Thursday, October 12, 2017

On Weinstein

The marketing campaign behind Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) was amazing. It relied on the slippery definition between "independent," as in movie-mogul "independent producer" or shoestring-make-this-thing-on-my-mom's-video-camera "indie." Harvey Weinstein considered himself an independent producer and Van Sant gave the film indie cred. Anyone who understands the economics of Hollywood in the 1990s knows that "independent movie" is a myth. At very least, the term is usually misapplied. Blue-state liberals can make fun of those dumb Midwesterners who thought the office on The Apprentice (2004-) was where Donald Trump conducted his real estate transactions, but blue-state liberals are just as gullible. As late as 2010, a well-educated lawyer friend of mine -- as sharp, funny, and knowledgable as anyone I know -- called The King's Speech (Tom Hooper) an indie.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were marketed as underdog, lovable, good-looking prodigies in a movie about an underdog, lovable, good-looking prodigy. As someone who has been around many geniuses since I was in elementary school, I can tell you the movie had no concept of genius, how it is lived and how it is understood. Most geniuses are not good at everything and being able to recite facts about history does not make you a savant. The movie was watchable, but next to impossible to listen to. The second most famous line -- "It's not your fault" -- is unintentionally hilarious.

An advertisement on the eve of the Oscars said something like "the only special effects here are human emotions," which would be true if the movie had emotions that made any sense. In the late 1990s, real cultural underdogs were fighting to fund ballet in regional theaters. They weren't talking about how Damon was some sort of outsider.

There was one true genius in this story: the confidence man Weinstein.

We may never know just how many women Weinstein sexually assaulted, and of those, how many he raped. We may never know how many women Affleck groped. Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale made it, but there are others whose careers and maybe entire lives were destroyed.

Underdog status gives its holders the right to abuse the power they pretend they don't have.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

On Fuck Anita Bryant


When it comes to the debates about our politically correct campus culture, I don't think the kids are alright. Following the lead of a few too many young academics, undergraduates are taught not to look at works of art in historical context. They declare works of art ideologically good or ideologically bad, using a dead, empty language made up of terms like "cultural appropriation" and "privilege."

I just heard about this song from an interview on NPR. David Allan Coe released it in 1978 in order to condemn professional hate-monger Anita Bryant. The song is a celebration of the gay men he knew in prison. It suggests that Coe himself has had gay experiences. He doesn't ennoble gay men. He celebrates hyper-sexuality and indulges feminine stereotypes. He's comfortable with the terms "homosexual" and "faggot." I fear too many young men would be taught to hate this song. 

The song made me cry. If I could I would blast it in every fraternity and every gay rights meeting on every campus in America.

Monday, October 2, 2017

On the Shooter

Don't assume you know the shooter. Don't assume you know everything you need to know about him because his father was a former bank robber, because he was rich, or because he was a white male who liked to gamble. You don't know.  

Maybe a good, enterprising journalist will spend months on the ground in Las Vegas learning as much as he or she can learn about the shooter. We may get something like the Rolling Stone's profile of one of the Boston marathon bombers, the New Yorker's profile of the father of the Sandy Hook shooter, or Esquire's profile of the shooter of the black church in South Carolina. Even if we get such a profile, we still won't know.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On Radio

Radio used to be ephemeral. Evidence: The Donald Trump/Howard Stern interviews.

These interviews had been broadcast to millions of people. And yet, years later, those interviews were hard to find. These interviews went from highly accessible to completely inaccessible in less than a day.

Now everything is archived instantly on the Internet.

Weird.

Monday, September 25, 2017

On Liberals

North American and West European liberals romanticize dissidents who speak excellent English and read good books.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

On Student Protesters

Every now and then a student emails a professor for permission to skip a class so they can take part in a protest. This protest could be against police violence or for more ethnic studies programs.

I haven't gotten these emails. If I ever do, here is my response:

"As you care very much about social justice issues, you have probably read about a football player named Colin Kaepernick. He has been 'taking a knee' during the singing of our National Anthem before football games in order to protest our country's systemic racism and its continuing history of violence towards people of color. Kaepernick has already taken an enormous risk in his protest and he is suffering. His career is in serious jeopardy. He stands to lose many millions of dollars. Like many NFL players, he probably has a large extended family who rely on him for support. So these millions of dollars are probably necessary for him to take care of his parents, siblings, distant cousins, friends, and neighbors. The power of his protest lies in his willingness to take this risk. If he had nothing to lose, his protest wouldn't be effective. I admire Kaepernick for his courage. I also admire the many athletes who have joined him.

