Friday, March 31, 2017

On Watching Star Wars as an Old Man

I almost fell asleep during the final half hour of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and though I didn't fall asleep during Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), there was only one part that interested me, the appearance of an aged Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, whose presence in the culture since Star Wars: Episode 6 - The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) has mostly been limited to video games, his appearance as the Trickster in The Flash (1991) and The Flash (2014-), and his voice of the Joker -- his finest role! the best Joker! -- first in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), and then in its spinoffs. A cute 20-something grown old and fat, with a beard, and the wear of age. We live in a culture that calls Hamill a loser and Harrison Ford a winner. Our losers are more interesting than our winners. Hamill's reprisal of Luke Skywalker was more moving than Ford's reprisal of Han Solo.

I rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) on Blu-Ray last year, and the new technology revealed the obsolesence of the special effects. These movies probably look more impressive on faded VHS tapes, which is the only way I saw them for the first 16 years of my life. I found myself feeling a sensation I never thought I would have when watching them. I was bored. I own a large set of Looney Tunes DVDs and a wonderful collection of Central and Eastern European animation that is not available on YouTube. I have a collection of novels that I've picked up at one-dollar book sales that I plan to read one day when I finish my dissertation. If I wasn't lecturing on the Star Wars trilogy for a class, I would have probably shut the whole thing off sometime during the trip to Cloud City. Cloud City is beautiful, but it's nowhere near as well-imagined as the Rome of Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969). Compared to the cast of characters in the prequels (1999-2005), the characters of the original trilogy could have been written by Shakespeare, but, hell, there were several hours of quality television series, with long, drawn-out, rounded and never fully rounded out characters, that I could have been watching.

I didn't care for the explosions anymore. I don't know if I ever really did. I admire Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) as well as its predecessors from the 1950s, because they are more depressing than spectacular. When Spielberg destroys a city, he reminds you that there is far more to love than hate in the things humans have created, and gives you at least a few minutes of screentime to mourn. George Lucas can blow up Alderon and the Death Star, cause deaths far greater than Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the psychopathic God of the Old Testament combined, and not shed a tear. He could kill Skywalker's loving aunt and uncle and treat them as mere footnotes in a life dedicated to violence. A light saber may be an "elegant weapon for a more civilized time," but Lucas forgets that it is still a weapon and that anyone who wields a weapon is guilty of something.

And yet, the sublime is there if you pay attention and know where to look for it. I almost shed a tear for the lone fallen Ewok in Jedi.  I have hung out in many bars in many countries but I have yet to find the Mos Eisley Cantina. One day I will talk to those aliens with insect eyes, and alien with devil's horns,  and the murderer with half his face melted-off wanted on how many solar systems again? I will breathe in their incense, the scent of which I will one day learn, and taste their alcohol, which I will discover as well. I have been to the Redwoods and Death Valley, but Lucas's camera turns them into giant stages. Our national parks have a way of making us feel elevated as well as diminished by nature. Lucas discovers something in between the two sensations. And Jabba the Hut and Darth Vader (James Earle Jones) are still wonderful. The former still makes me laugh as much as Sydney Greenstreet's Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), even if the latter doesn't scare me as much as John Huston's Noah Cross in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Hell, I give in. I still love the movies, in my own way. Like an old crush from high school or an idol from childhood, the memory of what obsessed me once still lingers somewhere.

This quarter, I am teaching a class called "Writing About Film." We are reading great works of film criticism, both from academic and non-academic writers. And on this, the first week, my class watched Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977), and read Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Excessive Use of the Force," which was written on the occassion of the re-release of the original trilogy in 1997, and Ursula K. Le Guin's 1978 essay "Close Encounters, Star Wars, and the Tertium Quid," (Did I mention that I interviewed Le Guin four years ago? Because I did. I totally interviewed her. Did I mention that Rosenbaum once quoted me in an essay? Because he totally did.) Rosenbaum's assessment of the film, that it follows the aesthetics that would be picked up by CNN at the time of the Gulf War, that it is a celebration of violence, that it is "worthless," is something that is hard to argue with, but Le Guin's narrative of her experience as a spectator is more interesting.

