Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Writers Who Don't Try to Get It Right

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.” -- Philip Roth, American Pastoral
What do you get from The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008), Deadwood (2004-2006), or Breaking Bad (2008-2013)? What makes critics say that these shows are equal or superior to the best dramas in the movies? Why does Salman Rushdie say that the best storytelling of our time can be found on television, not in novels? There is much to love in these shows, but mostly I just like being around characters who keep changing, keep rounding themselves out from one episode to the next. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are unstable. There is more hell than heaven in them, but there is always plenty of heaven. These characters aren't sentences. They aren't paragraphs. They are books that could go on forever if not for the fact of death that inevitable. I've spent more time with Tony Soprano than with many people whom I would call good friends.

Have you heard of Klara Bowman? She's not a character in a show. She was a real life person, but she got famous for a short while. She was the kindergarten teacher from Tacoma, Washington who showed up drunk for work. A horrible person, really. A hateful bitch! A disgusting piece of trash.  Child abuser. Pathetic. Loser! Scum! That was more or less the gist of the comments sections in the articles about her. Everyone knew that Klara Bowman was a kindergarten teacher who showed up drunk to work. They didn't know much else.

Of course, she was more than that. After Bowman committed suicide, Matt Driscoll, a writer at the News Tribune in Tacoma learned more about her. He learned that her alcoholism began in her teenage years after she watched her little sister die of cancer. He learned that many of her colleagues admired her as someone who truly loved and cared for her students. No one thought she should keep her job, but they didn't think the reaction to her story on the internet was proportionate to her misdeeds. They wished her the best. Driscoll talked to experts on alcoholism who discussed America's hypocrisy, its condemnation of alcoholism and its casual acceptance of binge-drinking culture. As someone who despises -- DESPISES -- our drinking culture, I have a lot of sympathy. This is all a way of saying that Klara Bowman was a full, interesting, complex, sad, noble, loving, not always upright woman. She deserved the consideration we give Tony Soprano.

I have a lot of friends who are journalists and I am amazed by their willingness to assume a clear 1:1, cause-and-effect, linear narrative once they hear about a crime. Bowman's crime is apolitical. Liberals and conservatives can come together and hate on any kindergarten teacher who shows up drunk at work. But then there's the misogynist who goes on a rampage in Santa Barbara and releases an appalling video. Everyone follows up by ripping into Judd Apatow movies because clearly this is the story of nerd-bro-ness gone to extremes. No one bothered to do any research. They didn't study his history. They didn't talk to psychologists. They didn't do the hard work of learning about the particular schools he attended, the movies he liked, why he may have thought he was unattractive. Nope! We got a video. We got a murder! And everyone KNEW the story, because, as some sanctimoniously put it, they took the killer at his word. And all these years later, we don't know anything more about the shooter other than his crime.

Or how about Michael Derrick Hudson? You may remember him as the white poet who pretended to be Asian so he could get published by editors who were looking for a more diverse group. I don't know much about Hudson other than his one big-time jerk move. I don't know what made him want to pursue a career in literature, what he thinks about poets of color, what he thinks about authorship, what he thinks about literary fame, what led him to commit this most foul of deeds. I do know everyone's hot take about cultural appropriation because people love to write about what they already know.

Have you ever done something wrong or stupid and then watched as a large group of people create a narrative about you and your crime that you knew did not comport with the facts? Shorter question: Did you attend middle school?

I don't know if I can expect much from the general population. But I would say that the many journalists, academics, writers, and anyone in any profession which requires you to bang your head against the wall, trying, hope against hope, to get it right and not get it wrong, have a responsibility to set an example. Think before you shout. Do your research or support others who do great research. You're more than two paragraphs. You're more than the worst thing you've ever done. You don't have to love people who do terrible things. But try to know them, if not for them, then for yourself.






