Tag Archives: Media

Man of Steal

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S'hope.

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S’hope.

Man of Steel, the movie that dares not speak its name, uttering the S word only once[1], opens in a CGI sci-fi universe reminiscent of Avatar.  No giant Smurfs, but plenty of bizarre creatures and vaguely cloud-forest images.  Russell Crowe shows up, reprising his weird fake English accent[2] from Les Mis but now playing a Jedi, including requisite Prequel Mullet, and before long the movie looks like Star Wars by way of Alien, a kind of PG-13 HR Giger, biomechanical but desexualized, down to the Kryptonian asexual reproduction, even as everything on Krypton also looks like a phallic symbol.  (They’re obviously sublimating their sexual frustration.)

Cute little Kryptonians!

Cute little Kryptonians!

Then Michael Shannon shows up, and you know he’s a bad guy because of the shape of Michael Shannon’s head.[3]  Krypton blows up on cue, Kal El is launched in another phallus, and before long, Clark Kent is a grownup on Earth—33 years old, a portentous age that the movie does not fail to point out to us.  Then we’re in X-Men territory, as the heavily muscled and even more heavily chest-haired[4] Henry Cavill drifts, just as heavily muscled and  equally hirsute Hugh Jackman did as Wolverine over a decade ago, trying to understand his place in the world, the charm on his necklace again his only clue.  Cue “Seasons,” the depressing Chris Cornell acoustic grunge song from the movie Singles, as the Artist Formerly Known as Superman swipes a conveniently flattering flannel shirt from a clothesline and hitchhikes to the next identity a la David (not Bruce) Banner in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.  If only the movie played that music instead:

The movie is cut with flashbacks to young Clark’s childhood, where, rather than having super abilities, he’s treated, and behaves, more like a child with disabilities. It’s an interesting metaphor that the movie doesn’t do much with—Smallville, the TV show, did it much better.  Ma and Pa Kent show up, although Kevin Costner’s Jonathan isn’t what I associate with the role. Rather than teaching Clark to celebrate who he is and always do what’s right, he warns him that he has to hide his true self.   Again, shades of X-Men, which I always read as a reversal of the Superman story. While classic Superman is a wonder of assimilation, cheered and welcomed by humanity for his differences, the X-Men are feared and suspected for their differences, and in Man of Steel’s revision, Superman is not only an alien but alienated.

Christopher Nolan co-wrote and produced the film, and he brings his rebooted Batman sensibilities to the project—Superman is dark and brooding, not just orphaned, like Batman, but orphaned twice, by both Jor El and Jonathan Kent.  Before long, General Zod’s mean-shaped head is back and threatening to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, at which point the movie takes its cues from War of the Worlds, down to the giant tripods, and Cloverfield and other 9/11/2001-infleunced films, all shaky handcams and masses of people fleeing the dust, wreckage, and debris of falling buildings.  Meanwhile, a Transformers-like cityscape CGI battle ensues for, I don’t know, like an hour.  Superman wins! Yay! And kisses Lois Lane, even though Metropolis looks like it was hit by a hundred 9/11s.  No matter. In the final scene, the Clark Kent we know and love—glasses!—shows up in a miraculously restored Metropolis (although it took over a decade to put up a single new tower in Ground Zero), and we’re ready for the next adventure.

Quick! Sneeze on them!

Martians! I mean, Kryptonians!

Look.  I don’t want to be a jerk here.  But I took my boys, ages 11 and 15, to see this movie, hoping for—for what?   The way I felt when I saw Superman with Christopher Reeve, I guess. Or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or the many movies that I can honestly say felt like a formative childhood experience.  I’m not one to wax nostalgic.[5]  And there’s nothing exactly wrong with the picture, as the discrepancy between the fan ratings (largely positive) and critics’ reviews (negative to lukewarm) suggest.   But in borrowing from, let’s recap here, Avatar, Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Hulk, Smallville, Batman, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, and whatever I left out, director Zak Snyder and Nolan seem profoundly embarrassed by Superman himself.  Superman thrives on the dramatic irony of Clark Kent’s nebbishy persona, the one that Reeve did so well, the one that is as absent here as Superman himself is.  We know who he really is, and we’re special for it.  But there is no Clark Kent here, and no Superman.  Nolan’s Batman movies got to the core of that character, a man pushed by tragedy to the brink of psychosis, living in a noir nightmare, neurotically and impotently trying to avenge and atone for his parents’ deaths.  But Superman is not Batman, and Man of Steel does not get to the core of Superman.  In trying to reboot him, it abandons what I liked about the character–his contrasting personas, his simplicity, his good nature, his fun.    It should be awesome to be Superman.  We don’t need to learn that [spoiler?] he himself is somehow responsible for luring Zod to Earth, or [spoiler x2?] not saving Jonathan, that he struggles with who he is, that humans fear him.  (The only human who used to fear Superman was Lex Luthor.)  In the end, Man of Steel is a perfectly adequate summer special effects extravaganza.  It is not Superman.  Which is a shame.

Time: 55 minutes  


[1] “Superman.” What S word did you think I meant?

[2] Usually British accents come easier to Aussies and Kiwis.  Not so Crowe.

[3] Michael Shannon will make phrenologists of us all.

[4] I will admit that I was happy to see the chest hair.  I’m not only a member of the Chest Hair Club for Men; I’m also its president.

