November 29, 2015

Our PG-13 Culture

Not PG-13. At all.

Long ago, my brother sat down with my father on a visit to watch one of his favorite sitcoms at the time, Will & Grace. And it was then, with the focusing presence of our 80-year-old dad in the room, that he realized something: Will & Grace consists of absolutely nothing but wall-to-wall sex jokes. Mostly really dirty, crude sex jokes. My brother sat frozen, not knowing whether to white-knuckle it out or admit defeat and feign a pressing interest in PBS.

A lot of our culture is like Will & Grace. It's PG-13 culture, where everything is slightly vulgar and crude. It's every sex joke on The Big Bang Theory. Every "fuck" on The Daily Show. Every boob shot in movie comedies. Not really explicit but not really clean either. An endless landscape of tepid titillation. Are we really still laughing when Raj makes a faux pas that makes him sound gay? Still finding it delightfully bold when a late-night guest pulls out the F word? Still watching scenes of sexual menace and finding it dark and edgy?

Luckily, there are outliers. These outliers exist on both ends of the spectrum: the truly wholesome and the truly adult. The Irish immigration movie Brooklyn is not a kids movie but it's clean enough that I could probably take my 11-year-old niece to it. The Age of Adaline was grown-up but free of tawdry adornment. And then there's Outlander, which shows sex of nearly every single kind (I say "nearly" because, you know, no furry sex) and multiple shots of nearly every part of the body, male and female. Repeatedly. Often. Sometimes for no good reason. It's the best show on TV.

We need both more G and more NC-17 in our art. PG-13 culture can be great, but it's hegemony is infantilizing for adults, corrupting for kids, and just boring for everyone.  G culture requires wonder, creativity, and sweetness. Adult culture requires daring, care, and beauty. This is good stuff, just waiting for expression.

November 23, 2015

The Vagina Monologues

The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's iconic play featuring diverse women standing up to talk about their vaginas, has been around for a while now. I always assumed it was dated, overly militant, and/or overly . . . I don't know, goddess-y. But when my 85-year-old mother-in-law performed in it this past weekend, I get a chance to see for myself.

Turns out, it's iconic for a reason. The play is fantastic. There are a few eye-rolling moments (the woman who always envisioned her vagina as furniture?), but it is artful, creative, and moving. The monologues include simple stories, arguments, poetic word associations, everything under the sun. There are sad stories, happy stories, luminous moments, dark moments. Most important, it does what great art should do: brings reality closer. That's true whether it's a far-flung reality, like life under the burqa in Afghanistan, or a close but deep-buried one, like the yearnings of a middle-class white American woman.

The performance was at a Unitarian church nearby, and all the performers were church members. This is the second time I've seen a first-class performance at a local amateur theater. One of the best Shakespeare performances I've ever seen was of A Midsummer Night's Dream performed in a local high school gym by a local troupe that included one of my students, and it was better than the one Shakespeare play I've seen at West End. Art comes in when preconceptions are shut down.

November 21, 2015

Best Books Round-Ups

Since the Best of 2015 round-ups are starting to emerge, I thought I'd plug my favorite novel of the year, which has shown up on the Publisher's Weekly Top Ten and the Washington Post's Notable Books lists. It is James Hannaham's Delicious Foods.

November 1, 2015

The Greatest Tale: A Mind at Work

In his lovely, small volume on description in poetry, The Art of Description: World into Word, Mark Doty uses Elizabeth Bishop's famous poem "The Fish" to show how description acts as a roadmap to the poet's (or narrator's) mind. The reader sees not just the object but the route that the poet took as her eyes and mind roved over the thing being described.

The way a mind works is one of the most fascinating subjects of any art. It's there in detective fiction, with both the detective and the villain. And it's there in one of my favorite genres—one of humanity's favorite genres, actually—the survival tale. From The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to films like Swiss Family Robinson and Touching the Void, watching a single person (or two) confront seemingly insurmountable odds—with very few tools but one big brain—has everything you could want in art: suspense, creativity, hope, despair, beauty, loneliness, mortality.

This is the type of movie The Martian is. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left on Mars by mistake, he has to "science the shit out of this." Entertainment Weekly in its review lists five other movies with a single protagonist battling a hostile natural environment: Cast Away (Tom Hanks), Moon (Sam Rockwell), 127 Hours (James Franco), All Is Lost (Robert Redford), and Gravity (Sandra Bullock). That would be a hell of a home film fest for being snowed in this winter.