"The end of Star Wars kept bothering me after I saw it the first time. I kept thinking, what a funny silly beautiful movie, why did George Lucas stick on that wooden ending, a high-school graduation, with prizes for good citizenship? But when I saw it again I realized it wasn't high school but West Point: a place crawling with boots and salutes. Aren't there any civilians in this Empire, anyhow? Finally a friend who knows films explained to me that the scene is a nostalgic evocation or imitation of Leni Riefenstahl's famous film of the 1936 Olympics, with the German winners receiving a grateful ovation from the Thousand-Year Reich. Having dragged Dorothy and Toto and that lot around the cosmos a bit, Lucas cast about for another surefire golden oldie and came up with Adolf Hitler."

There are a few major differences for those who first encounter the Star Wars movies at age four, as I did, and those who encountered the movies when they're in their late forties. The overstimulation of sounds and what looked like fast-paced editing in 1977 would disturb a middle-aged spectator brought up on classical Hollywood cinema, but with no past knowledge, such techniques manage to indoctrinate a four-year-old into a different manner of film spectatorship. A swastika is a pretty thing for a four-year-old, but a dangerous thing by the time he turns 10, or earlier if he sees Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1980). Surface aesthetics of military order disturb someone in their late forties. They don't disturb the child who, like the Riefenstahl-championing Lucas, sees no politics behind those aesthetics.

And yet there are adult complaints about the movie that were there for me even at age four, I'm sure, only because I remember always wondering at the moral differenes between the movies and cartoons that I watched and what my family and teachers taught me. Don't hit people who disagree with you. Solve problems peacefully. But what about those policemen in special uniforms who carry guns? Why are we supposed to respect them so much? What about those rebel fighters with weapons? You always tell me not to touch those swords you bought in Southeast Asia. Don't gloat. Don't be a sore winner. But Spider-Man always makes fun of the criminals he defeats? I'm sure there was at least one passing mention in my head when I saw the deaths of Luke's uncle and aunt, some thought that said, I don't get it...Why isn't he crying? There is an adult in the child, just as much as there's a child in the adult, just as there is an adult in the adult who loves Hamill's face grown old. But all children are different. To paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein, some children have to be carefully taught to love guns and others have to be carefully taught to hate them.

So what would I give my kids, if I had them? Well, I would give them the original Star Wars trilogy. I mean, really. What monster would deprive their children of Hoth, Cloud City, and Jabba the Hut? But if I believe movies are instructive, I would sooner give them my other golden oldies, The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Peterson, 1984), Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). And I would skip through the disc to what will always be for me David Bowie's finest performance in Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986).



And because I'd never win father of the year, when he's 15, I'd sneak him Fellini Satyricon.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On Advice for Marxist Professors

If you are an academic, and you are steeped in Marxist rhetoric, here are a few things you should NOT be able to do well:

1. Yell at the waiter.
2. Yell at the janitor.
3. Support and maintain hierarchical functions in university departments which effectively mean that people who do just as much work as you do get paid a quarter as much.
4. Complain about anyone as "ugh, just another white dude" without knowing "just another white dude"'s class background.
5. Complain about "ugh, just another white dude" if you yourself are "ugh, just another white dude."
6. Sidestep inconvenient truths, particularly in regards to non-democratic socialist countries.
7. Yell at the waiter.
8. Yell at the janitor.
9. Use your power to hand out grades to right historical wrongs, with no regard for how you may be perpetuating the very power structures you yourself want to see dismantled.
10. Oppose the unionization of grad students.
11. Oppose the unionization of adjunct faculty.
12. Yell at the waiter.
13. Yell at the janitor.

Monday, March 20, 2017

On Not Particularly Liking Someone

There are certain people who somehow keep entering your life, albeit at the periphery. You don't hate these people, but you don't particularly like them and they don't particularly like you. You have polite but uncomfortable interactions with them and that's enough.