[5] Or wax anything. See: chest hair.

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The Three Movies that Traumatized Me

 childhood-trauma-rpg-d-amp-d-lvl1-demotivational-poster-1216902600

For some people, it’s Bambi.  For my brother Al, it was ET and Pee Wee’s Playhouse—he must have had a psychic intuition about that Pee Wee Herman guy.   But everyone can look back on childhood and recall—sometimes fondly reminisce, as I suppose I do —about the Movies that Ruined Their Lives.  (In the comments, go ahead and mention the movies that traumatized you. It’s fun!)  It’s not that I hate the movies or think that they’re bad.  As Facebook would say of my relationship, it’s complicated.

1) The Shining

shining

I remember the day that Brendan, Michael, and I watched The Shining at Irving’s house, I guess at some point in elementary school.  Irving had the only VHS and, obviously, most neglectful parents.  I think they were going through something.  Supposedly, kids figure everything out and know what’s going on, but I was a confused, oblivious child.  Danny, the boy with the title’s power, seemed roughly our own age, and when he talked to his hand decades before talk shows would emplore people to do the same, and called his pointer finger Tony, then spoke in a raspy voice as Tony, it didn’t seem funny, or campy, or kitschy, or cheap.  It was fucking horrifying.  So was the “REᗡЯUM” in lipstick on the bathroom door, which spelled out “MURDƎЯ” in the mirror, something that at 10 years old (maybe?) I DID NOT SEE COMING AT ALL.  And that was nothing compared with the terrifying twin dead ghost girls.  Like regular twins aren’t scary enough.  And of course, the Naked Lady in the bathtub, who begins as beautiful (not that I noticed; see: oblivious) and turns into a shrieking, droopy-breasted  hag as she chases Jack Nicholson down one of the million hallways in the film.  The later scenes, involving Jack going crazy, hacking poor Scatman Crothers to death with an ax, and subsequently menacing and attempting to murder his wife and child, had little effect after the powerful childhood magic of Tony,   REᗡЯUM, the girls, and especially the Naked Lady.  Either that or I had no more unconscious recesses left in my brain the ruin.  As Psycho must have done for a previous generation, The Shining made me scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for, like, a year.   And for many years after, Michael and I would yell “Naked Lady!” to each other, a phrase which for other kids may have evoked laughter, or titillation. Bur for us it was like screaming Boo! Times a million.

I watched The Shining again about a decade later. I was an English major in college and wanted to see what all the fuss in my head had been about.  This time, the movie was hilarious, a black comedy about writer’s block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson’s madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions that had been beaten into everyone’s heads a hundred times by then. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? Really?  I laughed at the film, at Jack, at Jack’s stupid, frozen face at the end, and myself, for misreading the movie so badly.

the_shining_ Jack frozen

And then I watched it again about six years ago.  I was teaching a class about conspiracy and paranoia in literature and film and wanted to pair Diane Johnson’s excellent, underrated novel The Shadow Knows with a movie.  And it was scary all over again, for new reasons. This time, I hardly saw anything supernatural or monstrous about it.  Instead, it seemed a harrowing psychodrama about loss of masculinity and domestic abuse, the not- at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by, most likely to be murdered by,  husbands and fathers,  supposed protectors and providers.  Without society or any kind of social arrangements, Jack has nothing to keep his rabid unconscious in check. I was disturbed all over again.  Maybe I wasn’t as oblivious as I thought as a child.

  2. The Fly

fly_poster

Not the 1950s Vincent Price classic, although I did see and love that movie as a child. No. In 1986, a few years after The Shining, I was at an in-between movie age and faced a choice: to see the Transformers (the cartoon movie that no one wants to talk about these days, featuring Orson Welles’s last role. Ah, cruel fate), or David Croneneberg’s remake of The Fly.  Later in life, I’d grow to love many of Cronenberg’s films.  Jeff Goldblum/Seth Brundle’s revolting and horrific transformation—no easy head-switcheroos here; the way   Brundle snaps a man’s wrist arm-wrestling in a bar; the way the mutated Brundle-Fly uses his fly vomit to disintegrate a man’s limbs; the way Gina Davis’s push dislodges Brundle-Fly’s jawbone and with it, his last vestige of human resemblance; Brundle-Fly’s like-nothing-else-ever appearance at the very end, after he accidently goes through the teleporter alone, failing in his Shining-esque plan to use the machine to merge his own DNA with Gina’s and their in-utero child, and how he points the gun at his own head but in his hideously deformed state can’t pull the trigger and Gina has to do it for him. OH MY GOD.  I can’t believe I ever saw another movie again. Or slept again.  Or had children.  But YOU WILL NEVER GET ME IN A TELEPORTER.  This plot summary was written from memory and without IMDB or Wikipedia.  Although I have not seen this movie in over 25 years, its images are burned into the internal plasma screen of my psyche.  Unlike The Shining, I do not expect to see The Fly again.

