Tag Archives: reviews

This: The Popular Culture Studies Journal!

PCSJ-Cover-791x1024

OK, Hourman needs to go on hiatus for a little while.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share something that I–in my secret identity as Jesse Kavadlo–wrote that took significantly longer than an hour.

In the brand-new, just launched Popular Culture Studies Journal, I have an essay titled “9/11 Did Not Take Place: Apocalypse and Amnesia in Film and The Road.”  I’m very happy with it, and the other articles in the journal are excellent and more accessible than the average academic journal.

So happy reading, and when Hourman returns, probably in about two months, look for an interesting new direction.  I’m thrilled to have broken 600 Followers and over 65,000 views, which I do not take lightly.  The readership and response to the blog has far exceeded my expectations, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it soon.  Thank you.

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The Ethicist Who Wears the Black Hat

I wear the black hat

There is no way that I won’t read a book by Chuck Klosterman.  Still, that sentence’s double negative reveals my ambivalence.  In some ways, CK and I doppelgängers: we’re the same age, moved cross-country in our adult lives (me: born and raised in Brooklyn, then lived for 4 years in Minnesota and now, St Louis; Klosterman: born and raised in North Dakota, now lives in Brooklyn), grew up on and still defend heavy metal when other aspects of our lives would seem to suggest—even demand—more highbrow predilections (such as the use of the phrase “highbrow predilections”).   Certainly this blog is indebted to Klosterman’s groundwork as that rare writer who is a popular culture specialist who is also firmly a part of popular culture itself.  Yes, he sells way more books than I do, but I is a English professor.

Yet Klosterman’s writing is also sometimes exasperating, including his current gig as the New York Times Ethicist and his new book, I Wear the Black Hat.  And they are exasperating for opposite reasons.  In his Ethicist column, Klosterman prevaricates and dithers for most of the response, before finally settling on an ethical verdict—one that often seems shortsighted at best and just wrong at worst.  Klosterman’s cultural analyses, on the other hand, are consistently overconfident and make sweeping generalizations—Klosterman would have written this paragraph’s topic sentence this way: “What is so weird is that they are always exasperating for exactly opposite reasons.” Although often, he  also has a good point.  In their approaches, tone, worldview, and conclusions, the Ethicist and the author of I Wear the Black Hat seem to be two completely different personae of Chuck Klosterman.

Or, better yet: two different Chuck Kloster-men.

05ethicist-superJumbo

Let’s look at Kloster-man A, the Ethicist.  Sometimes, he is just wrong, such as his response to a former college student who writes that he would “sometimes write a single paper that would satisfy assignments in more than one course. For instance, I once wrote a paper on how ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ expressed satire; I submitted it for assignments in both my poetry course as well as my completely separate satire course. I did not disclose this to either professor.”

As usual, the the Klostethicist dithers for a surprisingly long time:

As I read and reread this question, I find myself fixated on the idea that this must be unethical, somehow. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction could be described like this: Every professor is operating from the position that any assignment she makes is exclusive to that particular class, even if she doesn’t expressly say so at the onset (in other words, it’s simply assumed that work done for a specific class will be used only for that specific class). It’s as if you were breaking a rule that was so over-the-top obvious it may not have been overtly outlined. But you know what? The more I think this over, the more I find myself agreeing with your position. I don’t think this is cheating. I wouldn’t say it qualifies as “genius,” and it might get you expelled from some universities. Yet I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.

I look at it like this: You were essentially asked two questions that shared a common answer. The fact that you could see commonalities between unrelated intellectual disciplines is a point in your favor. Some might call your actions self-plagiarism, but the very premise of stealing your own creative property is absurd. You’re not betraying the public’s trust. It seems strange only because the assignments involve a degree of creativity. If this had been a multiple-choice physics test you failed to study for — yet were still able to pass, based on knowledge you acquired from an applied-math class taken the previous semester — no one would question your veracity.

It’s possible to argue that you were “cheating yourself” and wasting your own academic experience — but that’s not an ethical crossroads. That’s more of an existential dilemma over the purpose of a college education that (in all probability) you paid for. In the abstract, the notion of using the same paper twice feels wrong — and if you contacted your old school and told them this anecdote, it would most likely cite some rule of conduct you unknowingly broke. But fuzzy personal feelings and institutional rules do not dictate ethics. You fulfilled both assignments with your own work. You’re a clever, lazy person.

In other words, Verdict: ethical. Or not unethical. What Klosterman does not acknowledge, however, is that this person’s actions, in addition to  “cheating himself,” which is apparently not unethical, is that self-plagiarism dupes instructors—the former student did not ask permission, knowing that he was breaking the rules.  But OK, why is it a rule? Because it cheats the instructor, who wants original work, and more importantly, it cheats his classmates, who, through no fault of their own, did not have the luck to land two assignments similar enough for the same paper.  The students in those other classes did all of their work, essentially twice as much, as the letter writer. This person did half of it, for the same credit, at the expense of his teachers and peers.  Despite the dissembling, the answer was still wrong.

Here,  a person writes that he or she volunteers “for a program that serves homeless and at-risk American Indian people.”

He or she continues:

I sometimes sort and distribute their mail. In a separate community role, I advocate for infant and maternal health, because infant mortality rates in the Native community are three times higher than average. While distributing mail, I found an “introductory” infant-formula package for a Native mom. My first instinct, knowing the proven health advantages of breast-feeding, was to toss the package into the garbage, which seemed unethical. But it seems more unethical, given the higher infant mortality rates, to give her formula marketing materials without providing her the information that breast-feeding is better for her baby.