Here's the story of one such person: We were on a summer program at Northwestern back in 1998. I didn't understand why he was there, as he didn't seem that interested in the subject. All I remember is that he wanted to compare SAT scores and reading habits and he was relieved that his score was higher than mine and irritated that I read more widely than he did. I met him again during my freshman year at college on the green in front of the library. We exchanged some words about classes, and then went on our way. I saw him again at a nightclub. He was there alone and so was I, and neither of us felt the need to talk to one another since, even though we didn't hate each other, we didn't particularly like each other. He transferred to another school after his freshman year. He ended up becoming close friends with a friend from high school. I had started drifting apart from that high school friend around that time. We had a falling out about a year later, and because you're petty when you're young, I decided that his friendship with someone that I didn't hate but didn't particularly like was indicative of a moral flaw. The break was painful, but it wasn't as terrible as other breaks. We saw each other a few times after that and then there just didn't seem to be a point anymore. About 12 years ago, we saw each other with a group of friends and he told me to call him anytime and he meant it, but I didn't like him very much anymore, but, as with the other fellow, I didn't particularly hate him.  

Anyway, back to this person, who kept entering into my life, whom I didn't hate but whom I didn't particularly like. I just saw while glancing through some articles about the short-staffing at the Trump White House that he went on to stellar legal career. He was a clerk for a Supreme Court Justice and then he argued before the Court itself. And now he has taken a job in the Trump White House as an advisor.

My immediate reaction when I saw the news was to laugh, as it was the first time I saw an amazing success story about an old college classmate and didn't feel a pang of anger at myself for not being a spectacular success at 36. I thought: Maybe he'll be able to defend himself at the tribunal after the new regime comes in. I don't wish a long sentence for the guy. After all, I don't hate him. I just don't particularly like him.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

