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A blog about "displaced thoughts on misplaced literatures."
Matthew Cheney is a writer and teacher who lives in New Hampshire. His work has been published by English Journal, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places.
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I've only known of Roger Ebert's death for an hour, but I can't focus on doing anything else
right now, so I might as well write this, raw and unformed and rambling as it may be. So be it.
A couple weeks ago, Ebert stuck my video essay on Clint Eastwood's endings up on his blog
. The last time I felt so close to fainting was when Samuel Delany first called me on the phone. (I bet Ebert would have appreciated that. He was, after all, a science fiction fan
.) I wish I'd sent him an email to thank him, to say how utterly gobsmacked I was to have somebody who'd been a constant presence in my life suddenly notice something I'd done, and approve it. I was too shy. I knew it was the right thing to do, knew he might even be pleased that his notice meant something to me, but ... I was too shy.
Roger Ebert was always there in my life. Well, not always. I suppose before the age of 10 or 11, I hadn't seen his TV show (one with various names, but I'll forever think of it as Siskel & Ebert
), a show that was born the same year I was
. In the days before the internet, that show was a lifeline for a kid like me, living in New Hampshire, in love with movies and yet without any easy way to get information about any but the most mainstream and blockbuster. I would watch with a pen in my hand and take notes on which ones sounded interesting. Thus I discovered so many films that I later came to love (or loathe). Often, I had to wait till they were on videotape; sometimes, I was able to see them at a Boston theatre on one of my occasional trips to the city. Who I am as a film viewer was deeply shaped by those years of watching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel argue about movies on TV.
Truthfully, it wasn't until he lost his voice that I came to love Roger Ebert, though. As my film taste was shaped watching the TV show, I tended to side more with Gene Siskel. Then, once I was in college in New York I was reading film reviews in the Voice
and some of the film journals (whichever ones the Barnes & Noble at Astor Place carried: I'd grab a pile, sit in a chair, and read them cover to cover). Siskel and especially Ebert seemed, to a callow youth rather arrogant in his opinionating, utterly mainstream and utterly bourgeois. I suppose I was trying to expel his influence, to kill a father. Such is the nature of callow youths.
Then the Sun-Times
put his reviews online. He started blogging. He became Master of Twitter. He expanded his blog to include all sorts of younger critics from around the world. I learned about Ebertfest. I learned about all he had done for film culture in Chicago. I learned.
And though our taste wasn't ever exactly the same, I found I loved reading his reviews. Actually, I liked
that our tastes differed, because he was so good at expressing what he appreciated or didn't appreciate, even if my response was the opposite. What I had never known from the TV show was just what a marvelous writer Ebert was. A writer who happened to be a film critic. But a writer first.
Ebert's most interesting reviews aren't just reviews. They do the job a review is supposed to — they tell us about a cultural product we probably haven't yet encountered ourselves, and they give us the writer's take on it — but they are full of tangents, side remarks, bits of fact or philosophy. They are essays
in the broadest and most classical sense: moments of thought. The familiar Ebert voice is always there in the words, and it is a comforting voice, an entertaining voice, the voice of a friend or beloved family member, somebody really smart and passionate, somebody you just want to talk to — about anything, really. It's no surprise that when he wrote his memoirs, he did so masterfully. His reviews were also pieces of memoir.
Could one critic ever be so important again? Probably not. The cultural landscape has fragmented, fractured, gone all rhizomatic. Overall, I think that's a good thing. I wouldn't want to go back to those days of having to rely on Siskel & Ebert
for all my movie information. I like the easy access to variety today. But still. Roger Ebert, man. We often say a particular death is the end of an era. With Ebert, it really is.
He inspired millions of people to care about movies as something more than just entertainment, but without forgetting that entertainment is central to the experience, that visual pleasure and narrative cinema are nothing to be ashamed of.
Again and again, people have spoken of his generosity, his decency, his humanism. It is remarkable that a man who published three whole books of his most negative reviews could be so beloved! But Ebert wrote wonderful negative reviews. (Even of movies I like!) His generosity of spirit comes through, even as he is saying that a film is utterly awful, a terrible waste of time or effort or talent, even immoral. And when he praised, he praised like a poet.
I learned about one of my favorite movies, David Lynch's Blue Velvet
, from the Siskel & Ebert episode where Ebert lambasted it
. I wouldn't get to see the film for at least a year after that episode aired, but I remembered it, and I watched the movie while trying to evaluate what I thought of Siskel and Ebert's discussion about it. I decided I completely disagreed with Ebert on it. I still do. And I am utterly grateful to him for what he said, because it provoked me and haunted me and challenged me. There are worse ways to learn about aesthetics and morality, worse ways to learn about yourself.
Neil Steinberg at the Sun-Times
chose a perfect quote from Ebert's Life Itself
“‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs,” he wrote, at the end of his memoirs. “No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
Carve those words in stone. Better yet, project them through celluloid.
Tonight, I will choose one of the movies from his most recent Sight & Sound ballot
to revisit, probably The General
because it would be nice to laugh, and to watch that most graceful of all screen graces, Buster Keaton, my favorite silent film actor.
Thank you, Roger Ebert. All our thumbs are raised high in your honor.
It's two hours now since I learned of Roger Ebert's death.
The signature closing words of Siskel & Ebert
are today among the saddest in our language:
The balcony is closed.
|Most images grabbed off the internet are terrible.|
A few days ago, I wrote a draft of this post that was a snarky attack on a badly thought-out essay by J. Robert Lennon at Salon
. It would be nice if sites like Salon would expend more of their energies in bringing attention to some good writing that doesn't get noticed rather than running yet another quick-and-dirty "contrarian" takedown.