"You have no doubt read about the many great protesters, most of them non-athletes, who have preceded Kaepernick. These were brave men and women who fought for the rights of black people, women, LGBT people, immigrants, and workers. They also took risks. Some of them risked their lives. Many of them died.

"You are welcome to skip any one of my classes. I'd be happy to go over material you missed during office hours, though I won't make anytime outside of office hours to help you. If there's a test on the day of the protest, I won't cancel the test. If you don't show up, you will fail the test.

"My policy does not reflect whether or not I believe your protest is worthwhile, whether or not I agree with your point of view, or whether or not I believe my class is more important than your protest. My policy is based on the belief that protest involves sacrifice and risk. It's up to you to decide how much you want to sacrifice and how much you want to risk."


Friday, September 22, 2017

On a Children's SWAT Team Costume

I saw this at Costco:


I don't like SWAT teams. I think we should put them on a moratorium while we examine their history of accidentally killing innocent people and their beloved dogs.  

Even if you're totally pro-SWAT team, I hope you can join me in condemning children's Halloween costumes that come with toy batons and handcuffs. Batons are weapons that should be employed -- if employed at all -- with the utmost seriousness and only when necessary. Handcuffs either restrain dangerous people or spice up sex lives. 

And then I'm left to wonder why I'm horrified by this SWAT team costume and not by Storm Trooper, red ninja, or Wolverine costumes. 

I guess I'm okay with channelling our violent urges in fiction. Quentin Tarantino is fond of saying that violence in movies is like dancing in movies. I agree with him. 

The simpler answer is that there's a difference between killing actual human beings and killing images of human beings on screen. But what about the American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014) hats I saw advertised at a store in Nowheresville, Oregon? The main character in American Sniper was a real-life person who bragged about killing people. Of course, to the average kid he's just an image on a screen pretend-killing other people.

Most of us, blue and red, are part of Wolverine America. A good size of us, red and plenty of blue, is also part of American Sniper America. If you're not part of either, well, good for you.  

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On James Baldwin and Privilege

In a previous post I claimed that James Baldwin didn't use the academic jargon of the political left, jargon that has grown stale: "privilege," "ally," and the like.

I was wrong.

I saw a production of his 1964 play Blues for Mr. Charlie last night. Here is the white Southern moderate admitting his shortcomings to a southern reverend who seeks justice for his murdered son: "Please understand that it is not so easy to leap over the fence, to give things up -- alright, to surrender privilege! But if you were among the privileged you would know what I mean."

Baldwin is too intelligent a writer to let anyone -- white or black -- completely off the hook, and also too humane a writer to hate anyone as much as they deserve to be hated. There are so many meanings in these two sentences. The white man is whining to the black man to understand his pain, his own "blues." The white man is admitting to his mediocrity. The white man is also telling the black man that he gets the result of this privilege, that his privilege has led to turpitude, and that the white man is in his own way trapped by the system as much as the reverend. He is telling him that he will never achieve a kind of humanity the black man already has. The world has cursed me with privilege, the white man whines.

There are several layers of irony on this one. None of the black men in the play are themselves paragons of moral rectitude. Baldwin presents the Emmett Till stand-in as a recovering junkie and womanizer, but that's what makes Baldwin different than the average meme poster.

***

The word "privilege" is stale in your mouth. It is not stale in Baldwin's.



Thursday, September 14, 2017

On Brock Turner

Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was found guilty of a brutal sexual assault and who then got off with a six-month sentence of which he only served half, is now the textbook definition of rape.

Turner strikes me as a hateful human being. There are people who have committed rape and murder who eventually reform and have something like, you know, guilt. If you glance at Turner's Twitter feed, which I did in a desire to feel rotten, you will see a young man who loves Donald Trump, still blames alcohol for his assault on a defenseless woman, leans on Christianity to make himself feel better about himself rather than to become a better person, and who is still cheering on Stanford football.