On Neboder

Neboder / Skyscraper, the story of the day-in-the-life of a large apartment building, is an animated version of what would otherwise be an enormous splash page of a comic book. Neboder has strong similarities to Mad magazine, untranslated versions of which circulated among the new generation of comic-book writers in Zagreb in the late 1970s.[1] In comic-book form, the reader fetishizes various sections of the page, developing his own narrative based on where his eye voluntarily rests. In Neboder, Marušić guides the viewer to the parts of the building he would most like him to see, fitting the space of the building within a clear time frame for the narrative. The details overwhelm. Marušić planned the film as a series of 120 jokes[2], piled one atop the other. The most attentive spectator would be unable to catalogue half of them after two screenings.
The first spectators of Neboder at international film festivals would likely have had only one chance to screen in the film and would have been granted only a limited opportunity to absorb what they were watching. Since the 1960s, films which elude the spectator’s wish to master every detail of the mise-en-scène were ubiquitous in animated film festivals. The inability to absorb the world of Jan Švankmajer’s puppet films is terrifying; the horror of the films lies in the suggestion that not every image can be known in full, that sounds emanate from objects that can never be understood. Yellow Submarine’s (George Dunning, 1968) use of the approach turns the world of the Beatles into an endless playground. In Neboder, each joke becomes a suggestion of a larger and more complex narrative. The secrets of apartment life, of what one's neighbors do and don't do can never be learned. 
Many of the Zagreb School films are manifestations of the Menippean Satire. The genre has roots in antiquity. Without detailing the Menippean Satire’s history, it would be better to summarize its features. “The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes,” Northrop Frye writes. “Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior.”[3] Pride and Prejudice is a novel. Gulliver’s Travels is a Menippean Satire. Frye continues, “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry which the philosophus gloriosus at once symbolizes and defines.”[4] In live-action film, the Menippean Satire can find obvious manifestations in the dissections of American culture and violence, and the role of the European filmmaker to capture such, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and Federico Fellini’s cartoonal imaginings in his semi-autobiographical Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973). P. Adams Sitney connects the Menippean Satire to American avant-garde film of the 1970s and 1980s, but also glances towards Woody Allen’s early films. “The more general issue has usually been discussed as ‘postmodernism’ and includes a rejection of distinctions between high and mass culture, an iconoclasm of artistic authority, relentless politicization of all themes, and an insatiable desire to unmask ideology.”[5] The genre may be so generally defined as to lose meaning, but if we consider certain basic concepts, the use of human figures as ideas rather than figures with fully realized psychological or moral complexity, a depiction of insanity and the absurd at the expense of the organic and the grounded, we can see the foundations for the vision of apartment life offered in Neboder.
The film depicts a skyscraper, made up of 20 floors, in a cross-section. It’s a claustrophobic community, made up of evenly-distributed block-shaped apartments. The apartments are connected by two arteries. The bedrooms lie on the right side of the apartment. In the middle of the building runs the first artery, a thick, vertical plumbing line through which courses urine, excrement, and other fluids and objects. The rooms on the left side of the apartment serve either as bathrooms – there’s a toilet in each one – living rooms, or kitchens. An elevator, the second artery, occupies the far left portion of the screen. In the course of the 10-minute short, Marušić cuts to specific sections of the building, and captures tiny vignettes, and then cuts back periodically to extreme long shots of the apartment as a whole. The body of the building, its flow of blood in the form of human filth through plumbing and the mechanical travelling of the elevator, works in a rhythm with and against the choreography of its inhabitants. Mikhail Bakhtin’s thorough dissection of the Menippean Satire offers a succinct description of this stage. “A special type of experimental fantasticality, totally alien to the antique epos and tragedy, appears in the menippea: observation from an unusual point of view, from a high altitude, for example, coupled with radical changes in the scale of the observed phenomena.”[6] The spectator is given a privileged position to see the full workings of the human beings/ideas before him, to immerse himself in the carnival in a manner that no one within the film could ever contemplate. Throughout Neboder, men and women defecate, have sex, invent machines, go to work, come home, read newspapers, watch television, eat, play with their pets, and calm their babies, all while a mere few feet of screen space -- assuming the projection of the film on a movie-theater screen -- gravity pulls their neighbors’ filth to the ground.
Day dawns. A lone man walks up to a giant curtain. He pulls it up to reveal the whole building, and at least 20 naked bodies, all lying in bed. The alarm clocks ring, and 19 alarm clocks are thrown out the window. Only one continues to ring, and the apartment dwellers, in increasing annoyance, and with increasing frequency bang their brooms in unison against their ceilings. They are defining their membership within a group and demanding compliance from all of its members. A group of men runs to the elevator and rides up to the apartment with the still-ringing alarm clock. A man lies dead. They toss the alarm clock, remove a chamber pot and then find a coffin beneath the bed. They put the corpse in the coffin and then leave. No one has eaten breakfast yet, but already this is a world of death and decay.  
Despite the reliance on what would be seen in a Western context as heteronormative – the woman stay at home and the men go to work -- the film upsets the assumptions of classic gender roles. In one of the film’s gags, three wives send their men off with three different signs. The sign on the man at the top reads “sold.” The one in the middle reads “Do not disturb.” The one at the bottom, “Gratis.” After the three men leave, a man slips into the middle apartment to have an affair with the woman. The husband returns to the apartment after travelling only two floors down on the elevator, walks in on the affair. The two men start to spar, taking off their clothes. When the cuckold is naked, he chases the clothed man, a gay gag. The absurdity of the gender roles, the various approaches to marriage, and the ways these various approaches affect other marriages all form suggestions, surfaces of apartment life, in which no one follows a correct pattern, as the correct pattern does not exist.