After writing the snarky draft, I realized my problem wasn't with Lennon or the essay per se. My problem was more with the people who seemed so desperately to want to like his essay.
Lennon sets himself up against some comments by Dan Chaon
that have been bouncing around the internet for a while (for some unfathomable reason, that website doesn't clearly date its material). These comments by Chaon are intelligent and accurate. He says writers need to read widely and eclectically, and he even suggests some good things to read. Specific, helpful advice.
Lennon decides to contradict Chaon's advice. And that's where he goes off the rails, making vague accusations that something called "literary fiction" is "terrible" and "boring".
Here was my original first paragraph:
J. Robert Lennon proves himself to be the latest person who needs to have Sturgeon's Law tattooed on his arm so he can be reminded of it every day. Yes, Mr. Lennon, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible. Most everything is terrible.
Lennon provides little evidence and little analysis, just yammering for the knee-jerks in the peanut gallery. (For a vastly better discussion of "literary fiction", with evidence and analysis and all that jazz, listen to this podcast with Nick Mamatas
. The set-up of "literary vs. genre fiction" is inane, but Nick actually knows what he's talking about, has read widely, is not a "SCI FI RULZ!" kind of guy, and in any case is mostly discussing one of the strongholds of adorable My Literature Is The One Ring cosplay, the AWP Conference.)
After writing on and on about Lennon's vapid essay, I realized I didn't care about what he had written, nor did I care if he'd made an idiot of himself in public. Go for it. We all do it now and then. God invented the internet so we'd all have an easier way to parade our stupidies for the world to see.
What really annoyed me, I realized, was seeing Lennon's piece linked to approvingly by people on Twitter and Facebook, those machines of social infestation. Clearly, it wasn't Lennon's argument that was appealing to people, because his argument is about as strong as homeopathic water. What appealed to people was, it seems, the impulse to clan identification that Michael Chabon described so well in his 2004 Locus interview
It's quite obvious to me that so much of what goes on in the world of science fiction has analogies with a ghetto mentality, with a sense of clannishness and that ambivalence that you have: on the one hand wanting to keep outsiders out and identify all the insiders with a special language and jargon so you can tell at a glance who does and doesn't belong, and on the other hand hating that sense of confinement, wanting to move beyond the walls of the ghetto and find wider acceptance. It's a deep ambivalence. You want both at the same time: you feel confined, and you feel supported and protected.
People who spread around the most bombastic and attention-seeking sentence from Lennon's essay — "Let’s face it: Literary fiction is fucking boring." — likely did so for reasons of clannishness and ressentiment.
In Lennon's construction of the sentence, there's the audience-flattering opening: Let's face it
. Like the guy at the bar who says, "Let's face it, we all know the Yankees suck." (The difference here is that "the Yankees" is an identifiable thing.) Anyone passing this sentence around is excluded from its claims. Are you a self-published writer who identifies with genre fiction of some sort or another? Lennon's sentence, then, was built to make you feel good about yourself. Are you somebody who's been rejected by all the major university-sponsored lit mags? You are loving that sentence, because you know your own writing is just too interesting for the tweed-spattered boringheads who edit those publications. Anybody who nurses a grudge about their writing career, anybody who doesn't feel appreciated, anybody who thinks the institutional They is enforcing boredom so as to keep the individual, interesting You outside the gates raises a fist in solidarity with that sentence. Every unpublished, highly-rejected, destitute writer can love that sentence in just the same way that Stephen King can love that sentence. No matter what, it's not about you. You are not boring.
Except you probably are. To somebody, at least. Maybe to J. Robert Lennon. (Full confession: I thought Lennon's Castle
was sometimes boring. Not as boring as lots of other books, but sometimes, yes, boring. To me.)
The problem is not that most x
is boring. It is. Stories, books, poems, movies, food, appliances, bunny rabbits, sex, drugs, rocknroll. Fill in the x
and the equation will always be true for somebody. (A person once even said to me, "Cocaine is boring." I have no experience with the drug myself, but while I'm sure many things could be said about cocaine, this statement surprised me.)
The problem is that saying, "Most x
is boring" or "Most x
is terrible" lets you off the hook. It's easy. It makes knees jerk and fists rise in the air. It creates a hierarchy in which you stand in the superior position. How's it feel up there at your exalted heights?
While saying, "X
bores me," is an incontrovertible statement of personal experience and taste, making a universal ontological statement ("X is
boring") is indefensible. You can say, "William Gaddis novels and Andrei Tarkovsky movies bore me," but once you say, "Gaddis novels and Tarkovsky movies are
boring," you have entered dangerous territory in which you have set yourself up as superior not only to Gaddis and Tarkovsky, but to anyone interested in their work. You are saying, "If you enjoyed and appreciated x-that-bored-me
, you are wrong."
Are you really that much of an egomaniac that your
lack of engagement with something must become universal?
What Sturgeon's Law really gets at is not that most everything is terrible, but that most of us experience most everything as terrible. A person who likes everything is a person who likes nothing (and other banal and obvious statements). Our experiences in life condition us to appreciate some things and not appreciate others. Somebody who finds everything interesting is somebody who probably has trouble getting out of bed in the morning because the potential for absolute awesomeness is too overwhelming.
Even that, though, is not really what most bothered me about Lennon's essay and people's support for it. We all say stuff is boring all the time, it's a rhetorical claim rather than a statement of fact, whatever dude.
What really, truly, deeply bothered me is that Lennon's claims are so broadly dismissive when in reality there's all sorts of varied work being published that could be tagged "literary fiction".