The Ethicist’s response–more evasion:

While the solution to this particular dilemma is straightforward, the broader question it raises is not. You have two unrelated jobs — mail delivery and advocating for infant health. So what do you do if the requirements of one contradict the responsibilities of the other? My advice would be to consider the worst case within each ethical framework and ignore whichever system has the least damaging real-world potential. Throwing away someone else’s mail is absolutely unlawful. (In this case, it’s defined as obstruction of mail and would be treated as a misdemeanor.) On the other hand, there’s obviously nothing illegal about failing to tell someone that formula is less healthful than breast milk. But can anyone objectively argue that the upside of upholding a man-made law regarding the improper disposal of unsolicited mail is greater than the downside of placing an already at-risk child in a potentially amplified position of peril? It’s not as if you’re making this judgment arbitrarily; as someone holding both jobs (and presumably trained to do so), you are in a valid position to decide which edict matters more.

So eventually, Klosterman decides that reading a stranger’s mail is OK, but only if you’re going to hector her about her personal life decisions, even if you don’t know anything about what might be going on in that person’s life, or what the person has even decided to do, if anything, with the formula:

In the specific scenario you cite, however, your two volunteer jobs are not really at odds. Give this woman the formula that was mailed to her, but not before urging her to consider the value of breast-feeding. Use the opportunity to educate her about how these nutritional methods are different, and let her decide what is best for her and her baby. In this way, you’d be performing both of your duties simultaneously.

This seems to me a clear case of Don’t Interfere with Other People’s Mail–or Personal Life Decisions. Ten unambiguous words.

In another ethical quandary regarding another’s mail—in this case, email—Klosterman again equivocates. Here’s the letter:

I sent my wife an angry e-mail. An hour or two after sending it, I was working at our shared computer and saw my e-mail, unread, in her in-box. Feeling regretful, I deleted it. Was this unethical?

And here’s the evasion (God, I’m running out of synonyms), before finally suggesting that the husband cannot ethically delete the email he sent to his wife, followed by a completely hypothetical caveat:

This is a situation in which our current relationship with a specific technology obfuscates the essence of the problem: who owns information, and when does that ownership start?

Let’s say you dropped a physical letter in the mailbox, walked up the block and suddenly regretted the decision to send whatever was in the envelope. Reaching into a public mailbox to retrieve that letter is unlawful (and complicated). But if the only letter you want to grab is the one you deposited, would the impulse be immoral? What if you regretted the decision not because of what the letter contained but because you realized it was incorrectly addressed? And what if the mailbox wasn’t public? What if it was the private mailbox in front of your suburban home (but you’ve already raised the box’s flag, signaling to the postal employee that the letter is now available to be delivered)?

It’s difficult to definitively declare when a physical letter no longer belongs to the person who wrote it. It could be argued that the moment a letter is placed inside an envelope and the recipient’s name is scrawled on the outside, the contents become the recipient’s property. But this, somehow, feels incomplete; you could hold onto an addressed, stamped envelope for years, and no one could stop you. What makes e-mail different is that this philosophical haze is technologically eliminated by the lack of a middleman: the moment a user hits the “send” button, the question of ownership is moot. But that shouldn’t dictate the ethics.

The reason I would classify what you did as unethical is that you shouldn’t be directly accessing your wife’s e-mail account. The fact that you saw this unread e-mail was possibly unavoidable, as that’s always a risk with a shared computer. But you should not manipulate or examine the contents of her in-box, regardless of where those contents are from (there are theoretical exceptions to this rule, but they’re so rare that they can almost be disregarded from the discussion — if your wife was missing, for example).

I will, however, say this: had you remotely deleted your own unread e-mail after it was sent, I would not classify the act as unethical. If someone wrote an ill-advised e-mail in haste (or inadvertently sends a message to 100 co-workers instead of one) and used an “unsend” feature to destroy it before it could be opened, I would support the act (although it should be noted that the current technology for doing so isn’t very practical — not everyone has it, and my e-mail system only allows for a 30-second annihilation window).

Now, I realize this presents a logical contradiction. As the writer of the e-mail to your wife, you could claim you’re being reprimanded for manually doing something that would somehow be acceptable if it were done remotely, even though the outcome is identical. The difference, however, is this: the first situation involves rooting through someone’s nonphysical mailbox, which we’ve collectively agreed is off limits. The second situation involves pre-emptively extracting something that — in my view — is still partly your property. That distinction is minuscule and certainly debatable. But that’s what makes this a good question.

So…  it’s ethical to read a stranger’s mail if it leads to meddling in her personal life, in which you have nothing at stake, but it is not OK to delete an email you sent to your wife, even though married couples often share computers, often leave their computers open, and seldom sign out of accounts, making such a deletion less of an intrusion than reading the stranger’s mail, but it’s also wrong even if you yourself wrote the offending email—and deleting it will preserve marital harmony.   In Klostermania ethics, deleting an email from your spouse’s account, that you yourself sent, is a worse violation than egregiously  hurting her feelings.  Perhaps the email had been lecturing her about breastfeeding, so it’s OK.   Of course, a husband who is sending his wife nasty emails probably has bigger issues in the marriage, which is apparently a less important point to raise than a “distinction [that] is minuscule and certainly debatable.”

Yet for all the, um… synonym… fudging in those answers, the other Klosterman, in Black Hat, is sure as shit and right as rain: The Eagles “are the most unpopular super-popular entity ever created by California…  I know this because everybody knows this….”  Beginning a book about villains with the Eagles is counterintuitive, but it helps to reveal an interesting idea—that people are capable of vilifying even the blandest, more innocuous stuff—that then becomes smothered by the high-stakes hyperbole.

And: “There is no greater conundrum for the sports-obsessed historian than the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier.” Look, I’m not a sports guy at all, but I find it hard to believe that sports-obsessed historians agree on anything.