The civilization of the apartment which relegates the elements of human experience to a proper place is always under threat. In a long shot, a crude, thin line protects the inhabitants from their neighbors’ filth. In close-up, the line is broken, crude, anemically thin, drawn at slightly, uneven angles against one another. In a self-reflexive gag, an inhabitant collapses two floors of the apartment, effectively disappearing the apartment between them, cutting out the equivalent of a comic-book panel. Still, the film is also exuberant in its comical rendition of the collapse of the separate human experiences. The individual compositions in Neboder turn the building into a body, and that body into an evocation of Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque, in which the essential variant bodily functions “destroy the old picture of the world that had been formed in a dying epoch…to create a new picture, at whose center we have the whole man, both body and soul.”[7] 
Marušić’s composition captures the Bakhtin-ian carnival. One frame captures three full apartments, as well as the bottom part of a fourth. At the top of the screen, a man sits ready for work with his suitcase, his pet parrot’s feathers a hint of animal life. In the floor below his the group of men who picked up the dead body in the beginning of the film, stand solemnly with their coffin, in prayer, in complete stillness, also awaiting the elevator. In the floor below them, an alcoholic systematically drinks and empties red liquor bottles as they pile up at his feet, some of them spilling into the piping through which the human filth descends. And in the bottom floor, a man constantly prepares to have sex with a large-thighed woman, who lies reclining, bored, on her pillow, a pillow which itself spills into the plumbing line as well. The man removes a series of shirts, first blue, then yellow, then blue again, delaying his performance. He’s impotent. In time, the alcoholic drinks and empties his bottles. The men carrying the coffin are as still as the corpse inside it. A poster of a clown, sits atop the wall in the lower left section of the screen. A spectator willing to take in the entirety of the screen, fetishizing every detail, would be alternatively drawn by solemn faces, the happy face of the drunk, the bored eyes of the naked woman, and the flat eyes of the clown, letting his eye wander from one part of the screen to another. Though there is a diagonal of blue cut through by a horizontal red line, Marušić’s composition offers little direction for where the eye should settle, and it’s possible for it wander only along the immobile, inorganic red bottles in the left and middle. And yet the sense of the other jokes, the jokes that refer to the decaying corpse, sex, and sexual frustration inform and inhabit the joke inherent in drunkenness. The viewer invents the contours of the Bakhtinian experience for himself, feeling the grotesque on his own terms.
Miljenko Dőrr’s soundscape is the source for the film’s narrative thrust, as each sound event marks the beginning and the ending of a specific gag, a moment of screen-time, gags which collapse one atop the other. Sound effects invent a layered soundscape, in which all sound becomes encapsulated within the world of the apartment. A cock crows. The film’s opening credits are layered with heavy snoring. The man who pulls the curtain enters the frame speaking gibberish. The opening of the blinds strikes a note and the beat of the brooms sets a rhythm for the rest of the film. Most of the Foley sounds have direct corollaries to the images on screen, and every sound must be connected to a movement, such as giant fart which almost destroys the building and the whirring of television screens at night. Due to the composition, however, and the spectator’s uninhibited eye, sound events meant to connect with certain images inform the images that are not defined by the Foley effect. The sexually frustrated man removes his shirts and each removal contains a figured whooshing sound, a sound event that comes to describe the man who lies drunk in the frame as well as the gentlemen carrying the coffin. Sounds which emanate from one body come to inhabit others. 
It is only when a musical soundtrack enters the world of the film that Neboder nearly exits the world of comedy for the briefest of moments and captures the melancholy of Marušić’s earlier films Iznutra i izvana / Inside and Out (1978) and Perpetuo (1979). At dusk, a man climbs to the top of the building and places a phonograph on the roof. A synthesizer starts playing and almost all the inhabitants of the apartment stop their movements, and stand in complete solemnity, with their eyes closed and their hands on their hearts. There are still gags. A woman stands naked. A man is perched outside his window trying desperately not to fall out. The herders with their farm animals enter the screen and join the ritual. Still, the moment suggests a unity of feeling, that the animus and horrors and brutality of the opening of the film might also have the potential for a quasi-religious experience.   
            The skyscraper of Neboder does not exist in any one country, neither clearly in a capitalist nor socialist state, in Yugoslavia or elsewhere. The uniformity of the building, and the seeming uniformity of the inhabitants, particularly in regards to their similar choice of clothes suggests Western stereotypes of socialist conformity and Marušić claims to have been inspired by the building where he himself lived.[8] At the same time female characters stay at home where they take care of their apartments, while their husbands go to work.[9] When the inhabitants of the building call for an elevator, they scream lift on the soundtrack – the word for elevator in Croatian – while the words for elevator appear in bubble white fonts in Croatian, American English, French, and German. The absurd appearance of farm animals in the film could be read as a Balkan joke; this modern apartment cannot escape the bucolic world of the countryside. The iconography suggests modernist fears of the collective, but the collective could be both a product of capitalist as well as socialist engineering. The film appears late in the history of socialism, and Yugoslav socialism in particular, but the images of the film transcends ideological assumptions.




