The usual things happened: he took a long time checking my plates sitting in his car, then walked v e r y s l o w l y over to my door and flashed his flashlight throughout my messy little red Focus with kids’ toys and tissues and empty water bottles everywhere. He acted as if I were dangerous, perhaps because my leather bomber jacket seen from behind makes me look so butch. He demanded my license, registration, and proof of insurance. I was flustered, frustrated, and increasingly depressed as he took his time looking over what I handed him (after rummaging through my equally messy glove compartment). Pretty soon, my eyes were filling with tears, and all I wanted was to go home. He aimed his flashlight at me as I dabbed at them and I looked up into that too-bright light and said, “Look, my father died a few weeks ago, I was having a stressful conversation with my mother though I shouldn’t have been talking on the phone in the car, and all I really want to do is go home. If you need to give me a ticket, that’s fine” or words to that effect, all said deferentially and with as much patience and as few tears as I could muster.
He nodded sagely, then went behind the car and looked at my license plate some more and waited for the report on my driver’s license (don’t they have computers in their cop cars yet?). When he returned, I noted that he had not taken out his pad for writing speeding tickets, which made me happy, as I didn’t particularly want a speeding ticket. But he did pipe up with a fascinating question:
“Do you hate our president?” quoth he.
“Do I what?” said I.
“William Bush: do you hate him?”
“George Bush?” I asked, trying not to sound too condescending as I was asked this entirely inappropriate question. I then remembered the W with red circle-slash on the back of my car. I smiled through soggy eyes. “No,” I said with a little laugh, “I don’t hate anyone. I disagree with many of his policies, but I don’t hate anyone. I’m tired and all I want to do is go home and go to bed.”
He replied, “Sounds like you’re going through some real chaos right now. I’m just going to give you a verbal warning. Remember, this is a 55-mph zone not 65.”
“Thank you,” I said, sincerely. “I really appreciate your not giving me a ticket.”
He added something about getting home safe and we parted company, him doing a dandy super-swift U-turn in the middle of the road that would have landed anyone else with a pricey ticket.
I don’t think I really need to analyze this for my readers, do I? Clearly, he should not have asked me that question about our president, “William” Bush. That he did not know Bush’s name is funny in an absurdist theater way. And that he would have given me a ticket if I said I did hate Mr. Bush is obvious and infuriatingly sad. But that’s how things are when you have to talk to a policeman in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Yee-haw.
In the end, I really enjoyed the novel. It was escapist when I needed some escape; it challenged Christian religio-cultural supremacy when I needed to bask in such challenge. I stand by my critiques of the novel’s limitations, but once I accepted that this was an action-adventure thriller with some juicy if superficial political critique of the Church (many aspects lifted whole from other texts) rather than Good Literature (a.k.a. beautifully written prose with richly crafted characters, etc.), then I just dove in and enjoyed it for what it was. The reading dovetailed nicely with my readings of Richard Dawkins, which was another factor in its timely favor for me. Dawkins deserves and will get his own blog entry here one of these days. I share many of his perspectives but not all. He is sexist and throws babies out with bathwater too often, but he is also such a reassuring voice admist the excess of religious rhetoric dominating our culture and much of the world today. But I think I may have to blog about Talledega Nights and Nacho Libre next.
Before the first time: Saw the previews and actually laughed. Saw a making-of and enjoyed knowing the actors had done some behind-the-scenes roleplay at Nascar tracks. Thought the critique of redneck racing fans might do my Yankee heart good.
First time: Saw it with my son at the multiplex. It was the only film out that I thought he and I both might be able to stand. We both laughed aloud, though we found the writing of the kid characters excessive and unfunny.
Second time: Played for $2 on the campus of MTSU so dragged my hubby and my son to it again to see if Chad would enjoy it. He did. Again, we laughed aloud, and I paid particular attention to Sasha Baron Cohen’s character, his accent and facial expressions, especially. Chad and I particularly grooved on the long kiss at the end. And we both think the actress playing the wife is superb in the role.
Third time: Saw it without the sound on the airplane going to California (first trip) in early November. Enjoyed paying half-attention to the now-familiar funny bits and ignoring the rest—like moments of lousy editing (like the whole Susan character, which is fabulous in the bar scene but obviously cut out to make little sense in the rest of the film) and jokes that didn’t quite work (again, the kids and their change of character).
Fourth time: Watched it in the hotel with my brother when on the second California trip after my father died, thinking it would be good escape for me and Reid. Watching it with him made me see how stale some of the jokes were and how fluffy the critique (so interspersed as it is with cheering on the redneck). The knife in the leg scene is still hysterical, but even better in the outtakes. We also saw Anchorman when I was in CA the first time, and I opined then that Talledega Nights is better, more cohesive, more sustained critique…but after seeing it the fourth time I’m less sure. I don’t think Anchorman truly worked; it changed direction in the film several times, particularly re the purpose of the gender battle, but it had some great improv moments. When we finished with Nacho Libre and I thought it wasn’t much worse than either film (though somehow Will Ferrell is growing on me and Jack Black isn’t), well, Reid and I both decided that how funny a film is has much to do with mental state and energy. And when we watched the films, we had little energy and a seriously depressed mental state. Less so when we saw Borat on its opening weekend when things seemed stable with my dad and my brother and I were seeing a film in the theater for the first time in many, many a year. (Not that Borat, too, didn’t have its limitations, but it’s politics were much more upfront—even if rednecks can ignore them and just laugh at the foreigner jokes.)
I mean I know I should have been paying attention to what people were saying beyond the religious nuttiness, but I didn't. I just did not know that it is chock full of superficiality, predictability, sexism, and mediocre writing skills. Now, I confess entirely that I'm only on page 100, but I just had to pause and put down my thoughts (at least in part because I want something over my pirate pic below because someone told me it makes me look like I'm pumped full of testosterone with my dominant jaw and obvious pumped body! I'd love to look macho when I'm TRYING but I thought I looked hot and more femme than butch in that pic!). Anyhow, back to The Da Vinci Code...
To exemplify my critique, let's begin with Silas's backstory in Chapter 10. I could have guessed the S&M albino thug would have an abusive alcoholic father. I didn't think the novel would bother with his backstory, assuming, as readers likely would, that he'd have some horrid upbringing that led him to zealotry and a willingness to do others' bidding, no matter what was asked. Like Jaws or Oddjob, those over-the-top villain's assistants in the James Bond films, the albino Silas is our generic creepy evil-doer in service of the more evil-doing head villain. So, I didn't need his backstory. When I got it, it was entirely predictable and superficial, down to the butcher knife he used to stab his no-good, spouse- and child-abusing father in the back--and everywhere else, repeatedly. (I'm not arguing, by the way, that alcoholic men don't abuse and even murder their spouses with alarmingly culture-defining frequency; just that it was an easy/cheesy backstory for our albino villain's assistant.)
For sexism, I was truly surprised to see that, with the exception of Silas (who is, let's face it, an emasculated mess), the male characters are referred to by their last names (Langdon, Fache, etc.) while our intrepid cryptologist is always spoken of by her first name (Sophie). She becomes more personalized, less professional, more vulnerable. And I wonder if the author, Dan Brown, did this on purpose or not. I tend to think not.
I could go on, but let me pause here until I finish the novel and just say the whole thing has a kind of cheesy noir feel to it, artificially imposed and leaving me with a smirk on my face the whole time I'm reading it. Nonetheless, the religious symbology stuff is engaging and it is serving its purpose for me: escapism while I care for my very ill father.
What's new, Elyce? First and most fabulous, of course, is ME! I've lost almost 25 lbs. now, am bleaching my teeth, and had a fabulous Saturday Hallowe'en pub crawl with friends, dressed as a pirate babe! Men are giving me doubletakes these days and I must say I love it and need it! I'm also taking the motorcycle safety class soon and then, if it goes well, I plan to buy my friend Deb's 1999 Honda Shadow. (Can you say midlife crisis?!)