There's an element of fantasy in these tales. Not fantasy as in genre; rather our own minds' craving the imaginative experience of ingenuity triumphing over difficulty. Modern novels like Neal Stephenson's Reamde and pulp like The Hunt for Red October have it. It's a bonus if the art is based on a real story like Apollo 13 or the upcoming movie on the Chilean miners' rescue. The truth is, we fail as often as we triumph (no movie yet on the Challenger disaster or the hundreds of miner rescues that failed). But that's okay. We know what failure feels like all too well. We want to experience what success looks like, what happens when resources + brain cells + persistence are combined with enough luck to defeat despair, loneliness, mortality.

August 30, 2015

The Meaning of Foley

Fascinating article for anyone interested in the more technical side of moviemaking:

The Art of Movie Noise

August 17, 2015

Breaking Bad: A Hatchet Job

Breaking Bad, the AMC series that ran from 2008 to 2013 about a lowly chemistry teacher who becomes a drug tycoon, is one of the most acclaimed series in television history. It had a stellar cast, great plotting, great directors, and rich cinematography. And I effing hate it.

It's rare for me to actually hate a series. With regard to art, my general categories are Love, Like, and Don't Care. I love Outlander, and I like Blackish. I don't watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but I don't look down on those who do; it doesn't fill me with rage that these people  have a TV show. I don't care. Just like I don't care about Nickelback or Train or soft white bread with no nutritional value or discernible taste.

But Breaking Bad pushed my buttons. We are introduced in the first episode to the antihero, Walter White, who is a stereotype of the emasculated white middle-class man. He has a wife and a teenage son with whom he has warm if not particularly interesting relations. His house is modest, always shot with dull lighting and muted colors, telegraphing its humble, slightly sad nature. Walter teaches high school chemistry, one of those old-fashioned sticklers with no charisma but a stubborn dedication that garners him his own type of affection from his students. His brother-in-law is the family Big Deal, an daring DEA agent who ribs Walter about his humdrum life. Walter doesn't seem to have any real friends, but he dutifully shows up at his rich friends' birthday parties at their beautiful estates and lets the other guests think he's a college professor. These encounters are painful, yes—especially since Walter left the company they all co-founded right before it went big—but Walter is a good sport about it because he's just that type of guy. Decent. Appreciative of what he has. Content with his good family and small blessings.

Then he's diagnosed with cancer. He has little savings, what with his modest teacher's salary, and suddenly he's facing a painful treatment regimen that will almost certainly leave him dead and his family bankrupt. What to do, what to do.

Luckily, he has those rich friends. As soon as they hear the news, they offer him $100,000 with no strings attached. Not a loan—a gift. Walter says no. It turns out that underneath that nice guy exterior, Walter nurses a little resentment about how he lost out on the company's big payout. We the viewers learn nothing about his separation from the company. Was he pushed out? Unfairly fired? Did he quit in frustration and merely have the bad luck to have missed the jackpot that followed? We don't know, but we do know that the unfairness of his diagnosis is getting to him. One by one, all the things that have bothered Walter over the years are bubbling to the surface: his lack of money, his brother-in-law's bravado, his wife's old affair. And like many a semi-privileged white man before him, he's decided its time to let his inner lion out. Walter White is going to become a man again.

When he sees a former student running from the police, Walter sees his chance. He will make meth, and the former student, Jesse Pinkman, will be his grunt. Jesse will amass the supplies, get the meth to the dealers, handle the transactions. Jesse has some nostalgic affection for ole Mr. White, but Walter has nothing but disdain for this punk, and he lets him know at every pass. While teachers can be overidealized, most teachers I know have a baseline affection for even difficult students and understand the psychology of youth: how they need support, need people to believe in them, how they flourish under loving attention. Not Walter. He is hard as granite and has not a smile nor a supportive word for this kid who so obviously craves his approval. While I realize that the showmakers (rightly) didn't want to sentimentalize their relationship, Walter is nearly pathological in his lack of emotional affect.

This is my BIG PROBLEM #1 with the show: compartmentalization. At the same time that Walter is treating Jesse Pinkman like trash, he's shown being the soul of sensitivity and support to his son, a teenager with a slight disability who has struggles of his own. Obviously we are complex beings and we are often better to some people than we are to others. But in order to treat lovingly and wisely with his son, he has to have love and wisdom within him already. And that can't be thrown out every time you want to take the plot another way. The same is true with his wife. The show presents Walter as devoted to Skyler, but when she begins to suspect something's going on, his treatment of her is contemptible—not just exposing her to danger but denying her instincts, trying to convince her she's crazy, eventually even manipulating the police to that conclusion. These aren't the actions of a "complex character" but of a sociopath.

As the story progresses, Walter starts becoming a big deal in the drug world. His Blue Meth, informed as it is with Walter's chemical expertise, is a hit, and soon he's a target of other dealers who don't like Walter's success. Walter's old-fashioned know-how is one of the show's greatest charms. In one scene he is cornered by rival dealers and things look bleak until—kazaam!—sneak chemical attack! Isn't this every middle-class drone's fantasy? That while others—the bad guys—might have money or weapons or swagger, we have the work ethic and actual know-how that could trump them all. You know, if push came to shove.