If Lennon had said, "Most of the anthologies used in Introduction to Literature classes for undergraduates are created with a pretty conventional and quite narrow definition of 'literature'," he'd be on solid ground. If he said, "In my experience, lots of writing workshops define what is 'acceptable' for students to write in narrow, conventional ways," he'd also be on perfectly solid ground, just as he's on relatively solid ground in implying that the Best American Short Stories
volumes are ruled by quite conventional and conservative standards, ones enforced by the publisher and series editor even, it seems, occasionally against the will of individual guest editors (the brand must be protected).
Anyone who uses the term "literary fiction" as anything other than an admittedly unsatisfactory placeholder for an undefinable something-or-other ought to feel some obligation to get specific. Do you mean Tin House
and Ninth Letter
and Denver Quarterly
? Do you mean books from Dalkey Archive
and Coffee House
and Melville House
and Open Letter
and...? Do you mean Pulitzer winners
or Sukenick Award winners
or Booker winners
or PEN Faulkner winners
or Nobel winners
or Whiting Award winners
What are you talking about when you talk about "literary fiction"?
Are you sure that your view of fiction isn't narrow, provincial, and more based on your own limited assumptions rather than any actual evidence? Are you primarily annoyed that you didn't get a good review in the New York Times
and nobody has nominated you for a major award and your books are taught in college classes and you got dropped by your publisher and Dan Brown sells more books than you? Are you still angry about your 9th grade English teacher making you read The Scarlet Letter
Instead of blathering on about how terrible literary fiction is, instead of sharing links to vapid essays about the evil conspiracy of boredom committed against you, instead of ra-ra-ing for your clan and salving the wounds of your ego with the balm of drivel — why don't you try 1.) reading more broadly, and 2.) pointing to interesting work that isn't getting noticed?
Most literary fiction is terrible.
Most fiction is terrible. Most nonfiction is terrible. Most blog posts are terrible.
Most everything is terrible.
Big deal. Get over it. Go read something that interests you, and if nothing interests you, then the problem is not with other people and other writers, but with you.
is running a series of essays on the Coen Brothers' films this week, and they very kindly asked me to contribute and let me pick the movie I wanted to write about. I chose Burn After Reading
. The essay is called "They Know Not What They Do"
. Here's the opening:
When Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) descends into her husband's basement office and copies financial records off of his computer, we get a glimpse of a book on the desk, a book that looks to be George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment: 1944-1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. This should not surprise us. We have previously heard Oswald Cox (John Malkovich), while struggling to dictate his memoirs, declare: "The principles of George Kennan—a personal hero of mine—were what animated us. In fact they were what had originally inspired me to enter government service."Continue reading at Press Play.
Burn After Reading is a film about containment and knowledge, or, to put it another way, a tale of wars against chaos. Necessarily, it is a farce.
|Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013|
It's going to take me a while to have anything coherent to say about Chinua Achebe
now that he has died. Not just because he was a great writer — and he was a great writer, as Aaron Bady says, "full stop"
. But because, right now at least, I can't think of a more deeply influential writer in our era. Not just for Things Fall Apart
, though that book certainly did a lot. But for so much else — his work as an editor for the African Writers Series
, his essays on Conrad, his championing of Amos Tutuola after Tutuola's work had gone out of fashion, etc. etc. (If you ever needed evidence of the irrelevance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact that Achebe never won it is Exhibit A.)The best writing I've seen so far on Achebe in the wake of his death comes from Keguro Macharia.
You should read the whole, beautiful essay, but here is a taste:
His departure now – euphemism must be used, if only once – feels much like an encounter with his work: it was unexpected because it had been possible to believe that he was beyond mortality. Achebe simply was. He existed in the world and the world existed because he did. I could afford to take his existence for granted, could afford not to teach or discuss or write about his work, because he simply was. His being in the world made certain things unnecessary. Because he was. Certain figures inspire a kind of faith that they have transcended death, and their deaths hit all the harder – most recently for me, Adrienne Rich who, like Achebe, simply was. When they die – euphemisms can no longer work – we continue to call their names, hoping that they will return to us, that their ghosts will continue to energize the labor they started and sustained and that we now feel unable to continue. So it is that we continue to call for Audre Lorde. Believing, as we must, that she can still provide the right words, the necessary words, the transforming words.
Simon Gikandi has written that Chinua Achebe “invented” African literature. This is not a claim about who wrote first – other Africans wrote before Achebe. Nor is it a claim about the volume of his work – others have written more. It is a claim, I think, about Achebe as an institution builder, as one who made possible a certain kind of imagination and, in his role as editor with the African Writers Series, made possible many other imaginations for African literature. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to a writer is this: that a particular book has been written. A particular imagination explored. A room populated. And multiple other rooms made possible.
Few contemporary Africans, if any, feel the need to write another Things Fall Apart. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, Things Fall Apart could not be written again. Achebe’s work had given African writers the permission to pursue their geo-histories, to take multiple paths, to pursue the mystical and the routine, the profane urban and the perverse rural, the unending past and the foreclosed future. Things Fall Apart had been written, and African writing pursued its multiple afters, with Achebe as inspiration, as guide, and as champion.
One of the most interesting discussions I saw at the AWP conference
was one sponsored by VIDA
, with editors and writers talking about the results of VIDA's 2013 count
of female and male writers in various publications. This year, they were able to offer a particularly revealing set of graphs showing three year trends in book reviewing
at major magazines and journals.
The only report of the discussion I've seen so far is that of VIDA volunteer Erin Hoover at The Nervous Breakdown
(although I'm sure it was covered by Twitter when it happened). Hoover gives a good overview of the panel and the issues. I took lots of notes, so will here add some more detail to try to show how the discussion went.
