Thursday, June 29, 2017

On Salaita

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


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

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

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

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

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

6. We're on the same side here.

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

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

9. We're on the same side.

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

On Superhero Movies I Would Like to See

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

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

Friday, June 23, 2017

On Why I Won't Go to the Pride Parade

It's boring.

On David Edelstein and Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Only Yesterday

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

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

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

The past never stays the same.