Monday, July 24, 2017

On Modern-Day Lynching

I read about 20-30 pages of non-fiction every morning, something that has nothing to do with what I'm writing about. Here is a page from Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns:

"[N]ewspapers were giving black violence top billing, the most breathless outrage reserved for any rumor of black male indiscretion toward a white woman, all but guaranteeing a lynching. Sheriff's deputies mysteriously found themselves unable to prevent the abduction of a black suspect from a jailhouse cell. Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view. 
"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, 'Burn, burn, burn!' as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it. 
"'My son can't learn too young,' the father said. 
"Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as 'stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks' or 'trying to act like a white person.' Sixty-six were killed after being accused of 'insult to a white person.' One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents. 
"Like the cotton growing in the field, violence had become so much a part of hte landscape that 'perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,' wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. 'All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.'"
I don't like the term "Know your history!" The people who scream it aren't asking you to know history as much as "your heritage," a fixed story that offers clear direction for how you should and shouldn't behave in the present. We should listen to Jefferson, the heritage-mongers say, and try to work against naked partisanship and honor our farmers. We should remember the Holocaust, other heritage-mongers say, and treat every human rights violation as a possible genocide. Heritage leaves inconvenient truths out. History acknowledges the complications.

And I write this because I have always been put off by the term "modern-day lynching" as it is used to describe the police and vigilante killings of unarmed black men, women, and children. I know the lineage these sloganeers are referencing. Fox News focused on everything "wrong" about Trayvon Martin after his death. He had smoked marijuana. He wore a hoodie. His "crimes" were even more absurd than "stealing seventy-five cents." And as George Zimmerman, like so many other shooters, was not successfully prosecuted, it does start to look like the murder of Jesse Washington.

But it's just as important to see the differences. The video of Eric Garner's death may not have worked in court. But was there really an equivalent of fathers forcing their sons to watch Garner's murder? Of all the high-profile deaths of the last ten years, have any of them occassioned, via the video filter, anything like the grotesque spectacle of Jesse Washington's lyching? We can see monstrous comments on news stories about these shootings, but the commenters are cowards. They don't leave their names. They don't want to be seen, because they know they will face public condemnation. They are not the same as that father, hoisting his son on his shoulders.

I write this post not to diminish the terror of these police and vigilante killings, but to say that if we are honest with ourselves, we may want a different word, something other than lynching. The lynching of Jesse Washington in 1916 was not the same as a brutal execution of a slave in 1816, which is also not the same as the shooting death of Philandro Castile in 2016. We live in a different world with different media and different murders.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

On Dunkirk

Spoilers aplenty:

I didn't like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). Tom Hardy's Bane is terrifying, a high-school kid's image of what the psychotic jock will eventually become, white America's idea of a white terrorist. Heath Ledger's Joker is fun, a clown from a Stephen King novel, but in the end he's a cypher. Hans Zimmer's scores were oppressive. The acts of violence were brutal, swift, poorly timed, and meaningless. Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow should have been scary. Christian Bale's Batman sounded like a world-weary queen. I couldn't quite get the political points the script was describing, other than that fascism is sometimes necessary. I'll go a little Godwin here. I recently learned that the Nazis claimed that they had to be more "tough" than the average German in order to commit the violence necessary for the society as a whole to survive. Ever since, I've had a hard time watching pro-torture scenes in superhero movies without thinking "Send this sadistic, costumed freak to Nuremberg." Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) and Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992) were humane and weird. Maybe Nolan's attempt to create a more naturalistic Batman, a Gotham City which is almost realizable -- except for the touches of the supernatural -- was a mistake.

I thought Nolan's Inception (2010) was neat for the first hour, and I dug the zero-gravity scene in the hallway. Tom Hardy was hilarious. He should have been the star. But at some point I just kept thinking that my dreams were much more interesting. 

Have you ever cried at a Nolan movie? Did you give a good goddamn about the death of the hero's love interest in The Dark Knight (2008), the suicide of the hero's lover in Inception, or the sad reunion of father and daughter in Interstellar (2015)? I felt nothing. At best his movies are cool, in the way Ralph Lauren ads are cool, which is another way of saying pretty but not powerful enough to enter your fantasy life. Shallow as fuck.

