely empty Fire Island. I love empty beaches. Years ago, when I was in Lithuania, I saw a beach that had snow on it. It was the only time I ever saw snow on a beach.

I have no idea where the people I met were born. I've forgotten everything they might have said about their childhoods. I've never seen a place where everyone so fully and unabashedly indulged every stereotype they could indulge. I indulged stereotypes too, but I don't remember which ones.

Everyone tells me Fire Island sucks if you go by yourself and awesome if you go with a group of friends, at least one of whom is rich. I've never had that opportunity.

My Fire Island is better than your Fire Island.

On Obama's $400,000

A few weeks ago, Michelle Obama wore her natural black hair. Black women had been waiting for Michelle Obama to wear her natural hair for eight long years. Her decision to wear her natural hair, show off her curls, is a defiant statement for black women who have to straighten their hair when they work in professions dominated by white people. It turned out the story about Michelle Obama's hair wasn't quite what everyone wanted it to be, but the image is still there for everyone who wants to believe.

This week, it was announced that Barack Obama would get $400,000 for giving a speech to Cantor Fitzgerald. Barack Obama is no different than Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush. He wants to make money and the ex-presidency is one hell of a business. Still, you do wonder why a guy who is getting tens of millions of dollars for an upcoming memoir and who could spend the rest of his life couch-surfing with the likes of Richard Branson and Jay Z would need an extra $400,000. I'm not an expert on corruption and if I started to complain about Wall Street I would sound as inarticulate and childish as a campus radical. I'm an average, intelligent voter who thinks we need more regulation of our finance industry in order to avoid another Great Recession. I think the Democratic Party has not passed these regulatory measures because it is too close to Wall Street, as can be seen from the continued prominence of Chuck Schumer. There are many people who agree with me. Some of those people are middle-class and working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Barack Obama's payday may not make things any better or worse for Cantor Fitzgerald, but the optics are terrible.

Barack Obama has a responsibility now. He is one of the best candidates to serve as a moral guide through the horrors of the next few years. Elizabeth Warren may be the Democratic Party's 2020 candidate, but Barack Obama could set up a shadow government in his D.C. home, hold meetings with Party members, activist groups, any and everyone who could help the Democratic Party rebuild. In order to hold that position, or something like that, he needs to maintain if not absolute moral purity, at least some form of decency. Ex-President Barack Obama has to be better than Ex-President Bill Clinton. The times demand it. And if he avoids that job, he is irresponsible, a parent who has neglected his children.

It's not that hard for Michelle Obama to wear her natural hair. It won't be that hard for her to speak more truth on race issues than she did as First Lady. It may be a little hard to say no to earning more for an hours' worth of work than the average American makes in eight years. It's the kind of sacrifice a true leader has to make.

Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Science Fiction of the Past

Some years ago, a professor gave me a piece of advice for dissertation-writing. Keep a piece of non-fiction that has nothing to do with your work on hand. When you get stuck, read a few pages and then go back to work. That academic wrote about Chinese film and he kept Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler within arm's reach. I picked a slightly different strategy. I picked short books and dip into them in the morning over tea. I don't read more than 15 pages. I chew over the prose. Then I put the book aside and don't look at it again until the evening. I am currently working my way through my old professor James Shapiro's The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which studies the Jacobean Shakespeare, as opposed to the Elizabethan Shakespeare, the playwright of Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998).

I can't attempt anything like the following scene in my dissertation, but I may be able to try something like it in my book. 

The Guy Fawkes Rebellion has failed. A Catholic traitor, carrying relics which have been outlawed, has been caught in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's hometown. The relics have been placed before a jury of 24 citizens who are tasked with affixing a "cash value" to the 20-something objects before them. 
Forty-seven years had passed since the death of the Catholic Queen Mary, the last time these objects would have been used in public. As the men gazed upon these goods, they saw England's vanished past before them in objects hidden away and carefully preserved for nearly a half century. Only the older jurors would have remembered from their childhood what it was like to see priests in these garments, finger these rosary beads, page through these prayer books, or gaze upon the painted image of Christ on a crucifix. Some of the older men must also have remembered that their town had held on to its costly velvet and damask vestments for well over a decade after Elizabeth had come to the throne and Catholic worship was banned, just in case the old faith would be restored.
Shapiro makes the visual splendor of Catholicism look foreign. The jurors are WALL-E throwing away a wedding ring, Charlton Heston looking with horror upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, or the characters in Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play trying to remember episodes from The Simpsons (1989-), all of them suffering in a post-apocalyptic American hellscape. We read in terms of the other books we've read, or in my case, the many movies I've seen. To me, these jurors live in the science fiction of the past.