What are you reading, Elyce? Well, Chad and I are in the middle of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and loving it. He's a cocky fella, but so are most Christians we know, with perhaps less reason! He includes many gorgeous quotations from our country's "founding fathers," such as this gem from John Adams: "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!" Zowie! Or this delight from a later Adams, Douglas (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy): "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" I know, I know: most of my friends reading this are agnostic or lapsed/casual Christians or Jews, but I'm enjoying the possibility of claiming well-deserved respect for atheists--and I'm hoping by the end of the book I can claim the title proudly (I feel sometimes like a cowardly agnostic...I so WANT to believe in reincarnation, but I really don't believe in God, just in being a good, caring person). As Dawkins' says about atheism, "I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an athiest when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further."
What's your next show, Elyce? Just got cast as Mother Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Too funny, isn't it? (Lane has also been cast, as a newspaper boy who cries out "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Local boy wins Congressional Medal of Honor!" It will be our first show together!)
And after that, Elyce? After the first of the year, I've been invited to play the young and beautiful widow who scorns, threatens to duel with, then falls for a brusque soldier in Chekov's early one-act play, "The Bear." It's a lovely role and the director will be my longtime MTSU colleague in English (now retired) Ayne Cantrell. How cool is that?
Anything else, Elyce? Heading out to visit my Dad Saturday for nine days. Send healthful thoughts for painless longevity his way.
I also love acting. Would I love it as a career? I’m not sure. Certainly, there is the theatrical within teaching: the students as audience to teacher as performer. The best teachers, so I am told, let the students perform. But I also believe that there are times when you just have to lecture, to bring new ideas rather than just asking questions to let students discover things on their own. There are some thoughts that some people just won’t come to without someone pointing out a path to them. In any case, teach is not acting. Students are a far less grateful audience most of the time, nor are they in the classroom to applaud their teachers. Nor should they be. So I also like acting for its own sake. I like performing someone else’s words when well or entertainingly written. I like singing good songs. And I love applause.
I have no desire to be a director. Never a behind-the-scenes type though I admire those who are content or thrive there. I enjoy taking photos, but I’d rather be in them (if well taken and make me look good). I love contemplating bringing something to the stage, but I’d rather bring it there bodily (and enjoy the applause).
All these not-new thoughts have been swirling around my head today as I read Gavin Lambert’s interview book On Cukor. Cukor loved the theater from age 12. Wasn’t great at school. Never wanted to act. Guessed he’d love directing without really understanding it. Saw every show he could in NY whenever he could as a young adult. Did assisting, stage managing, coaching, then directing. Then went to Hollywood and became a dialogue coach in the early days of “talkies.” Eventually went on to direct 80+ films. Privileged child of Hungarian Jewish immigrant parents who wanted him to be a lawyer but let him forge his own path with privileged-class indulgence.
I bring all this up because, for one, I’m trying to figure out why I am writing a book on gender in the films of George Cukor. Well, I love analyzing, I love gender studies, I enjoy film and am getting very good at critical analysis and teaching thereof. Then, Cukor and I are the children (or children’s children in my case) of European Jews who aren’t religious—though he had more class privilege than my folks or my folks’ folks on either side. And he was a closeted gay man who chose the discreet, conservative route most of the time and maybe I have in some ways but mostly not so much. I know I’m getting a great deal of pleasure writing this book. Some ideas come easier than others, some chapters come together easier than others, some films are more enjoyable and fit my schema easier than others. And I love reading all the gender theory and queer studies analyses and film criticism and film history. Maybe there’s no more to say than that it is a happy coincidence that I’m finding a blend of films I like to study, an approach I enjoy that will likely get published, my son is old enough to enable me the mental space I need to write a book, and few people have written on Cukor’s films. He’s kind of this odd combination of highly successful team player and underdog and I can’t always relate to him or his films, but I enjoy him and his films and anyhow it’s just working so there you go.
Though I’ve rambled on for several paragraphs, the specific purpose in beginning this was to cite a few quotations from Lambert’s book about Cukor that I find intriguing. They speak of a way of being and feeling that sometimes really speaks to me and reflects my worldview and other times really does not. Here we go:
“There are artists whose work is basically a release from personal tension, and there are others for whom their work is an extension rather than a tension, a mode of pleasure and a way of expressing curiosity about their world.”
This really makes me think of my mom. As for me, I think work for me is a combination of tension and extension, but in any case I love the words: extension vs. tension. I am very curious but also sometimes very threatened, so work for me is a way of sorting this out, seeking the new while protecting myself from the threatening. This assumes we mean teaching and research as art. If we’re talking acting, then we’re talking release from tension while engaging in pleasure, but in my life that also means not talking about career. Hence, my choice of doing more comedy and musicals than serious drama, which is compelling but not escapist for me usually.
Quoted within Lambert’s book is also this, from a letter by Lesley Blanch (don’t yet know who that is): “I think he has not, or has passed, ambition, in the destructive sense. This makes him utterly free. And being perfectly sure who he is, what he is, he does not envy—is not eaten up by competition.”
Oh, to reach this before I am, as Cukor was when Lambert interviewed him, 70. I think of myself as someone who is not destructive because of my ambition and envy, but I know there are times—at work, at home, with friends—where I am more competitive than I should/need be, more jealous or envious than I wish I were, more “eaten up” than I would like to be. I don’t envision being “utterly free,” nor do I think Cukor ever was. No one is. Cukor was semi-closeted his whole life, never truly loved his looks, lots of things. But as for career, he made his peace with it. I think I have too, for the most part. No desire to be an academic superstar, though not complacent and still with desire to do more, like this book, my first attempt to write a complete scholarly tome—to make the time and mental space for it despite a heavy workload.
If I can get to a space truly beyond destructive ambition, I sometimes feel, I will achieve the humility Cukor does seem to exude. Whether from a self-doubt related to his sexual orientation and ethnic looks amid the thin, white Hollywood ideal or a true inner peace, I love that Cukor could look back on his career and say he had “an almost mystic respect for other people’s talent.” I have moments of this, as when I admired the actor’s portrayal of the Jester in Once Upon a Mattress in the recent production I was in or this same actors work and the skill of the director in the production of The Bald Soprano I saw when I was doing The Hot L Baltimore. It’s not that I’m cocky and think I’m the best actress ever; it’s that I sometimes am too much in my own head (often in my own insecurities) to pause to really and truly respect other people’s talent. Again, not slamming myself here and not idolizing others; indeed, I think I can be more generous and giving than most people I know. Am just expressing a desire to be a little more generous, a little more patient with self and others, a little more listener than speaker. I’m better than I was and not as good as I hope someday to be. And that’ll do for now.
Please meet my new favorite animal, the Leafy Sea Dragon. A stunning creature, a seeming blend of plant and animal of a species in which the male does the pregnancy and childbearing. Amid the moon jellies and manta rays and the utterly creepy-cool moray eels, I found you and could barely tear myself from your tank at the Chattanooga Aquarium. All hail the seahorses and their champion, the Leafy Sea Dragon!
Being in Tennessee, perhaps it's predictable that sooner or later I'd rethink country music. But it's probably not in a predictable manner. I still don't listen to the vast majority of country, though I've always liked Patsy Cline, and who could dislike "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" on the jukebox? I think my friend Kate has always liked "Rocky Top," and though I didn't like it when younger, I've since come to enjoy the knee-slappin' twang of it. (Wasn't it you who'd enjoy it on the Rainbows Bar jukebox? Or do I misremember?)
But I still dislike the majority of country and worse for me is the political conservatism that seems to accompany it and, especially, its fans. I don't groove on white trash anthems or sappy break-up songs or high hair or "boot scoot boogies" or cowboy-hatted bubbas. This is, in part, cultural bias. Or at least cultural difference I can't get past.
Nonetheless, there are some artificial distinctions here that require me to say that, in certain circumstances, I do like country. I like rockabilly. I like bluegrass. I like "Ring of Fire" and "Jolene" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" sung with all the fervor singers can muster for a religion I will never understand.
More importantly, dismissing country wholesale means dismissing a folk tradition and a long and compelling history. One I'm proud to say I'm reading in Charles Wolfe's 1977 book about the relationship between country music and Tennessee, called Tennessee Strings.