Still, I've written about my discomfort with changing our laws to deny those accused of rape their rights and, in a time when we're trying to decrease our prison population, to increase rapists' prison sentences. I may hate Turner, but I was not as appalled by his relatively light sentence as many others were.

What's the point of making Turner the textbook definition of rape? Are the people treating this development with glee all that different from the village crowd who wants to place the monster in stocks and pelt him with rotten fruit? Maybe Brock Turner has it all coming. Maybe the mob will prevent future rapes. But forgive me when I say that mobs really freak me out. It doesn't take much to steer that much hatred from someone who deserves it to someone who doesn't.

Black Mirror Season 2: Episode 2 "White Bear" (2013). I'm not a huge fan of the show because, unlike the best science fiction, it isn't that complicated nor complex. Sometimes the point of a work of art is a little too obvious because the problem it documents is a little too obvious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

On Criminal Neglect

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, and you're an asthmatic or an older person with heart problems, this past month has been terrible. The heavy smoke and ash from wildfires, first from British Columbia and then later from Washington and Oregon, blanketed the region. At one point the air quality in Tacoma was worse than the air quality in Beijing. We're likely to get more dry summers, and thus more forest fires, and thus more heavy clouds of smoke in the decades to come thanks to climate change.

If you live in the Gulf states, you're likely to experience more category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the coming years, ripping apart houses, destroying infrastructure. News reports talk about films of excrement that will be covering the streets of Florida. It's possible that many people who won't die during the impact of the hurricane may end up dying from diseases that may spread in its aftermath.

We already know about climate change refugees in Asia and the Middle East. Analysts claim that climate change has caused a diminishment resources which has led directly to the war in Syria. These refugees are members of the bottom billion of the world population, the members of the human race who live in dire poverty.

Some rich people will die. Many moderately comfortable people will die. Millions and millions of poor people will die. No one is safe. Some are more unsafe than others. The feeble attempts to combat climate change at the macro level aren't laughable. They're criminal neglect.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

On Orson Welles's The Trial and Zagreb

These two paragraphs are an aside in my dissertation. Leon Rizmaul, the co-producer of The Other Side of Orson Welles, a documentary about Welles’s lifelong relationship with the former Yugoslavia, provided me with this information.

In The Trial (1962), Orson Welles used Zagreb to describe a city with no names. We can defy Welles and add the proper names to the shooting locations for the final scene. Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) stands in the empty square in front of the gothic Zagreb Cathedral where he is grabbed by two policemen (Raoul Delfosse and Jean-Claude Rémoleux) and dragged through Gradec, in a circuitous path along the narrow streets lined with small interwar modernist and Austro-Hungarian buildings, finally passing through the Stone Gate. It’s nighttime and Edmond Richard’s deep focus cinematography fetishizes every stone. The film cuts several hours forward into daylight, as well as a few kilometers south, past a modernist building just north of the Sava River. The screen is layered white on white. In the next jump, Josef K. and the policemen are a kilometer or so north, in the desolate, infertile fields behind the main train station, not visible on screen, near the site of today’s main bus station. In his essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Thom Andersen notes Hollywood’s “war on modern architecture,” namely its habit of using new, utopian structures for the shooting locations of villains' hangouts in thrillers and spy movies. Zagreb’s cityscape was emerging at the time The Trial was filmed, and the new modern buildings were meant to define a new city for a new country. But these buildings, as well as the well-preserved Austro-Hungarian architecture were to become a topsy-turvy vision of an uncanny city, unmoored from time, more frightening than the (named) Vienna of The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949).
The policemen throw Josef K. into a quarry. They position themselves on either side of him, passing a knife, suggesting the other perform the final murder. In the novel, one of the policemen jabs the knife into Josef K.’s stomach, an intimate killing, more primal than death via the machinery of guns in the Great War that was being fought at the time Kafka was writing. In Welles’s film the two policemen walk out of the quarry, and after Josef K. dares them to kill him, they light and throw a stick of dynamite into the ditch. Welles turns Zagreb, the second largest city of Yugoslavia but still hardly a major European capital, into a stage for the apocalypse.

On Renaming

On Sunday, the Times published an op-ed by Daniel Duane about the names at Yosemite National Park. He argues that our naming of landmarks constituted an erasure of the genocide of Indians. He calls for a renaming program.