When Klosterman gets to comparing real-life subway shooter vigilante Bernard Goetz with Batman, then I’m interested.  But again, Klosterman’s strange need for absolutism and Manichaeism leads to pronouncements like this: “But oddly—or maybe predictably—most of these comparisons [between Goetz and Batman] are primarily occupied with why everyone still loves Batman (as opposed to why everyone stopped loving Goetz). They start from the premise that vigilantism is indisputably wrong. The core question is always some version of ‘Why are actions unacceptable in life somehow acceptable in fiction?’ But this seems like the wrong thing to worry about. That answer seems self-evident.  I more often wonder about the reverse: Why are the qualities we value in the unreal somehow verboten in reality?”  He goes on to suggest that “Batman is a beloved fictional figure who would not be beloved in a nonfictional world… He would be seen as a brutal freak, scarier to the public that the criminals he captured.”

It could be such an interesting comparison. But the insistence that the first question is self-evident and that the second question is somehow better and opposed to the first seems wrong-headed.  Klosterman’s second question in fact seems far more self-evident: because real people get hurt in real life.  And the follow-up ignores that the recent Batman relaunch—the one that grossed a hundred gazillion dollars—is in fact primarily concerned with the very question of what Batman would be like in a less cartoonish, less fictionalized fictional world.  What began as a good set of questions seems undermined by smug certainty and cherry picked examples.

Look. I liked the book. I like the topic. I like that Klosterman actually talks about Mr. Bungle (who I love, unlike CK).  But I can’t get behind that I Wear the Black Hat is written in the same overheated rhetoric of the above quotations.  Here’s the repetition breakdown:

Always is repeated 68 times

Never: 78 times

Inevitable/inevitably: 22 times

Everyone: 38 times

No one: 32 times

Certainly: 23 times

True: 36 times

All: a whopping 92 times

The book is only 199 pages.

Perhaps, in the end, the two Klostermen can come together.  Perhaps the Ethicist can achieve some of Black Hat Klosterman’s insight and moral clarity—less wishy-washy, but more insightful. And BHK can approach the world in a way that’s more relativist (in a good way), to try to examine his subjects in a way that acknowledges that not all things, everyone, or no one certainly always believes or behaves in the ways he proscribes.

We would have a more ethical Ethicist, and more readable cultural criticism that acknowledges the ambiguity of his subject matter.  After all, metaphorically speaking, most characters and people wear gray hats.

Time: Over! 90 minutes

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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 Rock & Roll Novel: Where Great Jones Street Meets Telegraph Avenue; Or, Hi, Fidelity!

Part II of ALL PLACES EXCEPT HERE ARE IMAGINARY: HEARING MICHAEL CHABON’S TELEGRAPH AVENUE, PART I  

From Esquire's review

Image from Esquire’s review

Last month, I concluded by saying that “no other novel showcases Chabon’s prose powers better than Telegraph Avenue.”  It turns out that the New York Times later agreed (who knew they read my blog?), placing TA on the 100 Notable Books of 2012 list with this summary:  “Chabon’s rich comic novel about fathers and sons in Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., juggles multiple plots and mounds of pop culture references in astonishing prose.”

It’s the “astonishing prose” part that I want to analyze.  Here is a sentence on the opening page, the first appearance of the one of the novel’s main characters:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned, Archie Stallings manned the front counter of Brokeland Records, holding a random baby, wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his noted yet not disadvantageous resemblance to Gamera, the giant mutant tortoise of Japanese cinema.

In this sentence, we can already see both the novel’s preoccupations and style: the alliterative opening, the juxtaposition of images, the mild surprise of “random” before “baby”; the low culture reference to Gamera; the interests in vinyl, threads, and film. But we can also see begin to hear its music: the record store is more than a setting.  It establishes that Chabon’s prose will be musical to match.

Telegraph Avenue

Telegraph Avenue also distinguishes itself from the novels I immediately thought of from reading its description.  One is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—its title, like TA, uses a real-life street name as metaphor, with Chabon going for assonance and an overt communication message vs. DeLillo’s more subtle allusion to longing and drugs.  For all of its seeming preoccupation with music, though, GJS—an underrated early ‘70s novel about a rock star trying to escape the life—is not singing TA’s tune.  Contrast Chabon’s earlier first page (although not first paragraph) with DeLillo’s opening paragraph:

Fame requires every kind of excess.  I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings.  I mean long journeys across gray space.  I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.  Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.  Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.  Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counselors of lesser men would consider bad publicity—hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs.  Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

(Is it clear I was a hero of rock ’n’ roll?) (1)

great_jones_street_

It’s brilliant, but the rhythms and repetitions (“I mean”), to say nothing of DeLillo’s unique imagery (“chinless kings,” “vulval,” “bureaucrat in hell”), are nothing like Chabon’s gee-whiz sincerity.

The other obvious comparison is between TA and High Fidelity, another novel about another record store owner on the brink of economic and romantic collapse.  But again, the voice in Nick Hornby’s novel could not be more different from Chabon’s, or DeLillo’s. Here is Hornby’s opening:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nichilson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

Gone are Chabon’s—and DeLillo’s—meandering cadences. This is clipped prose that captures narrator Rob’s solipsistic and obsessive (a period at the end of a list?) yet engaging character.  Hornby’s use of hyphens, to say nothing of lists, makes Rob as different as possibly from laid-back, often dispassionate Archie and Sphinx-like, cipher-like Bucky in Great Jones Street.

High Fidelity

You can leaf through Telegraph Avenue and pick nearly any passage on nearly any of the book’s 465 pages and see the same superrealistic attention to detail, details that mostly do not accrue or foreshadow; they are like ornate, lovingly crafted background shots and costumes that the camera pans over closely to capture and create tone:

Page 176: The door to the office creaked open with its trademark creature-feature spookiness, a sound, impervious to old can and WD-40 alike, that had in turn haunted the practices of a Jungian analyst, a couples therapist, a specialist in neurolinguistic programming, a hypnotherapist, a shiatsu practitioner, and a life coach before settling on to lock the tenure of the Birth Partners in suite 202.