All of us enjoy the fantasy of strength and daring, of vicariously experiencing what it would be like to be able to act without consequences. To be so [fill in the blank] that our employers would put up with us, our friends would forgive us, our enemies bow before us. Sometimes that [fill in the blank] is strength (Sarah Connor in Terminator 2) or money (Tony Stark); sometimes it's technical expertise (Tony Stark again) or sheer mental brilliance (Sherlock Holmes or The Mentalist). When that kind of power is put in the hands of a Mr. Everyman like Walter White, the fantasy is all the more potent. Breaking Bad is more like a superhero movie than a gritty crime drama.

That is for me BIG PROBLEM #2: The show taps into a self-serving and subterranean fantasy of competence and domination on the part of viewers while collaborating with the viewer to make it appear otherwise. If you're watching Iron Man, you know you are indulging in fantasy and the movie doesn't try to convince you otherwise. If you're watching Twilight, you know you're enjoying the vicarious experience of being adored by the most perfect boy ever. But people talk about Breaking Bad—critics, fans, and showmakers alike—as if it is the opposite of those things, when really it is the apotheosis of those things, but sublimated. It's a Disney princess movie for arty intellectuals.

The deeper Walter gets into the drug trade, the more dicey his moral decisions become. It must have been a full-time job for the writers to craft every episode so that Walter is ever more the badass without actually becoming evil. A friend once said that the show is easier to understand if you see Walter as a villain. But in reality Walter is not constructed as a villain but as an antihero—a function of BIG PROBLEM #1, compartmentalization. (Spoilers ahead.) Every single action of the series is weighed and weighted to achieve the perfect moral balance. His actions get his brother-in-law killed, but his death wasn't Walter's intention (despite Walter's seething jealousy). Walter lets Jesse's girlfriend die, but he doesn't outright kill her. He doesn't actually harm his old rich friends, but he does tell them that he's hired a hit man to kill them when they least expect it, so that the rest of their lives will be spent in fear. Even at the very end, when Skyler confronts him about his motivations and says, "Don't tell me you're doing it for us" Walter is allowed his moment of self-knowledge. He wearily confesses before he dies that he did it for himself, because he liked the way it made him feel. This shuts Skyler up, as Walter's words and actions are so often intended to do. (No wonder that Skyler was absolutely hated as a character while fans wore Team Walter tee-shirts to the bitter end.)

In the end, Walter gets everything he wanted. He was always going to die, thanks to the cancer. But he makes his fortune, provides for his family, acts the badass, takes revenge on those he wishes, gets his moment of self-revelation, shuts up the ever-accusing Skyler, and even dies a heroic death to save someone he had wronged. He gets it ALL. Think how different it would have been if in that last scene with Skyler, instead of saying "I know I did it for myself, so I could feel like a big shot," Walter had continued to angrily contend, as he had throughout the whole series, that he was only doing it for the good of his family. If he had gotten angry with Skyler. If he had remained sunken in that self-deception and self-justification. Wouldn't that have been more realistic?

That scene reminds me of a counterpart in Martin Scorsese's great gangster film Goodfellas. Scorsese's film starts with the protagonist, Henry Hill, as a boy fascinated by the gangsters in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He starts running errands for them as a boy and grows into a full associate by the time he's an adult. Because Henry was drawn in as a child, seems so affable, and narrates the film himself, the viewer—almost subconsciously—regards him as not as bad as the other gangsters, as someone taken in. In the end, after Henry is forced to testify against his partners in crime, he is put in Witness Protection and has to live out his life in the burbs. It's a shock when, after surviving all the violence, after getting home free, his last words to the audience are: "Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats . . . When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. . . . And now it's all over. [I] have to wait around like everyone else. . . .  I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook." We took Henry for an antihero when the whole time he was a villain. And it's not till the last line that Scorsese lets us know. THAT's a gritty crime drama. That's lack of sentimentality. That's myth-busting.

BIG PROBLEM #3 for me the most damning of all. I hate pre-cancer Walter White. He's a teacher who doesn't care about kids. He's a brother-in-law who doesn't have the guts to say "Stop talking about me that way." He's a (maybe?) wronged colleague who has nursed a deadly grudge against his co-workers instead of pursuing legal action or alternatively owning up that missing out was his own damn fault. And he's a fraud. While Walter pretends to be modest and hard-working and happy with the blessings of family and friends, the show itself, through every possible means—lighting, set, dialogue, cinematography—tells us the opposite. The show tells us that being a high school teacher is for schmucks, that having a family and a home hardly counts, that having modest finances really does make you a loser. That all of those gangster values that the shows pretends to be showing up—money, weapons, swagger—really are what matters. We are supposed to be sad at his little life, just like he is.