So what did I think of Dunkirk (2017)? I thought Nolan had gorgeous establishing shots. The best part of the movie was the opening scene, the rain of leaflets on a quiet street, the weary pretty boys in soldier uniforms. You know it must be a narrow street in real life, but the lens made it enormous because war makes small places enormous. I dug the first image of the beech, the crowd of soldiers on the docks. And as usual I did not dig the editing, or the oppressive score which had one message and one message only, "This is intense! This is intense! Oh, my god, have I mentioned to you that this is intense!" Every bullet in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) is a threat to your mortal existence. When I saw the boys trapped in a hull, dodging the bullets that pierce the side of the ship, it looked like a dangerous game that I knew most of the players would win. I knew that pilot would eventually escape that plane, that he wasn't going to drown. I also knew that that brave, not-too-pretty teenage boy was marked for death the minute he was told he was off to war. 

Saving Private Ryan depicts men as animals. In Dunkirk, every man is an athlete. In Dunkirk, you are observing men in the military caring for one another, while slightly removed from the horrors. You think, why can't I be part of a community where people take care of one another? Shallow as fuck.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On Vigilantism

This is about the Emma Sulkowicz case. It is a response to Columbia's recent settlement with the man Sulkowicz accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. I don't feel like giving a summary. You can look up the reporting online. 

There's a rhetorical move I and many others find irritating, something along the lines of, "Well, you know, I hate extremism on the left just as much as I hate extremism on the right." Unfortunately, this post is in that territory.

I also hate vigilantism.

I've heard a lot of defenses of Emma Sulkowicz. That she stood up for herself and the rights of rape victims as a whole. That she fought for her freedom of speech when she took the mattress with her to graduation and Lee Bollinger disrespected her freedom of speech when he refused to shake her hand. That it's not her job to be reasonable or polite. That she wasn't standing up to Paul Nungesser, her alleged rapist, so much as an entire system that refused to punish her rapist. 

And I had a hard time buying it all. I wasn't sure if the laws and regulations she wanted passed were the right ones. As someone who believes in respecting the rights of the accused in all cases, I am nervous that we are heading into ugly territory in how we adjudicate campus rape cases. Columbia University disrespected Sulkowicz's freedom of speech when it told students not to bring large objects on stage during the graduation, but security didn't stop her, and Bollinger's refusal to shake her hand did not prevent or hinder her own speech. I agree that she doesn't have to be reasonable or polite. But, frankly, whatever her original intentions, Nungesser had a good case that Sulkowicz encouraged a mob of vigilantes. They plastered his face on boards. One dropped a mattress either next to or in the room of a class he was taking. If that's not intimidation or harrassment, an attempt to drive someone out from a community, I don't know what is.

Did Nungesser rape Sulkowicz? I think he did. Even if he didn't, it seems clear he has a history of being a creepy guy who sexually assaults women. He may have moved on. He may not assault women anymore. It's possible he became a better person. Did he deserve the harassment? If he raped Sulkowicz, and I think he did, the answer is, of course, yes.  Hell, he deserved a lot worse than a nightmarish two years at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, at the end of which he obtained a degree.   

But can we at least be honest and admit that vigilantism played a role here, that Sulkowicz and company were using their own methods to right a wrong the legal system both at Columbia and in the city of New York as a whole were not able to right? That's the very definition of vigilantism.

I don't like vigilantism. I don't like mobs. You may not give a damn about Nungesser, but you should give a damn about the next alleged rapist...one who turns out to be innocent.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

On Underdogs

The valiant underdog is played by a strikingly charming, funny, good-looking, often well-dressed actor who gets paid more than anyone else in the cast. The rich bully is played by an actor who makes less money and often has less charisma, who is good-looking, but not too good-looking. The plain girl love interest is played by a supermodel. All three actors survive on a miserable diet and exercise regimen. In the movie, they eat Doritos. In interviews the actors who play the valiant underdog and the plain girl talk about how they were once victims of bullying and had a hard time getting dates in high school. The actor who plays the bully tells everyone that he's a nice guy in real life. Two years later, the Internet has stories about how all three actors are jerks. The valiant underdog slept with prostitutes while shooting a movie on location in Thailand.