280: A last morning glad of summer, blue banded with gold and peach, unfurled slowly over the streets as the two wanderers, denizens of the hidden world know to rogues, gamblers, and swordsmen as “the Water Margin,” made their way along the Street of Blake toward the ancestral stronghold of the Jew-Tang Clan, its gables armored in cedar shakes faded to the color of dry August hills.

412: On the dilapidated sign of Steele’s Scuba, a ghostly diver confronted the lost submarine mysteries of Telegraph Avenue.

On each page, but especially in the longer sentences—and many of the sentences are very, very long, including a single-sentence tour de force chapter that runs over a dozen pages—we see the clauses balanced, sometimes Jenga-style, so that the reader is sure that the whole thing will fall apart or dissolve into run-on cacophony  (it never does), often phrased like a long jazz phrase, the reader almost hearing the horn player just make it to the end on a single breath.

Benjamin Percy in Esquire, however, doesn’t see it that way:

…Telegraph Avenue aligns itself more with [Chabon’s] earlier pre-Marvel novels — about real people in the real world, such as in the remarkable Wonder Boys — yet he’s stuck with his over-the-top hyperactive style of recent years. It’s the equivalent of Michael Bay directing a romantic comedy. It may be entertaining, and there may be a great story buried beneath the special effects and explosions, but it doesn’t track.

I think Percy is using the wrong metaphor.  Despite my earlier movie simile, I don’t see the sentences as “the equivalent of Michael Bay”—big, dumb, show-offy spectacle—at all.  Instead, I hear them, and, in keeping with the novel’s recurring use of real songs to provide a quasi-soundtrack to accompany the story, the sentences sound like Charlie Parker or early Miles Davis. (Percy compares them with Sergeant Pepper, which I can see, but that comparison contradicts what he also suggests about Chabon’s show-offy virtuosity.) Sometimes I hear Frank Zappa, when it gets far out.  And mostly Chabon sound like a hyperarticulate yet dreamy poet more than a realist novelist. Typed differently, the opening page passage (or again, really, any of them) begins to look and sound like Allen Ginsberg, except I suppose for the Gamera part, which I’ll excise:

Moonfaced, mountainous, moderately stoned,

Archie Stallings manned

The front counter of Brokeland Records,

 Holding a random baby,

 Wearing a tan corduroy suit over a pumpkin-bright turtleneck that reinforced his

Noted yet not

Disadvantageous resemblance …

Yet at the same time, despite the breathes, cadences, and musicality, the prose—or the neighborhood, or these characters—can exist only as words, as language.  Percy’s Bay analogy is doubly off base, and even my music is a metaphor.  It’s no surprise that William Grimes, also writing in the NY Times, declared the audiobook of TA a dud, despite what seems the obvious potential:

A prime example of a good book defeated by the format is TELEGRAPH AVENUE (Harper Audio, $44.99), Michael Chabon’s teeming novel about race, human relations and a lot of other stuff swirling around a vintage record store in Oakland, Calif. The language is dense, allusive, hip and sharp, which is to say, very difficult to perform. Clarke Peters, who played Detective Lester Freamon on the television series “The Wire” and Big Chief Lambreaux on “Treme,” picks his way carefully through this minefield, articulating painstakingly in the sonorous, low-pitched voice of a late-night D.J. on a progressive jazz station. It’s a swinging style, perfectly attuned to the novel’s setting and falls easily on the ear, but Chabon’s relentlessly brilliant prose style makes heavy demands on performer and listener alike. By the second disc in a marathon that goes on for more than 18 hours, the thought arises that some books simply need to be experienced in black type.

Despite seeming to be based on Oakland, despite the voluminous attention to real-life detail with occasional real-life people thrown in for good measure, Telegraph Avenue, is, in the end, a purely imaginary place, a fantasy that exists only on the pages of the book of the same name.  Chabon originally wanted TA to be a TV series, and plot- and character-wise, I can see it.  But no screen, or even spoken reading, can do what words alone on the page achieve.  Telegraph Avenue makes the case that the printed word can still do things that music, television, and even Michael Bay cannot.

Time: 90 minutes. Yes, this is a long entry even for going overtime, but I copied and pasted or retyped more than usual.  I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of this novel—what about race?—but I’m ready to move on.

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Puns of Anarchy; or, Sons of Anarchy Also Rises; or, Sons of Innocence and Experience; or, Serial Narrative Killers

Back for Season 5

Like Weeds and Mad Men—like Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather of the cable antiheroes, The Sopranos—Sons of Anarchy is another long running series about a morally dubious subculture, in this case, bikers, as opposed to noncable TV’s continued fixation on morally salubrious subcultures, like doctors, lawyers, and twenty-year-old white people living in NYC apartments they shouldn’t afford.[i]

Sons of Anarchy began five years ago as a Hamlet on wheels. The Prince is Jax, short for Jackson, since being a Son is a big literal and metaphorical deal on the show. Last name Teller.  And tell he does: his hopes and dreams, wishes and fears, loves and hates.  Played by devilishly handsome Brit Charlie Hunnam, he’s a perfect female fantasy—the sensitive tough guy who just needs the right girl.

~sigh~

The Right Girl is Dr. Tara Knowles, a bad girl gone good gone bad, who seems to knowle everything about the human heart, but not her own.  Her medical specialty is Anything That Anyone Needs a Doctor For.  HamJax’s Claudius is Clay Morrow, whose clay morals take the motorcycle club deeper and deeper into harder and harder crimes: running guns, running coke, murder, and sporting a soul patch.  Gertrude is Gemma; with mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, Jax’s mother has jumped from mourning John Teller, Jax’s father, into marriage with Clay, John’s spiritual brother.  But Jax has unearthed a cache of his father’s journals, much to Clay and Jemma’s chagrin, and through the magic of reading and voiceovers, his father’s ghost speaks from the grave to warn Jax to rebel against Clay.