3. The Elephant Man

elephant-man_poster

Now, here’s the catch: not only have I not seen the Elephant Man since I was a child; I NEVER saw The Elephant Man. Although I added to my Netflix queue over a year ago in a failed attempt to cure myself through immersion therapy.  Which counts for something, I guess.  Even before The Shining, I saw a short clip of The Elephant Man on TV.  The clip I saw, which, again, I remember vividly although it was over three decades ago, features John Merrick, as he was known in the film, wearing a pillowcase over his head and fleeing a mob, which rips his mask off only to shock themselves into stunned murmurs.  Suddenly emboldened, Merrick bellows, “I am not animal! I am a man! A human being!” before collapsing from the exertion.  Then I saw a Ripley’s Believe it nor Not (or something like that) episode featuring Elephant Man reenactments, although the disfiguring makeup was far cruder than the film’s and, if I remember right, kinda purple. No matter. I become obsessed with The Elephant Man, reading all I could about him while strenuously avoiding any pictures of him, or John Hurt in the movie, which was not easy.  Even at the time, I had no idea what I was scared of.  Was I going to run into him somewhere?  I was kind of scared that I would, although obviously the odds of, say, being killed by Jack Nicholson were far greater.  Would I turn into him?  Um, no.  I didn’t know what I was scared of.  I still don’t, although the fact that I felt terrorized and traumatized by the clip is, as far as I can ascertain without having actually seen it, the exact opposite point of the film itself, which seeks to re-humanize, rather than dehumanize, the Man, not the Elephant.  I should really watch it.

But I won’t.

Honorable Mention: Snoopy Come Home.  In 1976, Snoopy, one of my childhood loves, ran away from Charlie Brown. Or something like that.  Did he run away, or was he left behind? Was it a misunderstanding? If you need to know, go check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snoopy,_Come_Home , which, unbelievably, has a significant entry on it. I haven’t seen this one again and don’t plan to.   And unlike the others, I hardly remember it.  Call it traumatic amnesia. All I know is that Snoopy was gone for like an hour and a half, and everyone is crying and crying and crying those big Peanuts teardrops from the sides of their eyes like water hoses, and then five minutes before the end, after everyone gives up, Snoopy Comes Home and it’s all OK.  Well, Charles Schultz, it WAS NOT OK.  The ending could not fix the feelings of loss that, when I close my eyes and psychically look back, I may not have yet gotten over. 

Time: one re-traumatizing hour.  

 215px-SnoopyComeHome

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Transference

 

DVD-Video_bottom-side

Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs.  I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.

Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them.  And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS.  Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.  

As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers.  I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother.  And I think, Ah, so young, so cute.  The kids, too.  The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka.  All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing.  Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born. 

Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen?  Not unlike now, but then even more so.   I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera.  I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago. 

But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera.  But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze.  I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.

 

Time: less than an hour. Lost track.

This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.

Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus.  Thanks for hanging in there.

–Jesse Kavadlo

 

 

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We Have Entered the Era of Un-

In culture, literature, and theory, the 1960s marked the beginning of postmodernism.  And quickly the prefix post- became the operative way of understanding the world: post-war, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-industrialism; then, post-human, post-Boomer, and post-punk; more recently, post-millennial and post-apocalyptic; and for a least a little while in 2008, post-partisan and post-racial.   (Many a postdoc has been devoted to developing post-anything.)  Post- became more than a prefix—it became a worldview, an epistemological category.

But what, students in my class on postmodern literature reasonably asked, can possibly come after postmodernism, or post- anything? More post. Post-postmodernism. [Shudder]. Post- is the prefix that devours itself, since it is always after, belated, still waiting, and deferred. Nothing can come after post-.

Nothing except, with apologies to Existentialism, a new kind of nothing.

Enter: Un-.

Un-, like post-, is not a word. Unlike other prefixes, however, like pre- or post-, or re- or un-’s near-relative, under-, un- does not describe, affix in time, suggest repetition, or, like mis- or mal-, even suggest that something is wrong.  Unlike with-, dis-, de-, counter-, anti-, or even the powerful non-, un- does not suggest opposition, working against.  Un- suggests more than reversal or opposite: it is negation, disappearance, taking out of existence.  And if post- described the world after about 1945, Un- describes the world from 2000, or maybe 2001, to the present. We are living in the era of Un-.

Now, I realize that lots of words began with Un- before 2000.  I used “unlike” twice in the last paragraph alone. But I used it as a preposition, “dissimilar from.”  On Facebook, unlike is a verb: if you click Like, and then decide that you don’t like that thing anymore, you can click Unlike and it will erase your Like. Since Facebook does not have a Dislike button, Unlike is as close as people can get.

But Unlike is as different from Dislike as unable to disable, unaffected to disaffected, unarranged to disarrange, unfortunate to disfortunate (which is sort of a word).  Which is to say, very different.  Both suggest opposition, but dis- implies an active opposition, expending energy to reverse.  Un- feels passive, a kind of vanishing—or worse, the suggestion that the thing never was in the first place.  When we Unfriend on Facebook, we do something we cannot do in real life or face to face, which is presumably why the word had to be recently invented. We don’t Unfriend corporeal people.  We just—what, exactly?  Stop being friends? Spend less time together? Drift apart? Or something stronger—not a drift but a rift.  A fight, a falling out.  We’re not on speaking terms anymore.  But not Unfriend.  We can only Unfollow online, on Facebook or Twitter.  We can’t Unfollow in person.  Unfriend and Unfollow seem etymologically and epistemologically close to Untouchable, with the implications of prohibition, exclusion, disappearance. Unclean.