I know historians who hate the idea of treating the past as a foreign country, but I like any form of scholarship that makes the past look weird, something familiar and something distant.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Marching for the Humanities

Science is alive and well at the University of Washington. Bill Gates and company always have their checkbooks on hand. We graduate one STEM major after another. One of them, a friend I made after he graduated, told me, "Everything I needed to learn for my first job, I could have learned in two months. Why didn't I take more classes on movies or literature when I could?" Quite a few of my STEM students ask me for recommendations. I'm one of the few teachers who bothered to learn their names. 

Over here in humanities land, we've seen a steady creep in class sizes. Every year, it gets harder to explain to our students what it means to write a good thesis, let alone how to acknowledge a good counterclaim. "Presentist" is a euphemism. The students don't know the dates of World War II, nor why that website arguing for eugenicist pseudo-science is not a valid source. They have not heard of My Lai nor Abu Ghraib. It's true that we arrogant, pinko commie academics may not always be the best means for changing our students' outlooks. We may be silly people studying weird artifacts from our own or other cultures. We may spend too much of our time reading difficult theory. We don't write as well as we should. And, yeah, we may not listen to enough conservative thinkers. (Do you see how I'm acknowledging counterclaims? That's how it's done, students.) But our shortcomings are exactly what make us work. The humanities are humbling. You are trying to learn answers to questions for which there will never be adequate answers. A beloved prof from my college days, a famous scholar who had written an important book on The Merchant of Venice, told our class once that a Shakespeare scholar could at most master eight plays in his lifetime. The best of us know that the answer is usually "I don't know." 

If I were to March for the Humanities, I wouldn't be carrying signs making fun of students who couldn't manage more than a C in my class. Ghostbusters costumes. "Bill Nye for President!" Any thoughts for climate-change refugees? Kids in areas near refinery plants suffering respiratory illnesses? I don't need to go to war with science, and I've met many polymaths who have bridged the sciences and the humanities. Those guys are the best. They're super-human.

Friday, April 21, 2017

On Kael's Review of Bonnie and Clyde

This week in my class, Writing About Film, we are reading Pauline Kael's review of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Vivian Sobchack's essay on violence in American cinema. I referenced Sobchack's essay in my post about Logan (James Mangold, 2017). I would like to say something about Kael's essay.

We give our students rules about writing and all the great writers break them over and over again. I teach my students a specific paragraph structure, with the hopes that it will teach them a measure of precision, and then I give them a 20-page essay, with long paragraphs, some of which exceed the length of a page. Kael notes counter-claims but doesn't provide sources for other critics. She rants. She can't stop herself from indulging her visceral pleasure. Film studies academics talk like this over drinks in between conference presentations, but never in the conference presentation. We'll write this way in Facebook posts, but never for publication. The few of us who try to write about performance will never manage a stretch like this on Warren Beatty's Clyde Barrow, a stretch which doesn't even make up half of one of her paragraphs. The passage could be a defense of her own strategies as a critic:

As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesn't have a trained actor's use of his body, and watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced he's impotent. It is, however, a tribute to his performance that one singles this failure out. his slow timing works perfectly in the sequence in which he offers the dispossessed farmer his gun; there may not be another actor who would have dared to prolong the scene that way, and the prolongation until the final "We rob banks" gives the sequence its comic force. I have suggested elsewhere that one of the reasons that rules are impossible in the arts is that in movies (and in other arts, too) the new "genius" -- the genuine as well as the fraudulent or the dubious -- is often the man who has enough audacity, or is simpleminded enough, to do what others had the good taste not to do. Actors before Brando did not mumble and scratch and show their sweat; dramatists before Tennessee Williams did not make explicit a particular substratum of American erotic fantasy; movie directors before Orson Welles did not dramatize the techniques of film-making; directors before Richard Lester did not lay out the whole movie as cleverly as the opening credits; actresses before Marilyn Monroe did not make an asset of their ineptitude by turning faltering misreadings into an appealing style. Each, in a large way, did something that people had always enjoyed and were often embarrassed or ashamed about enjoying. Their "bad taste" shaped a new accepted taste. Beatty's non-actor's "bad" timing may be this kind of "genius"; we seem to be watching him think out his next move.
I know someone who told me that he never much cared for Beatty because he was always ACTING, consciously performing, telegraphing his movements second-by-second so that you were never surprised by any one of his line readings or movements. He was in his youth what his contemporaries Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino became by the time they hit 50. But Bonnie and ClydeMcCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), and Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975) gave Beatty the right roles. In each film, he plays performers. And Clyde Barrow is the absolute performer, a figure who, within the world of the film, is imitating an idea of himself in the press, and, for Beatty, imitating, and at times besting, his predescessors in Hollywood gangster films. Bradley Cooper did this sort of thing well and Christian Bale did it poorly in American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013).

But let's go back to Kael's language, because I would love to be able to write this sentence: "As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesn't have a trained actor's use of his body, and watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced he's impotent." There are only so many people who understand what it means for an actor to be good both with his face as well as his clothes, and what it means for the body to remain inexpressive, and to know why not looking like a "trained actor" might be a good thing. But I also love the steady beat of the "and" in the second clause, with the abrupt falling line "but his body is still inexpressive." This sentence captures the thrill of watching moving human bodies on screen. The voice captures the way our minds process a performance that occurs over a period of time, from moment to moment. And the list of other artists speaks to the catalogue a cinephile always keeps in his or her memory, always recalling during the period of time while he or she is watching that body.

There is too much writing in Film Studies that is indifferent to style and voice, that ignores the way we talk about movies when our students aren't listening. And so when outsiders hear us talk, it's no wonder so many of them are baffled and say, "Do you even LIKE movies?"


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Schadenfreude

The news that Bill O'Reilly's career may be over for good doesn't make me happy. Honestly, I would have been happier if it turned out he wasn't as racist or sexist when the cameras were off as he was when they were on. I was not happy to learn the news about Aaron Hernandez. I don't know how any young man facing a lifetime in a lonely, grey cell, among a stench he will never escape, could avoid suicide.

I don't need to witness anyone's humiliation or misery. I need O'Reilly to have not humiliated countless women and Hernandez to have not taken people away from those who loved them.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On "Nerd"

The last time I heard the word "nerd" used as an insult, I was 11 years old.

Saved by the Bell (1989-1992) uses "nerd" as a euphemism for "fucking Jewboy," "autistic motherfucker," and "faggot."


On the Paragraph and the Sentence

For the past three years, I have taught a few hundred students a specific paragraph structure. I learned it from a professor in graduate school. I don't use this model in all my writing, but I try to use it in my academic writing. I rarely use it on this blog.

First, you write a thesis. Then, you write two points in support of your thesis. Then, you write an antithesis, something that calls your thesis into question. This antithesis can include new evidence or it can reinterpret the evidence you have already provided. And finally, in the conclusion, you write a synthesis, a chemical reaction, as one student once called it, something that brings the thesis and the antithesis together. Out of the hundred or so students to whom I've taught this structure, maybe five percent master it within a lesson or two and another ten percent are able to figure it out by the end of the quarter. We like to say that we are teaching students to be better citizens. The romantic side of me would like to believe this exercise, repeated several times throughout a quarter, helps students question their own ideas even if they will never be masters of the written word.

The culture I grew up in was primarily oral. Our ideas of narrative came from movies and television shows. People were into poetry, as long as it came from rap music, Bob Dylan, or Paul Simon.

There is more writing in the culture I live in today. People read Twitter and Facebook posts. They communicate through texts. They are as likely to get their news from articles their friends post online as from YouTube videos from their friends. They like memes. I don't think it's surprising that Oscar Wilde is one of the few great writers I've seen on the bookshelves of friends and casual acquaintances who don't read a lot of books. The writing they read is not all that divorced from speech.