This all made for excellent TV.  We got to see Jax struggle, even falter, against his doubts, conscience, relationship with Tara, and American accent.  And over the seasons, the backup bikers in the Sons have gone from sidemen and comic relief, a gang of jackbooted Rosencrantzs and Gildensterns, to round characters in their own rights.  The flawed but honorable Bobby Elvis, the scarred and unintelligible Chibs, loose cannon with a good heart Tig, and especially perpetually incarcerated, self-sacrificing Otto (played by Sons creator Kurt Sutter): each developed backstories and pathos beneath their tattooed skins, lives and motivations beyond how well they serve or don’t serve the Melancholy Mane.

This journey is in keeping with contemporary notions of TV in the age of DVDs and On Demand.  Thomas Doherty writes this in “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel”:

Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton, the series are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty. Episode per episode, in milieux that stretch from the ruthless geopolitics of a medieval off-world to the gender dynamics of a post-zombie apocalypse, the tide of action ebbs and flows in a meandering but forward direction, gaining momentum over the course of a season (now likely to be a mere 13 episodes), before congealing and erupting in a go-for-broke season finale.

In 2005, Stephen Johnson suggested much the same in his book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, literally charting the way in which multiple plot threads have grown exponentially from 70s series Starsky and Hutch (one single, linear plot per episode) to Hill Street Blues (multiple threads in each episode) to the Sopranos.  This last series, for Johnson and many other critics the most effective complex show to date, works like Hill Street Blues, but more so:

Each thread is more substantial. The show doesn’t offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix…. A single scene from The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot on another.  And every single thread in this Sopranos episode builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond. (69)

And yet, neither Doherty nor Johnson mentions that another TV genre has always used serial narrative, or employed multiple threads to “build on events from previous episodes, and continue on through the rest of the season and beyond,” or arc TV, to use Doherty’s phrase.

It’s the humble Soap Opera.

This tension, then, between creating a highbrow televisual novel—complexities! Nuances! Craft! Characterization!—and rehashing the lowbrow soap—with its cheap, tawdry thrills and ludicrous plot twists—is not mutually exclusive, but comes into sharp relief in Sons of Anarchy , especially in the ways in which the show has ratcheted up and escalated its requite quota of threats, sex, and violence each season.  In the beginning, the big menaces were a rival biker gang, the Mayans, with their nefarious mustaches, and perhaps a stealth enemy in Clay, himself no slouch in badguy facial hair.  But each season, the arc has gotten wider, and the dangers to our lovable bikers have dug in deeper.  Over the past five years, the Feds, a county takeover of the local police department, Irish gun runners, a drug cartel, secret after unearthed secret, Jax’s near death on almost every episode, and most recently the threat of Damon Pope, a huge, rich, connected Cali crimelord, who, paraphrasing Jax and Bobby (from memory, sorry) “isn’t anything like anyone we’ve ever dealt with before. He could kill us with a snap of his fingers.”

Similarly, with the stakes raised, the sex and body parts have rivaled what we see on HBO, the recipient of an imaginary Nudie Award; and similarly, the level of violence has reached a new level of graphic in its own depictions of bodies (dismembered, etc.), with [SPOILER] Tig’s daughter shrieking as she’s burned to death in front of her father, who later cradles the charred corpse in his arms.  Most importantly, we’ve bared witness to the brutal beating to death of a main character himself (revealed below), as the other Sons impotently look on.

Yes, other characters have died before. But at the risk of sounding callous, it wasn’t anyone we really cared about.  This escalation becomes the downside to the serial narrative.  SoA, each season, in true soap opera style, has to outdo the last, creating, as I suggested of Weeds a few weeks ago, a glut of both trauma and narrative from which the characters and the show itself cannot recover.    I fear this season marks the beginning of the end. Not in the Jump the Shark way, which is still a great phrase to mark the precise moment when a show passes its prime.  Maybe we can call it [SPOILER ALERT] “Killing Opie,” for the moment when a show becomes willing to sacrifice a major character on the alter of Higher Stakes (or higher ratings), as opposed to an essential narrative reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still enjoying SoA plenty.  But how long can this arms race of sex and violence continue for Sons of Anarchy? Hamlet may seem interminable to high school students, but it doesn’t take five years to tell its story.  The threats escalate, the thick plottens, [spoiler?] and it’s curtains, for the characters, of course, but also for the play itself, and for the audience.  Ideally, life goes on for decades. Ideally, stories do not.

Time: 60 minutes

Comments: what other shows have killed a major character just, it seemed, to up the ante?


[i] Actually, cable loves them, too.

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All Evidence to the Contrary, Showtime’s WEEDS Actually Has Something in Common with Real Life

 

After eight seasons, Weeds is over.  The show began well, with its premise of a young widow in a California subdivision who turns to selling marijuana to make ends meet.  Nancy Botwin fit the growing corpus of cable anti-heroes—sympathetic and striking characters whose behavior blurs ethical and moral boundaries and whose situations allow for subversive cultural critique.  For Weeds, that meant an update on Updike’s and Cheever’s soulless suburbs, hotbeds of hidden hedonism and hypocrisies, as well as forays into the ways in which post-Boomers are spectacular failures at parenting and nearly everything else.  It was funny and thoughtful, and Nancy, in her flowy dresses and high heels, Cheshire Cat smile on her face and plastic cup and straw in her hand, was a perfect portrait for audience ambivalence, often as repellant as she was attractive.

And then, over the next seven years, with the initial premise mostly run into the ground after the first few seasons, things happened.  A LOT OF THINGS.  A brief overview, with the likelihood that I’ve messed up chronologies and details, with props to Wikipedia as my cheat sheet:  the family is forced to relocate to San Diego, then Seattle, then Dearborn, then Connecticut, than New York City, than I think Connecticut again, before the very last episode, set in both the future and Pittsburg, if that’s not a contradiction. In the meantime, Nancy marries a DEA agent who dies, a Mexican drug lord who dies, and a Russian woman while they—Nancy and Zoya, the woman—are in prison.  Did I forget prison? Or that she was shot in the head and in a coma at the opening of Season 8? That she gets deeply involved with the California drug trade and Mexican cartels, former US military drug runners, the tobacco industry, and a Rabbi?  This is to say nothing of the many other characters’ own forays into crime, sex, drugs, and high comedy.