You have drinks with a young Los Angeleno in Bulgaria, where a lot of movies are shot because of the tax breaks. He is the assistant to a woman who performs weight-loss wrap therapy for stars. He came to Los Angeles to make it as an actor, and he spends a lot of time looking at his skin. He's staying at one of the nicer hotels in Sofia. The two suites for his boss and for him are being paid for by the star they are serving while they are in town. You ask if the star, who is best-known for playing a valiant underdog in an '80s comedy, is a nice guy? You ask if another star, who is one of the most popular actors of his generation, and who they are meeting in London next week for his therapy session, is a nice guy? And you already know the answers. You think, well, in real life there are plenty of underdogs who are total jerks too.


On Piccolo

I first heard Shostakovich's Jazz Suite when I saw Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999). I'm pretty sure Kubrick introduced me to a lot of the Golden Oldies of classical music, like Strauss's waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Handel's Sarabande in Barry Lyndon (1975). I connect to the music, and I don't think the tunes are interchangable from one film to the next. The Sarabande would have made the spaceships' dance to Strauss ominous. Shostakovich suggests animal energy, whatever his original intention. As a matter of cultural reference, I don't know if there is much of a difference between Shostakovich, Handel, and Strauss in the three films. I listen to classical music, but I'm a classical music ignoramus. And I wonder if each of these tunes means more or less the same thing across all of his films, namely a juxtaposition of high civilization as something pure with a culture of violence (Barry Lyndon) or as something of the past with the future (2001), or as something that a futurist dystopia will remake in its own image, as in the case of Wendy Carlos's take on Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Does recognizable classical music in film mean anything other than "classical"?

I offer this question as a lead-in to a passage in my dissertation on Dušan Vukotić's Piccolo (1959).