Well, eff that. Lots of people on earth never own a house. Never have kids or a loving spouse. Spend their entire lives working in silver mines in god-awful conditions. Only children think as Walter White does. Bryan Cranston deserves every single acting award he got for that role, but Breaking Bad has been graded on a curve, and it's time for a re-test.

August 7, 2015

Bad Romance: Terrible, Horrible, No Good Covers—and a Few Hopeful Trends

Let us discuss the terrible, horrible, no good state of romance cover design.

It's true that covers—especially in genres like romance, action, and mystery—are not primarily designed to illustrate the book or to be aesthetically interesting but to convey what kind of book they represent.  Shopping for genre novels is often a guessing game, especially when it comes to romance: The novels aren't widely reviewed in major media outlets, and personal taste plays a much larger role in a reader's enjoyment. So readers rely on clues like covers, descriptions, an author's reputation, and reader reviews—scanning for telltale phrases like "great story," "fast-moving," "in-depth characterization," "too much sex" (meaning for many of us "just the right amount"), and so on.

Covers are kind of the first winnowing tool in this process. First, it tells you the subgenre at a glance. Here we've got historical, contemporary, and cowboy subgenres:

Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey ushered in a wave of good design for contemporary romance, one that features meaning-laden objects rather than settings or people:

Contemporary romance novels have benefitted ever since, and Courtney Milan's Trade Me is clearly the best design of that first group—and pretty typical of contemporary covers.

Second, the cover gives you a clue as to quality. I'm much more likely to pick up this book:

than this one:

(Note to newbies: Outlined text on a cover is ALWAYS a bad sign.)

But Grace Burrowes's The Laird—which is quite a good book—still harkens back to the cheesy Fabio era of romance covers. And featuring faces on a cover is always a risk. This guy? Maybe:

These guys? Uh-uh. I don't care how good the reviews may be, these covers are flat-out boner killers:

Following the principle of "Do No Harm," I'd much rather have an old-fashioned scenic cover than any of the above since at least these covers are weak and unlikely to have any psychological impact on my reading. Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm is a good example:

Still, I don't think you'd get from this cover what an incredibly good writer Laura Kinsale is—or that Flowers from the Storm is repeatedly voted one of the best romance novels of all time. Kinsale is an interesting case, actually. A super good historian as well as writer, her novels have been reprinted enough to go through several iterations of cover design. Here are two of her novels in their earliest form:

Flat-out awful (outlined type—blech). Then came these editions:

Better. But in the last few years, her covers have made a exponential leap forward. I cannot think of any other historical romances with covers as arty and intriguing as these:

Or these, from a different series:

And now there are audiobook editions:

These are damn good covers. As romance continues to gain respect and a new generation of smart women tout its virtues, here's hoping there are more to come.

August 5, 2015

Beefcake with Bacon and Tatum Tots


Kevin Bacon did a very funny fake PSA for male nudity in film recently—with some sincerity behind it. Hours of naked women on Game of Thrones and no male nudity? 50 Shades of Grey and no frontal of Christian Grey? Unacceptable. Where's my shot of Jamie Lannister walking stark naked through the streets of King's Landing??

The truth is, male nudity IS a matter of gender equality. Straight men have enjoyed an unbroken tradition of female beauty on screen while art geared toward women's sexual desires—movies starring handsome, idealized men; romance novels—have been considered the lowest form of literature or film. Well, eff that.

Thankfully, women have a new batch of bona fide heroes:  Channing Tatum, Chris Pratt, Joe Manganiello, and every other guy who's out there defending women's right to lust. Here's Chris Pratt on being a beefcake:

"I think it’s appalling that for a long time only women were objectified, but I think if we really want to advocate for equality, it’s important to even things out. Not objectify women less, but objectify men just as often as we objectify women." (He also adorably continues: "We’re just big bags of flesh and blood and meat and organs that God gives us to drive around.")

Then there's Outlander's Catriona Balfe on the many, many, many beautiful shots of naked Sam Heughan on her show:

"I think obviously women have been starved for quite a while because all of these films and shows that are coming out right now that are catering to that, you see the voracity of the audience . . .  it’s some kind of mini-revolution of sexual awakening for women in the media."