In other words, like many shows—and soap operas—before it, the show became bloated with both narrative and trauma.  Any one situation from any one season for any one character would have been potentially life-ruining, requiring years of therapy to even begin coping with the suffering .   Who gets over the multiple and escalating threats to her own life and family numbers, let alone the accumulating unnatural deaths and murders, that Nancy nonchalantly, breezily sashays around.  Even Tony Soprano suffered from panic attacks.  Yet Nancy, like a cartoon baby in a construction site, kept moving along, literally leaving a wake of devastation, including deliberately setting fire to Season 1’s original suburb, Agrestic.  The introduction to Season 8 self-mockingly underscores her dangerous shenanigans.

 

But it’s not the deaths and relocations throughout the years that have unnerved me.  It’s the disappearance of seemingly crucial main character after main character, who is then replaced by another seemingly irreplaceable character, so that only the core family—Nancy, hapless lovelorn brother-in-law Andy, and Nancy’s sons, vapid, handsome Silas and sociopathic Shane—has remained stable.  Frenemy Celia Hodes spent a few seasons as a main character only to disappear from the show as she disappeared from Nancy’s life, just as earlier, Celia’s own older daughter disappeared from the show out of narrative necessity or convenience. Sanjay was crucial to Weeds and Nancy, until he wasn’t and was gone.   Conrad? Heylia? The guy played by Matthew Modine? Caesar? Guillermo? Lupita? Jill?  Here and gone, invisible casualties in Nancy’s escalating, if metaphorical, narrative body count.

And yet, the same bursting at the seams plot-and-character accretion strikes me as a pre-Facebook, pre-Internet nostalgia for the days when we were indeed able to move, geographically, socially, and symbolically, and begin again.  The ruthless truth is that at every point in our lives, the people with whom we consider ourselves the closest—our best friends, family members, significant others, lovers, and co-workers, to say nothing of the dozens of casual acquaintances everyone constantly juggles—soon disappear, to be replaced by a new set, a new cast, and updated conflicts.

So much of Weeds was over the top, made for cable high concept and histrionics.  But in Nancy’s narrative amnesia and seemingly emotional invulnerability, we see an inadvertent truth: no matter how close we think we are to those who surround us, the only consistency in life is our immediate family.

And even then, for only eight years.

 

Time: 40 minutes.

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No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

Just as I planned to write on new books about manhood—Time’s Joel Stein and Man-Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity , and GQ’s Glenn O’Brian and How to Be A Man–The New York Times goes and publishes a magazine cover story on the same topic, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Hanna Rosin.

Manhood, it turns out, is a deceptively elusive subject.  If the obscure definition of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” then the definition of masculinity is even vaguer. Taking the two books and Times article together, here is a definition of manhood: We don’t know it when we see it, we don’t see it when we know it, or we don’t know when we don’t see it.  And I thought Flight of the Concords had this all sorted out in “Think About It”: “What man?/ Which man?/ Who’s the man?/ When’s a man a man? What makes a man a man?/ Am I a man?/ Yes. Technically I am.”

(see 1:18)

Take Stein’s book.  Please. [rimshot] The High Concept is this: the new father of a boy, Stein fears that his effete, metrosexual lifestyle will not allow him to raise his boy to be a real man, so he attempts all of the most stereotypically manly activities he can imagine, one per chapter—essentially hanging around with other men like Marines, day traders, hunters, and ultimate fighters—in order to learn the lessons that he’d like to pass on. Call it The Year of Living Manfully. The result is sometimes funny—“When I played Dungeons & Dragons, I was never a fighter or an assassin; I was always a magic-user.  Even in my fantasy life, I was a nerd”— and just as often not funny: “I am no human resources expert, but I believe Great Point Capital might have a much easier time recruiting female employees if it didn’t feel so much like Rape Point Capital.” But to pull off the conceit, Stein is too accepting of standard out of the box masculinity, pretending that decades of academic research into gender—across fields of sociology, psychology, literature, and entire fields of gender studies—never happened.

I guess that could be OK—this book is clearly part humor, part AJ Jacobs-stolen stunt memoir. Except that Stein keeps defining himself as an “urban intellectual” seemingly without irony (I thought post-William F Buckley, the word “intellectual” was now officially an insult) and therefore in opposition of the kind of manly adventures he chronicles here.  What kind of intellectual is this juvenile?  OK, I take that one back. But what kind of intellectual appears to have read nothing on the subject of his book, including parenting books? And while Stein will intermittently bring up race, class, and his suburban Jewish upbringing on rare occasions, he seems not to think of manhood in sociological, political, or class terms, even as they clearly, inadvertently emerge that way. As a result, the book mostly ends up supporting stereotypes about masculinity—men don’t like to talk; men like to kill things and sleep outdoors—at his own self-deprecating expense, since he isn’t like this. But the stereotypes are also at the expense of exploring, developing, and  challenging—or, if it suited him,  defending—traditional conceptions of manhood. Stein begins the book believing that driving a fast car and firing a tank will make him more of a man, and concludes that, surprise, they have.  Self-consciously calling his book a “stupid quest” does not inoculate it from the charge that it is stupid. It is.  But that’s actually OK.  My problem is that it was never even a real quest at all.