[1] Bojan Krištofić. Interview by author. Digital recording, Zagreb, Croatia, March 9, 2017. Joško Marušić was part of this generation, but he denies the influence of Mad. Interview by author. Digital recording, Zagreb, Croatia, February 7, 2017.
[2] Marušić, 2017.
[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Robert D. Dunham, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 289.
[4] Ibid, 290.
[5] P. Adams Sitney, Visionary: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 418.
[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Trans. R.W. Rotsel, (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973), 95.
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 205.
[8] Joško Marušić, 2017.
[9] I am grateful to Vladimir Kulić for pointing out this detail. Email to author, November 29, 2016.

On Get Out

Moments from Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017), all spoilers:

-- The face of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) when he first undergoes hypnosis. His face is plastic. It contorts and stretches. His eyes go red and I expected him to start bleeding from his orifices. You can see that face on Alex (Malcolm Mcdowell) in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). You can also see that face on the black man Harry (Clint Eastwood) threatens in the "Do you feel lucky, punk" scene in Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971).

-- Missy Armitage's (Catherine Keener) face is cooler, the mask of the college-educated white woman grown old more quickly than she would like. You don't know why she wants to hurt you, but you know that she does.

-- I did not recognize the guy from The West Wing (1999-2006). When I did, I realized the casting was perfect.

-- The old white people at the party, the way they talk, and the way they relate to one another are not familiar to me. I live in a different world, surrounded by other racists who speak a different language.

-- I watched the movie with a mixed-race audience in Germantown, Maryland. They were animated during the final scene. When Chris and Missy struggle to death, someone behind me screamed, "Kill that fucking bitch!" and everyone cheered her on. When Chris's hands started choking Rose (Allison Williams), she screamed again, "Choke the bitch! Choke the fucking bitch!" I thought Missy and Rose were bitches too and that they were bitches who deserved to die. I wanted Chris to kill them both. I didn't need to see Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) die in The Hateful Eight (Question Tarantino, 2015) and I didn't need to see the anti-heroines of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) or Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) suffer. But I left the theater last night unsatisfied. I wanted to see Chris choke Rose to death. Everyone in that theater wanted to see Chris choke Rose to death.

Friday, March 17, 2017

On the Permanent Near-Future

"The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one's contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at century's end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in." -- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 1994.

In 2017, we don't live in a permanent present, but a permanent near-future. Every new law of language-policing is dictated in anticipation of the next law that will make our vocabulary more narrow and less interesting. Every frivolous Twitter post is offered in anticipation of an immediate response. Every environmental catastrophe is met with the question of whether or not it is indicative of something more catastrophic that will come upon us within the next 10 years. Everyone hopes for technology job that doesn't yet exist. Every sentence we write connects to the next sentence and breaks with the previous one...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On My Final Six Hours in Zagreb

In six hours, I call an Uber, go to the airport and fly to Washington, D.C. by way of Munich. I've used the stove in my apartment for the last time to make myself lemon chicken for the flight. I've packed my bags and weighed them, and discovered that I put on just a few pounds since I've been here, which I expected. Today, I dropped off all the English books I could easily replace if I wanted to at a local non-profit. I visited the sites of two shooting locations for The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962). I wanted to see them before I left. I had a drink with a yoga buddy and a few more drinks with my friends/Airbnb hosts, who are trying to start a new leftist political party at the municipal level. Last night a friend and I took an Uber to Medvedgrad, the 13th-century castle on the mountain around Zagreb. Our driver had been on the Yugoslav water polo team, but his career ended with the country's breakup and he couldn't get onto the new Croatian team for political reasons he didn't detail. We studied the view of Zagreb at night, through the traceries of the trees. Unfortunately, the castle was closed and we couldn't get a clean view. I'm not crazy about leaving, but something tells me that despite the friends I made here, I would probably grow weary of Zagreb in another three months, so it's probably best to leave while I still have good feelings.

I have more tolerance for Zagreb's failings than I do for Seattle's. I don't mind the bad music that plays in cafes and bars. And I accept that there are only two places in the city -- one a non-profit center dedicated to advancing culture, the other an actual coffee shop -- where I can get good tea. The cafes here are silly, funky, and ugly. I passed one today that had an Egyptian theme. You can find them on every block, tucked into socialist housing complexes, behind sports stadiums, in the middle of large parking lots, everywhere they're supposed to be and everywhere they're not supposed to be. I've eaten out at a few places, but most of the restaurants have disappointed, so I've cooked most of my meals at home for cheap. I get awesome salmon and catfish at a market ten minutes away from my apartment. I've shopped at the two comic-book shops in town, one of them too tiny to walk in. (I visited them three years ago, looking for a Croatian translation of the Ultimate Spider-Man issue in which my interview with Brian Michael Bendis appeared. Unfortunately they discontinued the run of USM in Croatian translation after the 70th issue. My interview appeared in the 133rd.) The art house movie theater here is ok, but I'm not crazy about its sound system. The young people I've met are great. The older people are either wonderful or awful, and the awful ones are never that awful.

