Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Scholarship and Humility

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

On Giving a Song New Life

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

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

Clip unavailable online.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

On Fire Island

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

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

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

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

At nine pm we went to the party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Fire Island is better than your Fire Island.

On Obama's $400,000

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Science Fiction of the Past

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Marching for the Humanities

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

On Kael's Review of Bonnie and Clyde

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Schadenfreude

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

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On "Nerd"

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

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


On the Paragraph and the Sentence

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On Passover

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

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

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

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

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

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




Monday, April 10, 2017

On Talking About Meat-Eating, Talking About Mass Death

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 9, 2017

On a Genre You Know Nothing About

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, April 8, 2017

On Redefining the Rules of Morality

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

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

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

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

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

On Civilized People Laughing at Torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay attention to how Ross tells this story.

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

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

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Some Suggestions for How to Talk About Ed Murray

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

Modest suggestions:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

On Advice to Ivy League Class of 2021

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

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

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

On the Coming Environmental Apocalypse

A few years ago, I was drinking with two colleagues. None of us had children. We were talking about our life plans and one of them said, "I don't think I want to bring a child into the world, with the environmental apocalypse coming." She wasn't joking. We changed the subject and started talking about university politics.

In one of the final episodes of 13 Reasons Why (2017), which I reviewed here, an English professor father jokes with his son about the fact that the world is coming to an end, and that nothing really matters. They move on to other topics. It was the most authentic part of the show.

I'm drinking a pot of specialty tea at my favorite place in Seattle. It's a beautiful day out. If the weather was ten degrees warmer, it would be perfect. Seattle culture being what it is, I'm sure I could tell everyone in this room that an environmental apocalypse is coming soon and everyone would agree with me. A woman at another table is reading a Swedish novel. Some lovely, chatty women were eating crepes. Someone else is editing a sound file on his laptop. My Facebook feed is still going nuts on the Pepsi Lives Matter ad. I just finished a post on a fan convention for The Walking Dead (2010 -- ). I'm analyzing a Canadian film from 1952 that I can access on YouTube and comparing it to a Yugoslav cartoon from 1957 that's on my external hard drive.

We are an amazing, wonderful species.

On Commodifying Your Fantasy Life

A few weeks ago at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, I got to hear the organizers of the Walker Stalker Con -- a fan convention for The Walking Dead (2010-- ) -- and Heroes and Villains -- a fan convention for fans of superhero movies, tv shows, and comics -- give a talk. The event was supported by the Comics Studies group, of which I am a part, and the Fan Studies group, of which I am not a part. The con organizers were lovely people, and they talked mostly about the Walker Stalker convention and its fan base, which, interestingly enough, has a high proportion of survivors of domestic abuse, as well as people who are still suffering domestic abuse, cancer survivors, and people with disabilities. The organizers go out of their way to accomodate the people with disabilities, so they don't have to spend so long on line to meet the stars of The Walking Dead they came to see. For a fee, the stars give their fans an autograph, and far a larger fee, they give them a photo-op.

Now, the stars aren't as rich and spoiled as you think they might be, although the convention organizers make it a point to put them up at nice hotels and feed them well. They are very sweet people and they go out of their way to be kind to certain fans who touch their hearts. Many of these stars will not have much of a career, or at least not as lucrative a career, once The Walking Dead ends. They're making a killing, not a living. These convention appearances are all part of the retirement plan. And despite how cynical you want to be, no, I personally don't have a problem with grown-ass men and women cosplaying like ten-year-olds, nor do I have a problem with grown-ass men and women writing about and teaching pop culture. (I do have some problem with people in graduate school literature programs who don't think Tolstoy or Whitman are ever worth their time, as well as a larger culture that treats reading Thomas Hardy as homework. And I say that as someone who spends ninety percent of his professional life writing and teaching about comics, movies, and cartoons. But that's another story.) I don't have a problem with people who have suffered horrible traumas or who are not treated by the society at large with the dignity they deserve finding solace in works of pop culture. I'm no different. I got as much from Peter Parker at age 10 as I got from Pierre Bezukhov at 15. And, hell, I get as much from Peter Parker at age 36 as I do from Proust and Whitman.

But...I mean...aren't you at least a little creeped out by the spectacle of people, mostly women, who have suffered domestic violence lining up at conventions and paying a good amount of cash to someone who plays a glamorized, likely less interesting version of them on television? Domestic violence affects people at all levels of the income scale, but financial constraints make it difficult for many women to escape their abusers. As for the cancer survivors, well, ACA is great and all, but cancer still eats into a lot of people's life savings, houses, cars, and grocery money.