And best of all here is writer Christopher Rice (Anne Rice's son) on romance novels:

"If I read one more purported 'think piece' about how romance novels 'damage people' by setting up unrealistic expectations, I might vomit. This is sexist nonsense that seeks to depict fantasies of brave sexual intimacy as a toxin swimming through a superior landscape of stereotypically male destruction and violence. . . .  It also furthers a bogus image of the largely female romance novelist population as a bunch of delusional ninnies suffering through a string of broken relationships because of their purported 'unrealistic expectations' and 'dangerous fantasies'. The majority of successful crime novels streamline the realities of the criminal justice system in an unnatural way to deliver a nice, tidy, bad-guys-go-to-jail resolution, and yet there’s no concerted effort to constantly wage the accusations of 'dangerous fantasy' against them with a barrage of sanctimonious, finger-wagging news articles and blog posts. And when was the last time people accused a male crime novelist of harboring secret fantasies of being a serial killer?" (It's hard for me not to quote the blog post in its entirety because it is so, so good. Here's a link to it:  Christopher Rice's Rant.)

True objectification has its problems—reductionism, hostility, and so on. But we shouldn't confuse objectification with simply enjoying physical beauty and sexuality, which is one of our most basic cravings, male and female. When the Oscars tried to be funny by putting Sofia Vergara on a rotating platform while the Academy president read out the award rules, the outrage wasn't because they were objectifying Vergara but because they were catering to straight male taste as if it were universal—which is so, so last century. Had they put Joe Manganiello on a matching platform, everyone would have been happy. Now is that so hard?

July 27, 2015

The Most Wholesome Movie of the Year: Magic Mike XXL

Coming home from Magic Mike XXL this weekend, my husband commented, "You know, it's really a very wholesome movie." I quipped, "Once you set aside the cussing. And the drug use. And the simulated sex."

But I knew just what he meant. MMXXL is unusual. It gets high scores for being positive toward women, and yay for that, especially on the heels of shooting of two women during a viewing of the feminist comedy Trainwreck this past week by a old, angry white man who had a longstanding hatred of "feminine rights." As the boys in the movie make their way to Myrtle Beach (Myrtle Beach!), they run into every type of woman: cool beach girls, young black women at a steamy club, rich older white women in a wealthy neighborhood. And every group is treated with respect and a sense of possibility: whatever new place they go, they as characters—and you as the viewer—feel that something good is on the way. And why not: In Mike's world, men and women are friends and comrades. There are no assumptions, no expectations of sex, no temper tantrums if sex doesn't happen, just openness and generosity and respect, toward others and yourself.

The movie's equally positive toward men. The guys at the center of the movie aren't perfect and they aren't generic. They're no better than they should be, but they're good-hearted and, underneath the bravado, grappling with their insecurities and trying to figure out how they can get from point A to point B in pursuit of their dreams. They're friends. Nobody's mean to each other or overly competitive. When Joe Manganiello's character fears that he's losing his touch, his friends challenge him to woo a grumpy convenience store clerk, leading to one of the best scenes in the movie as he dances his way around the condiments and sodas. And there are his friends, outside the store windows cheering him on. The whole scene is dirty . . . and very sweet.

Even better, the movie is sex positive. Hooking up doesn't make you a douche. Having sex is great, with no sense of shame for the women or ugly conquest for the men. The movie has a comfort with male beauty and the female gaze that is simply unprecedented. When the guys are dancing and stripping, there's no camp, no wink-wink at the audience like they know how silly it is. They are deadly serious about what they do. Which doesn't mean it isn't fun, only that they find the business of being sexy for women to be a straightforward and perfectly respectable endeavor, honorable even.

The plot is also unusual because it contains obstacles but not conflict. It's like a picaresque novel, in which the hero travels through society in pursuit of a goal, at each stop interacting with a different slice of society and revealing its vices and hypocrisies. The point of a picaresque novel is not character development but satire. MMXXL is kind of the reverse: The boys travel up the East Coast, interacting with different groups, and revealing the virtues and possibilities of each. Their characters don't develop—they're fine just as they are. But each stop on their journey reveals a new way in which people can connect and have fun together. The culmination of this might be the rich woman's house. When the boys come in, looking for a beach girl they met a few days earlier, they're sat down in the brocaded furniture by a group of older women who would, in any other movie, be reduced to an ugly cougar stereotype. How they inch from strangers to mates (in the British sense of the word) is great, culminating in the loveliest scene in the movie, where they sing "I'm in Heaven" together.

There's craft here. The dancing is great (and yay on including one of my favorite dancers, tWitch), and the writers find a way to bring each guy's personal passion to the final dance scene—a neat trick. It gives a satisfying arc to the movie and provides a lesson in authenticity, as the guys reject the worn stripper stereotypes (fireman, cop) and build new stage characters from the inside out. I have to say, too, that Channing Tatum is a hell of an actor. Just watch a scene where he's in the frame but not talking: he's looking around, making little distracted expressions, totally natural. I've seen Oscar winners who aren't as good at that.