I didn't have Seattle's opportunities for hiking here. The mountain which surrounds Zagreb is okay. I don't know the language well enough to enjoy live theater, but no one speaks of the local theater scene with much enthusiasm anyway. People are blunt here, and the bluntness is damn obnoxious. No one thinks twice about commenting on your physical appearance, and I'm very glad I was not here last year before I had lost twenty-five pounds. With that said, people reveal themselves to you very quickly here. Uber drivers tell me good sections of their life stories over ten-minute rides. When I first travelled in Eastern Europe in 2005, I kept thinking of Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook and Chekhov's stories, which were exotic to me in high school because the characters revealed themselves so fully and so completely within a few hundred words. I experienced all that in my travels and as much as I know that I should know better, there's part of my younger self still immersed in essentialism who believes in a Slavic character, the opposite of the Seattle Freeze.  

I have a lot to look forward to. I got an assignment to teach in the spring, and I'm designing a new course on writing about film, which will use both academic and popular texts. During the first week, we'll watch Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and read Ursula Le Guin and Jonathan Rosenbaum's takedowns. I will spend the Seattle summer sitting on my balcony with a view of Portage Bay, banging out a few hundred pages on Yugoslav animation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

On Marriage

Once your mother dies, your spouse will be the only person in the world who cares how your dentist appointment went.

On the City of the Zagreb School

This is an edited passage from my dissertation. I thought I would put it here as I prepare to leave Zagreb.

There are multiple cities for the Zagreb School. Or rather, there is one city made up of multitudes. The School’s animators do not reinvent Zagreb, or the concept of a Yugoslav city, but rather continuously reinvent the fundamental concept of “city” in the post-war era. Zlatko Bourek's funky, pop backgrounds for the Professor Balthazar / Profesor Baltazar series (1967-1977) series were influenced by views of the coastal city of Rijeka, the northernmost city of Dalmatia, as it would have been seen from boatmen or ferries arriving from the Adriatic Sea. Although Dovniković would claim to describe abstract, universal visions of cities and other subjects, his Jedan dan života / One Day of Life (1982) consciously depicts a Balkan world, an oppressive factory and a bar where men drink from small glasses and think of big-breasted women. In Nocturno (Nikola Kostelac, 1958), anthropomorphized cars race through new highways that have as much in common with the structures of Los Angeles as they do with the new constructions in Novi Zagreb. The terrifying traffic congestion and noise pollution in Mala Kronika / Everyday Chronicle (Vatroslav Mimica, 1962), like the brighter vision in Nocturno, predates the explosion of car culture in Zagreb and Belgrade by a few years and could exist in Zagreb, more so in Belgrade, and certainly in any contemporary American city. In Dnevnik / Diary (1974), Nedeljko Dragić depicts a New York-like night-time cityscape.

For the School, the city is the home of modernity. The Zagreb animators are architects who construct houses, apartment buildings, factories, municipal institutions, theaters, roads, railroads, and bridges with precise colors and geometrical shapes that complement one another. Technological progress might require tragic compromises. These settings can be exuberant, but the structures of modernity can also be alienating. Like the actual cities of Yugoslavia, the city of the Zagreb School never fully solves the housing shortage problem, traffic congestion, or noise pollution.

In the Zagreb School, city dwellers search for and locate their proper places in society. Sometimes, they fail to find their proper place, or pure happiness in their proper place. Their cities are never utopias and citizens must accept compromises for their own and the city's good.

The city is the site of commerce, which almost always threatens the humanity and joy of its inhabitants. Consumer products may look beautiful and exquisite in the School’s colorful flat graphic stylizations, but they contain within them great dangers.

The city is the home of opera, jazz, and rock and roll. It is the home of restaurants, bars, sports, buskers, flower-sellers, and movie theaters which show more non-Yugoslav than Yugoslav films.