It's a long piece and at the end we get this kicker:

Of course, none of this will mean much without input from Native Californians like Mark Minch, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside, who helped me see the dubious value of Indian names as recorded by a white soldier in 1851 and the likelihood that name changes would do little other than soothe the colonial conscience. I got a similar response from Bill Leonard, a descendant of Tenaya and a longtime leader of the Southern Sierra Miwok. 
Mr. Leonard reminded me that he’s just one guy and can’t speak for others, then gently explained that my whole argument felt beside the point. Renaming, he said, “is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.” Mr. Leonard preferred to talk about the Southern Sierra Miwok’s decades-long campaign for tribal recognition by the federal government. The other thing on Mr. Leonard’s mind was the traffic. “If you want to figure how to get rid of some of the tourists, I’d be happy about that!” he said. “There’s so many people in Yosemite we can’t even get there. So we don’t care who calls what anything! You can’t even find a parking spot!” That may be too much to ask.
I can speak a little closer to home. I would like to see commemorative plaques at the University of Washington remembering and honoring the Japanese-American students who fought back against their internment during World War II. I would like to see a giant monument at University Village, the closest thing to a tony shopping center in the Seattle area, commemorating the Indians who once lived there. I suspect we'll get these statues sooner than later. King County eventually changed its official namesake from William Rufus King, who had supported slavery as a Democrat back in the 1850s, to Martin Luther King, Jr. The former King may have been a territorial governor of Washington and the latter King may have spent a total of two days in the area, but, come on, the state of Washington was named for a man who had never seen the West Coast. It's easy for KUOW, the local NPR station, to adopt gender neutral language. But rents will continue to skyrocket and Amazon will continue to extend its tentacles throughout Seattle and become more awful. Things will get worse for the city's poor residents.

It is a lot harder to take down those Confederate statues, but it's starting happen. You can get people to, as bell hooks said, decolonize their minds, at least a little, metaphorically. It may take decades, but it can happen. It's a hell of a lot harder to get people to give up the material. They'll hold onto the material with firmer hands than they'll hold onto what they think is their history.

Monday, September 4, 2017

On Having Left Facebook

The fun guy at a Halloween Party from two years whom I never saw again; the lovely people with whom I spent two weeks canvassing in 2010 for DLP candidates in Minnesota; the young man with whom I shared a hookah in Sarajevo in the summer of 2011; an elementary school friend whom I had last seen at a shopping mall in Potomac, Maryland when I was 18; the smart high school friend whom I found annoying but interesting in equal measure; former co-workers writing from Vietnam, Bulgaria, Latvia, Sarajevo, Croatia, Hungary, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Chicago, and North Carolina; the scholars I've met at conferences; D.C. journalists, some hacks, some pros; the minor celebrities in the subcultures I inhabit (academia and comics criticism) who take my friend requests or even -- ! -- send me one; distant relatives and close ones; former students; former teachers. Their kids. Their new jobs. Their spouses. The occasional announcement of a death or a divorce. Pictures of vacation spots. Civil War reenactments; country music; Alfred Hitchcock's long lost Holocaust film; pre-war French photography; marathon running; Edward Gibbon; the new superhero movie, the new Iranian movie; a science fiction novel set in an alternate history Congo; pictures of Mars. Political silliness in the Balkans; gay rights in Vietnam; essays about how Canada isn't any better than the U.S. Democratic socialists. Hard-core commies. Centrists. Liberals. Small-c conservatives. Identitarians. Misogynists. Feminists. Racists. Anti-Semites. Zionists. Moderates. Pacifists. Anti-racists. Gay people who are clearly closeted. Gay people who are out and proud. The transgender person documenting her transition. The fat person documenting his weight loss. The idiotic political debates. The smart political debates. All of it coalescing into the present. High school and college and middle school and my years abroad and my early years of grad school never going away, always there, smashed up against each other. Reminders of everything I had thought and hoped I had left behind. Few reminders of what I miss.

I live here now:

On the Handshake

I met John McCain twice, both times in 2000, once shortly after his primary campaign and the second time that summer at a fundraiser for Representative Connie Morella, for whom I was interning that summer. (She won that year. She was one of the few Republicans to lose her seat in 2002.) I was young and more willing to fall in with the media narratives of the New York Times. So it was exciting to meet McCain, and to discover that despite his weak, old-man's grip, it was nice to shake his hand. Later, I read an article that noted the torture he underwent as a POW had robbed him of the ability to lift his arms above his shoulders.