I saw Walk the Line last night on HBO when flipping channels and found it badly written but engaging enough to watch most of. And it made me thinkg of Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and Elvis all playing alongside Johnny Cash and the artificiality of country/rock distinctions with their performances and songs. And I really wanted to talk to Charles. But he's gone so I can't. Which is really unfortunate. I'm rethinking and he's unavailable for comment. A colleague replied that perhaps he was up in heaven having a beer with Johnny Cash even now. Great image. And if I believed in an afterlife, it would have been even better.
Another person I know is a book editor and just finished an editing job that should really be called writing a book (but won't because his name won't be on it as author or ghostwriter or assistant - just in the acknowledgements page, I imagine) about Johnny Cash, a guy's memoirs related to touring with Cash. Maybe I'll pick that one up too after I finish some of Charles' work.
Anyhow, I don't imagine becoming a country music fan anytime soon (or probably ever), but the history and study of it is definitely worth my time.
This video made me sob like a baby. Sad sobbing, happy sobbing. Not even sure how it triggered the downpour. Something about how afraid we all are so much of the time. Distrustful, isolated, cynical.
In particular, we're so afraid to touch. Afraid that people are lechers who'll steal something from us, pickpockets, mentally ill. No question, I sometimes fall prey to this, too. Though I'd absolutely hug someone with a "Free Hugs" sign. As long as they didn't push religious literature on me.
This also reminds me of a documentary I saw years ago about middle-class women who'd been dumped by their husbands for younger women. They talked about wanting to be desired, just longing to be touched. They banded together and hugged each other.
So, reading about Garland in A Star is Born, including the history of the film and how Garland ended up making it, as well as more contemporary critical study (including key works by Richard Dyer on gay men’s relationship with Garland), has led me to rethink the ease with which I dismissed Garland because watching her always made me uncomfortable.
A Star is Born is a film in which Garland’s discomfort is visible in every frame, in part because the film is so (intentionally) autobiographical and because the pressure was on: encouraged by her then-husband, producer Sidney Luft, she made the film as a come-back after having her contract canceled with MGM. This film was to show the “real” Garland, the power of her voice and acting, addressing the evils of the Hollywood studio system and its pressures on actors to be more machine than human.
Certainly, the power is there. When Garland sings “The Man that Got Away,” arms shooting out in all directions and the improvisational feel absolutely tangible, her belt is enough to shake the rafters in a way I can only envy and adore.
Yet, even as the film sells authenticity like a hot stock tip, there is the usual Hollywood artifice all over this film. That belted voice is taped then mouthed by Garland in the actual film, however strong the song seems. In many scenes, she is corseted and forced into ridiculous gowns and dresses to produce that starlet look, even as the film critiques Hollywood’s beauty norms and demands of its stars.
Most compelling to me as I analyzed all of this while rescreening the film was an article entitled “Feeling and the Filmed Body: Judy Garland and the Kinesics of Suffering” by Adrienne L. McLean from Film Quarterly. McLean analyzes Garland’s quirky and neurotic-seeming body movements and their relationship to the way her body was controlled and filmed. She argues, “The signs of Garland’s neurosis and pain not only appear in but are in no small measure caused by the struggles of her body and temperament to adapt to the demands made upon them over time by the visual conventions of women’s stardom itself.” Read the rest of the article here yourself to appreciate the rich analysis of her singing style, her dancing, and her movements in general as they relate to the demands of Hollywood. Truly engaging stuff.
Now, you may already know that Garland was heavily corseted for her role in The Wizard of Oz. The post-pubescent Garland had to be rendered pre-pubescent for the film. And such control and youthening happened to her throughout her young adult career. Her hair was dyed and she was heavily made-up, always. She was even made to wear nasal prosthetics to remove some of the pugness of her nose. Garland also had scoliosis, so she was only allowed to be filmed from certain angles that would not show a hunch in her back. As a more mature adult, she continued to be heavily corseted as she gained weight. She was under 5’ tall, so she always had to be made to look longer and less short-waisted. McLean makes plain that the short, stocky top/middle-heavy body of Garland is perfect for projecting the powerful voice she had. Instead, her body was controlled and regulated by norms that both hampered her movement and made her look awkward and neurotic when trying to use her body to belt those amazing songs. There simply was no acknowledgement of the fact that some people just don’t look like pointy-nosed hourglass models of Hollywood femininity—and of course that is still true today.
I can only imagine what that kind of manipulation of one’s body does to one’s sense of self and self-esteem. Clearly, the diet pills and the alcoholism and the suicide attempt make that plain.
I always knew Garland was a victim of her stardom, but now I know more fully why I cannot watch her act like the perfect American sweetheart in those Andy Hardy films or as the Plain Jane in need of transformation in Easter Parade. I feel badly that I was suckered into misreading distress for complacency in her performances. And I’m glad to have another perspective now.
Doing dishes and tidying the livingroom this morning, I put on Air America Radio as background entertainment. My general experience of the station is a repeated chant of "preaching to the choir" without much content or opinion I didn't already know or believe. The station also, of economic necessity, has dreadful repetitive annoying cheaply made commercials for annoying products and services I (and the bulk of the Left listening, I venture to say) do not want or need.
But there is value in preaching to the choir, at very least as balance to the dreadful preaching to the choir of Right-wing talk radio. It can be good to hear an "official" media voice reflect my perspective. It can be refreshing to hear dozens of callers phone in and none of them lament the lack of prayer in school, celebrate the greatness of owning guns, cheer on the destruction of the environment, or champion Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq, Katrina, or anything else he's "handled." And this is true even when the callers are as rhetorically ineffective as their Right-wing counterparts, because it reminds me that there actually are progressive bubbas out there.
Today I happened in upon the Jerry Springer radio show. It was the usual banter and series of repetitive callers and it felt as superficially comforting as always. But then Springer told one caller that things would turn around, and soon. I'm used to this line and to continuing to wait for the Democrats or a truly progressive third party to emerge and be the voice of the 70+% of this country who are well and truly sick unto death of every word that comes out of Bush, Rice, Cheney, and the rest of the current administration. I keep being told that the next election it will all change, but I'm still reeling from just how many people have taken so many years to see through the evil (and I don't use that word lightly) that is going on in Washington -- largely by Republicans but also by Democrats. And how many people (even if only 30+%) still have any confidence in "W." and his cronies.
But, somehow, Springer's words still penetrated my pessimistic and justly cynical mind. He said, simply, "Progressives always win." And, thank heavens, that actually is, relatively speaking and with multiple qualifications, true. Emancipation of the slaves did take place. Women do have the right to vote. Integration was made law. We do have a social security system. We do have some healthcare for the poor. One can join a union. I can write this blog, critical of the president, without being imprisoned. Again, all this is relative: I could write many times the number of sentences above about injustices and wrongs that have not and may never be addressed, both related to the rights above and to many other vital issues. I do realize all that. But, in the end, I do believe that progressives do move us forward in this country, however long and rocky the road, however many times we get one step forward and two steps back. It will not be soon enough, but sooner or later gay marriage will be a national right, we will have a liberal woman president and/or a president of color, the corporate capitalist mindset will give way to true democracy. I just hope I'm alive to see all of this and more and cheer it on with equal gusto to the deep sorrow and anxiety I feel about the state of the nation -- and most of the world -- right now.
However odd it is that Jerry Springer is on Air America saying "Progressives always win," I thank him for reminding me.
Pop-Tarts leads the way with its constant ads showing their little pseudo pastries running around with arms and legs and getting lured unto death by consumption. They're either being shoved into vans or ice cream trucks or giant toasters or pounced on by starving islanders! Most recent ads are cartoons, but I remember the one with the guy in a strawberry costume being stalked as he walked blissfully to work then shoved into a truck to be made into Pop-Tart filling. No matter that Pop-Tarts have no relationship to real fruit, I'm just sick of seeing food made into humanlike beings then chased, kidnapped, and prepared for slaughter/devouring.