It's never been harder to teach someone to sit down and write the paragraph I assign. Many paragraphs I have gotten over the years consist of several good first sentences, but not a single second sentence. No one knows how to write a good second sentence.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On Passover

Last night, I enjoyed my first Passover Seder in eight years, and one of only four seders I have had since I graduated college. In 2004, I attended a seder hosted by the Israeli ambassador in Hanoi. In 2008, I attended a Passover in Budapest held for quite a few people who did not learn about their Jewish ethnic background until relatively late in life. In 2009, I had Passover with relatives at their lakehouse in Michigan. Last night, a colleague messaged me with an invitation at the last minute. We had seder in the group kitchen of her apartment building.

When I was growing up, I found the lessons of Passover alienating. Are we really going to vilify the Wicked Child for daring to ask a question? Are we really going to get off on killing the first-born children of our enemies, children who are not guilty of their parents' crimes? I grew up in a liberal household which believed in free inquiry and opposed collective punishment. And the whole story seemed to be wallowing in a memory of victimhood. I thought the upper-middle-class Ivy-bound Jews I knew could pay a little more attention to the actual slaves in their own country. As I got older, I cringed at thinking of the next year in Jerusalem, because there was plenty going on in Jerusalem that I did and still do not like.

I had a social justice seder, which pretty much meant that we were able to work through these many questions, admittedly finding the answers that we wanted to find in the story. As one of the participants pointed out, you are required to mention very few parts of the story in the Seder and you are welcome to bring up as many problems as you like. So, I learned that the Wicked Child is wicked for his desire to cut himself off from his community, which is fair, although the Wicked Child faces a conundrum when his community is doing something he doesn't like. So what makes the Wise Child better? Does he take the community on its own terms, embraces it, but still asks questions, learning from his brothers, sisters, and parents, while quietly asking himself even harder questions? The definition of Jewishness at the table emphasized the ish. We believed in expanding the notions of community as far as possible. We believed that culture was anything but static. When we thought about liberation and enslavement, we did not just think of the literal slaves in our backyards, the immigrant laborers who work in conditions that fit our legal definition of involuntary servitude, as well as those caught up in wage slavery. We also thought about our inabilities to liberate ourselves from the capitalist order, to free ourselves entirely from the responsibilities of the person who is inadvertently an oppressor, the people who just can't leave Omelas.

The seder was more significant as many of us had come to the realization that classic, brandy-distilled anti-Semitism was alive and well in America in the past year. But we did our best to understand our suffering within the American, and even larger diasporic context.

I will never be more than a non-practicing diletantte when it comes to the history of Jewish thought. I will always know more about Philip Roth and Max Fleischer than the Book of Genesis. I know more about cultures that are not my own than I do about many religious Jewish subcultures. But a vigorous, humane, open approach to the study of Judaism, as well as the definition of Jewishness is one I can get behind. A static definition of Jewishness and a closed idea of the Jewish religion is dangerous. I despise tribalism in all forms, and, after American nationalism, Jewish tribalism the most. No one tells me whom I have to hate, whom I get to love, or whom I get to call my brother.

Anyway, in celebration of Passover, I offer the two greatest things Jews ever gave America.




Monday, April 10, 2017

On Talking About Meat-Eating, Talking About Mass Death

Pick 10 recent American movies. People talk politics in American movies. And I'm sure if you watch 10 at random, at some point someone will say something, or at least do something directly related to the War on Terror, abortion, climate change, gay rights, police shootings, or torture. They may not discuss these issues well. In fact, they may be completely incompetent. But I think it's possible that in a sampling of 10 contemporary American films no one will make even a passing mention of the Medieval torture to which we subject the cows, pigs, and chickens we eat.

It's not that these issues are not discussed in other parts of our society. Major novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer and J.M. Coetzee have written extensively about veganism. A former president declared himself a vegan, at least for a short while. Animals rights have bipartisan support. Chris Christie came out for treating chickens in New Jersey with more kindness. Oprah Winfrey spoke for the rights of animals on her show. Paul McCartney and Lisa Simpson remain proud vegans. PETA is part of the mainstream. But in our mainstream film, there's often only a quiet, passing mention. Meanwhile, we can see plenty of people eating hamburgers, enjoying Thanksgiving turkeys, and frying bacon. Morality evolves. I'm still a meat eater, but I think it's possible that 100 years from now, human beings will consider these scenes as difficult to watch as we find concentration-camp footage. They will live in a world in which our reliance on livestock for our nutrition will have decimated valuable land, in which we better understand the complex emotions of animals -- emotions that are not so far from our own -- and in which the largely academic concept of speciesism will cease to be academic. 