I also met Hillary Clinton in 2000, during her campaign for Senate. She had as little charisma on stage, sitting next to William Buffet, as she has now on TV. After the event, I approached the greeting line. A secret service agent stopped me to check my pockets, and then led me to a spot where I'd be sure to shake her hand. When I met her, I was cowed by the fact that I was standing in the presence of the most famous woman in the world. I didn't quite know what to say other than, "I'm not registered to vote in New York, but I will be so I can vote for you." She had a good handshake.

I also shook the hands of Orrin Hatch, John Lewis, and Paul Wellstone. In 2004, I was temping at a three-person office in D.C. that managed the properties for four office buildings. For one of my tasks, I had to take photos and make IDs of the occupants of all the buildings. I liked this part of the job most, because I got to get off my ass and walk around, escaping a monotonous routine. I met Fred Malek, who was then the head of Thayer Capital Partners, a company he founded. I didn't know who he was, but I knew he was important, because when I came to the office to take his photo, one person had to talk to another person who had to talk to a third person to make sure it was ok to take me to his office. When I came in, he stood up from his desk and shook my hand. I can't remember if he said "Hello, my name is Fred Malek, pleased to meet you" or "Hello, my name is Fred, pleased to meet you." I was surprised because I very rarely met people in that job who felt any need to introduce themselves to me when I showed up to take their picture. It's a smart move in a way. He had no idea who I was or that I could one day have become someone who worked for him in business or against him as a journalist, or well outside his circle, off in Seattle, in graduate school.

Malek has had a lot of success in the public and the private sector, but his obituary will lead with the story of his role in the Nixon Administration. He was the guy who fed his boss's anti-Semitic paranoia and "counted" the Jews in the Bureau of Labor statistics. The Jews were fired. Donald Trump has appointed Malek to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Trump has a different technique. He is known for aggressively grabbing hands and pulling his victims close to him as an act of dominance. It works.

I know plenty of uncharismatic, obnoxious people who have obtained money and power, but they can't reach the top until they master the art of the memorable handshake. They are where they are for a reason. You are where you are for a reason.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Hannah Frank: Writer

On Monday afternoon, after Hannah Frank's death, I sat down and read for the first time a piece she published last April: "'Proceeding From the Heat-Oppressed Brain': Thinking Through Eisenstein's MacBeth Drawings." In the piece she writes about plans Sergei Eisenstein put together for a possible production of MacBeth while he was in Mexico in the early 1930s. I've interviewed several famous writers through the years, but I tell people that they've never heard of the three best writers I've met in person. Hannah was one of them. This is just one paragraph from Hannah's piece, not even the best.
Sometimes, Eisenstein's hand falters and his stroke hesitates. When the paper is too soft and the ink too heavy, a line might vary in thickness, coagulating when it is directed upward and thinning when pulled downward; when the curve of a foot or a shoulder teeters too close to the edge of the paper, it will turn back just in time, but not before surrendering some of its assuredness. Curiously, and not insignificantly, his handwriting has a similar relationship to the sheet of paper. In many of his letters, he will fill the entire page, writing without margins (like a miser, he says in one essay) and on both front and back. There is a looseness to his line, whether written or drawn, that is in keeping with the giddiness of his imagery and his imagination. It is uncensored and uninhibited.
There's something here you don't see in any academic writing: joy. Hannah was critic as storyteller. She knows the drama in the act of Eisenstein's drawing and connects the artist to the man. Hannah has no patience for resentment. Unlike so many critics who are angry at the geniuses they study who have more talent than they have as thinkers, she doesn't study work in order to destroy it, but to build on it. She may have used something like the conventional structure of the academic essay in her more well-known piece -- Paragraph 1: X says this, Paragraph 2: I have an intervention and will argue Y instead -- but in this essay she breaks every single rule. Her argument lies in description, giving life to one still drawing after another. Hannah was an animator of the written word. (She was also an animator in the traditional sense).

And she's gone.

And all I can do is curse every academic for not being her.