After introductory remarks by moderator Jennine Capó Crucet, the first responses were made alphabetically by last name, and so two men began: Don Bogen
, poetry editor of The Cincinnati Review
, and Stephen Corey
, editor of The Georgia Review
. Bogen noted that, inspired by VIDA, he'd done a count of the poetry published by CR during his 7-year tenure and discovered to, really, his surprise that he'd achieved parity between male and female writers (or at least male and female bylines). How had he managed to do this unconsciously, he wondered? The best hypothesis he had was that he seeks real diversity of experience and point of view in poetry and has eclectic taste — indeed, the only poems he said he's not particularly interested in are ones that reflect his own experience. He noted that certainly the idea of parity depends on where one is counting from, as particular issues of the magazine would go one way or the other, and he tends to organize blocks of poems in between other genres in each issue in ways that have sometimes been balanced but also sometimes been entirely female or entirely male. Many times, too, he said, he does his best to read blind, paying little to no attention to a byline, and has often discovered that material he thought was "male" or "female" had been written by someone of another gender. Thus, the magic of literature.
Of the panelists, Stephen Corey seemed perhaps least comfortable with the discussion. His initial statement was simply a set of questions. (I think I managed to write them all down, but may have missed something.) When we talk about gender balance, he asked, are we talking about balance in submissions? In page counts? (Does a 30-page story count the same as a 1-page poem?) Should reviews be counted the same as poems, essays, or stories? Do you want an editor to read your work with gender in mind? Should a publication put out a call for more work by males or females? Should a publication put out an anti-call against one gender? When you read, do you care if what you read is by a man or a woman [audience: YES!
], and should an editor care?
After Corey, E.J. Graff
said so many interesting things I had trouble taking notes. Here's what I wrote down:
- The count is an example of why all English majors should take a course in statistics. Graff: "I wish I had!"
- The submission gap is enormous. With opinion pieces, women editors solicit women and are often turned down or need more time, whereas men often say yes and offer to get the piece done very quickly (important for current events).
- Men continually send pitches after rejections, women don't.
- Structural acculturation. We have to overcome our own socialization — and not just in terms of gender. The audience, for instance, was overwhelmingly white.
- We must make our own choices conscious because many of our prejudices are unconcious. Graff pointed to the Implicit Association Test.
- For students, there is a dramatic shift between the world of school and the world of work. It can be difficult to learn how to promote yourself. Men tend to do this more comfortably than women, because it's generally more socially acceptable for men.
- Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.
- When lesbians and gay men started working together in the 1980s, there were many difficulties, suspicions, and prejudices. To overcome these difficulties, many groups decided on a shared leadership structure that required equal power sharing between a man and a woman rather than just one leader. Why not do that with more prizes, editorships, groups?
(a personal hero of mine, and one of the main reasons I went to the panel) then offered her perspective, particularly as someone who has a long career as a poet and essayist, as well as a former editor with The Nation
. Because I love Katha Pollitt, I tried to write as fast as she talked, and so here are my notes from her initial statement:
- Some editors are quite conscious, others not at all — and some of the latter group are women. They can be very far away from consciously considering the issue, they can be very far away from any sort of balance, and yet still think they're doing great (and thus not need to become conscious).
- As VIDA has shown, raising the issue can, sometimes, make change.
- At The Nation, the front and back of the magazine are totally separate. In front, the subject areas (politics, news, current events) and speed of weekly publishing means the editors have settled on "go-to" people who they know are very reliable — maybe not the best writers, but they turn in clean copy on time. These editors would need to make the time to seek out new, female experts who are reliable. Some places have made such an effort — Alternet and Mother Jones, for instance.
- You have to think about it (make the issue conscious) because we have to compensate for elements in the culture.
- There are too many women trying to write in too few subject areas. Look at how many women are writing about Girls! Women should try to cultivate interest and knowledge in areas outside those seen as "feminine" or "women's issues".
- If you're not getting submissions from women, you have to ask why. Why would a woman throw herself at your wall?
- Most op-eds are solicited. Most slush piles aren't even read by an editor. Slush is not where the problem lies.
- Things are fairer at newspapers. They have unions and must follow anti-discrimination policies.
Then the discussion moved on to questions and comments from the audience. Again, from notes, which may distort some things simply because I couldn't write fast enough. (I'll offer some summary and response at the end.)
Q: Is gender-identified subject matter more or less appealing? Also, racially-identified? Etc.
Don Bogen: An experience can be gendered, but not to the writer. Surprised plenty of times to discover the gender of a writer whose byline was indeterminate. The otherness of the imagination is important.
Q: 99% of news is what is seen to be traditionally male. Much of human life is dismissed as female.
E.J. Graff: It's worse than you know! The Global Media Monitoring Project
statistics are horrifying. Women in the news are usually victims or family members ("the wife of", "the mother of", etc.). These create our implicit biases. Though, as Katha Pollitt said, there may be a good amount of female bylines in newspapers, the top editors and the columnists tend to be male.
Q: Wal-Mart has a huge effect on the economy because it is so large, and so getting Wal-Mart to change practices can have a massive ripple effect. Is there a Wal-Mart of the literary world that we should focus on trying to change?
[Some laughter, cross-talk]
Another audience member: The Wal-Mart is in the room. Unsubscribe from magazines you don't like the numbers for, and let them know. Let Harper's know. Let The New Yorker know. Don't let your subscription lapse silently — it's important that the magazines know why you are leaving them, and what it would take to get you back.