They won't see an entire culture that ignores what they may one day consider the greatest barbarism of our time. They will wonder why certain aspects of our culture examined the travesty of meat-eating and other parts ignored it. What is the great unspoken in Hollywood blockbusters is not the great unspoken on television shows like The Simpsons (1989-- ). The silence may say as much for them as the lack of discussion of the British empire in most nineteenth-century British novels said for Edward Said.

I am currently writing a chapter on the Zagreb School's depiction of warfare. Only one film made during the period of the Zagreb School, Tifusari / Typhoid (Vatroslav Mimica, 1963), dealt directly with the memory of World War II. What may arguably be the last School film, Zlatko Bourek and Pavao Štalter's Weiner Blut (2015), deals with the Holocaust. The rest of the war films dealt with abstract issues of modern warfare in a post-Hiroshima world. The pre-Hiroshima world, a world of low-tech warfare which had wiped out 12 percent of Yugoslavia's population, is just not talked about, even if the stories of Partisan fighting are part of the conversations in their live-action films, popular songs, and novels. 

I am starting this chapter with this issue, something that a simple claim that the films existed on an international stage which sought to develop universal themes does not adequately explain. What is it about a certain medium, one which the School took perfectly seriously and which examined problems rooted in the Yugoslav soil, that made its creators avoid describing a certain kind of violence, even while examining many other forms.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

On a Genre You Know Nothing About

I have read five young adult novels since I was 13, all of them within the last 10 years: Dale Peck's Sprout, a gay romance, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which was brutal, Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, a dystopian book, Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, and Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why. I read the first four as homework, for interviews with Peck, Ellen Forney (who illustrated Alexie's book), and Le Guin, and for a seminar about science fiction which included Doctorow. I read 13 Reasons Why because I was curious about the Netflix series.

Sprout was the only Peck novel I like, but it didn't do anything that new. Except for Martin and John, the rest of his oeuvre is unreadable. Alexie's book is awesome. I enjoyed an hour-long talk I saw Doctorow give at the Seattle Public Library, which was far smarter than his book. I think I came to the Earthsea series too late in life to love them.

How do you judge a work from a genre in which you are not immersed? Do the opinions of the English professor who has never read a superhero comic in his life have any validity when he glances through The Dark Knight Returns? How about the 30-year-old dude who has never bothered with anything other than classic rock and rap when he listens to Coltrane?

I approached 13 Reasons Why with total ignorance but an open mind. I thought it just succeeded in marrying the noir voice with teenage self-performance. I bought the novel's central premise the way I bought the one-inch-too-far murder plot in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007). So much was just right. So much made sense. So much was rooted in the politics of high school that I either knew first- or second-hand. Why wouldn't things go that far? The genre conventions just approached realism. (I did not feel the same way about the Netflix adaptation.)

If I approach the book, self-consciously, knowing that I will be actively surrendering my critical instincts to complain about how the book may be pandering to a certain age group, I'm not sure if that self-consciousness is preventing me from reading the book on its own terms. In another sense, though, the fact that I was self-consciously surrendering my critical instincts made me enjoy the book more. This book was doing everything a lifetime of reading has taught me a book like this shouldn't be able to do. That's what made it a surprise. That's what made it interesting.

I will consider this experience the next time I try to get my students to talk about an MGM musical. Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates always makes them smile, but their first words once they get to the end of It's Always Fair Weather (Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1955) are usually "That's really...weird." Give them time. Let them think of everything else they know. They might come up with something more interesting to say, something you don't know.




Saturday, April 8, 2017

On Redefining the Rules of Morality

Geov Parrish has written a personal essay about Ed Murray that asks why many gay men of the 61-year-old mayor's generation don't seem eager to condemn his alleged crimes. This isn't a question of whether Murray is guilty or innocent. This is a question of whether Murray's behavior was defensible or not. I think, as Parrish thinks, that it's pretty much a given that having sex with a 15-year-old prostitute who is desperately trying to feed his drug habit is morally reprehensible. I guess an arch-libertarian willing to question our laws in regards to age of consent and prostitution might say it should be legal, even if it is morally reprehensible. I will come out and make the boldly controversial statement that having sex with a 15-year-old prostitute is wrong and should remain illegal.