This is where the small-s, small-font socialist comes out in me, the guy who wishes fantasies weren't commodified, the guy who's glad that Leaves of Grass is in the public domain.




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

On 13 Reasons Why

This is a spoiler-heavy post about a television series I binge-watched last night when I was in a rotten mood. You don't need to watch it.

13 Reasons Why (2017), the new Netflix series based on Jay Asher's 2007 young adult novel of the same name, is a noir about teenage suicide. In a small town named Evergreen, which the series suggests is a kind of Everytown, U.S.A., Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has killed herself at the beginning of her junior year of high school. She leaves behind seven cassette tapes, upon which she narrates the story of 13 people (actually just 12), who did something to hurt her, something to lead her to commit suicide. Most of the guilty are her classmates. They all did something bad, either legal or illegal, something heinous or something just dickish. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), one of her subjects, has received the tapes and been given instructions to listen to Hannah narrate her story, after which he is to send them to the subject of the tape following his own chapter in her tale. If he doesn't send the tapes, a second copy of them will be released to the public. He doesn't know how many people have already heard the tapes, because he doesn't know at what point he will show up on them. He's a sweet geeky kid with a bad haircut. He likes to talk Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and stupid horror movies. He has no idea what he could have possibly done to Hannah. The viewer of the series, as well as the reader of Asher's book, are supposed to be just as baffled and just as curious.

Other than Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah's mother, there aren't any famous people in the series, at least no one I recognized, no stars to get in the way of being able to identify with the kids. But the directors are heavy hitters and include Tom McCarthy of Spotlight (2015), who sets up the series as a well-paced mystery, and Gregg Araki, the dangerous faggot of indie cinema, whose camera is only as dangerous as the series allows it to be. Selena Gomez is one of the executive producers, and her involvement might be one of the explanations, or at least symptoms of what is so wrong with it.

You see, I just didn't believe in this high school, or these teenagers, the way I could believe in the pimply-faced, awkward kids of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (1987-1991) or the miserable private-school attendees in the second season of American Crime (2016). The problems went beyond the Disney-Channel mise-en-scène, in which drop-dead gorgeous 20-something actresses play awkward teenagers, the high-school is perfectly lit, and no one has or ever has had a pimple. I don't know if I've ever seen a serious show about high school more ignorant of contemporary American culture. It's not just the nerds who dig Lord of the Rings. Jocks dig it too and the nerds like basketball as much as anyone else. The show is set in a multicultural universe which works hard to defy stereotypes. Zach (Ross Butler), the star basketball player, is a huge, tall Asian-American, just like Justin Lin, right? Marcus (Steven Silver), the class president, Sheri (Ajiona Alexis), the cheerleader, and Jessica (Alisha Boe), the goofy new girl, are African-American. Alex (Miles Heizer), the effeminate kid with dyed hair and skinny jeans whose manly policeman father just doesn't get him, is, in fact, not gay. Tony (Christian Navarro), the tough-guy hispanic kid with a good heart from the wrong side of town, happens to be gay. Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) the Tracy-Flick Asian-American girl, is a desperately closeted Lesbian despite the fact that she was raised by loving same-sex parents. The show talks the politics of LGBT and gender, but in this multicultural world, no one brings up race. The show is set between the fall of 2016 and November 2017, and its production presumably overlapped with at least some part of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. There is not a town in America which doesn't participate in our national conversation on race. The decision to set the story in a post-racial environment isn't brave or interesting. It's lazy and ignorant.

The actors are okay. Justin Prentice, who plays Bryce the rapist basketball star, and Heizer are particularly charismatic. They all cry on cue, but their characters are two-dimensional, and I mean that two literally. The straight, effeminate kid wants to get in with the cool kids so bad he betrays his two best friends and feels super guilty about it. The Asian-American jock commits a petty act of cruelty against Hannah and feels super guilty about it. A white jock doesn't save his girlfriend from his rapist best friend and feels guilty about it, but (is it a third dimension?), he is also thinking about being violent because he comes from an abusive household. Clay is tortured with fear that he may have done something bad to Hannah. He tries so hard to be a good person and does something mean and petty to the one kid he can get away with being mean and petty to. (Also, yes, it turns out that he didn't do anything bad to Hannah. He was nice to her.) The peripheral characters are one-dimensional. The principal is no different than the asshole from The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985). The baseball star whom Clay tutors is a nice older brother type. Prentice, as Bryce, is magnetic and menacing. He is wisely given only a limited amount of screentime which makes his presence more powerful.