Glenn O’Brien’s book seems at first as though it is exactly what Stein did not set out to write. Stein: “I’ve decided to make a list of tasks that I hope will turn me into a man. My list will not include anything I have ever read in GQ or Esquire: I will not learn to fold a pocket square, mix cocktails, build my triceps, look up word bespoke, or get the right haircut for my face shape. That’s being a dandy. My book could beat up that book.” But it turns out that O’Brien did not write that book either, not exactly.  While there are plenty of sections on shirts, drinks, and style—not to mention that O’Brien clearly celebrates dandyism—what O’Brien has done it construct a deft collection of essays on topics related to manhood in the 21st century, while at the same times suggesting that some aspects of manhood are, indeed, timeless and archetypical.

So despite pages riffing on ties, O’Brien is far more intellectual than Stein—and therefore does not ever need to call himself one—suggesting that “A gentleman is reason personified” and referring or alluding to Socrates, Emily Post, the religious concept of acedia, Brad Pitt, Muhammad, Rocky Marciano, Andy Warhol, and hundreds more, in a way that seems erudite rather than namedroppy or shoehorned in.  So nothing about tanks, but rather, a confident book of ideas that I don’t always agree with but respect. And respect is a word that Stein reserves for his new friends but not himself—or at least the fake funny-guy persona he tries to foist on the reader.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of the Mark Twain adage, that to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Style Guy sees manhood in style.  In Stein’s book, rich men see manhood in money; martial artists in punching; hunters in hunting; ballplayers in playing ball; firefighters in fighting fires.  But what happens when they lose their hammer?

That’s where Hanna Rosin comes in, in The Times.  Her article is about men who have not only suffered the indignity of losing their jobs, but also of SEEING THEIR WIVES SUCCEED! Which is somehow salt on their wound, as opposed to, I don’t know, “Thanks, Wife, for saving my ass.” Quote after quote reinforces their sorrow: “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” says one; “We’re in the South,” Rosin quotes another. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”  This is Stein stripped of all humor, purpose, and self-consciousness, manhood not as fodder for jokes but just fodder, or just a joke.

Of course, manhood’s perceived strength—which is, um, strength—is its weakness.  Part of Rosin’s point is that women feel less entitled to start at the top and are more flexible employees, and therefore are better suited to contemporary employment needs. Yet Rosin also misses that man’s rigidity means that her thesis is old news, destined to spark controversy before disappearing for another few years, when suddenly it is rediscovered, kind of like John Travolta.  Previously, in April 2003, the New York Times Magazine also published “Commute to Nowhere.”  with its thesis that “By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are — or who others thought they were.”

And in light of at least one other 2011 New York Times article, “The Gender Pay Gap by Industry,” maybe the problem of manhood is overrated to begin with: “Over all, women who worked full-time in wage and salary jobs had median weekly earnings of $657 in 2009. That’s 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned.”  Women are still only earning 80% of the pants.  They wear the shorts in the family.

In the end, if manhood can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.  In some ways, that would be a very good thing, especially to Rosin’s subjects.  I recently found out that Marlboro cigarettes, of all things, were originally marketed to women, pretty much proving that, at least in some arenas, gender is a total construct and fabrication with no intrinsic truth at all.  And that cigarettes’ flavor is whatever people believe it is, since the same ones are “mild” for women and full of “flavor” for men.

But in other ways, I’d like to see manhood stick around.  For all the emphasis on the South, the men of Rosin’s Times piece don’t know the first rule of manhood, inspirited by Rhett Butler: a man doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about his manhood.

And personally, I’d like to think that I do know it when I see it.  And technically I am.

Time: 90 minutes. And I had to force myself to stop.

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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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A Cultural History of Spider-Man’s Web Shooters

Just point ‘n’ shoot!

As much as I love superheroes, I can’t say that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie needs to exist.  First, as long as it was being remade, time to drop the hyphen—just “Spiderman.”  It’s cleaner.  Second, the movie reminded me of seeing a high school play: “Aw!  So cute! They’re doing Spider-Man!” When Sally Fields showed up as Aunt May, I thought, “Aw! There’s Sally Fields pretending to be Aunt May!”  And then when Martin Sheen showed up as Uncle Ben, I thought,” Aw! There’s Martin Sheen! I love that guy!” before quickly remembering that he’s a dead man walking, to be gunned down before the second act ended so Peter could learn his lesson about power and responsibility.  This must have been how medieval audiences reacted to seeing Jesus-Christ show up in the passion plays: “I can’t believe he’s gonna  get killed AGAIN.”

But crucially, the movie revises, updates, and, for many fans, corrects what turned out to be a huge comic controversy of the 2002 Spider-Man.

Namely, the mechanical, wrist-worn webshooters (single word, no hyphen) are back. The organic vs. factory debate deepens.

This is a BFD.  When Spider-Man (hyphen for historical accuracy) debuted in 1962, bitten by a radioactive spider, proportionate strength and speed etc etc etc, he invented the synthetic webbing and pressure-sensitive webshooters himself:

 

Peter Parker as misfit, scientist, and genius is crucial to the early stories.  It’s not enough to get spider powers.  Much of his early success as a hero stems from the use of his pre-bite intellect and his own diligence and hard work, as opposed to mere accident: “So they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!” And so his identification with his audience of bookworms is complete.  Spider-Man, as Stan Lee, in his usual overwrought, avuncular, carnival barker voice, introduced him earlier, is a hero like… You!  So he needs to have something comic readers can pride themselves in having; Spiderman is about smarts and perseverance, not just a lab accident. Later comics elaborated upon the original idea:

But while 1962 Peter Parker, as a non-sidekick, picked-on teen,  was unlike any of the other superheroes of that time—more like, of course, a stereotypical comics reader—he was also very much like most of the other 1960s heroes who believed in Better Living Through Chemistry.  Sputnik had been launched a few years earlier, the Space Race was on, kids began working with their chemistry sets in their rooms, and comics followed, whether to embrace the post-war American dream or just because the hero/scientist opened up new character and narrative possibilities.  Until that point, THE SCIENTISTS HAD ALL BEEN BAD GUYS!   Suddenly, Professor X (who had to open his own school to receive tenure, apparently) , bald and in a wheelchair just a Superman’s first supervillian Ultra-Humanite (hyphen?), looking like Lex Luthor, was leading the X-Men! Reed Richards took the Fantastic Four into space, then into crime-fighting! Bruce Banner started off as a nuclear gamma physicist before going green as Hulk. Over at DC, the Flash’s Barry Allen—usually thought of as ushering in the Silver Age—was reimagined as a police scientist; the new Green Lantern was test pilot/astronaut proxy Hal Jordan, whose power ring (two words) got a science fiction makeover from the previous incarnation’s magic origin. Spiderman’s invention put him in the center of the new wave of super science police.  