Parrish makes a point that gay men of Murray's generation lived by a different moral code, one that placed special emphasis on the ideal of the mature gay man initiating the younger gay man through sex into gay adulthood. Parrish doesn't have much in the way of statistics to make his point, but he does note NAMBLA's place at the borders of the gay mainstream all the way up to the '90s. He could have mentioned the legendary gay activist Harry Hay who died fifteen years ago and would have turned 105 yesterday, who remained an advocate for pedophilia to the end of his life. I do have older gay male friends who have spoken favorably about the rights for 10-year-olds to make their own decisions as far as their sex lives are concerned. And two writers I admire, Edmund White, in his book States of Desire, and Samuel Delany, in this interview, defend pedophilia. I am cool with Hilton Als's fond memories of his relationship at age 16 with an older man, as I am with many former teenagers I have known who did have happy, short-term relationships with older men, relationships which, in fact, do fit the Symposium ideal. But I imagine they, like me, would come out against exploiting a 15-year-old prostitute who is desperately trying to feed his drug habit.

Parrish spends the essay coming to terms with his own past as a prostitute working his way through college, having sex with men who were delusional, who believed they were part of the initiation tradition. And in the end, he places Murray's alleged crimes in the context of the AIDS epidemic, noting that many of the prostitutes with whom Murray may have had sex did not live long. This is another reason why, among other reasons, I come out against exploiting 15-year-old prostitutes who are desperately trying to feed their drug habits.

Having sex with 15-year-old prostitutes who are trying to feed their drug habits may be the most naked, evil form of capitalism I can think of, an early form, before the brutality of capitalism's excesses became hidden. The 15-year-old is after all providing a service to his customer, who is paying for congress with a human being he would never otherwise be able to touch, and the 15-year-old needs the money to feed a sickness. Any adult who makes this transaction needs to do what he can to convince himself that he is doing something right, and so he uses the rhetoric that somehow marries the lofty ideals of the Ancient Greeks -- which does have legitimacy in other contexts -- with a modern civil-rights movement -- which does have legitimacy in other contexts -- and now he's Socrates Luther King, Jr.

The best gift gay culture gave to America was an example of what it meant to question the basic moral and social codes of sex and relationships. If you are happily raising a kid out of wedlock, remain happily single at age 50 enjoying the companionship of friends, openly declare your geriatrophilia or your foot fetishes or your open relationships and open marriages, advocate for (adult and consensual) sex work, or if you declare yourself asexual with no embarrassment, you may have the gay-rights movement to thank. I still think gay culture offers an example for what intergenerational relationships can and should be. It also provides the examples of what intergenerational relationships must not be and of the kind of people who deserve to be hated, the kind of people whom marginalization and oppression did not ennoble.

On Civilized People Laughing at Torture

I am at the moment writing a chapter on how the Zagreb School depicted war and violence. There's no need to go into great detail about the chapter here, but I will note that my study of one film, Piccolo (Dušan Vukotić, 1959), has taken me to re-read an essay Alex Ross wrote for The New Yorker last summer about the relationship between music and violence. I put one of the books he mentions on order at the library. This might be good for a paragraph or two. Anyway, here's a passage that hit me pretty hard.

In America, musical torture received authorization in a September, 2003, memo by General Ricardo Sanchez. 'Yelling, Loud Music, and Light Control' could be used 'to create fear, disorient detainee and prolong capture shock,' provided that volume was 'controlled to prevent injury.' Such practices had already been publicly exposed in a short article in Newsweek that May. The item noted that interrogations often featured the cloying theme of 'Barney & Friends,' in which a purple dinosaur sings, 'I love you / You love me / We’re a happy family.' The article’s author, Adam Piore, later recalled that his editors couched the item in joking terms, adding a sardonic kicker: 'In search of comment from Barney’s people, Hit Entertainment, Newsweek endured five minutes of Barney while on hold. Yes, it broke us, too.' Repeating a pattern from the Noriega and Waco incidents, the media made a game of proposing ideal torture songs. 