(I'll grant the series at least one, sorta clever, but still pretty obvious touch. Tyler (Devin Druid), the peeping-tom stalker suffers the disgust of Hannah's other bullies. His crime is no worse than theirs, but he fits the classic profile of the creep, and it's easy to look to him as well as Bryce as vessels for the evil and sickness that lie within us all. It's the narrative of M [Fritz Lang, 1931].)

Television has gotten smarter. After decades in which rape was used as a throwaway plot point, The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Mad Men (2007-2015) took the time to explore the after-effects for survivors. The fourth season of Orange is the New Black (2016) introduced us to a rapist who actually feels guilty and confused, and a rape victim who can't completely deny her affection for her rapist. The Sopranos depicted a few suicides in its six-season run, each of which, like many suicides, made some sense and none at all.

Television still doesn't get bullying. As much as 13 Reason Why tries, it doesn't really get the subtle put-downs, the little emotional knocks that acculuate overtime, which together are as destructive as any one of the major traumas Hannah suffers. The dialogue just isn't good enough to capture the high school student's mastery of the slight.

Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous? Maybe. Despite its stated intensions to complicate the issue, it operates on the assumption that suicide can be clearly explained, that there is always an obvious cause and effect, which is just not the case. The show enacts the suicide victim's fantasy, that their death will cause overwhelming suffering and guilt in others, that they will inflict all the pain that has been inflicted on themselves. Hannah's death in the final episode may not be beautiful, but it is pretty.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On Turkmenistan

Someone in Turkmenistan is reading this blog. If you are this person, please email me at paulwilliammorton@gmail.com. I'd like to know what Turkmenistan is like.

On The Devil Finds Work (2)

I would like to add to a point I made about Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work.

The following words do not appear in Baldwin's essay: "privilege," "representation," "hegemony," "social construction," "problematize," "decolonization," and "performance." These words do not appear in his book because he wrote his book before his critique of American society became institutionalized within academic departments that needed to develop a lexicon that could define the ideas he struggles with as quickly and easily as possible. The term "identity" does appear:
The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic--a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day--it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger's presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.
We can parse this more carefully, and I tried to parse this in my class this morning in about 15 minutes. I think I really needed 60. Anyway, I just want to point out that the term "identity" has no clear meaning, but a multitude of meanings, the way words have a multitude of meanings for Keats and Shelley. My class tried to name them all. We couldn't. The term is a mystical incantation for Baldwin. Likewise, the terms "splendor," "wretched," and "stranger" become difficult to define thanks to the repetition of the words. Is the stranger a member of a different social construction? Is the stranger a representative of a different consciousness? Baldwin tears down the borders between our discussions of race, class, sexuality, and privilege and a more complicated, pre-political definition of the self.

When you write, try to use the many words in the English language that Baldwin used and see what you can do with your own vernacular. You may end up saying something no one has said before.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

On Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work

I liked some of my teachers, but I did not like my high-school English classes. I don't think it was always my teachers' fault. There were requirements for the curriculum that, in retrospect, doomed the classes to failure and left students unprepared for their freshman-year college classes.

We were asked to read GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE, which is good. High-school students should be asked to read GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE, but we only read great novels, great plays, and great poetry. We did not read great literary criticism, except for A Room of One's Own, and so we had no models for literary analysis. In my history classes, by contrast, we read excellent works of history, and when we were asked to write our own research papers during our senior year, we were prepared.

This is all a run-up to describing the course I'm teaching this quarter, "Writing About Film." I am assigning the students film criticism that I like, from academic writers, popular critics, and novelists. During the first week, they read Ursula K. Le Guin and Jonathan Rosenbaum's take on Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). This week they are reading James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work and watching the film he discusses in the final pages of his book, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Then there will be Pauline Kael's famous review of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Vivian Sobchack's meditation on the aesthetics of violence in New Hollywood that she wrote seven years after its release; Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), and what we in academia call "the Mulvey;" Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and Amy Taubin's wonderful BFI analysis; Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and James Naremore's piece about Kubrick and the grotesque.