Q: Why is the literary world so obsessed with dudes from Brooklyn?! I don't want "women's literature", I want literature. Even when women are put forward, though, they become invisible.
Pollitt: Yes, why when Jonathan Franzen writes a book is everybody else suddenly invisible? Can Karen Russell get the same amount of notice? She should, but does she? It's a problem of publicity. Some women get attention. But does the attention last? Will it last? Can we make it last? The writers are there, the quality is there, the publicity is not.
VIDA volunteer: Feel empowered. Email magazines. Use knowledge to use your money and time well. VIDA is 10 volunteers. You are many. Vote with your dollars.
VIDA co-founder Erin Belieu: Most of the media reports on the count frame the story as, "It still sucks." And it does. But there's more to it than that. Many places say they need a comment from people such as New Yorker editor David Remnick if they're going to run a big story, but the editors of the highest-profile magazines won't talk, and so the story is not seen as journalistically significant. Behind the scenes, though, there is concern. One well-known female fiction writer gots calls from multiple editors when the count was released this year — the publications were embarrassed, and they wanted this writer to contribute. She didn't have any short fiction available and also didn't want to be the token female, so she gave the editors the names of 5 other writers who might be able to give them something.
Q for Katha Pollitt: Is there a perception among editors that there are female and male subject matter? Is more male subject matter being covered?
Pollitt: War, politics, etc. — these are not "male" subjects! More women are killed by war than men. Women's lives are deeply, intimately, and constantly affected by politics. These are human subjects. The New York Times has two male columnists who started out as food writers, a subject often associated with women. Get to know a lot about something interesting in a less crowded field and you will have an easier time getting published.
And then time ran out.
The take-away message was, as Erin Hoover wrote, consciousness. The world we live in is structurally biased against equality, and as people who live in this world, if we don't consciously work toward increasing equality, we will unconsciously contribute to inequality.
I love the idea that we could follow Don Bogen's lead and try to read and publish eclectically, seeking experiences and representations outside of our own, and thus achieve equality. But I don't think it would work. I expect he's an outlier and his example would be difficult, even impossible, to replicate. Worse, a stated interest in diversity might be used as cover. I think too many publishers and editors could just say to themselves, "Hey, we're nice, tolerant, liberal people who sorta like, you know, value that diversity thing. Yeah. We'll be equal," and then go right on reinforcing the status quo. I actually would prefer that someone just say, "I couldn't care less about equality," and not pretend.
Let's go back to Stephen Corey's questions. They're good for discussion, but I think they're problematic overall. With regard to page lengths and genres, etc., it's really not that hard to compare like to like, and VIDA, for instance, offers statistics in various breakdowns (books reviewed, reviewers, etc). The "overall" stats that VIDA provides are useful as a way to view the problem generally, but yes, there's a difference between a 200-word review and a 10,000-word article. The general view is useful, though. We're not to the point where distinctions necessarily say a lot. The trends are so bad that getting too specific is pretty much a waste of time. Maybe in the future it would be an interesting exercise, but right now the information is pretty damn unambiguous and shameful. As Don Bogen showed, there's plenty of reasons for an individual magazine issue or section of an issue to be dominated by women or men, but once you step back from individual issues and sections, once you increase the data set, then consistent, significant inequality speaks for itself.
Do we want editors to read our work with our gender in mind? I've never assumed they wouldn't. I'd love to live in a world where my gender presentation was irrelevant, but I don't live in that world, and pretending I do just reinforces a status quo I loathe. My name is Matthew and I physically present as male; that affects people's perceptions of me consciously and, especially, unconsciously. How much does that matter to any one editor? I assume a bit (at least), unless they want to give me multiple results from the Implicit Association Test
showing that they are utterly unaffected by gender ... at which point I might assume they don't entirely care about my apparent maleness. Otherwise, I'm going to assume they're living in the same swamp of associations that I am.
Should there be a call made for more of one gender, or against another? Oh, please. This is a question better left to concern trolls
. I can just imagine the sort of call that would go out: "Dear Womens: We don't know any female scribblers. Please submit to us so we can see if you know how to write. Thanks!" Or, even better, "Hey guys! These feminazis are doing their thing and we're afraid it might hurt our reputation in this politically correct environment, so please cut it out with the submissions for a while. Once we've published some girls, then we can get back to the real work."
More interesting to me is the question: Do you care about the gender of a writer you read, and should an editor care? The audience loudly affirmed that they care about the gender of writers they read. For me, this is a similar sort of problem to whether I care about if an editor knows my gender when I submit writing to them. In an ideal world where gender is as meaningful as handedness or eye color, a writer's gender for me would be an interesting and inconsequential detail. But I don't ever expect to live in such a world. Human culture has been and continues to be meaningfully and significantly affected by gender. To not care about a writer's gender in such a world is to not care about something that meaningfully and significantly affects that writer. So yes, I notice the gender of writers I read. I care about it. The world does not just naturally drop a nicely balanced group of male, female, and genderqueer writers on my readerly doorstep. The world makes it easiest for me to read white male writers who use the English language and publish with major publishers. I make the conscious effort to seek out others. (Among the books I'm currently reading: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin; The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates; The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde; Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux.) If I want to know about the world outside of my own experiences — and that really is why I read — then I have to pay attention to some of the categories the writers I read fall into. It's why I got interested in African literatures, even before I ever traveled to Africa. I can't imagine not reading such work now. Not for reasons of political correctness or some other overloaded scare term, but for purely selfish reasons: my life is richer and more interesting with such writings in it than not.
So it's probably not surprising that I think editors should notice and care, because otherwise the structures of our culture are going to notice and care for them, and will replicate the dominant status quo.