The hilarity subsided when the public learned more of what was going on at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Mosul, and Guantánamo. Here are some entries from the interrogation log of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 'twentieth hijacker,' who was refused admittance to the United States in August, 2001:

1315: Corpsman checked vitals—O.K. Christina Aguilera music played. Interrogators ridiculed detainee by developing creative stories to fill in gaps in detainee’s cover story.

0400: Detainee was told to stand and loud music was played to keep detainee awake. Was told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth. 

1115: Interrogation team entered the booth. Loud music was played that included songs in Arabic. Detainee complained that it was a violation of Islam to listen to Arabic music.

0345: Detainee offered food and water—refused. Detainee asked for music to be turned off. Detainee was asked if he can find the verse in the Koran that prohibits music.

1800: A variety of musical selections was played to agitate the detainee.

Aguilera seems to have been chosen because female singers were thought to offend Islamist detainees. Interrogation playlists also leaned on heavy-metal and rap numbers, which, as in the Noriega case, delivered messages of intimidation and destruction. Songs in regular rotation included Eminem’s 'Kim' ('Sit down, bitch / If you move again I’ll beat the shit out of you') and Drowning Pool’s 'Bodies' ('Let the bodies hit the floor').

Pay attention to how Ross tells this story.

First, there's the civilized people, people who will probably never be anywhere near a torture room, learning something that sounds just darn hilarious to them. Who doesn't hate the obnoxious jingles from kids' shows you have to endure? Of course, it's torture! And then, when the civilized people actually read the details of the torture, their eyes...no, their ears open up and they imagine a world they never knew existed, a world in which all the music, the ambience of their civilized world is used to hurt people. It shouldn't be that shocking to them, really. They had already heard Wendy Carlos reimagine Beethoven for the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and "Layla" play out in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990). What about a world in which the music wasn't used to aestheticize the violence? What about a world in which music was the violence? And did they not get that when Eminem was walking a line in "Kim," that we call it a "line" because it borders something terrible and wrong?

I don't want to be 95-year-old man clucking at Internet snark. Internet snark is with us and will always be with us. But I might request that we put the snark aside when it comes to talking about actual violence against actual people. Also, when someone starts screaming at you for playing music that they don't like, remember that you may actually be physically hurting them, you may be assaulting them in ways that our law doesn't understand but maybe should.

(I should say that at the ripe age of 36, I've become the guy who tells people they're being obnoxious assholes when they're being obnoxious assholes. This usually involves yelling at people for playing the wrong music at the wrong time and the wrong place.)

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Some Suggestions for How to Talk About Ed Murray

Ed Murray, the mayor of my city, has been accussed of sexually abusing a teenage boy. The boy was 15, one year below the age of consent in the jurisdiction, but this was more than a case of statutory rape. Murray gave the boy petty cash to help him feed his drug habit and then demanded specific sexual favors that the boy just did not want to perform. Read the details.

Modest suggestions:

1. I understand the claim that we must always believe the accuser, and so far there seems to be damning evidence against Murray, particularly in regards to other accusers in this case. Still, there have been enough high-profile cases of rape and lesser forms of sexual assault that have turned out to be bogus. I would suggest that we hold back and let the investigators do their thing. If we all scream that the story is absolutely true and then it turns out to be absolutely false, we will have unintentionally aided a narrative that all sexual abuse victims are lying when they come forward.

2. Don't call Murray a "pedophile." A pedophile is someone who has sex with a pre-pubescent child. A 15-year-old is not a pre-pubescent child. Our commentators tend to be slippery in their use of language, often conflating sexual assault, rape, coercion, and sexual harrassment, as well as pedophilia and ephebophilia. Precision matters.

3. There are intelligent, non-hysterical discussions to be had in regards to teenage sexuality, and particularly gay teenage sexuality. Consider this case the next time you want to have that discussion. Would this have been less horrible if the person in question was 16 instead of 15? What if, outside the age of consent laws, it truly were consensual, that it involved no financial transaction, if the 15-year-old did not do drugs, and did not come from a broken home? If you still think the answer is no, explain why, come up with evidence, and give at least something of an ear to the people who had sex with older men when they were teenagers, and who remember their experiences fondly.

4. If you ever hear a voice inside your head along the lines of "I hope Murray goes to prison and gets raped," you are a sick puppy. You are part of a terrible sickness that ails our society.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

On Advice to Ivy League Class of 2021

This is the time of year people receive their college acceptances and rejections. There's a lot of joy and heartbreak every April. I received my acceptance to Columbia University early in December 1998, two days before my eighteenth birthday, literally half a lifetime ago. I wouldn't recognize that eighteen-year-old kid today.