I won't ask the students to write about any of these films, nor to directly respond to Le Guin, Rosenbaum, Baldwin, Kael, Sobchack, Mulvey, Taubin, or Naremore. Instead, we will discuss the pieces in detail in class, closely study their methods and strategies, much like students in creative-writing classes read short stories, and from there they will write their own film criticism. They will write an essay about two films of their own choosing. In one, they will write about a movie they don't like, and they will explain why they don't like that movie in terms that go beyond "it's boring" or "it's stupid." In another, they will talk about a movie they like, but will be asked to locate a problem in the movie, perhaps a moral, political, or aesthetic problem. They will have less freedom in the final paper. I will have them write about a movie I happen to love, Silence (Scorsese, 2016).

In the interest of preparation and reflection, I plan to blog occassionally about this class, while respecting the classroom space, which I believe should be semi-private if not safe.

----

The Devil Finds Work, a book-length memoir about James Baldwin's life as a film spectator, rests on a specific idea of cinephilia. The spectator experiences the visceral sensation of the movie. The images and sounds wash over and through him or her. And then the spectator tries to explain that visceral experience, first connecting his sensation to the text of the film itself. Afterwards, he connects these new ideas, combining the intellectual and the emotional -- not that there's ever much of a difference for Baldwin -- to other spheres of his personal experience or of society at large.

Here are the opening lines of the book.
Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I have a joke I like to tell my students when I teach them about the auteur theory. "When you were five years old, and Lord of the Rings came out, I don't think you ran up to your parents and said, 'Mom!' 'Dad!' We have to see the new Peter Jackson movie!" These opening lines reflect exactly how children experience the images of film, before they fully grasp the intricacies of spoken language, before they fully remember names. I know many backs which are "straight" and "narrow," but "lonely" is an interesting word. Is it the image of the "back" alone on the screen, made to stand out from everything else? Is it a naked, unclothed back. I'm guessing it is not, but I have no idea what dress Crawford is wearing. How exactly is she exuding loneliness, and does Baldwin really mean "aloneness"? Who cares about whether or not he is looking at the actual Clark Gable. The memory of Clark Gable, or something/one like Clark Gable is powerful enough.

The cinephile operates with a prelinguistic consciousness.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath water.
By page 2, Baldwin is connecting this Crawford, as she appears in Dance, Fools, Dance (Harry Beaumont, 1931) to a beautiful black woman he knew in his neighborhood, his idea of Joan Crawford.
She was so incredibly beautiful -- she was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful -- she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile -- that when she paid the man and started out of hte store, I started out behind her.
Take note: this is a subjective experience for the filmgoer, one that Baldwin and only Baldwin can own. He owns it because he is a black, gay man, born poor, brought up in the church, haunted by his early years as a "strange" and, he is told, ugly child. Within these unique circumstances he redefines Crawford's back, as well as the rest of her, for himself. He owns it because he is a child, defining beauty, the real and unreal, as much as he can, on his own terms.

Baldwin will go further in the book, offering flights of fantasy, indulging ridiculous tangents, most of which work, everything rooted in a struggle. The images on the screen are manufactured by an industry that is overwhelmingly white and the interspersed images of black life rarely if ever comport with his lived experience. There is material he could touch if he wanted to, but which he largely ignores. He writes about the relationship between black people and Jews in other essays, but he seems uninterested in thinking through Hollywood as an industry highly identified with if not as dominated as many would believe by Jews. He touches on questions of homoeroticism in several films, and is particularly provocative when he imagines a final unsexed, homosocial, interacial kiss between Sidney Poitier's Mr. Tibbs and Rod Steiger's Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967), but, despite the opening lines about Joan Crawford, he doesn't explore the history of camp in 1930s Hollywood, nor the landmark The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970). Despite his years in France, he doesn't offer what could have been amazing analyses of the French New Wave, which came about after he left Paris. I would love to know if he had any thoughts on Bazin.

Baldwin is better than Ta-Nehisi Coates, and almost all the personal interpretations on race, sexuality (and gender and religion and everything else) that you read on The Root, Jezebel, Medium, Salon (Jesus, Salon, Jesus), and Slate, because he is liberated from words that have become too firm and too staid. Throughout The Devil Finds Work, he is talking about what we now all call "privilege," "representation," "microaggressions," and "hegemony," but he has access to all the other words in the American language, the language used by the black church and Henry James. Baldwin understands that there are things he won't be able to know about his experience, let alone explain, a lesson that so many of our Internet writers would do well to accept. He makes a case for the universal in his experiences, but he allows room for the reader to accept that there is a border between the reader and the author, a border that may be more porous if the reader shares a cultural identity with the author, but, as much as he tries, can never be fully eroded. No two cinephiles are exactly alike.