The most important thing to come out of the VIDA count, though, is a desire from editors, writers, and readers to actively fix the problem. This, it seems to me, is VIDA's real message and value. Here are the stats. If you don't care about them, then don't care about them. (You're an asshole, but maybe you're okay with that.) If these numbers shock, dismay, annoy, or even just vaguely bother you, then do something. If you're an editor, seek out female writers and work to make sure your venue is not one that posts various signs saying, "GIRLZ KEEP OUT!" (Hint: If you publish mostly male writers and seriously wonder why non-males don't submit more to you, you're behaving like an oblivious dunderhead.) Be conscious, put forth some effort, and don't start whining for cookies because you did what you should have been doing all along. If you're a reader, let the VIDA count guide you. Tin House, Poetry,
and Threepenny Review
are three magazines that have deliberately tried to get their numbers to be better, and they're three great magazines well worth your support. There are others, too, and will, I expect (I hope!), be more. If it matters to you, speak up with your voice and your writing, with where you submit work, and with where you spend money. We can be proactive.
And remember E.J. Graff's advice: Make a posse. Promote yourself and your group. Start a movement or magazine. Challenge each other, help with drafts and careers, but as a group move each other forward.
I traveled down to Boston for the AWP Conference, the first time I'd been to AWP in 5 years. It's always a busy, frenetic, overwhelming, and generally wonderful experience, made all the more wonderful this time by the presence of quite a few friends I only occasionally get to see in person these days. On Thursday, I moderated a discussion between Samuel R. Delany and Kit Reed that was one of the featured events of the conference, and on Friday and Saturday I worked the morning shift at the Rain Taxi Review of Books table, something I enjoyed very much because it meant I got to stand in one spot and talk to lots of people instead of having to move all around to talk to lots of people (which is what I spent most of the rest of the conference doing). It was a great delight to catch up with folks like Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn, Dustin Kurz of Melville House, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link of Small Beer Press, Hannah Tinti of One Story, Lawrence Schimel of Midsummer Night's Press, Parker Smathers and Stephanie Elliott of Wesleyan University Press, various folks from Unstuck, and others I'm sure I'm forgetting (sorry! you are so closely woven into my life that I take you for granted!). (Also, everyone who worked the Coffee House Press booth, because each time I walked by, I couldn't help saying, "I love your books!") I had a great conversation with someone at the Copper Canyon Press table about how they handle poetry lineation in ebooks by offering a sample line from which to calibrate, kind of like color bars on a tv. This allows the reader the flexibility to read the lines as the writer intended them, or to not. It also gave me a great excuse to buy an ebook (Laura Kasischke's Space, In Chains).
I went to panels and discussions and readings. Highlights were the joint reading/discussion by Dana Spiotta and Don DeLillo, moderated by Nan Graham, publisher and senior VP of Scribner. It was a highlight mostly because I haven't yet read anything by Spiotta, so it was a nice introduction to her, and because I've often wondered what DeLillo is like in person. He seemed pleasant enough, not particularly uncomfortable on stage, and in discussion his comments were often accompanied by a marvelously dry wit. I'm not a DeLillo fanboy — I like Underworld very much, but haven't ever warmed to the other books of his that I've read or sampled, and I positively hated White Noise. But hey, it's Don DeLillo. And it was an especially DeLilloesque moment because there were lots of warnings about taking pictures, making recordings, etc. We must abjure the age of digito-mechanical reproduction. (It was okay, they said, to use Twitter, though!) Meanwhile, because the event was in a giant auditorium, there was a massive screen up above that broadcast faces to us all. It was difficult not to look at the screen rather than the actual people.
Another great event in the same giant auditorium (indeed, immediately following the Spiotta/DeLillo event) was supposed to be a reading/discussion between Jeanette Winterson and Alison Bechdel, but Bechdel was trapped by snowfall in Cleveland, so it was Winterson alone. And if anybody can hold the attention of a giant auditorium full of writers, it's Jeanette Winterson. But still, I thought the pairing of Winterson and Bechdel was genius, and I desperately looked forward to seeing their interaction. Nonetheless, Winterson was awesome (for a somewhat similar version of the performance she gave us, see this video of her at the Sydney Opera House). I'm not quite in agreement with her Modernist self-help shtick, but I could watch her for hours, because she's a marvelous performer and a great reader of her own work. And I'm looking forward to reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal very much, because I'm a total sucker for her writing — reading Art & Lies at 20 was a revelatory experience, and I went on to devour just about everything else she wrote.
But the best event I saw at AWP may have been the discussion of the VIDA Count with various writers and editors. In fact, I have so many thoughts about it that I'm going to make it a separate post. [Which is now available here.]
Of course, I bought some books. Quite a few poetry books, in fact, because I've had a lack of poetry in life over the last few years, and it's a genre I love.
It was especially fun to see my friend and colleague Ivy Page sell out of her hot-off-the-press first poetry collection, Any Other Branch
. And Lesley Wheeler very kindly gave me a copy of her new book from Aqueduct, The Receptionist and Other Tales
, because Lawrence Schimel said nice things about me (haha! I fooled him!).
Overall, and as always, the greatest joy of AWP was getting time with great people. Eric Lorberer, Rudi Dornemann, Meghan McCarron, Jen Volant, Richard Larson, Nick Mamatas, and so many others (Laird Hunt
! Who I don't think I'd seen since my first AWP back in 2006!). I came home exhausted and with a cold, but it was completely worth it.
I have a new video essay and a new text essay up at Press Play looking at Clint Eastwood's movies, called "The Ends of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood". The text essay also contains links to two previous video essays I made on Eastwood, "Outlaw: Josey Wales" and "Vigilante Man: Eastwood and Gran Torino".