Like many people who spend time at their keyboard, I have become reliant on Delete, on Backspace, on Undo.  When I knock down a glass and wish it would float back in a startling cinematic backwind, or misplace my book and want it to reappear, or say something that I want to take back, I can picture Ctrl Z clearly in my mind’s eye.  But it does not Undo.   Glasses do not unbreak; books are not unlost but rather must actively be found (without Ctrl F, either). Words that are unspoken were never spoken, not spoken and stricken.  We say, I take it back.  But the words cannot be unsaid.  Judges instruct juries to ignore testimony, but lawyers know that jurors cannot unhear. Judges cannot unstruct.  Traumatized viewers cannot unsee.

Do not try this in real life

And so Un- fails at complete erasure.  Like a palimpsest, Un- can’t help but leave traces of its former self behind.  The close reader can see what used to be there, the residue of virtual Friendship, the electronically unsettled path left behind after one has Followed, or been Followed.  And perhaps this failure is for the best.  The only thing more powerful than Un-’s fever dream of retroactive disappearance is that the wish cannot come true.  If anything, the electronic world that birthed the fantasy of Undo is the same one that never lets us scrub our online prints away.

Time: 55 minutes

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The Many Masks of The Dark Knight Rises

Here is Tom Hardy, who plays Bane in The Dark Knight Rises:

A mouth!

I had no idea that I knew the actor from Inception and Warrior.  Yes, there’s the new bulk, the shaved head, and the costume. But mostly, I didn’t recognize him because of the headgear.  And the mask has raised the ire of two of my favorite movie critics.  Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker that “Bane wears a crablike mask over the lower part of his face—a disastrous burden for Tom Hardy, whose mouth, sensual and amused for such a tough customer, is his defining feature. Via this device, Bane declaims his bold, anarchic sentiments; at least, I think they were anarchic. Given that I could make out barely a third of them, he may well have been reciting from ‘Clifford the Small Red Puppy.’   

And in Slate Dana Stevens laments “the film’s disappointingly uncomplex villain, the bald, hulking, pitiless arch-terrorist Bane, as played by Tom Hardy.”  She continues:

 Hardy obviously put an enormous amount of work into preparing for the role, bulking up his body and developing a strange, swooping voice that promises to give rise to a thousand late-summer Bane impersonations. But the choice to clamp a leather-and-metal mask over 60 percent of Hardy’s face for the entire movie means that, for all practical purposes, the actor’s diligent iron-pumping was in vain. Since we can’t tell whether the person producing that sound actually resides in that body or not, Nolan might as well have cast an already-huge body double and just had Hardy dub in the voice. Most of all, though, the mask is a mistake because we never get a good look at Bane’s face. With nothing to work with but a pair of darting eyes, Hardy can’t endow Bane with motivation enough to make him more than a generic bogeyman.

Of course. It makes sense. And yet, I can’t help but think that Bane’s mask makes a perfect visual and symbolic foil to Batman’s cowl—and scowl.  This blog entry’s opening image, one of the most common promo shots, depicts the contrast and symmetry perfectly: Bane’s face is a kind of negative, a reverse mirror image, of Batman’s; what is exposed on Batman—the mouth, the jaw, the chin—is concealed on Bane.  Batman’s head and eyes are disguised, whereas Bane’s are open.  Batman’s guttural voice is an affectation; Bane’s is the real result—in a major revision of the comicbook character—of the mask he cannot remove without dying.  When we first meet Bane at the beginning of the movie, he is hooded, but removing one mask only reveals another.  Covering the mouth, even more than the eyes as the source of his humanity, forces Hardy to act entirely kinesthetically; together with Batman’s costume and mask covering 95% of his own body, the choreographed fight scenes, seemingly graphic, instead become a version of Japanese Noh drama, where the masks themselves embody the characters’ distinctiveness and personalities, freeing the actors to use their bodies, rather than their faces, as their sole vehicles of expression.  When Bane finally breaks Batman, his final humiliation is removing Batman’s mask.  In doing so, he does not reveal Batman’s true identity—he takes it from him.

All of the faces of the Dark Knight movies have been masks.  The face of Harvey Dent—Two Face—is crucial to the new film, in that Gotham is presented only with his good side, his dark side hidden, an omission that Commissioner Gordon and Batman consider a necessary fiction but one that inevitably is revealed.  Two Face is like Bane, a reversal of Batman’s face, but divided exactly vertically rather than horizontally. His perfect split represents both his fractured psyche and his Manichaeism, a division that proves unstable within himself as well as Gotham.  

Bane’s mask-in-a-mask revelation was also used to introduce Heath Ledger’s Joker in the previous movie—one clown mask removed to reveal another beneath it.  But unlike Batman, even unlike Bane, who gets a few seconds of backstory revealed in the end, the Joker has no secret face, and no secrets.  His mask is his face and his face is his mask; he is exactly as he appears to be as well as a complete walking fiction.  He is his own shadow, his own mask.

And what I thought from the advance images to be Catwoman’s mask turned out to be her goggles flipped up onto her head, the only whimsical, lighthearted mask in the film. Cat suit and cat burglar aside, Selina Kyle of Dark Knight Rises is not the comic’s Catwoman at all, not even in name, as “Catwoman” is never said.  She wears a the thief’s domino mask seemingly to hide her self, but we discover that the one thing she truly desires is to be free of her identity, not to protect it at all.