I have some words for the members of the Ivy League classes of 2021, at least for those who share my class background. I doubt that many of these budding geniuses would listen to me even if they came across this blog.

Most of you can't write, at least not now. You can think. You have great ideas, but you haven't developed the skills or the intelligence you think you already have. Many if not most of you have not had sex. You don't have to rush to have sex. Lose your virginity however you wish to lose your virginity, but don't do it in order to meet the expectations of society or your dormmates who know as little about life as you do. Some of the most famous names at your university are terrible teachers. Some of the most famous names at your university are great teachers. Some of the lowliest grad students have a lot to teach you. Some of the lowliest grad students have nothing to teach you. There are teachers who speak in accents that are difficult to understand. They'll be grading your writing and that will piss you off. Many of those teachers have a lot to teach you. Anyone who complains all the time about the amount of work they have to do is annoying. Don't be that person. Learn a language, preferably Finnish or Khmer. If there's only one book on the syllabus of a humanities class, drop it. Your presence at the school reflects at best the kind of student you were at ages 16 and 17. Don't brag about your university. School spirit is more nationalistic than patriotic. Take the classes you want to take. Don't listen to your parents. Anyone who tells you to avoid a major in Khmer language and literature doesn't know what they're talking about. There are people attending a community college within a couple of miles of your school. Some of those people are just as smart as you, and "smart" is much harder to define than you realize. If you're depressed, head to counselling services. Seriously, go to counselling. If you're thinking of suicide and counselling doesn't help you, you need to leave the university, at least for a little while. Don't take classes in which the professor grades you based on your willingness to accept their political agenda. Freedom of speech and academic inquiry is important. Your dorm room is the only safe space on campus. Bullying exists at the college level. Don't take anyone's bullying. Don't bully anyone else. You are around some of the most socially awkward 18-22-year-olds in America. You are probably one of the most socially awkward 18-22-year-olds in America. Encourage your friends' accomplishments. Don't smoke marijuana or take shrooms more than four times/month. Don't write your papers the night before they're due and, for god's sakes, do at least three quarters of the readings for class. If you are still proud of getting into an Ivy League school when you're 30, you are a fucking asshole. If you're still proud of getting into an Ivy League school when you're 19, you are a mere asshole. Get C's. If you graduate cum laude, good for you. If you graduate magna cum laude, great. If you graduate summa cum laude, you probably did something wrong. The kid who didn't even make cum laude may be smarter than you think. Wait, really, why the hell are you paying any attention to your friends' grades. No, that two-hour class discussion on John Locke did not make you an expert on John Locke. If you're still reading Ayn Rand, fuck you. Drop out. The world doesn't need Ivy Leaguers who still read Ayn Rand. The security guards, cafeteria workers, and janitors are people. The townies are people. No, you didn't experience trauma because the Young Republicans invited someone who doesn't believe affirmative action is smart policy to campus. The girl down the hallway, who is acting out, and screaming late at night, and whom you can't stand, probably has experienced trauma. That hilariously super-closeted gay kid down the hall who is being an asshole to you has probably suffered more in life than you have suffered. There are people on campus who come from the bottom 25 percent of the income ladder. The campus is Mars for them. And yes, there's a reason people from certain backgrounds tend to hang out with one another. Most of your ideas are not new. Some teachers are legitimately mean and disrespectful to their students. Trust your instincts and drop classes in which you feel the teachers are mean and disrespectful, but try to give them the benefit of the doubt as much as you can. Don't ever grade grub. What are you? Twelve. Trust me, there are greater injustices in the world than getting that B plus that absolutely deserved to be an A because you included a quotation from Paradise Lost, which wasn't even on the syllabus. Be patient. Your parents will eventually leave during orientation week. You have no idea what they're going through. Drinking is the least fun thing you can do on a Friday night. If, 10 years from now, your fondest memories of college involve drinking on Friday nights, sorry, but you wasted one of the greatest opportunities of your life. Oh, and if I sound like an asshole, this is exactly what an Ivy League education does. It makes you sound like an asshole sometimes.