I've been thinking about short fiction a lot recently. The truth is, after working on three Best American Fantasy anthologies, I was shellshocked from reading piles of short stories, and stayed away from them. I pretty much stopped writing them for a while, focusing instead on academic writing, film stuff, etc. Judging the Shirley Jackson Awards was fun and brought me back to short fiction, but again in such an overwhelming way that by the time it was done, I didn't want to read another short story for months. And I didn't.
I've gotten over that, finally. I've read a few short stories over the last month (and it's been a busy month, so reading a few of anything is an accomplishment!), and, just as importantly, for the first time in years I've gotten back to writing stories — two so far this year, one of which already sold (I'll reveal the details once I've signed the contract).
I've had plans to write more about short stories here, but the time for doing so has eluded me. But I've still been reading, and still want to share. I've decided to do so occasionally, probably on weekends. An offering of weekend reading. So here are 5 stories, all available online, that I think are worth at least the time it takes to read them:
"Heaven" by Alexander Chee (TriQuarterly)
He wants to at least tell him, he understands what he wanted. He always had. He just hated that anyone could tell.
"Understanding Human Behavior" by Thomas M. Disch (originally F&SF; here, Strange Horizons)
A lot of the time he couldn't suspend his disbelief in the real people around him, all their pushing and pulling, their weird fears and whopping lies, their endless urges to control other people's behavior, like the vegetarian cashier at the Stop-and-Shop or the manager at the convenience center. The lectures and demonstrations at the halfway house had laid out the basics, but without explaining any of it. Like harried parents, the Institute's staff had said, "Do this," and "Don't do that," and he'd not been in a position to argue. He did as he was bid, and his behavior fit as naturally as an old suit.
"Declaration by the Ghost of Emma Goldman" by Rick London (New American Writing)
I see now that the mind is occupied territory. Most likely, as long as we’re thinking the mind is under occupation. Despite our high ideals and surging rhetoric, we go on as if we were alone and adrift, seeking some small moment of advantage. Indeed, amid so much of the usual sectarian bickering you’d think we couldn’t see past our noses or had to close one eye to see out of the other. Will we ever pull aside the curtain on this hapless drama?
I was an old hand at organizing workers, though girls who consumed electricity rather than bread were a bit beyond my remit.
*Although I might be introduced to you as such a person. There was probably a point when I should have mentioned that I wasn’t actually Burt Reynolds. Of course, I’m not sure why she thought that I was Burt Reynolds to begin with. I don’t resemble Burt. Burt was never a portly woman in a pug t-shirt and skinny jeans.
From address given by Sema Kaygusuz, translated by Caroline Stockford:
If I were to have to talk personally of what drives my own writing I would quite naturally have to step outside the framework of national literature. In fact, all of the world’s writers are actually stateless. Like many of them, I too have a feeling of separation that cannot be alleviated, a deep feeling of exile and disquietude within stemming from feeling cut off from nature. I too feel the discord of not being able to conform to hierarchical time and the resulting sensation of innate fragmentation that comes from this. On the other hand, when, as a being endowed with memory, I try to create for myself an intellectual framework I find myself experiencing a narcissistically comforting feeling that comes from being an inhabitant of a geography that has deep historical roots spread from the Mediterranean basin to Mesopotamia and from the Middle East to Anatolia. In other words, thanks to something primeval I am able to confront the feeling of statelessness. This intellectual geography is, for me, made up of all the celestial religions, the Greek gods, the myths of Sumeria, the Persian poets and Arab philosophers, Jewish cabalists, Armenian legends, Kurdish dengbejs, Hellenic architecture, the horticultural skill of the early farmers of Rum who domesticated the vine, the traditional Shamanistic practices of the Turkmen tribes, Gypsy songs and the crafts and narratives of numerous peoples. But then the minute that I leave Turkey I am labelled absolutely and exclusively as a female writer who is Turkish and Muslim and I am only accepted by some literary circles if I bear these tags. The emphasis is always on these aspects.
Until recently, I hadn't given much thought to how many interesting movies were released in (or around) the year I was born, 1975
. The 1970s were a particularly good decade for cinematic innovation, so I expect you could pick just about any year and find similar quality and resonances, but I'm going to continue to pretend that 1975 was especially special. Because for me it was where it all began.
|part of Jacques Derrida's last library|
I recently saw two of the more controversial movies of last year, Lincoln
and Zero Dark Thirty.
I don't feel compelled to say much about the former — it's fine for a Steven Spielberg movie, and wanting it to be more than a Steven Spielberg movie seems to me to be an error. Yes, I would have preferred, say, Charles Burnett's Lincoln
or Alex Cox's Lincoln
or Cheryl Dunye's Lincoln
or even Guillermo del Toro's Lincoln
, but what we got is Spielberg's Lincoln
, and so we should not be surprised that every moment of possible emotion is squeezed through John Williams's typically John Williams score, or that there are lots of faces making faces, or that it is a white savior movie, or that it exemplifies the tradition of quality in Hollywood cinema. What we should be surprised by is that it is not worse — it is easily, to my eyes, Spielberg's most interesting and least annoying historical film. That may have something to do with Tony Kushner's script (PDF)
... but then, Kushner wrote the execrable Munich,
so who knows. In any case, the performances are generally compelling, and it's nice to see the great Thaddeus Stevens
get some acknowledgement after more than a century of general abuse; Tommy Lee Jones's performance as Stevens is a hoot, and yet not a caricature. On the film's fetishization of compromise and its hatred of radicalism, I'm with Aaron Bady
("It is, in short, a barely veiled argument that radicals should get in line, be patient, be realistic"), although I also wonder what we would make of the film had it been released ten years ago in exactly the same form. An impossible question, of course, but perhaps an interesting thought experiment, given how Lincoln wrestles with the idea of "war powers".War Powers
could be an alternate title for Zero Dark Thirty
. I have nothing to say right now except that I found the film fascinating and deeply unsettling, but to be able to show why I think it is a devastating and subversive movie I have to wait till I can dig into its details on DVD, because so much of its meaning and effect for me came from specific shots and cuts. Some excellent writing has already been done about it, though — here are the essays that have most fit with my experience of the film:
- "Zero Dark Thirty: Perception, Reality, Perception Again, and 'The Art Defense'" by Glenn Kenny, which masterfully demonstrates why Glenn Greenwald's attack on the film as pro-torture is inaccurate and deceptive. Arguments about how all sorts of things are represented in the film can be legitimately made, I think, but Greenwald seriously distorts what is on screen to fit his thesis (which he had to do, because by the point where he actually saw the movie, he had too much of an emotional stake in the film being what he wanted it to be for him to ever say it was not what he wanted it to be).