But what lies behind Christopher Nolan’s mask?  What is his political ambition?  His artistic aspiration for the films seem clear enough: big sound and bigger spectacle.  But Batman himself, like the Riddler, remains an enigma: a hero and an anti-hero; a cautionary tale of unchecked, out of control ego—Super Ego!—but also the need for order; the 1% given everything but also the self-made man; a right-wing borderline fascist or a left-wing critique of same. The film blows up Gotham City, looking more like New York than Chicago this time around, continuing the previous film’s imagery of 9/11. Police officers are trapped beneath rubble; we see a geographically vague Middle East and detention centers.  The film seems to reference the War on Terror, Occupy Wall Street, the language of homegrown class warfare and New World Order conspiracy, symbolic pits with real walls to be scaled, the French Revolution, Kafka-esque (or Lewis Carroll-esque?) courts, a Fight Club-like Project Mayhem no longer content to blow up empty buildings, and a genuine allusion to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.   But what does any of it mean?  

Now that Lucius Fox has granted Batman “The Bat,” a great chiropteran hovercraft, we finally have a way to begin grasping the Dark Knight trilogy’s political import: it is a series of what Claude Lévi-Strauss coined “floating signifiers,” and what Roland Barthes amended to a “floating chain of signifieds”—that is, like a mask itself, it means exactly, and only, what people see in it, whether everything, or nothing.  And now, in the aftermath of the July 20 Aurora, Colorado, mass murder, the cinematic gunfire, mayhem, bloodshed, and masks (shooter James Holmes wore a gas mask during the massacre and had a Batman mask in his house when police searched it) inevitably take on darker new meanings.

Unfair?  Of course.  But Nolan’s brand of sustained ambiguity, something I am usually so quick to celebrate, has its own dark side.  

Here’s William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Mask”:

Put off that mask of burning gold

With emerald eyes.”

“O no, my dear, you make so bold

To find if hearts be wild and wise,

And yet not cold.”

“I would but find what’s there to find,

Love or deceit.”

“It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.”

“But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire.”

“O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?”

Like Dark Knight Rises, it too is an exercise in sustained ambiguity, in the challenge of determining desire or deceit, who is a lover or an enemy, and what is or isn’t behind the mask.  It seems to mean a lot of things, or, if poetry isn’t your thing, nothing.  Yet one meaning that I take from it is the notion that we need to stop worrying about what’s behind each of our masks—that the face we put forward is our real face, even when it is just a mask.  It sounds nihilistic, like the Joker. But it’s also, in many ways, all we really have. So perhaps Nolan’s sound and spectacle are all there is.  

And they’re enough.  

Time: 90 minutes. I knew this was going to be a long one before I started.

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Water and Fire: Metaphors I Blog By

Contrary to Marc Prensky‘s popular binary, I don’t see myself as a digital native, or a digital immigrant.  Rather, I am a reluctant, reformed Luddite, washed gasping onto your shining silicone shores of technology because the formerly lush pre-technology terrain has ebbed and eroded beneath my feet.  So I used a laptop as a life-preserver and floated across the digital divide, trying not to drown.  No, I am no digital immigrant, one who came here by choice following the dream of electric sheep and your Statue of Technology’s gleaming beacon, a flickering iPod held aloft. 

I am a digital refugee. 

I don’t speak the language. 

I plead digital asylum. 

But now that I’m here, I’ve come to discover that, just as there are activities that thrive in the face to face world—or, worse, “F2f,” the shorthand for what used to be called interacting, talking, or being human—there may also be opportunities that technology creates that are not pale imitations of personal contact or just more expensive versions of previous, now obsolete technologies like paper, paint, or vinyl.  Rather, there may be whole new avenues to travel, channels to explore, waters to drink. 

Two weeks ago I wrote about the things I learned after six months of blogging, focusing on how I felt to get page views and to view how readers viewed me.  And that was interesting and enlightening for me in a kind of techno-sociological way, my time-traveler’s view of my strange new home in the future.  So on the surface, the least blogging has helped me see are the ways in which I can now easily and frequently incorporate images, video, and links into posts.  It’s plenty fun and entertaining for me (and, I hope, others), which I do not denigrate.  

But it has also helped me to learn more about the creative process, something I was very interested in well before six months ago.  I started this project with the hourman concept—one topic covered in sixty minutes of writing, and, as I’ve said, I’ve mostly stuck with it.  But what I haven’t discussed is what I’ve done with that writing time.  It has occasionally been linear, the way students are forced to write essay exams in school, or the Alice in Wonderland approach: “Begin at the beginning…  and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”  But mostly, while I may spend the hour composing, I spend the day, or sometimes week before, composting, to borrow the metaphor of writer’s writer Natalie Goldberg.  Before I even sit down, and before I start the clock, I already have my topic, my angle, even if it’s vague, and preferably, my way out.  I’ve always believed in the importance of endings—one of the things I try to emphasize to my writing students is that you can’t tack on a conclusion.  Perfunctory, fake conclusions sound like this: “In conclusion, here’s what I just said.”  But now, I take them even more seriously.  Like a good war, a good piece of writing needs to plan its exit strategy before it even begins.  