The human-in-a-food suit continues, too: Papa John's now has a little person in a brownie cube suit being chased by a hungry horde. And Eggo frozen waffles have people in waffle suits falling from heights to be smashed and turning into cereal.
The sweet, innocent Tin Man with the Chef Boyardee can painted on his back is another variety of the same, and I just can't watch that evil lunchroom kid telling everyone to lock the doors. I can't decide if it's a Suddenly Last Summer/Lord of the Flies cannibalism moment that horrifies me so or the idea that little boys just have no souls.
I am sure many people find these ads funny, or they'd be off the air rather than a growing trend. Certainly, people dressed up in food suits has a long tradition, from the Fruit of the Loom guys all the way back to the girls in food box outfits on variety shows.
But this is different for its cruelty. The aim of the commercial is not simple anthropomorphization. Like the Chick-fil-A ads that feature cows pointing at chickens so you'll eat them not cows, it's about cutthroat meanness. The goal is to trick or to torture something that has been brought to life only to be tricked and tortured. It is another example of psychic numbing and our culture going down the crapper of intolerance and greed. And it's not funny.
"The book teaches diversity and how children can overcome it productively."
Can you spot the error? Is the problem with this sentence...
(a) a likely typo or spell-check error, where "diversity" should be "adversity"
(b) evidence of the lousy education given to educators in Tennessee
(c) a self-confessed "conservative" teacher (yes, she put that on her self-description on the bulletin board) accidentally expressing her true feelings about issues of diversity
So do scientists. Ponder the recent Madagascar discovery of the missing link “Dracula Ant,” which may explain how wasps evolved into ants! Marvel over the fact that ants may have internal pedometers (and boggle at the insane image of an ant with stilts attached to its legs)!
CGI animators love ants, too. But I’m less sure why. In A Bug’s Life, Antz, and now The Ant Bully, ants are starring figures for representing traits antithetical to ant life, as I understand it. Individualism, integrity, independence: all traits with which ants are entirely unconcerned. The triumph of the underdog may be an occasionally relevant them, when a colony is attacked by bigger, meaner ants, but basically ants just do their communal thing, not trying to stand out, to be heroes, to puzzle out the contradictions of self vs. world. Not only do they lack the “higher” brain function needed for such mental acrobatics, but their chemistry directs them along a completely oppositional path.
Pupae get a hormonal bath that determines whether they’re a scout, worker, nurse, or soldier. Males aren’t produced but once a year for impregnating the queen and other fertile females who might start their own colonies if they find a good place and survive predators and beat the odds. As far as scientists have been able to determine, ants do not struggle against their biochemical destiny, do not seek to stand out but simply live, “contentedly” (yes, total anthropomorphizing there), doing what they do.
In CGI worlds, ants have individual personalities and names (A Bug’s Life, Antz, Ant Bully), there are lots of males everywhere (all three again), especially in positions of power other than queen, they face predators unrelated to life in the wild (A Bug’s Life’s grasshoppers were the most wacky example), and look more human than insect (too few legs in A Bug’s Life, human eyes and teeth in all three).
Clearly, then, CGI ant films are to be read metaphorically. Even when there is the literal (referencing ants’ ability to lift many more times than their own weight, farming aphids, etc.), they are, like most insect-centered narratives – from Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper” to Caribbean Anansi tales – about human beings and human culture.
So, why are we telling tales about ants? By “we,” now, I mean the white guys bankrolling and producing all the CGI films. They seem to be “fun” to animate, but so are cows and cars and toys. Even though I don’t understand the purpose and quirk an eyebrow at what seems an odd allusion to Aztec culture (likely also present in the original book on which the film is based), I enjoyed the beautiful tribal markings on the ants in The Ant Bully. And jokes about crossing your heart that can be made by crossing your abdomen (or “butt” as Peanut/Lucas calls it) are good for a laugh. And these films provide opportunities to sketch in lots of other insects, from ladybugs and stinkbugs to grasshoppers and wasps. But still, the question remains, why ants?
Well, they’re harmless and you can torture them and they keep coming back, for one. A recent documentary on masculine socialization is called “Burning Ants,” for example, referencing a common suburban boyhood experience in America that is linked to emotional distance and violent behavior in adult males. Or, as in The Ant Bully, we have the boy who takes out the pain of being bullied on “lesser” creatures who can’t fight back. So, are we into ant stories because they teach us about the importance of carrying on, regardless? Certainly, these films don’t feel to me like any kinds of insect rights narratives, where we learn to be a kinder, gentler species. But superficial anti-bully stories, sticktuitiveness tales, and underdog championing all work for the kids and families at whom these films are aimed (except Antz, which kids watch but is more adult – more metaphoric and obviously not about ants).
And we Americans do love underdog stories, even as we Americans act more like watchdog (or snarling, foaming, rabid dog) to the rest of the world.
And most of us sitting in the multiplex theater see ourselves as cogs, as peons, and long to be told that we are either (a) vital, important individuals rather than tiny dots in a vast, unfeeling universe or (b) no worse off than any other of the other 6,531,991,670 tiny human dots on the planet (as of 1 August 2006, 2:34pm CST). CGI ant movies can help us with this, I guess, without risking encouragement of a challenge to the cultural status quo – though ants should challenge us with their differences, if only we’re open to seeing them.
In addition, there is the communalism. There is much in ant life that might be deemed threatening to human cultures, especially western, first-world nations like the U.S. of A. We are scared of some forms of communalism, like communism, in which we see threats to individual life choices, to the mythic American Dream. Our choices may be trivial (what brand of dog food to feed the pooch) or significant (abortion or no abortion); and we may envision others as foregoing choice for mindless obedience (e.g. Fundamentalist Muslims), while we actively restrict our choices for wise adherence to a greater truth (e.g. Fundamentalist Christians).
These CGI ant movies definitely do reflect our obsession with the tension between community and self, standing out and fitting in, insider and outsider, what we owe others and what we owe ourselves. And they firmly acknowledge the needs of social creatures (like ants and humans) while validating the importance of individual acts of genius, bravery, and creativity, especially in service of the culture/State (less ant, more human). We obsess about this stuff and find few answers that content us as we face love, loss, illness, death, war, poverty, and a host of other messy aspects of human life. Ultimately, ant stories seem to reflect these necessary obsessions, whether they’re created as childish diversions or philosophical treatises in harmless entertainment guise.
What can we conclude from this? Perhaps that we fashion these ant narratives to process, superficially, our collective angst as American homo sapiens at the turn of the millennium. We really don’t understand how ants can be “happy” and this bothers us, largely because we don’t know how to be happy. Instead, we use this truly alien species to reassure ourselves that differences don’t really matter, that our myths and platitudes (such as the underdog can win and bullies can be scared off with a little teamwork) truly satisfy us. CGI ant movies tell us nothing about what it would mean to be an ant, if they were sentient; they indoctrinate children to see difference and reduce it to the known and the manageable; and they reassure adults that nothing is truly alien and all is as it should be. What a small, scared little species we are.
Reminds me of the time I saw a woven wallhanging in the home of a particularly well-to-do right-wing person I know. It was made in Pakistan and had the artist's signature on it, and I said I was glad to see that because it meant that it was unlikely to have been made by slave labor. The person's response? "Well at least they [enslaved children] get food, water, and a place to sleep." Apparently, sometimes even decrying slavery is too liberal.
In particular, I have long found myself in disagreement with her when it comes to animated films, where it seems she’ll praise anything CGI over anything handdrawn and glorify Pixar in the highest. Her panning of Lilo and Stitch focused on its drab drawings and trite plot, while I found its broad notion of family progressive and its attempt at a Hawaiian aesthetic charming if superficial. By contrast, she adored The Incredibles, finding both content and style original, glorious, magnificent. Never mind the glaring patriarchal, white, middle-class nuclear family-ness of it all.