The School’s city suggests its roots in a region associated, if unfairly so, with the backward, the primitive, and the antediluvian. The historian Mark Mazower describes the Western fascination with the Balkan peasant. “[T]he idea of modernity in nineteenth-century Europe, with its sharp sense of time moving ahead fast encouraged a view of the Balkans as a place where ‘time has stood still.’” The School accepts this Western European perception and discovers this Balkan peasant in the urban landscape. But just as the School’s city embraces Balkan peasant stereotypes, it also embraces a global modernist project to change man’s perception in the mid-twentieth century, to help him, as the Hungarian-American artist Győrgy Kepes wrote in 1944 “evolve a language of space which is adjusted to the new standards of experience. This new language can and will enable the human sensibility to perceive space-time relationships never recognized before.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Friendships in the States and Friendships in Croatia

I'll open here by saying that I have no concrete evidence for everything I'm about to write, that I don't know how much of what I say could possibly be measured, and that even if something can't be measured, it can still be true.

In the U.S., I've only studied and worked in highly competitive environments. I went to competitive magnet programs in middle school and high school in a rich, competitive school system. I went to an Ivy. I went to an MA program at the University of Iowa, which had a good reputation and where more than half of the people I knew went to an undergraduate program in the top 25. For the past five years, I've been in a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, which does not have the same prestige, but which has plenty of smart people who are competing with each other for jobs in a terrible job market, and who are competing with each other for ever rarer grants and TA assignments so they can finish their dissertations. In environments like these, everyone's ego takes brutal hit after brutal hit. I was emotionally destroyed by high school and again by my freshman year of college, and again by my first year of my MA program at Iowa. Everyone searched for reasons to look down on each other in order to establish their worth and their right to be where they were.

I had friends from all these environments whom I still talk to, outside of Facebook, which is the only true definition of friendship in this era. But I developed other friendships that were doomed in the long run, for they were based on a measure of transaction and could easily be troubled by petty jealousies. There were pervasive ideas in each environment that in retrospect were profoundly stupid. In college, people would look down on the athletes who supposedly didn't have the same intellectual qualifications they had. They looked down on people who didn't get into the right seminars. In high school they looked down on people who said supposedly stupid things in their English classes or about Anna Karennina, which they had read over the summer, and a couple of jackasses toted Ayn Rand, because such an environments attract jackasses who tote Ayn Rand. I wasn't above it. I was part of it. Most of the people I knew were. My MA program at Iowa was hilarious. I am barely exaggerating when I mention the dude who once made fun of someone for just not getting Walter Benjamin. People were friends with people who told them they were brilliant, who had an "in" with a professor at another school and who could get them a connection, people who were clearly going places and who might be good to know in the long run. Was everyone like this? Of course not, but many were.

For the past two months, I've found myself, out of necessity, asking for favors from people who don't owe me a damn thing. I introduce myself as a Ph.D. candidate who is researching the Zagreb School, and I ask for books, DVDs, special meetings with important people, last-minute, before-I-leave-the-country access to archival materials, informal tours of the city where The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962) was shot, workhours to spend copying films from film to DVD for free. I have rarely heard a no. The generosity is staggering and I find myself falling into American habits and offering future favors. ("If you ever want to publish something in English, I can help with proofreading." "I might know someone in the States if you ever want to show your movie at a film festival.") Everyone shrugs off the offer. I doubt I will ever have to follow through on any promises.

Hospitality to a foreigner? Sure. But the culture among a young crowd of filmmakers and film scholars here is not vicious to any degree. They give each other advice and encouragement. They have a common enemy in an arrogant older generation that got the country into one hell of a mess.  But you don't sense imbalances in power in relationships. I have friends here who spent time not in the States but in Germany and Austria and they complain about a similar culture.

I won't romanticize too much. People can be assholes in other ways. There's a culture of bluntness and the sexism here isn't different from what you get in the States. A friend has mentioned his local friends' willingness to make fun of his weight.

Is it a legacy of Yugoslavia's soft socialism, which always had one or two good features? Am I around a non-representative minority of the country? Is the culture I know in the States equally non-representative? The places where I've lived in and worked in the States have their own merits, but they have an incurable illness, one that I always thought was degenerative, but which I now think may be terminal.