But I also now build the link and image searches into my writing process as well, so that I’m not simply writing for an hour, then looking for apt an entertaining images or videos, or deciding in the editing and posting process which terms or ideas would benefit from or be bolstered by a missing link.  Instead, I Google as I go (possibly sing to “Whistle as I Work”?), and often enough, something that I see online gets me rethinking what I’m working on right then and there.  Blogging allows for a less hermetically sealed approach to writing: not the frustrated, isolated Artist on a mountaintop, quill and parchment in hand, awaiting divine inspiration—nothing that I’ve written would merit that kind of pretention anyway. But rather, writing online, using online tools, for online readers, has challenged the digital native/immigrant/refugee metaphor’s very foundation.  John Donne knew that no man is an island.  But every link, piece of writing, image, reader, and writer can become part of a vast digital island chain, a sweeping archipelago connected by legions of lightspeed Google ferries.

In addition to challenging the pseudo-Romantic cult of the lone writer, blogging has also challenged my romantic idea of creativity. Too often, we imagine writing can be blocked, as though it were a physical and terrestrial thing.  But if creativity is water, it flows and resists blockage.  Yet water may not be the best metaphor now, since water can indeed be dammed.    And while people do refer to writer’s block when they can’t produce, I don’t think that blockage is really the best metaphor for creativity or lack thereof either.  Nonwriters don’t get blocked; only writers do.  So what writers mean is that their creative process is like agriculture: it is capable of being grown, harvested, and exhausted.  We can overfarm and deplete our imaginary crops or clearcut our creative forests, leaving a fallow period of, we hope, restoration and germination.  We hope the ideas will come back, but we never know.  So when I committed to one blog post per week, I wondered how soon I might, shifting to another familiar metaphor again, burn out.  But instead I’ve come to think of the writer’s ideas as fire.  Yes, Plato, Prometheus, and Jesus beat me to this metaphor, but I think it’s a crucial one: rather than thinking of ideas as blocked vs. flowing, or developing vs. producing, we can think of them as a flame.  When we take from the fire, it does not get any smaller.  With the right conditions—air, kindling—it can perpetuate itself indefinitely, producing and reproducing at any rate.  You can’t put out a fire by taking from it; rather, that’s how you make it grow.  Creativity can operate in this way, too.  It does not need to burn out at all.

Yet even the fire metaphor falls short in describing what I’ve learned.  The commitment I’ve made to writing this blog—a commitment that has no obvious benefits, no product to push, no money to make, no political agenda, and no foreseeable purpose at all—is a reminder of the cliché about life being about the journey and not the destination. 

A little trite, though, so let me update it: life is about the journal and not the desperation.   

Time: just under an hour.  And I didn’t have this ending planned at all—it came as I wrote it. So much for what I’ve learned.

 

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Game of Thrones; or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bush

[Preface: Yes, spoilers for Season 1 and 2. But: I have not read the George RR Martin novels, so nothing about what might be coming up.]

Game of Thrones, my favorite TV show, was in the news last week, not for wrapping its second season on HBO, but rather because former President George W Bush’s head—or at least a likeness of it—was used as a prop in the background of a season 1 scene.  Which is what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you.

Separated at birth

The usual outrage followed, or at least the usual feigned outrage, as I’m not sure who was actually offended; an apolitical budgetary explanation on the DVD from the show’s creators emerged:  “George Bush’s head appears in a couple of beheading scenes. It’s not a choice, it’s not a political statement. We just had to use whatever head we had around”; the usual corporate apologies ensued: “We were deeply dismayed to see this and find it unacceptable, disrespectful and in very bad taste.  We made this clear to the executive producers of the series, who apologized immediately for this careless mistake. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms”; and the usual consequences resulted: “all future shipments of the DVDs … removed [the image] from our digital platforms and [we] will edit the scene for all future airings on any distribution domestic or international.” Neither George W Bush nor George RR Martin has, as far as I can find, offered comment.  And of course, if the producers knew about it, um, ahead, then it was not a careless mistake.

But the Bush brouhaha for me illustrates just what’s so interesting about Game of Thrones.  At first glance, or based on the snapshots and trailers, Game of Thrones has all the signifiers of hardcore fantasy: for one thing, thrones! And the concomitant Lord of the Rings/Narnia/Star Wars slavish Anglo loyalty to crowns, monarchies, and bloodlines.  You’ve got your medieval motifs and Renaissance Faire fetishes of furs, knee-high leather boots, cloaks, and flowing hair. And then there are the women [rimshot].  Museum-piece weapons and warriors! And magic! And monsters! And little people!  And a kingdom called Westeros, which is not, as it turns out, a hotel chain.  Oh yeah, and there’s tons of nudity. Which is not what the title of this blog refers to. Shame on you again.

Yet such a description seems all wrong, and totally missing the point.  Unlike much of the JRR Tolkien-inspired fiction upon which it seems modeled (including, it should be fairly stated, some of Tolkien himself), and unlike George W Bush’s most famous additions to Presidential rhetoric, Game of Thrones absolutely refuses to force viewers to be “with us or against us”; we cannot see the characters—most of the characters, anyway—as members of an “axis of evil,” or the heroes as do-gooders who prevent such evil from prevailing.  Despite the swords and sorcery, even the actual presence of both dungeons and dragons, GoT resembles HBO’s former flagships The Sopranos and The Tudors more than The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  We’re presented with heroes, but they’re more human than superhuman. But we also get our likable antiheroes; the only little person, Tyrion Lannister, isn’t a member of a mystical, magical race, but a human born with dwarfism, same as in real life, and his moral ambiguities, rather than boring nobility, make him by far the most interesting character. 