Now I’m confronted with her reviews of two new Disney flicks, Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean II, and I’ll be damned if I can make the slightest bit of rational sense out of what drives her opinion, yet again. She labels Cars a “beguiling comedy adventure,” while Pirates II is merely “ostentatious extravagance,” an interminable theme-park ride, “a hellish contraption into which a ticket holder is strapped, overstimulated but unsatisfied, and unable to disengage until the operator releases the restraining harness.” Funny, my experience of the two films is pretty much the opposite, though I wouldn’t go to such extremes, and I could easily reverse her descriptions and find them apt. To me, Cars’ main characters were simply “whirling teacup figurines” rather than (or perhaps as well as) Will and Elizabeth of Pirates, and the focus on car racing (especially the races themselves) made me feel strapped in, “overstimulated but unsatisfied.” In fact, even my seven-year-old son was bored with Cars and more than ready to leave and forget his experiences (except the tractor-tipping, which he found troubling to his animal-rights loving spirit, though he has not quite been able to articulate why because they were tractors not cows, or were they?).
Honestly, I didn’t loathe Cars and I didn’t find Pirates II an unqualified piece of cinematic brilliance. Both were superficial flights of fancy, both were Disnified escapism. Cars did attempt to offer a message about how fast we speed past the “beauty” of little towns and out-of-the-way spaces because we’re always on interstates going 80 mph, but in the face of our guzzling imperialistic oil-dependence as a nation, I found the message nostalgic and trite. I much prefer the corporate critique of Monsters, Inc., if we’re championing Pixar.
And good heavens, Lisa Schwarzbaum does love her some Pixar. She gushes, “I [...] bet that any story the Pixarites came up with about dust and socks [...] is bound to be more rewarding than 90 percent of anything coming out of Hollywood Blockbusterville this summer.” While I’ll grant you that “Hollywood Blockbusterville” generally does suck (for artistic and political reasons Schwarzbaum is only occasionally willing and able to engage), glorifying Cars because it features a “bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphized vehicles who express emotion with eyes made from windshields and smiles from metallic front grills” then slamming Pirates because it features human-portrayed characters without greater depth is to fail entirely to understand that making a CGI car come to life is a hell of a lot easier than turning a human being into an effective cartoon, as Depp does so joyously and with such fabulous effect with his Captain Jack Sparrow.
Moreover, to champion Cars by giving it an A- and to bash Pirates II with a D+ on the basis of plot is beyond inane. Cars offers a time-worn tale, the upstart who has to learn his lesson the hard way (“The Tortoise and the Hare” meets “City Mouse and Country Mouse”). I have no problem with this emphasis nor the choice of cars/racing as a focus. But let’s call it like it is: a film for NASCAR fans and Southerners. If you don’t like racing and you don’t like Blue Collar TV, you may find yourself more than a tad bored with the film’s trajectory. Now I’m the first to admit that Larry the Cable Guy provided fabulous white trash humor in the film; and it may be the fact that I’ve been living in middle Tennessee for 15 years that let me laugh with his bubba truck character, Mater. But, really, even George Carlin, Click and Clack, and Cheech Marin couldn’t keep me from yawning as the predictable plot unfolded.
Pirates II ain’t Shakespeare, but if the plot truly was “barely intelligible” to Ms. Schwarzbaum, then I don’t know whether she was simply not paying attention or is looking for random excuses to hate the film. I was delighted with the twists and turns and never bored. Perhaps Lisa was not allowed to play pirates as a kid or they always made her swab the deck.
Finally, to blast Pirates II because its ending makes plain there’ll be a Pirates III but fail to note that Cars has spawned a billion-dollar merchandising extravaganza before the film was even released (and I’d guess there will more than likely be a TV show on the Disney channel by 2007) is to be blind, ignorant, or just incapable of a good film review. You be the judge.
After a fabulous evening of escapism to see Pirates of the Caribbean II on its opening night in Bradford, Pennsylvania with my mother and her husband, we decided to risk deflation by going to see Superman Returns the following night. I did not expect to enjoy the film much, not being a fan of the Christopher Reeve’s films and not particularly liking this particular superhero overmuch, finding him too stiff, too patriotic, too uptight. I generally prefer more complex, angst-ridden superheroes, from X-Men to Xena. So I was much surprised by what I found in this new Superman.
First, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Brandon Routh’s easy, comfortable portrayal. I liked his quiet voice; I relaxed into his small gestures and controlled, compelling facial expressions; I enjoyed his combination of confidence and insecurity. And I grooved on the silent and smooth way Superman flew. With a risk of falling prey to reactionary white masculinity in superheroic form, I found a real allure in his mellowness. Unlike the excessive X-Men, I did not feel overwhelmed by constant slashing and crashing. Unlike the twitchy adolescent Spiderman, I was not nervous watching him. Unlike the dark Batman of recent memory, I did not have to worry that he would act unpredictably, jarring my senses every scene.
What was best of all for me in the film was the way it challenged conservatism that I entirely expected to see. I’m not arguing the film is radical. But, I like that the film makes Lois a single mom with mediocre parenting skills to say the least. She forgets to pick her son up, takes him to follow up a lead that takes her right into Lex Luther’s lair, and doesn’t worry overmuch that he might be traumatized for life by what he has been through. I also really like that the limits of the nuclear family are pushed in the film. Lois’s fiancé Richard keeps his machismo at bay, doing a lot of the parenting (and better than mom) and letting Lois call the shots in their relationship, from waiting around until she is ready for marriage to going back to save Superman at her command despite his jealousy and fear that he may lose his already skittish fiancée to him. While the film could use this depiction to make the character dismissible, a placeholder until Superman can come along and sweep her off her feet again, it does not. As we see in Jason’s drawing of the family, Superman, Richard, Lois, and Jason can all be a family together. Ok, we don’t get true polyamory (Lois and Superman do not even kiss in the film), but we do get a sense of alternatives that do not require traditional marriage as an endpoint.
This is capped off with a resistance to gratuitous nationalism and flagwaving—as Superman lets us know that he hears the voices of the suffering all over the globe and not just in the God-blessed U.S. of A. This is highlighted when Perry White—played with love by Frank Langella—actively resists completion of the Superman tagline “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” reflecting that truth and justice are the real concerns here and the “American Way” is outdated, predictable, perhaps irrelevant, and maybe even distasteful in today’s global economy.
Such delights let me ignore the poor casting for Lois, the glaring plot gap of no one noticing Clark Kent is missing for the entire time that Superman is in the hospital, and troubling awareness of ongoing American desire for escapism in superhero discourse (however cynical it usually is) rather than waking up and changing the way we live our lives and practice our version of democracy. With chin clefts and ultra-blue contacts like Routh’s, it’s so tempting to feel reassured when Superman says, “I’m always around.”
"Artaud believed that the function of theatre was to teach us that 'the sky can still fall on our heads.' [...T]he Slapstick Tragedy that opened on September 11th was also a theatre of cruelty and might warrant some utopian explorations. The sky has fallen on our heads, and what we are seeing [...] threatens to blind us. At a time when every cultural practice is reassessing itself and its role, perhaps we will entertain Artaud's mad vision of theatre as a place to encounter the unknown and the unimaginable, a place that teaches us the necessary humility of not knowing."—Una Chaudhuri
The Western has long been an important genre through which repressed homosexuality thrives. As Brokeback Mountain acknowledges and the montage Jon Stewart unveiled at the 2005 Academy Awards outs, getting a bunch of tough, emotionally challenged men together is bound to result in some hanky panky, however codified.
In more sophisticated terms, Steve Neale, in “Masculinity as Spectacle” (Screen 24.6, 1983, pp. 2-16), argues that “‘male’ genres” of film are “founded upon a repressed homosexual voyeurism.” He notes that “in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed.” (Note: I also use Neale’s focus to discuss the voyeurism and masculine anxiety in Fight Club: here.) In the Western in particular, there is significant focus on intense rivalries between (two) men, fetishization of phallic weaponry, and what I would call “intimate” violence (two men slugging each other and rolling around in the dirt). Neale discusses how such elements encourage male spectators to adopt an erotic gaze usually reserved for viewing female characters. Though they are not passive, as in the prototypical Hollywood female sex object, the activity of men in Westerns is stylized to be watched, and the line between violent display and sexual display is often thin.