Monday, August 28, 2017

On Hannah Frank

Hannah Frank was an animation studies scholar. I know the following: 1. She was one of the great minds of her generation. 2. She was one of the most genuinely kind people you could meet in academia. 3. She was hilarious. I've spent a total of twelve hours of my life in the same room with her, but when I heard the news of her death a half hour ago, I started bawling.

As far as I know, she published one article in her lifetime: "Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography." You should be able to find it on JSTOR. There is more genius in a paragraph in that article than in hundreds of pages of most academic studies. The article as a whole represents a percentage of her intelligence and humanity. She was a grand woman.

Update: Her faculty page at UNC-Wilmington lists her other publications.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

On Drinking (A Public Service Announcement)

I'm a lightweight. One glass of wine gets me drunk. A glass and a half and I'm very silly and inappropriate. I'm not a mean drunk, but I regret my behavior more often than not. So I try to drink as little as possible.

I have encountered mean drunks. Some of them are acquaintances and some are old friends. They've said things to me while under the influence that more or less torpedoed our relationships. They knew it was their fault. And they still drink and they still hurt people. There are times when I've first met people while they're drunk. They also say mean garbage. They may be lovely people in other contexts, but I will never know because I have no desire to ever speak to them again.

Here's my point: If you know you're an asshole when you're drunk, the kind of person who either destroys friendships or hurts people you've never met, and you continue to get drunk, you're probably one or both of the following: 1. A selfish human being. 2. An alcoholic.

This has been a public service announcement.




On Football, Again

I have a problem with football. It's not that I think it's a boring game. I haven't spent much time trying to understand what's so cool about it to really know one way or another. I remember playing two-hand touch in PE when I was in sixth grade. The girls were having fun. I was having fun. The boys kept complaining that it wasn't real football and I kept quiet.

It's not that I think it is a celebration of toxic masculinity, although so much of the culture around it -- the cheerleaders, the rhetoric of football announcers, even the body types it encourages -- says as much. At the University of Iowa, the visiting team's locker room was painted pink in order to demoralize Iowa's opponents. I thought the gesture was homophobic and a sign of bad sportsmanship.

It's not that I think football as well as basketball programs have perverted the structure and goals of the modern American university. Although they have. The previous president of the University of Washington spent his entire tenure raising funds for a new football stadium, all while tuition rates skyrocketed and TA salaries remained stagnant.

It's not that I think football's fanbase represents a political strain that I hate, although, given Hank Williams, Jr.'s one-time place as the mascot for Monday Night Football, that seems to be pretty clearly the case.

It's that football is a brutal, cruel sport that destroys the bodies and minds of men who sign up for this thing when they're young and stupid and under pressure from adults. It was hard for me to care about Michael Sam's story. I was neither excited when it looked like a proud gay man was going to play in the NFL, nor that upset when that proud gay man's dreams fizzled. It's hard for me now to get that angry for Colin Kaepernick or his friends, even though I support their actions and their cause one hundred percent.

A popular sports writer once told me, "Sports should not be armageddon." Football is not armageddon. It is war in miniature. And I hope it dies.

Friday, August 25, 2017

On Other Reasons I Left Facebook

It's the pictures of the old friends that pull everyone back. I would not know what many of my old friends' kids look like if not for Facebook. Facebook keeps some things hidden. An old high school buddy I had long lost contact with stopped posting new pictures of himself many years ago. I had tried contacting him on Facebook and he hadn't replied. I just wanted to know what happened to him. Eventually, I found him. He had gained great success as a medical researcher. The picture on his employee profile page revealed the problem. He had grown morbidly obese.

I don't see many fat photos of old friends on Facebook. Everyone posts their wedding photos. No one posts the picture of the black-sheep uncle who got drunk that night and sulked in the corner. Everyone posts their couples pictures, smiling at Angkor Wat. No one posts pictures of the fight in the car, or how they felt when confronted by desperate poverty in Cambodia. Everyone posts stories about their cute kids. No one mentions the phone call from the teacher letting them know their kid can't stop hitting the smaller kids in class. No one posts stories about their kids' developmental disabilities.

And of course no one posts stories about their impotence, their difficulties getting pregnant, their misgivings about their marriages, their problems with parents and siblings that will never be fully resolved. If you discuss those problems on Facebook, the world will consider you mad. You never see the fullness of your old friends, the day-to-day, moment-to-moment behavioral and emotional shifts, the contradictions, and the inability to form full thoughts, all those things that make people human. In other words, my old friends aren't really on Facebook.