All the characters, then, behave like people, not symbols, archetypes, or avatars.  King Robert of Season 1 is neither good nor bad, exactly; instead, he’s an ostensibly decent man who has let power and boredom go to his head, easily and equally manipulated by his ambitious advisers and his own cravings for wine, women, food, and amusement.  The ostensible hero is Ned Stark, Robert’s old friend, brought in as his chief advisor.  In a different, more conventional fantasy world, Ned’s attributes of honesty, loyalty to friends and family, and old fashioned diligence, virtue, and common sense, would ensure his victory. But in Game of Thrones, what would victory even look like?  What, other than military brutality in a bygone war, really entitles Robert stay on the throne at all?  Ned himself has no claim for it—but more importantly, no wish for it.  Robert’s son, the angelic-looking, waifish pubescent Joffery—who gets the throne after Robert dies pointlessly and un-heroically in a hunting accident (or was it? Etc)—turns out to be the series’ worst monster: a cruel, capricious ego- and megalomaniac suddenly given all the power in the world.  And, of course, as a reward for his integrity, Ned loses his head—and, for him, worse, his good name—at the whim of the awful boy king.  

The scene, in the penultimate episode of Season 1, is, well, stark, and shocking, not because it couldn’t  or wouldn’t happen—see: “Tudors”—but rather because we’ve become so accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy movies that GoT superficially resembles.  We assume that the great male hero—as opposed to minor characters, bad guys, old mentors, or the hero’s family—is unkillable, especially when in GoT he was Sean Bean, the only name brand actor.  As Ned is rounded up, as the blade is coming down, I kept thinking that SOMETHING or SOMEONE was going to stop it, like the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible,  because the good guy, and the main character, can’t die.  But Ned wasn’t the good guy.  He was just A good guy.  The Manichaeism we’ve come to expect as the basic convention of a show that looks like Game of Thrones—that there will be good guys, and bad guys, and that the good guys will be really Good and the bad guys will be really Bad—preferably Pure Evil—does not hold, just as it does not hold in life.  George W Bush’s decapitation is symbolic after all. 

OK, maybe this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation, the “you never know who to root for!” politicking and shifting alliances both within the show and for the audience. So I’ll go one further.  Even more than Lord of the Rings on the outside and The Sopranos on the inside, Game of Thrones is indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which is indeed what the title of the blog refers to.  Best known for its humor and scathing satire of the early Cold War era, the film always sticks out at me for a different reason.  Once the premise is established—that a paranoid general (Gen. Jack T Ripper, ha ha) has deployed a B-52 to drop a nuclear weapon on the USSR—the scenes cut back and forth between the War Room of the President and advisors, and the plane itself, filled with the ethnically diverse crew full o’ moxie and gumption that was already a WWII film cliché in 1962.  What makes the film remarkable for me is that when we see the War Room, although everyone there is a buffoon, the conventions of movies dictate that we desperately want them to figure out a way to stop the attack, including the possibility that the US will shoot down its own plane.  If not, of course, the world will end. But when we cut back to the plane, the conventions of film dictate that we want this aw shucks motley crew to succeed and survive, because that’s what movies have trained us to want.  We can’t have both, though, and in the end, the little plane that could succeeds in its mission, despite all the obstacles.  It destroys the world. A happy ending.

With Robert and Ned gone, Season 2 has ratcheted up the title’s game of thrones even further, and as such, there is no fundamental morality, no belief system, or entitlement to the throne at all, only skill at playing the game, something that Ned, in his naïve goodness, didn’t realize, unlike the characters now.  But like Dr. Strangelove, each time Game of Thrones switches point of view, the audience can’t help but find some reason to root or support whoever we’re looking at, even though it must contradict what we had just felt before.  There is no With Us or Against Us, only the constant shifting of allegiances and sympathies.  And unlike Dr. Strangelove, there are not just two cuts or sides—like both typical fantasy series and HBO series, GoT is ridiculously complex in its multiple storylines, families, and subplots, and supporting characters.  Keeping track becomes an actual intellectual commitment.

Yes, this will be on the test

We become players in what turns out to be more of a role-playing game than TV show. Maybe it was more like Dungeons and Dragons than I thought

Except for Joffrey.  God, I hate that fucking Joffrey.

Time: after a good run, over again, at 90 minutes! Lots of fun finding images, though.

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Five Things I’ve Learned from Blogging

 

I published my first blog entry on December 4, 2011, or a little over six months ago. I felt like I needed a personal outlet for writing, since I spent the majority of my writing time typing comments to students on their writing and our class discussion boards. The only other writing I did was work email and slow-paced academic research and writing, at the rate of about one 25-page-ish essay per semester.  Facebook one-liners weren’t enough, and I felt like I had Things to Say.

But when and how could I do it? I decided to set the one hour rule to keep the blog from taking over my time.   I haven’t always stuck with it—in fact, more than half of these entries went at least a little over an hour, and that’s not counting some of the time (more on that next time).  But since then, I’ve written 32 entries, or about one per week, most of which were at least 1100 words, on a wider variety of subjects than I’d planned.  I even liked some of what I wrote.