Every woman viewer during Magic Mike XXL.

July 15, 2015

The Bold and the Beautiful, in Writing

Ever since I read The Fault in Our Stars, John Green's YA novel about a teenage girl with cancer, a few years ago, hardly a month goes by without the novel's signature line coming to mind: "The world is not a wish-granting factory." That's a great line because it is both true and well-expressed. Reconciling ourselves to the indifference of the world to our desires is a struggle as ancient as the Greeks. They expressed it as the wheel of fate, and it's been expressed a zillion times since. Yet this quote makes you feel it anew, acutely and even beautifully. How does it do that?

John Green proves that great writing doesn't have to be elaborate. But elaborate can be beautiful, as one of my other favorite quotes, by Virginia Woolf, demonstrates: "The beauty of this world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder." While John Green's line is forceful, Woolf's is subtle. And precise: Has the exact nature of life—how completely its wonderfulness and its tragic nature are interwoven—ever been so exactly conveyed?

July 12, 2015

Love & Mercy: Second Viewing

I saw Love & Mercy in the theater for the second time this weekend. There is so much going on in this movie that I think I could watch it a third time and still pick up more. The photos above may not make it look like a very compelling film, but it's mesmerizing.

June 20, 2015

Jon Stewart Was Wrong—And So Was I

Back in the more innocent time of  2010, Jon Stewart held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. The purpose of the rally was to bring right wing and left wing together to moderate the extremist rhetoric that had become ever more common in our public discourse. He wanted us to stop calling each other Nazis and terrorists and haters of America. I went to the rally; it was fun. People had cool signs.

Looking back, it feels ominous. Shouldn't we have been more disturbed that some of our best-known media figures felt the need to address this? Didn't it imply an underlying unease at what was coming across our airwaves? Didn't we want to assure ourselves that, really, we're okay, America is full of good people, we're fine, aren't we? Aren't we?

We're not fine and we're not good and we're not safe. This week a white 21-year-old planned and carried out the murder of a group of black people. At first I balked at the term "terrorism" to describe it because I think of terrorism as something committed by networks of people instead of individuals. But the truth is that the killer was part of a network, a network that has been growing year by year. 

Terrorism grows when a group of people in society feel they are getting a raw deal. This raw deal consists of two things: economic stress and loss of political clout. They are angry and perhaps even humiliated. They want very, very badly to matter again. If they can't achieve that through normal means, abnormal means will do.

Fear of humiliation is one of the strongest motivators in all of human nature. People will do a lot to rid themselves of that feeling. It's what motivates the husband whose wife has left him to kill her. It's what motivated the straight soldier who attacked a gay soldier and found himself beat up instead to go back the next day to kill that gay soldier. It's what motivated Germany to start World War I. It's what motivated Osama bin Laden, who couldn't stand that the West was winning, that the Muslim world was considered a hopelessly backward, inferior culture.

There is a portion of white America that is in psychic crisis over their identity and their place in this country. Year after year they have to hear about police brutality against black people; they are forced to observe the celebration of the civil rights movement. They are told that black people are good and white people are bad, and they HATE that because they know some black people, and they're not good at all, while they themselves are both white and good. They watch a black president get elected, even though they hate him. They didn't want a black president, but their voice, in the end, didn't matter. The country is changing and moving on, and they are being left behind and they hate that too.

What happens with this group of people? What do they do with those feelings of resentment and loss of status?

After Barack Obama was elected, sales of guns and bullets soared, a fact that some Republicans reported with glee. The ostensible reason was worry that Obama would enact gun control laws, but there was no indication that would happen. More likely: guns represent power. If you are armed, you can't be dismissed. You must be recognized. You automatically matter.

Way back in the 1980s the film Grand Canyon has a white middle-aged driver get lost in a ghetto. He is accosted by a group of scary black young men but a black middle-aged tow truck driver arrives to diffuse the tension. He appeals to the young man who seems to be the leader and urges him to let them go on their way. He treats the young man with deference and respect, and the young man asks him if he would have addressed him the same way if he (the young man) didn't have a gun. After a moment, the middle-aged man answers:

Middle-aged man: You don't have a gun, we don't have this conversation.
Young man: [pauses, smiles] That's why I have the gun.

That black punk, that degenerate, status-obsessed thug? He is Osama bin Laden. He is WWI Germany. And he is white right-wing America, right now.

There is another element to every successful terror movement: media.  Local newspapers were extremely important in the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism in Germany, just as local radio was in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. Day in and day out, readers or listeners were whipped into a frenzy of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves. The constant onslaught of media brainwashing turned thousands of people who had been peaceful neighbors into sadistic killers. These are people who, not too long beforehand, greeted these same neighbors in the street, shared meals, shared gossip, lived together normally. They were—once—perfectly good citizens.