The opening credits of Piccolo depict a screen split between blocks of green and light purple, cut at once in a vertical line, then horizontally, and then diagonally. The order is achieved with the exhiliration of pop art. The story opens on a house divided on each side by green and purple, with one wall separating the two sides. In the background of the green side, there are other green houses. In the background of the purple side, there are purple houses. The setting is simple, and suggests a small, but growing city, much like Zagreb at the time of the film’s production, with faint black outlines of nearly identical houses.
Two men, one short and fat, the other tall and thin, live on respectives sides of the house. They are friends. When a storm bursts out and the short man’s roof starts to leak, the tall man, in an exercise of self-reflexive flat-graphic humor, cuts the lines of rain which border his side of the house with a pair of scissors. They shake hands. A small bird appears on a tree near the short man’s house and sings a tune, first harshly and out of tune, marked by a harmonica-shriek on the soundtrack, and then, after clearing his throat with egg yolk, more smoothly. The tall man loves the tune and the short man, employing again the convenient rules of the animation form, removes the tree to the tall man’s side. The bird flies away. The tall man buys a harmonica in order to enjoy the sound of music again. The movements of the man and the bird jump from one frame to the next in pace with the simple jumps of the tune. The music is grounded in folk life. It is grounded in the body.
When the tall man plays his harmonica, he disrupts the short man’s peace, and thus  a war begins and escalates between the two men, as each attacks the other one with a different tune from a different instrument as a weapon. Eventually, the two men invite choruses that reflect their respective identities -- the short man invites short men and the tall man invites tall men -- and they destroy each other in a crescendo in a blast from the Overture of 1812.
The Zagreb School would employ several music genres through its history, including classical music, jazz, and pop music, almost all of it from Yugoslav composers and musicians. The music can be grotesque and the sound can be purposely grating, but it can just as easily be exuberant, a celebration of the mixtures of the popular music of the era. Kostelac’s Zbog jednog tanjura / All Because of a Plate (1959), but the possibility of treating music as a source of horror is just as common. Piccolo, though it indulges the audience’s desire for visual pleasure, is a self-reflexive film about the possibilities of music to become a weapon. “When music is applied to warlike ends, we tend to believe that it has been turned against its innocent nature,” the music critic Alex Ross writes. “We resist evidence suggesting that music can cloud reason, stir rage, cause pain, even kill.”
Music, as a cultural force, is presented as simply an idea of the cultural landscape. There’s not an obvious source for most of the music in Piccolo. The harmonica evokes folk music. The jazz drumming is relatively generic. Some of the tunes on the piano and the cello contain possible references to Chopin and Liszt. In the final minutes, the sources are more obvious. The men battle each other with choruses singing the “Toreador Song” from Carmen and the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, and then the small man recruits an orchestra to play the Overture of 1812.  Some of the music is played competently. Some of it grates, or at very least is meant to suggest the idea of music grating, and is comically out of tune. The use of music in relation to the visual movements recalls McLaren’s experiments from the period. The dividing line between their sides of the house changes shape, at one moment pointed, at another curved to match the rhythm and quality of the instruments. But the synchronization between the music and the line changes is not as precise. The film, lying somewhere between the idea of a gag film and a high-art film, pokes fun at the Zagreb School’s aesthetic pretensions. Unlike Premijera, Piccolo does not dramatize a fight between various forms of cosmopolitanism. It is a fight between all sounds, brought down to their lowest, most primitive essence.
Of all the films discussed in this chapter, Piccolo comes closest to depicting at least an idea of interethnic conflict, a failure of the brastvo in the slogan of Titoist Yugoslavia. It is rare for the Zagreb School to depict any specifically Yugoslav regional, ethnic, or national identity in its films. As noted in the previous chapter, although the cities of Yugoslavia underwent a massive population surge in the years after World War II, a surge that involved a massive internal migration of and then mixing of ethnic groups to the cities, the Zagreb School does not depict the idea of a city as a site of interethnic relationships. Still, the original script, written by Vukotić, suggests a possible reference to regional history and culture in its choice of music and characters. In the final film, the choirs which accompany the respective adversaries are identical with them, but the original script called for either a choir of gypsies or a choir of don cossacks. If one of the choirs had been made up of gypsies, the film would have grounded the story in an identifiably Balkan context. The use of cossacks may reference the Russian division of the Nazi army that fought the Partisans during World War II or the larger history of the cossack army in Tsarist Russia. The sidenote suggest a subliminal reference in the film not so much to interethnic strife, but to something exotic or identifiably “eastern.” The erasure of these possibilities in the final film speaks to the approach to universalize the themes of the Zagreb School’s films, but the suggestions of the theme remains.
The film is about the fragility of the project of civilization and, in the context of Yugoslavia, of the project of nation-building. It notes the thin line not just between high and low culture, all of which was consumed and celebrated in Yugoslavia, but of peace and war.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

On Doritos

Michael Jordan used to do McDonald's commercials. He also modeled for Hanes. The Hanes ads made sense. We all want to look good in underwear. The McDonald's commercials did not make sense. Jordan has a killer body, maybe a mutant one, and it's possible that it could withstand all the harmful effects of garbage food. Unfortunately, the bodies of most children and almost every adult past the age of 25 cannot withstand the harmful effects of garbage food. Eating McDonald's is a great way not to be like Mike.

The product placement in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), which I liked, is more shameless than usual. There's a loving close-up on the gummies Peter Parker (Tom Holland) buys at a corner deli. While hanging out in his room, he digs into a bag of Doritos, placed at the bottom of the screen, lit so that you damn well will notice that beautiful, crinkly bag. At 20 (when the movie was shot), Holland has a dancer-sculpted body. I've met many dancers. They tend to avoid Doritos and gummies. 