While Brokeback Mountain uses this insight in its overt depictions of homosexual intimacy as a sometimes-violent, emotionally complex and difficult subject, particularly for its homophobic protagonist Ennis Del Mar, Deadwood offers repressed representation, the series being deeply invested in reinvigorating the Hollywood Western tradition. Arguably a “meta-Western,” commenting on the genre primarily through depictions of omnipresent muck, glorification of foul language of a sexual nature (especially “fuck” and “cocksucker” and “cunt”), depictions of women-as-chattel, and unremitting graphic violence, the series does not opt to comment on other generic elements, such as the predominance of whites and heteronormativity. Racism against Asians and Native Americans/Indians we do see, but Indian characters and such commonplace realities of the Old West as African American cowboys and prospectors are nigh invisible (in the first season and into the second at least). And repressed homosexuality abounds through the miasma of machismo the series exudes.
I’m not sure whether the gay overtones in the relationship between Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock are intentional or not. It is possible that the writers are aware of the homoeroticism of the Western and are enjoying it, particularly in the heavy-handed swagger of hyperhetero Bullock. But, in the first episode of the second season, when Swearengen calls Bullock out for his dalliance with the widow Alma Garret and the two end up stripping (ok, Bullock just takes off his gun and badge) and wrestling and punching until they fall off the balcony and land in the mud, one atop the other, exhausted—well, it’s just too queer to miss. (Punching in male genre texts always has violent sexual overtones, as I read it, but the tumbling tumbleweeds way these two roll around just made me laugh out loud. Just admit you want to fuck him, Al, and get it over with.)
I also see homoeroticism in Sol Star’s sidekick hero worship of Bullock, but it’s nowhere near as fun(ny) to watch as Bullock and Swearengen.
There is also a fear of femininity that is part of the repressed homoeroticism of Deadwood. As I read the movement from first to second season, as Deadwood goes from camp to government-controlled county, there is an encroachment of domesticity, represented literally by women who exemplify the figurative invasion of femininity. Steve Neale’s analysis of the Western also includes discussion of gendered codes whereby the male hero must reject literal and figurative domesticity (no marriage or children for the sheriff/marshal, a rugged individualism and need for open spaces). Hence, women represent a threat to Western genre masculinity and must be contained (as hookers, or butch drunks like Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) or gotten rid of (consider Joanie’s threat to Cy Tolliver as she develops a need for independence). (This is also the mechanism of the male gaze, according to Laura Mulvey.)
Yet the encroachment of femininity reaches beyond literal female characters to a more generalized anxiety/fear of the domesticity that femininity signifies in the genre. Swearengen’s fear of losing power and control over Deadwood is significantly greater when he faces the domesticating government than entrepreneur Cy Tolliver; Bullock is far more threatened by the arrival of his wife and child than any other dangers in Deadwood; and even Calamity Jane can only shout “cocksuckers!” at the stagecoach that brings new whores (to be managed by a Madam and not a man) as well as Bullock’s wife to town.
Interestingly, the character most impacted by this change in town is Alma Garret. She has spent much of her time in Deadwood first drugged by laudanum then peering out of her window, gazing at this masculine space and wanting to be part of it; yet being told, repeatedly, that his is not her place. First, her husband keeps her cloistered (hence her escape via drugs). She does not love him, but more importantly, he also symbolizes her entrapment by gendered norms. When he is killed, she experiences a desire to live beyond upper-class feminine norms, and begins to do so. Though saddled with a child—a heavy domestic dose—prostitute Trixie provides the opportunity to shed this sudden maternal role (an option generally available to upper-class women) but also to see beyond other traditional feminine behavioral norms for women of privileged class. Alma wishes to venture forth into this non-domesticated world. At first, she uses Wild Bill Hickok then Seth Bullock as her “agents,” living vicariously through their freedom (something Calamity Jane is also permitted through her dress and crass manner—though she has her feminine vulnerabilities). But as she decides to stay in town she is asserting a feminist resistance to gender norms. She is still too mired in gender and class norms to do everything herself, so Bullock serves to rid her of a conman father who uses her femininity against her to attain his greedy ends and to give her access to sexual pleasures beyond the marriage bed.
My main point here about Alma, however, is how domesticity returns from without to threaten her budding independence. Through the symbolic arrival of Bullock’s wife and child, Alma is staggered by the changes coming to Deadwood. The domesticization of the town does not threaten her as overtly as it does Swearengen and Bullock, but approach of civilizing influences in which she may be expected to return to her “proper” feminine role are definitely a key tension as season two begins.
Though I am still routing for a more developed and satisfying role for genderbender Calamity Jane, as I watch the second season on DVD, Alma appears to be the most dynamic and gender complex character in the series. Well, unless Al keeps getting queerer.
The new incarnation of Doctor Who (first season just now airing in the States) does a superb job of retaining the old “feel” while adding some new flourishes—primarily in the areas of character development and relationships. First, the Doctor tells us that the entire Timelord “race” has been wiped out. So now he’s even more of a loner and renegade. Second, he’s flirty.
It’s delightful to see the very charismatic Christopher Eccleston play the Doctor with such working-class-boy-made-good chutzpah, excited like a child when he saves lives instead of destroying them (a great comment on the death toll of many a past Doctor’s life) and impishly flirtatious with his assistant Rose, the sweet blonde who’s even more white trashy than her predecessor Ace, and other young women he meets.
At the moment, though, I most want to praise the new Doctor Who for the character of Captain Jack Harkness. Reminding me a lot of an even flashier “Ace Rimmer” (Chris Barrie’s alter-ego from the British SF sitcom Red Dwarf), John Barrowman (whom I know best as a singer—his work in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together and part as Cole Porter’s lover in De-Lovely come to mind) is wonderfully hyper-competent and out-flirts the Doctor repeatedly (much to the Doctor’s dismay). Best of all, in the first season, he’s entirely and openly bisexual in his attractions, flirting with equal pleasure with women and men. I particularly loved the moment when he created a helpful diversion by chatting up a group of WWII pilots. Even when the Doctor finds Captain Jack an annoying nuisance (with obvious streaks of jealousy of his attractiveness to Rose and everyone else he meets), he never shows distaste for his omnivorous sexual attractions. I find this a delightful way to depict a future where bisexuality can be taken for granted.
Can’t wait for season two to air!*
*Yes, I know Captain Jack is getting his own show in England as I type... I'm guessing it won't make it to US television (or beyond a first season)--he's not the lead character type, imo, but let me know if anyone out there sees it.
Butler’s protagonist, the amnesiac Renee/Shori, looks 11 but is actually 53 (still a child in vampire—or, as they call themselves, Ina—years). I won’t go into too many plot details, but suffice it to say she gets involved with Wright, a 23-year-old human male (i.e. bites and unintentionally compels to become her companion). They begin what Butler calls a symbiotic relationship. This is a central core to all of Butler’s fiction, and I cannot help but think about it alongside my knowledge of the author’s relatively solitary life. Her fiction often suggests that it takes outside forces to bring people together and keep them together. When not dealing with outright enslavement, the most intense relationships in much of her writing are about beings compelled to stay together. Often it is alien chemistry that does so or an absence of other viable options. Rarely do two characters meet, fall in love, and stay together.
Now, in Fledgling, Butler pushes an interesting envelope with her symbiosis theme, as she has this pre-pubescent-seeming vampire gal have sex with Wright. She enjoys giving him pleasure through her bites—and the particularly sensuous licking of his neck—but also through sex. Wright definitely expresses concern that he’s being seduced by a flat-chested, pubic-hairless girl, but he absolutely takes the elfin "child" into his arms and does the deed. Butler makes sure to make our heroine the aggressor, to show Wright’s discomfort, and even to make jokes about it. The word “jailbait” is used (an understatement!); and, when Renee/Shori meets another of her kind (so far he says he’s her father), he taunts Wright with reference to how others might see his relationship with this apparent pre-teen.