I've only rarely seen old friends since I got to Seattle. People tend not to come through here. I try to make it to New York once a year to see people. When I do see old friends, we pick up very quickly from where we left off and we spend hours talking about all the things that seemed so important when we were 22 and the things that seem even more important now that we're 36. They know me better than almost anyone here knows me. But it's a melancholy thought: I've spent much more time with the barista in my favorite tea shop, the quiet, unengaged students in my classes, and the people at my yoga studio, than with family members and friends whom I love. But Facebook doesn't bring me closer to friends and family. It makes my friends and family more distant.

It's time to go.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

On Leaving Facebook

In the world I navigate, I agree with about ninety percent of what a random colleague believes. A sampling, based on the conversations that have dominated my newsfeed: I believe that we should institute gender neutral language in official documents; I believe that the relationship between police and communities of color is broken; I believe that climate change represents an existential threat to mankind; I believe in a minimum wage increase; I agree in the fundamental demands of transgender activists; I believe that Palestinians live in an apartheid, or at least quasi-apartheid state, and deserve their rights; I believe that our treatment of those who come forward with sexual assault allegations is terrible.

Are there disagreements? Sure. To go down the list just mentioned: I am uncomfortable demanding gender neutral language in all forms of writing; I believe that the police also mistreat white people if at lower rates and that policing should be subject to reform rather than elimination; I believe that climate change should be a priority above all other issues and am in fact almost a one-issue voter because of this stance; I believe we should be somewhat careful of the minimum wage increase and that the $15 dollar minimum wage may be too high and am deeply respectful of small-business owners; I am not entirely convinced that the gender binary does not exist in all cases and don't fully understand how we define "gender"; I don't support the BDS movement, at least in its current incarnation, and believe that the comparison between Zionism with Nazism is fundamentally anti-Semitic and ahistorical; I believe that we need to be much more mindful of the rights of the accused in sexual assault cases, at least as they are adjudicated on college campuses. Most of these differences, to me, are relatively minor, compared to my extreme disagreements with the 50 percent of the country that voted for Donald Trump, as well as many of the people we currently call centrists.

On top of these differences, I avoid several words in the lexicon of many people with whom I agree on most issues: "ally," "decenter," "heteronormative," "privilege," and "violence" (in regards to anything that does not involve physical violence). I don't necessarily disagree with the ideas behind these words, but I do think the limited vocabulary has led less to precision than to a limitation of mind and argument. I tell people that neither James Baldwin nor Ta-Nehisi Coates, two heroes of the social justice left, use these words, and that we should develop our own language, our own individual styles of writing in order to encourage smarter and more vigorous debate.

On my Facebook feed, I managed to cull most of the people with whom I disagreed on most issues, leaving only the people from the first paragraph, who often express the beliefs with which I disagree, mainly the differences with my beliefs in the second paragraph. In the end, I think I have earned many friends, but also a few too many enemies.

I don't like a lot of the people whom I know most through Facebook. They express beliefs with which I disagree, and they express them with arrogance and with little regard for counterclaims. I did the same in my Facebook posts. I am far better behaved on this blog, perhaps because it is slightly removed from the noise of Facebook.

I have been off of Facebook for the last week, reactivating my account for professional reasons now and then. My exit has made me happier, it's given me a better work ethic, and, when I want to procrastinate, I find myself doing more of what I did during my pre-Facebook life, reading actual books. I'm going to return to Facebook for a day or so, with a link to this post. Then I will deactivate my account, returning occasionally -- like I said -- for professional reasons.

If you are among the dozens of people who have read and liked this blog, you can still read it. I will be providing links on my Twitter account. I won't under any circumstances read anyone else's Twitter posts, but I'm happy to post links.

I won't apologize for pissing anyone off on Facebook. Whatever my faults, I don't believe I stepped that far out of line during my 10 years on the site, and honestly, if I've pissed you off, you probably have pissed me off too. I think the medium brings out the worst in almost everyone who wants to argue politics or aesthetics, and if my Facebook self is the worst I've ever been, well, I'm not as bad a human being as I sometimes think I am.

My email is paulwilliammorton@gmail.com. You are welcome to contact me anytime.