There's been a push back against us obesity fearmongers and moral scolds, but I'm sorry, junk food is disgusting and the industry that produces it is terrible. Junk food made my life worse. At 36, I'm maintaining a healthy BMI, but I still get cravings at night and I wonder if the way my appetite was trained during my childhood has made it harder to manage my weight as an adult. Doritos are the cocaine we give to five-year-olds. Some people got really excited about a tie-in cereal commercial featuring a black boy in a Spider-Man costume. They thought it was inclusive. I just saw another attempt to get children to poison their bodies.

We accept product placements as facts of modern entertainment to the point where we enjoy even the consciously ironized advertising in Mad Men (2007-2015) and Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). It doesn't bother me that Hollywood studio execs are cynical. The blithe acceptance of absurdity bothers me. We accept the lie. We allow the lie to work on our subconscious, and we continue to eat Doritos and Big Macs. It bothers me that we have an entire system designed to keep poor people in food deserts. They may not have access to proper nutrition, but they'll be able to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, if not at the local theater, then later, on a DVD which they'll get from a Redbox at the local 7-11, where they can also buy a bag of Doritos. Two for the price of one.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

On Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spoiler-Heavy Warning

How much realism do you need in a superhero movie? Why do you need any realism in the first place? When it comes to Spider-Man, the superhero who could be you, the superhero with complex psychological motivations, a certain kind of realism matters. He has to live in an actual city we know, and he has to have problems most of us would relate to. The appeal of Peter Parker isn't that different from the appeal of Tony Soprano. Their work life involves doing something you would never be able to do, but their homelife and the family dynamics they have to negotiate are familiar.

So what works in Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), the newest iteration of Peter Parker, here played by Tom Holland? Well, to slightly rework the metaphor from the previous paragraph, it did indulge something Tony Soprano-like in its villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). Toomes tries to be as non-flashy as possible, though he still enjoys wearing that Vulture costume. He's a businessman who is frustrated by his incompetent employees but treats his good employees fairly. When he kills someone, he either does so accidentally, because that's what happens when you hang around high-tech weaponry you don't know that much about, or because he has to. He has a homelife, with a loving wife and daughter. Toomes is not as interesting as Tony Soprano or Walter White, but I think he's more intriguing and more witty than Vincent D'Onfrio's Kingpin in Daredevil (2015-).  

I dug Parker and Toomes's interactions. During their back-and-forth in the car, when Toomes doubles his role as intimidating but friendly father of your girlfriend and supervillain adversary, it was clear the movie got Spider-Man. It understood how every part of Peter Parker's body and his life is a metaphor for puberty. Keaton is great, with his freaky, could-have-just-as-easily-been-cast-as-the-Joker smile. His face is nicely lined. He's gone bald. He has a paunch. But he's still handsome and funny. He's almost the guy you wish was your girlfriend's dad. I kept on hoping Peter would turn his back on Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and join the dark side. Hell, Toomes's politics aren't all that different from mine. 

What else works? Peter's loving gestures towards small animals. An uncomfortable interaction with a neighborhood deli-owner. There's stuff that they try to make work. The movie gets that the modern-day Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) is more of a verbal than a physical bully, but his put-downs are lame and Peter isn't weird enough to be a target, especially at a magnet school. Zendaya plays MJ -- here named Michelle -- as the self-serious, arrogant, smart girl who reads Of Human Bondage and one-ups her teachers. I know the type. I was that type. But I would have liked her to play it down just a little. The quiz bowl team I was captain of in high school was a hell of a lot more immature than the one here, but then again, mine might have been the exception.

What else did it get right? After the final battle on Coney Island: Parker carries Toomes's limp body which he has just rescued, lays him on the sand, and then promptly collapses right next to him. It reminds me of the moment after the final arrest in Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949). The game is over. One has won. The other has lost and his life has been destroyed. But they are both just too exhausted and they share a brief, unspoken connection.

Andrew Garfield picked up on Parker's narcissism and he understood how to connect his teenage shuffle with the superhero's elegance. I liked him more. But Holland turns Parker into a lovable geek from an '80s teen comedy. I kept thinking of Three O'Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987).