We have in American culture right now a media empire that is daily growing richer by nurturing the feelings of resentment, victimhood, and extremism that terrorism grows from. Fox News is not calling for white conservatives to kill their enemies. But they have found a formula to make money, by stoking feelings of disgust for others and self-righteousness for themselves, and if the cost of that cash cow is the spread of white right-wing violence, then so be it.

The killer of the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston said that he was radicalized by the Trayvon Martin incident. But how is it possible that the acquittal of a white man of the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager should represent the oppression of white people and the taking over of America by black people? How is such thinking created?

It is created by Fox News and all media like it. For Fox News, Christians are an oppressed minority (though Ivy League colleges have never banned or restricted Christians from enrollment, no evidence exists of job, housing, or political discrimination against Christians); the terrorist attack of September 11 (carried out by a group of conservative religious fundamentalists) was the fault of "gays and feminists"; the drought in California is caused by liberals' acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Trayvon Martin was a travesty of justice for white America, reporting allegations of Chris Christie's corruption is a sign of an unwanted "feminization" of American politics, up is down, black is white, yes is no.

Fox News and its right-wing extremism have poisoned our nation. It has fed the passions and delusions of a disgruntled minority with an attraction to the status-generating power of the gun. And to the Emmanuel AME killer, the shooter at the Holocaust Museum, and the gun fanatic at Sandy Hook, let me give you your due: You have gotten our attention. You cannot be dismissed. You inarguably matter. It is an incredible tribute to black America that the result of the Emmanuel AME killer's slaughter was not the race war that he wanted but yet another instance of black strength, forgiveness, and fortitude. White America will never be able to repay the debt that we owe to black America for its nonviolent struggle for justice. But no one should be asked for that much strength and forgiveness.

I hope that we begin to take white terrorism seriously in our country. We need to invest many more resources into investigating and monitoring those who present a risk to our nation. And we have to also admit that liberals alone cannot change our culture. Liberals tend to trust in time and progress, but things are deteriorating too rapidly for time to heal. And once a sense of grievance on both sides develops, reconciliation becomes almost impossible, as the Israelis and Palestinians tell us so eloquently with every new death. Conservative America has to find the moral strength to oppose the destructive lies of victimhood and scapegoating, to reform their own gun culture, and to turn the tide on this drift toward extremism.

June 4, 2015

Magic in the Moonlight

Yes, it's a third-tier Woody Allen movie. But a third-tier Woody Allen movie is still a solid B.

Plus it has Hamish Linklater, one of my favorite under-the-radar actors.

Plus Emma.

Plus Colin.

May 21, 2015

50 Shades of Grey: Review

Dakota Johnson in 50 Shades of Grey is my perfect storm of film frustration. Not because her performance is bad, but because it's great in just the way that will make people dismiss it.

I was originally down on her as a choice to play Ana Steele. This was due to one very silly fact: I didn't like the way she smiled on the red carpet. A kind of closed-mouth, pursed-lips thing that, in the way of all humans, I was tempted to read as an indication of her personality. I chided myself but didn't really get over it until I saw her KILL IT on Saturday Night Live. Then I was genuinely stoked. I assumed Jamie Dornan would be good because his modeling career indicated a total comfort with expressing sexuality.

Did you want to see this film in a public theater with a bunch of teenagers and possibly a neighbor or two? Yeah, me neither. So it was just this week I got around to renting it. The direction and writing were all nicely done, even if there were some pacing problems (Ana goes from having her first encounter with Christian to being frustrated with his limitations way too quickly) and some clich├ęd encounters and imagery (dancing sequence: barf). That being said, I admired how grounded it all seemed. The biggest weakness of the film is without a doubt Jamie Dornan, who seems completely out of his depth. There's a vacuum where his personality should be, though I wonder how much better he might have been if he didn't have to maintain an American accent. Seems like acting in a foreign tongue would be very difficult.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, gives us a fully formed Ana Steele. She manages something rare: portraying someone quiet and vulnerable who doesn't seem weak. Americans can be so hung up on "personality," as in "She's got a lot of personality!" Which means she has a certain type of personality: loud, brash, conspicuously confident. Johnson forgoes all of the mannerisms regarding strength and assertiveness that we've come to expect from women in film, without actually forgoing strength and assertiveness. She isn't deferential, but she also doesn't overcompensate by being  "spunky." Her acting is something very, very rare in cinema: truly naturalistic.