Forward forty years later for the first big film, though, for a changed world. The idea that teenaged Peter Parker could invent the webs himself suddenly didn’t seem realistic.  The dream that the brilliant kid his bedroom could do what millions of dollars in government and industrial research and development couldn’t? Ridiculous.  Just as important, the early 2000s saw a sudden upswing of anti-technology cultural forces—technophobia brought to the surface by Y2K, a wave of anti-factory farming, the Fight Club-style anger at the techno-corporate world, left-wing distrust of surveillance and electronic voting machines, and right-wing fears of a technologically driven New World Order. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had devoted all of two panels for Peter to invent the webshooters. Could a multimillion dollar movie really be that casual and still be credible?  So the webs became a part of Spiderman’s new powers, his body generating them organically, leaving the film open to hundreds of snarky commentators noting that spiders don’t fashion webs from, um, that part of their anatomy. Taken together, we see a nice example of Samuel Coleridge’s famous dictum about suspension of disbelief: audiences could suspend disbelief long enough to imagine that a bite from a radioactive  genetically altered[i]  spider could spontaneously generate natural webshooters , but not that Peter Parker could have invented the ‘shooters himself—broke, without a lab,  and alone in his Queens bedroom.  The dream of technological progress was over.

My hands are making what?

But only for a decade. Today, Andrew Garfield, playing Tobey Maguire playing Peter Parker, indeed invents his webshooters again, like Kennedy’s in the White House and it’s 1962.  Yet unlike Classic Peter, he doesn’t quite invent them by himself. While it’s all a little hazy (damn you, montage!), what Nu Peter seems to do is closer to what contemporary techies get.  Instead of opening his chemistry set, he draws from preexisting technologies—some prefab Oscorp tensile-strength web fluid here, some, um, other mechanical movie-looking parts and gears and awesome LEDs and stuff that looks like machinery there.  2002 was too soon to imagine the day when every kid would not just own a smart phone—as Peter plays games on his phone to kill time while waiting for the Lizard to emerge in the sewer—but that more than a few teens would also be savvy enough to jailbreak them, invent their own apps, and create original graphic art, digital music, and code, alone in their rooms.  The basement chemistry sets of the early 1960s have given way to the new tech mythos of Steve Jobs in his garage, not inventing the computer but rather remaking and improving it based on previous iterations of the same ideas that Xerox and IBM used but somehow didn’t really get.  C. 2012 Peter’s genius isn’t that he invents the webbing and webshooter a la 1962, but rather that he recognizes that the technology for them already exists, and he makes them work together.   Only a science major post-millennial could have created a device like this.  We love technology again, but in a remix, mashup, sampling, collage kinda way.

So it’s fitting that, in the Tobey Maguire version, Natural-webbing Spidey fights techno-corporate Green Goblin/Norman Osborne, who relies on the worst of tech R&D: metal mask and body armor, disintegration grenades, and deadly projectiles; in Spiderman II, Doctor Octopus recalls the 1940s and 50s Scientist Gone Wrong, becoming a crazed metal-armed cyborg, while again Natural-webbing Spidey has to set him right and destroy the dangerous incursion of technology into the human realm. Lots of other fantasy movies of the early 2000s shared this pro-natural, anti-tech spirit: The Lord of the Rings pits the sylvan elves and pastoral hobbits against Sauromon’s metal hammers, metal towers, bio-engineered monsters, and willful destruction of trees.  In those Harry Potter movies, technology is shunted aside entirely, unable to coexist with magic at all.  In Phantom Menace, those stupid Jar Jar-looking aliens use natural weapons… ah, I can’t even continue; I hate that movie so much.[ii]  

Yes, the Lizard is a bit of a retread of Doc Ock, in that he’s a scientist whose attempt to do good results in the potential destruction of New York again, his mind altered by a biotech-transformation.  But when Dr. Connors emerges transformed into the Lizard, he sheds his lab coat and his humanity, symbolically and visually the worst kind of natural—slimy, scaly, swampy, primitive, lizard brained.  New Tech Spidey is web savvy (har har) and smart, using his—and Gwen Stacey’s—head to configure a quickie technological solution to New York City’s new alligators in the sewer problem.  OK, technology may have created the problem, but, unlike earlier incarnations of superheroism, technology can also solve it. Call it Web 2.0.

So when the techno-pendulum swings back, expect to see some other new version of the webshooters for the inevitable 2022 reboot.  And when we do, will someone please get Uncle Ben a bullet-proof vest this time?

Or the cynical explanation: you can’t sell organic webshooter toys.

Time: 90 minutes. Over, but this piece is pretty long, and I even spent at least 10 minutes cutting tangents. Plus I managed not to make any Marc Webb (!!!) puns.  It’s also funny that my conclusion—2000s Spider-Tobey is natural and fights techno-bad guys, while 2012 Spider-Garfield is technological  and fights a natural bad guy—came to me in my sleep two nights ago. Call me 24-Hour Man. 


[i] The radioactivity concomitant with the early ‘60s Cold War was replaced by new wishes and fears of genetic modification for the 2000s. But that, Dear Reader, is the subject for another exciting post! Excelsior!

[ii] Irony alert: these seemingly anti-technology movies could not have existed without their recent advances in digital technology.  

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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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