The movie didn't get to me the way the Lee/Romita run got to me, nor the way the subway sequence in Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) got to me. I'm older and jaded, and I don't like being pandered to. I don't like the fact that every superhero movie is starting not to look like a supehero movie but supehero movies. (Logan [James Mangold, 2017] was the wonderful exception.) So I am left with looking for everything in a Spider-Man movie that I could get better somewhere else. Still, I love seeing it all put together -- a little bit of Tony Soprano, a little bit of Kurosawa, a little bit of John Hughes, a little bit of Stan Lee -- and seeing most of it work, really well.

Update: This post was a little too cool for school. I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't make me smile from ear to ear more than once.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

On Patriotism

When I was a kid, and I was in a room with a lot of people I didn't much relate to, and who were not always nice to me or to each other, and I was told that I was supposed to feel connected to them as members of the same entity, I wasn't willing to follow along. I knew too many jerks in all my schools to feel much in the way of school pride. I knew too many Americans to believe that there was anything inherently good about Americans.

I believed in the fundamental values of freedom of speech and the ability to call authority figures to account, but schools, like families, are not democracies. They don't offer students absolute free speech. It's hard to call your authority figures to account. I've sometimes wondered if the inability of most Americans to appreciate freedom of speech and the other Enlightenment goodies in the Bill of Rights comes from the tragic fact of human nature. You don't get your basic rights until you're an adult. To embrace those rights at 18 to 21 is a rebellion against everything you have been taught.

I'm amazed by the willingness of human beings to join groups, how willing they are to enter into cults led by charismatic preachers and teachers, how willing they are to turn every radical thinker who refused any clear ideological identification into an avatar of their own movement. This goes for everybody. The opening minutes of I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) depicts the Black Lives Matter movement as a continuation of James Baldwin's struggle, despite the fact that Baldwin refused to align himself with any of the major black liberation movements of his own time. He would probably have written about BLM with great admiration and would have also happily ripped it apart. I'm amazed by Americans' willingness to surrender themselves to the myths propogated by Joseph Ellis, their, in retrospect, hilarious refusal to believe Thomas Jefferson fucked his slaves. (Overheard at the Jefferson Memorial in the Summer of 1997: "Didn't Jefferson own slaves?" "Yeah, but he was nice to them.") I'm amazed by how willing people are to surrender their voice to a narrow vocabulary, whether it be one made up of words like "sin" and "redemption" or one made up of "privilege" and "trauma." How afraid they are to admit to ideas that are so obviously true, like the fact that not every soldier is a hero.

I'm amazed by how easily the fundamental ideas of patriotism crosses borders. Go to museums in honor of soldiers in Croatia, Serbia, the U.K., Vietnam, and the U.S. and you will hear the same ideas spoken over and over again to the point where they lose all meaning. Slobodan Milošević's first name means "free" in his native language.

I may have an allergy to joining groups, but I'm not a total misanthrope. I've grown to appreciate  certain kinds of fellow feeling through the years. The best part for me from John Roberts's recent celebrated speech to a bunch of super-privileged ninth graders was not his hope that the students would feel misery so that one day that would develop some form of empathy. Oppression doesn't make people better. The opposite is true. I preferred his call to learn the names of janitors and to smile at them in the hallway.

Sometimes I give panhandlers money and sometimes I don't, but I've learned to look them in the eye and apologize if I don't want to give them anything. I've learned to be polite when I ask people to be more polite. I've learned that you always tip a dollar to the barista and that when you divide a bill you don't split it down to the dollar, or even the five dollar mark. I've learned that you gently call people out on their prejudices if you can. I've learned that you don't resent the presence of fat people or autistic children on airplanes. Talk to everyone at parties, especially the most introverted, but let people be if they don't want to talk. Small, non-aggressive touches can mean a lot if you know how to touch without being threatening. Tonight there will be fireworks here in Seattle. I won't be going to Gasworks Park, where there will be a loud, crowded gathering with bad, expensive food, and the view will be great. I will be watching the fireworks from a distance at a small dock near my home where Lake Union and Portage Bay meet. I will light up a joint and pass it to whoever is near me.

Patriotism.