The first sex scene between them is, so far, the only one described at all, and Butler is, as always in her fiction, hesitant to describe sex graphically. (I repeatedly feel she simply does not understand love or lust; like Orson Scott Card, I get the feeling that passion escapes her entirely or turns her off.) But choosing to depict sex between consenting people who are not both adults is a risky proposition and I have mixed feelings about it. In choosing a protagonist who appears so young and also has amnesia, is Butler offering commentary on our current obsession with stopping child porn? (I read the current administration as using child porn concerns to further its McCarthy-esque invasions of privacy, but let’s leave that lie for now.) Is Butler pushing boundaries, intentionally depicting something that makes readers uncomfortable in order to challenge a current trend to censor rather than analyze? Is she commenting on the Christian Right’s hungry brush that tars a wide path of everything it deems “obscene” or “immoral”? Or is she, less politically but very typically for Butler, just messing with our easy reliance on rigid, overly simplistic categories (adult/child, moral/immoral, human/other)?
In any case, the opening of the novel did make me uncomfortable, and I’m sure intentionally so. Furthermore, however, it also made me angry. Following the Lenny Bruce quotation I cited earlier in this blog, I am frustrated by what we deem smut and what we deem “literature” and who can get away with what and how. If it’s “literature,” then you can describe an 11-year-old female body writhing on top of a 23-year-old male one. Yes, Butler must quickly explain that she’s not really 11 and she’s not even human, but she still has this guy fuck a kid before our startled eyes. (My husband is reading the novel Aztec right now and comments that it, too, contains sex with children, in this case because it is relying on historical evidence that the Aztecs did this.)
By contrast, if Fledgling or Aztec emphasized sex as central to the novel and was brought to a publisher of erotica, it would never have made it to print. There'd be no passing the huge “NO UNDERAGE SEX” warning. They also have NO BESTIALITY, NO RAPE, and other prohibitions, upholding these to stay in business in a difficult cultural environment, like those porn sites that now have to keep consent forms for every nude photo they post.
This reminds me of another literary/porn anecdote: about 10-15 years ago, a publisher issued a reprint of Samuel Delany’s pornographic novel Equinox. At the time, I found it excessive and in no way arousing, full of sex with minors, questionable consent issues, and very unsavory (unwashed) characters. (And now I can’t find my copy to see how I'd read it today.) What I remember most is an editor’s note that preceded the text, stating that the ages of every character had been increased by 100 to address concerns with child porn and consent! So the kids were now 110, the adults 142, etc. It was simply absurd, but also an interesting way to address the issue of censorship. We couldn’t publish the book as written (and originally published in 1968), so we had to do this stupid thing and pretend they’re all longlived aliens!
In the end, I’m not sure whether Butler—who always depicts lovers with big age differences where the woman is much younger than the man (Lauren was 17 to Bankola’s 45 in Parable of the Sower, if memory serves)—is making political/social commentary, trying to make readers uncomfortable as a psychological strategy, or just exploring the nooks and crannies of her own psyche. However, as always, she does make me think. Not a bad contribution to human existence, especially in this day and age.
Now, I’m better than I used to be, working harder to distinguish purely guilt-induced motive from guilt-plus, where there is some other reason I might do something as well as a little guilt engine driving it. Compromise, the Golden Mean. I still haven’t gotten to the anti-guilt state my friend Rick touts, embodied in his slogan “Always take more than your fair share of the available resources.” Even though he is careful to point out the qualifier “available” here, it just smacks of more greed than I can usually muster. (But then, I’ve seen Rick, too, knuckle under to guilt, that Great Equalizer—we all do.)
This topic came up for me this morning in particular as I watched my son amble off from my car to his first-grade classroom. Chewing his hair a bit, walking with a casual, weaving gait, he was making his way casually and calmly. I caught myself thinking, as I have thought before, how he has his own little life that I am not part of. And how that is FINE. I want him to have a life of his own. For one, it takes some responsibility off me for what his moment-by-moment existence consists of. This is not to say I like our educational system, Bush’s inane and evil “No Child Left Behind” test-mania plan, our particular grammar school, or my son’s particular teacher. But I like knowing my child has some responsibility for himself as he makes choices of friends, playthings, how to color his worksheet, when to ask for a drink of water, and what in his lunch to eat and what to mash into a little ball in the bottom of his lunchbox for me to clean out. And I like this, at least in part, because it frees me of responsibility (a.k.a. guilt) for a few hours of the day.
(This definitely clarifies why being the parent of an infant was so horrific for me. There is no moment of the day when you are not totally responsible for an infant, and with my guilt already riding high, having an infant pushed me over the edge for a while, even with a superb co-parent along for the ride.)
Taking care of others’ needs is really tough for me. I do it lots, and I’m good at it. It has been a big part of my psyche from a very young age. But being good at it means it drains me. More specifically, I’m thinking as I type this, responsibility and guilt are very much blurred in my worldview. The difficult but intelligent Papusa Molina once said in a workshop on diversity, “Responsibility can be defined as the ability to respond.” Who can respond should. Who can’t need not feel guilty every moment of the day over it. But to what in this life can I not respond, with all my middle-class privilege (while others starve, suffer, die)?
How much money to charity is too much?
How many rescued pets is too many?
How often is leaving our son with a sitter too many?
How many visits to family instead of vacations is enough?
How many cookies are too many?
How often can you just let the phone ring and not answer it?
How often is often enough for taking the dog for a walk?
How long can you avoid housework without feeling like the Queen of Filth?
How much money do you give to friends whom you want to tell to “learn to budget”!
When will I stop feeling guilty that I had only one child?
How much work is enough, and when will I feel like “enough” IS enough?
The list goes on and on, and some days are better than others. Some days I don’t ask any of those questions at all. But most days I at least ask some. And, honestly, I think I differ from others not in how many questions I ask myself or how frequently I ask them (my guilt does usually come in leading question form, not in exclamation) but in how openly I admit (to myself and others) that I have such guilt.
“Just don’t worry about it” doesn’t work for me any more than for most of my friends and family. But some people are much better at blocking than others. And I know I annoy my friends most when what I say and do interferes with their blocking ability. When I confess to guilt, I bring up the subject for them. Sorry, friends, that’s just how it is. In fact, it's part of my best self, the one that analyzes and processes and works to make sense of things rather than just letting life flow by unquestioned. (Wow, not much guilt about being myself on that score apparently, hoorah!)
Actually, despite the sometimes crushing burden of guilt I take on, I do like myself. I do like my “ability to respond” and willingness to do so on many fronts. Perhaps this is a defensive strategy, praising myself for how much guilt I take on. But what else is our personality made up of apart from ways of seeing and ways of defending our ways of seeing? Coping strategies, blocking strategies—all kinds of strategies that spin around in our over-evolved heads. All that and blogging (don’t want to let too much time slip between posts or I’ll feel guilty about THAT!) keeps me a happy, busy (and busy-ness is next to godliness) human bean.
Mark Morford has inspired me again. Today’s column was on Google Trends, a handy service where you can look up which places in the world most often use Google to surf the Internet for certain terms (stats change daily). Morford discovers that Elmhurst, IL, for example, is the US city that most often looks up “anal sex” and “porn.”
Morford is wise in noting that this is more pseudo-information than truly useful fact. I definitely see the trend he sees in Elmhurst, but if I look up “feminist,” is it feminists or anti-feminists who are looking it up most? What do “global trends” mean when we have language issues (what is the equivalent word for “feminism” in Polish, Hindu, or Zulu)? Clearly, this tool has serious limitations. …But it’s addictive.
Here are some of the Googlicious factoids I discovered today:
Nowhere in the world do people look up the term “Christ” more frequently than in Nashville, TN, but it is Ashland City, TN and Lebanon, TN that top the list for looking up “Nashville.”
Delhi, India is the #1 city on the planet for looking up “namaste,” “masturbate,” and “hero.”
Halifax, Canada is off the charts on the term “empire,” with New York, London, and other US, UK, Canadian, and Australian cities trailing far behind.
Washington DC is champion for “feminist,” “genocide,” and “nuclear.”