It's that naturalism that's bound to kill most people's assessment of her. We've become so accustomed to the stylistic nature of most acting that we don't even see it as a convention any more: People hang up the phone without saying goodbye. They leave huge pauses in conversations or speeches or toasts. The social niceties that are second nature in real life—smiling, being talkative, engaging in gossip or filler—are absent, as are the everyday gestures that are often considered tics in acting, like touching your hair or twisting your mouth around or tapping your fingers. We tend to perceive stoic, serious turns as good acting, with quirky individualism coming in second.

So Johnson hits it out of the ballpark in building a naturalistic personality for her character, and she's also capable of expressing great emotion, the second, and much more common, virtue of good acting. Her anguish in the last fourth of the movie is completely compelling, and it's in this last quarter that Jamie Dornan does best as well, when he's not called to just be—to walk around and interact with people and have us believe he's a real person—but to be still and express emotion. Still, I wish I could see what the movie would have been with Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey. 

Also: random shout-out to the costume people. There are so many small trends that grew out of the Twilight movies (or, really, the first Twilight movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke), and one of them was putting young people in real young people clothes: skinny jeans, flannel shirts, jackets they could have gotten at Old Navy. The 50 Shades team did a good job with this.

May 18, 2015

Hoist by My Own Petard: The Suffering Male Body in Outlander

I don't even know what a petard is, but I bet it's something they use in Wentworth Prison.

Wentworth Prison is where the latest episode of Outlander takes place. The beautiful hero Jamie Fraser has been imprisoned by the sadistic British officer Jonathan Randall, who intends to abuse him before sending him to his death. Randall had flogged Jamie five years before, and the incident has haunted and delighted Randall ever since:

Now Jamie is back in Randall's hands, shackled in his dungeon. Randall wants to break Jamie, wants to feel Jamie's surrender to his own power and even charisma. At one point in the show, Randall gazes on dirty, brutalized, but still handsome face of Jamie as he talks about his obsession, and I thought to myself, This is where obsession can lead. And then I thought, That's a good lesson. And then I thought, Didn't I just blog about how, in film, a purported "lesson" based on plot is less important than the message communicated through images? Petard: hoisted.

This episode, called "Wentworth Prison," is being rightly hailed as a masterpiece, heartbreaking to the point of tears. The writing, direction, acting . . .  just look at Caitrona Balfe as Claire, absolutely breaking apart as she sees Jamie's torture:

Balfe was amazing in this episode. True sobbing is hard to fake because there are involuntary physiological responses that kick in when you're that emotional: your airways constrict, your voice is lowered or elevated. The deep, gruff sobbing that came out of Balfe's throat in this episode was so terribly authentic.

Actor Sam Heughan is equally amazing as a strong, masterful man being slowly mastered. The power and beauty of Sam's body is really the lynchpin of the series, carrying so much of the emotional weight of the show, not to mention so much of the plot. Fans are enthralled by shots like this:

And this:

And this:

But equally by this:

And this:

Yes, that's his back, after the flogging.

And this:

Scottish pieta.

And God help us, this:

The spectacle of the suffering male body has always been powerful, from The Dying Gaul:

"Dying Gaul" by BeBo86 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

To the dying Christ:

(pending attribution)

These images are powerful because we project onto them our desire for endurance. They are battered and yet somehow resistant to battering. There is an almost God-like ability to sustain and not break, or break but not be destroyed.

But it's confusing to feel my own craving for these images and wonder if they're just as exploitative as Ex Machina's naked Asian automatons (see blog post here). Ex Machina's use of those images feels less honest, especially contrasted with the type of romance art women create and consume, where the desire for male beauty is unabashedly The Point. But perhaps Jamie Fraser in Wentworth is just a bit too close to torture porn for comfort, even if the craving is not for pain or control (like true torture porn) but for the portrayal of male endurance and the promise of female comfort. The image of Claire hovering over the broken Jamie above evokes the Pieta, the ultimate image of female succor:

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It offers a proposal that is deeply appealing: As a woman, I can offer you a healing that no other can. And recognizing that provides an unsettling feeling. In one of the episodes best moments, Jamie's back is turned to Randall, and Randall reaches out with his hand in a shot that mimic's Randall's POV. As a viewer, you feel eerily identified with Randall at that moment, wanting to reach out as well.

Ultimately, I believe in that instinct to reach out. Art serves some deep needs, even if the delivery is as complicated as in Ex Machina. It's also been interesting to read fan reactions to the Wentworth Prison scene, which of course has existed in book form for years. I had always wished that Randall's subjugation of Jamie had not existed, so total was Randall's triumph. But in the week leading up to the episode, several fans wrote about how this story line helped them deal with their own sexual assault. It sounds simplistic to say it this way, but as they read, they thought, "If Jamie can survive this, so can I." Those who have read the book series know that recovering from Wentworth is a long process for Jamie, but even the lastingness of the pain may give comfort to those who feel like the nightmare keeps coming back.