Finally, if any of what I've written reminds you of yourself, take my unsolicited advice: Leave. I assure you, you will be happier.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Being Treated as an Equal

There are many awful people who haunt comments sections, largely racists, misogynists, and homophobes. If you are an academic, and you read any article about a graduate student, there's usually some jackass who feels the need to write something along the lines of: "Have fun saying 'Do you want fries with that?' when you're 50."

I've been catering for a really great company this summer. It's the first non-academic job I've held in over six years. Many of my coworkers are either graduate students or have advanced degrees in all different kinds of fields: history, the law, health, and literature. One is a musician. One is a paralegal. Another just did a stint in the Peace Corps relatively late in life. Some of my coworkers are college kids. The youngest is 16. The oldest, I think, is in her 50s or 60s. Some come from working-class backgrounds. Some are upper middle-class. In our black slacks and black, button-down shirts, we are all equal. The people at the weddings we cater have been pleasant and sweet. When I chat with them, they treat me as an equal too, even though they have no idea what I do outside of pouring water in their glasses or setting up the tables for their dinners. There's no noblesse oblige in their manner. For all they know, this is my full-time job.

I have a lot to say about catering and I may write more about my experiences this summer. But within the cruelty of our class system, which isn't going away anytime soon, I have seen a glimpse not just of how Americans should treat one another, but how they should think about one another.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Preferring Beautiful People

This article in the New York Times talks about the persistence of anti-fat bias. As someone who was once overweight and who suffered a handful of demeaning comments while overweight, I had sympathy. But then I came to the last line: "'We all need to move away from the current appearance-focused culture and recognize that other things matter more than what a person looks like."

I'm not going to say anything that hasn't been said over and over again since the Greeks. I prefer the aesthetically pleasing to that which isn't aesthetically pleasing. I prefer a beautiful church to a strip mall. I prefer a lovely gospel song to Christian rock. I prefer a beautiful face and a finely-tuned swimmer's body to an ugly face and an asymmetrical body. My work doesn't live up to my own expectations of what I find aesthetically pleasing and it probably never will. My face and body has not lived up to my own desires.

I also like what we call "character." I enjoy dilapidated factories and the ruins of houses in the Balkans. I like an otherwise symmetrical face with a slightly crooked nose or a scar on the lower lip, or a fine haircut with a stray hair. I like beautiful paintings that discover the pleasures to be found in a grotesque body, the drawings that accentuate every line in a face, and I like looking at interesting, ugly faces in real life. There is a difference. I have lived in dilapidated buildings. Steve Buscemi's face, while interesting, does not excite my libido.

Is the preference for beautiful people and beautiful bodies a moral failing? Are people who have sex with ugly people morally superior?

I'm all for not making fun of others' physical appearance. I'm all for creating a society that is less cruel to the people we find less sexually attractive. I'm all for celebrating people's other attributes. I'm all for fighting the assumptions we make about fat people, that they may be less intelligent or less aware of their health. I'm all for not giving beautiful people more than we give less beautiful people. I can't be for the denial of any interest in physical beauty. Just as I can't be for the denial of any interest in intelligence in horrible brilliant human beings.

And there's the problem. There shall always be the problem.

A solution: We genetically engineer ourselves to become a new species, a new breed of organisms that all look exactly the same. Ask yourself: Do you want such a world? I don't know if I do.

On the Solar Eclipse

I watched it alone from my balcony at my apartment overlooking Portage Bay. Through my glasses, the sun was Pac Man against a black screen, his mouth slowly widening. At 10:20 am, at its peak, I took off my glasses. The sky was a darker blue. The birds were still speaking. The University Bridge was still working. A bee had landed on my lap and flew away. There was a pleasant chill in the air. A few yachts were moored in the middle of the bay. Two people on kayaks in the distance, everyone completely still. I put my glasses back on and watched for another 40 minutes. I'm glad I watched it alone, with the knowledge that there were other people elsewhere watching alone or together. I didn't need to hear anyone's chatter or commentary. I felt their presence from a distance.

There's the OJ verdict in 1995, September 11, 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. There are snowpocalypses and deadly heat waves. This was a collective experience, completely apolitical, and joyful, something man did not create nor control.

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. At 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?

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 rapist...one 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.

Patriotism.