The US is nowhere in the top ten for looking up either “Islam” or “clitoris.”
“War” is looked up much, much more often than “peace.”
...What can you learn today?
I find out from Good Dr. Martin that I’m now a welcome member to the Over 40 Eyes Club, in that I am now officially farsighted. The previous/ongoing issue of problem with focus remains and is worse. I think my vision, which was 20/20 or better beforehand, got ruined by living in front of a Macintosh SE while writing my dissertation, back in the dot-matrix, pre-www days of 1990-1991. In any case, the prescription for the old glazzies is now higher, the distance vision is shot, and so...I must now embrace the wicked truth that, in one week when it’s time to pick up my fabulous new pair, I will be an Official Bifocal-wearing Old Fart.
The Doc did some laughing at my/our expense when I asked if I could have one pair of reading glasses and one pair of driving glasses. After all, I still don’t have to wear them all the time and they are for two separate purposes (hence the “bi” in “bifocal”). He said many people “in denial” do this until they just get over their vanity and acknowledge that this is just how things go when you hit your 40s. As your reading prescription gets strong enough to avoid the whanging headaches you’ve been denying have any relationship to your vision, it also means that when you look up from your book at your clock or your dog or your child smearing mashed potato on your clock or your dog that the world will be a fuzzy, blurry place. Now he did not say all of this, just the “denial” part. And he is, of course, absolutely right in my case.
Of course, as with all good pity parties, we must eventually stop the dance and take a moment to acknowledge that the cup may, indeed, be half full. I can still wear the glasses for reading and driving and keep them off other times. I made it 30 years with no glasses and another 10+ with weak ones. But the Bifocal Train is pullin’ into the station and I gotta ride it, however far from Youth Town it may be headed. Chugga chugga wooooooooo wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
In the end, I find myself wanting to read the novel that is so highly praised to see if perhaps my “It was good but not great” response to the film has something to do with the translation of novel to film. And I look forward to seeing more of Cillian Murphy’s work, ideally outside the superhero or other trite Americanized genres.
Meanwhile, I’ll read some more reviews and welcome feedback here about others’ experiences of the film.
Given this interest and friends’ recommendations, I wanted to give Deadwood a try. Since it is on DVD, seeing the first season, episode by episode, seemed ideal. Because I don’t watch violence easily or lightly in most circumstances, I liked the idea of choosing when and how I’d watch it. And I like Ian McShane from his days in Lovejoy.
I’ve watched the first three episodes now, so I thought I’d weigh in on my response so far. First, this is typical genre stuff. The “Wild West” is as cartoonish as in good-old classic Hollywood westerns, and then you layer on HBO-style “gritty realism” (without ever dipping into actual “reality”). You get tons of swearing, hookers with gonorrhea, drug addiction, and a big death toll from living in a “real” squatter gold town beyond the reach of the U.S. government (Deadwood was, indeed, a real town similar to what is shown on the show—not to mention the name of a popular laid-back bar in Iowa City). You mix in some “real” famous people (Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok) and dance around historical reports of their relationships while making a bunch of crap up as you go along to heighten tension.
Heightening tension gets at the heart of my current response to the series. There is so much tension, so much wondering who will get killed when and by whom, how dastardly will the next murder be…that it keeps my adrenalin flowing at what I can only call a toxic level. SO MUCH fight-or-flight response just isn’t good for my nervous system. Doesn’t matter whether I watch it at night (then have to find some way to come down for the next hour so I can go to sleep) or in the morning (then have to find some way to purge adrenalin that feels like a hit of speed or a dozen cups of coffee); in either case, I feel positively poisoned from riding the tension rollercoaster.
I know some people are addicted to this kind of a ride, and it definitely is a physiological experience as well as an emotional and marginally intellectual one. I’m guessing The Sopranos works similarly on people, as did NYPD Blue. I want to compare it to a literal rollercoaster ride, though for me it lacks the high.
It might help me if there were more character development in these first episodes. McShane’s Al Swearengen is about the best I’ve seen in episodes 1-3, especially if you like watching train wrecks. His depth of unethical, immoral, vicious behavior coupled with sociopathic calm in line delivery is engaging, in its villainous way. But watching him slap around prostitutes or order the murder of children gets exhausting, and predictable, fast.
And Calamity Jane better get more interesting – fast. Such an opportunity, and they have her cower before Swearengen without the (feminist) kindness of having him trigger memories of abuse as a child or some credible reason to bring down this calamitous cross-dresser. Her relationship with Hickok, however unrequited, has great genderbending implications, but so far the show is making her more the butt of jokes than a truly compelling character. She doesn’t have to be Xena, but she should be compelling. But hell, so should Hickok. Not to mention Seth Bullock, the dullest character this side of any western (does he have the ability to look at someone in a way other than up at an angle from beneath his hat/brow, or has someone told the director this is “sexy”?). And Sol Star (oy vey that name) is our token Jew (ho hum).
I do get that Deadwood is a show about westerns even more than it is a western. It’s a postmodern western. It’s a metawestern. But then, not really. I think my biggest criticism is that it isn’t fully in the genre and it isn’t fully outside the genre. Some will say this is its brilliance. But until it has some characters that truly grip me, it’s a long hour. Just pass me some of Alma’s laudanum so I can come down more quickly after the adrenalin poisoning and I’ll try to make it a few more episodes before I move on to something else.
Anyhow, the point of this unpleasant blog is how unpleasant the damn CAT scan was! The real rant, though (given the general aims of this blog), is less to bitch about the procedure than to bitch about the way the procedure is and is not represented to the patient. Here is a list of my complaints:
1. The doctor made it seem entirely simple and without complication or discomfort. He did give the usual caveat, glibly babbled off, about people dying from the procedure in very rare cases, to which I replied, “How can you say I have nothing to worry about AND that I might die from it?” “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you,” he smiled into my face. And off I went to schedule it.
2. The nurse in the X-ray area gave me two bottles of yuck to drink without ever once mentioning—verbally or on the instruction sheet—that this barium stuff causes bloating, cramping, serious gas, and even diarrhea. She did say it has a metallic taste and to put it in the fridge before drinking it. (The flavor was mildly coconut, but the texture was something between school glue and male ejaculate—ok, that’s DEFINITELY more than you wanted to read, but it gets across the point of how difficult it was to guzzle down in quantity.) She did not, however, say “Watch out for the runs!” (The CAT scan technician put it this way when I complained of the cramping during the procedure: “Oh, some people don’t even get diarrhea.”) In that waiting room after swigging the shit down, I made several potty trips in half and hour and passed so much gas I could’ve filled a hot-air balloon.
3. The “contrast dye” they use for your organs is, as the doctor said, “an injection,” but he didn’t say it was through an IV! Those things HURT and the dye can cause hives, shortness of breath, or more severe allergic reaction, including death. No one told me this until I was already in the CAT scan room with the Donut of Doom looming before me. The technician did tell me that the dye would give me a burning sensation in my throat and bladder, and it did, but it passed quickly.
4. Oh yeah, they make you injest ANOTHER large cup of barium yuck (this time it wasn’t coconut glue but metallic orange fizz) just before you lie down, to “top you off” as the technician said.
5. The actual renal/pelvic CAT scan requires that you hold your breath about 10 times during the procedure, between 10 and 30 seconds each. This isn’t tough unless you’re already hyperventilating, of course, which I’m happy to say I wasn’t. However, it is not easy to hold your breath over and over again when you’re having increasingly sharp gas pains from being overfull of barium yuck and having to lie prone with it gurgling through your guts.
In the end, I lived to tell the tale. I withstood the horrid IV experience, held my breath as required between stabbing gas pains, passed the barium yuck over the course of the day from every orifice, and then went shopping (found a remarkable pink tank top with Tank Girl on it, saying “Oh, the preposterous bollocks of the situation!” at Marshalls—an unexpected treasure).
What I want is for doctors and nurses to let people know this stuff awaits them with this “simple procedure.” Just a little sheet saying that some of this may happen to them. But truly informed consent seems something the medical community is just simply uninterested in.