As of now, I have about 20,000 page views: about 15,000 through my WordPress site, and another 5,000 or so that I’ve gotten from cross-posting everything in Open Salon.  I didn’t have any idea how many views I’d get when I began, but I dare say that 20,000 is way more than I imagined for six months. It’s no Charlie Bit My Finger or Harry Potter Puppet Pals or the singing Gummy Bear, with their hundreds of millions of views, but then again I made people read.

Ignore this picture. It’s just search engine bait.

For this entry, then, I want to share some of what I learned about blogging, the internet, and the numbers behind the scenes.

1)      Facebook works. I’ve had almost 2,000 views from Facebook. In truth, 2,000 is closer to the number I imagined I’d have by now—that is, from friends and friends of friends, not strangers.

2)      Yet I got most of my views from strangers, through search engines.  I had not been thinking about search engines, yet they provided over 9,000 referrals.

3)      Most of these views were from Google Image. The vast majority, at about 8,000. The funny thing is, I only originally included images because I could. It would be fun, like using a toy, to find and include images and, shortly after, captions, which turned out to be one of my favorite parts of blogging.   The images were what separated the blog posts from writing in a black marbled composition notebook, as I did during my teens and early twenties.

4)      But it’s not like a journal, because people can see you.  I was shocked that my piece about Metal Evolution was even noticed by—let alone linked to—Banger Film’s social media. That day gave me my highest number of single-day views, 511.

I was even more surprised when last month, the singer and bassist from The Arrows, the group who originally wrote I Love Rock n Roll and whom I compared unfavorably with Joan Jett, read the post and wrote me an email! Here it is exactly as it appeared, including the weird margins:

jk-

 I found your personal attack on me amusing,

(in your Jett – tongue in sphincter sycophant piece)

 especially after looking at your photo.

  

Since your attack on me was personal

I will respond accordingly.

 

It doesn’t matter what you think.

When you look in the mirror you

still have to see that face of yours.

 

Fact. I inspired Joan Jett in 1976 when she

saw me perform the song on TV and that’s

far more important to me than impressing

you, who will never be anything or do anything

of import except criticize people who have

accomplished far more than you ever will.

 

Good luck,

Alan M.

I was not going to respond, because I could not think of a reason to.  But then I asked myself, what would be more interesting, responding or not responding? And that became my reason:

Alan, if I may,

I’m just flattered that you read and responded to the piece. It was absolutely not meant personally. I never considered the possibility that anyone I wrote about would ever see it.  I have nothing but respect for someone who has written such a great and lasting rock & roll song.

Best,

Jesse  

I have not heard back, but then again I didn’t expect to become pen pals. I still stand by what I wrote and am still shocked to have gotten a message.  Elvis, also criticized in the same post, still has no comment.

5)      Yes, people can see me. But I can see people, too.  OK, not really. But in addition to seeing how people found the blog—again, usually via a specific search engine—I can also see people’s search engine terms.  The ones with the most views correspond directly to the likely image search—Where the wild things are (over 700 views) and a lot of permutations of Peter Pan (peter pan, piter pan, peter fan, peter pan disney, peter pan cartoon,  peter pen, peter pan characters, pan peter, and more). 

Hey, if it worked the first time…

 It’s nice to see that at least a few people probably found exactly what they were looking for in one of my posts: searchers for “conventions of time travel movies,” “death cartoon on regular show,” “protozombies,” “finn and link,” “symbolism in Mad Men,” “is don delillo alive or dead” and “hunger games hunger artist” were probably surprised that someone actually wrote about something like these topics.  And a dozen or so people were actually looking for this blog (hourman blog, the hourman blog, jesse kavadlo, jessekavadlo wordpress)!

But a few people probably did not find what they were looking for—even though ALL these searches registered more than one view, so they must have found or liked something. Here are a few other search terms that somehow led to views:

80’s metal chicks pin-ups  (must have been very disappointed), kava addiction (taken here because of my last name?), i’d rather enter the hunger games than go to school on Mondays (?), a normal person’s reaction to sparkly vampires/jack sparrow (??), you mad i do what i want loki t shirt (???), krampus sex (I don’t want to know), miss piggy in bondage (you thought krampus sex was bad).

And lots more.

 

Vixen. Too little, too late for that guy looking for 80s heavy metal chicks, but here is it.

Since WordPress added the feature late last February, I have also been overwhelmed by seeing the view’s country of origin.  Not only have Metal Evolution and the mean guy from The Arrows read my writing, but so have people in 128 countries, including Gibraltar, Mongolia, Korea, and 225 views from the Netherlands.  I’m huge in the Netherlands! 

Thanks!

I nether saw that coming six months ago. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading.  I hope the non-bloggers have learned something, and bloggers may recognize some of what makes blogging so interesting.

 Next post: what I’ve learned about writing and the creative process.

Time: one hour. I set out to write a Ten Things list but ran out of time at five. Typical.

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Are There Two Kinds of People in the World?

Who are we to call him Monster?

 

It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet.  Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.

I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” 

Lithwick elaborates:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets.  So do I.  And, I’ll add, so does everyone.  Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.

Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet.  Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.

I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie”  in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.”  It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.

As Havrilesky puts it,

Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.

Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.

The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.

“Sexy!”–New York Times

This is all meant to be fun and funny.  But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time.  There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.)  There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker.  There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living.  There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.    

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”

Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”  They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.

Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception.   Nietzsche knew better.  He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.  Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie.  But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires.  Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

So now I know better.  

Time: one hour.

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Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 

Death

Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.


[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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