- Manohla Dargis's review for The New York Times is a model of intelligent newspaper writing.
- "The Monitor Mentality, or A Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty" by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a fine beginning to understanding what is actually on screen and the implications.
- "A Brief Remark on Zero Dark Thirty" by Steven Shaviro is as insightful as we've come to expect from Shaviro. He's been writing about Kathryn Bigelow's work for many years, and his perspective is helpful. I anxiously look forward to his further writings on the film, because even with this "brief remark" he's delved more meaningfully into it than most other writers.
- Most recently, Nicholas Rombes has published "Zero Dark Thirty and the New History", which looks at the relationship between the film and concepts of history: " Zero Dark Thirty is about how some historical events remain so hot and dangerous that they cannot be treated directly; it would be like staring into the sun. Instead, such histories can only be approached in an administrative, almost bureaucratic fashion, and in such a way that suggests history remains, at the end of the day, a tangle of zero-sum stories, usually competing with each other for legitimacy."
I also recently saw Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
, two interesting films that make a mess of genre expectations. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
is as much a horror movie as an action movie, but a horror movie more akin to the works of David Lynch than the average splatter film. (I could have lived without all
the fight scenes being sped up, however.) Detention
is even better, a mad mishmash of teen comedy, absurd sci-fi, and slasher movie. For me, it was the second most consistently delightful film of last year, after Moonrise Kingdom
I don't have much to report for recent reading here, mostly because I've been reading books such as Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections
, which is marvelous, but, well, nothing I'd recommend to get you through the long winter months. I've also just begun reading Derrida: A Biography
by Benoit Peeters (god bless interlibrary loan!), which is thrilling and revelatory so far (100 pages in). I had long believed Derrida made a living well into his twenties as a construction worker, but it turns out this is just another example of one of the many mistaken beliefs I have clung to.
I very much enjoyed Adam Green's profile, "A Pickpocket's Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins"
at The New Yorker
Also, two poems by Suzanne Buffam: "The New Experience"
at The Poetry Foundation and "Ruined Interior"
at Boston Review
Finally, a new term has started at the university, so I'm back to teaching. Here are the syllabi for my classes, if you're curious: Murder, Madness, Mayhem
(English Department course that I'm making into a course on dystopia and fascism this term) and Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other "Deviants" in Film & Society
(Communications & Media Studies course that I've making into ... well ... something).
I'm interrupting my self-imposed exile
from blogging to give you a story.
It's called "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid"
. That link will take you to its Google Docs page, where you can read it online or download the PDF.
There's a story behind this story, and also a story to why I'm giving it away. I don't think those stories are even remotely necessary for appreciating the tale itself, but if you're curious, read on...
I wrote "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" almost five years ago. It was the first story I wrote after my father's death, and some of the concerns within it clearly come from my own anxieties about inheriting his house, business, and collections of various historical memorabilia. I'm not much good at writing strongly autobiographical fiction, though, so the characters, particularly the narrator, are quite different from me. Without that distance, I couldn't possibly have written the story.
Around the time I was finishing up the first draft, editors of an anthology asked me to submit something, so I finished this and sent it to them, since it was all I had that wasn't either sold or junk. They liked it, but the book never happened. I sent it to a prominent and quirky literary magazine, but after more than a year never heard back. Normally, I query and pester, but something kept me from doing so this time. I just let it go. (I've still never heard from them.) Then I sent it to another strange and interesting lit journal, and they gave me lovely rejection, saying various members of the staff liked it a lot, but it didn't fit the next issue and was too long for the website. "Too long?" I thought. In my mind, the story is 5,000 words or so. I looked at it again. Oh. It's over 10,000 words.
Then I realized that though, of course, I'd be happy to have the story published by any of the places I'd submitted it to, I had always been unsatisfied with how the story looked. Because it's comprised of numerous scraps of manuscripts — emails, letters, a journal, old science fiction magazines — my ideal form for it would be something that replicated those manuscripts in some way. It is, after all, a story about (among other things) artifacts and what they do to us.
I decided to play around with it and see if I could give it some of the visual life it had in my imagination. I added images and colors and typefaces. And when it was done, it felt to me like a much more powerful and mysterious story than it had as only words.
Then I was stuck. Because the imagery, type, etc. is precisely positioned, I don't know of a file format other than PDF that will work for it. But this is really the only form I want the story to exist in. (Well, I'd love it to exist as actual artifacts in a box, but I'm afraid the printing and manufacturing costs would be rather prohibitive.)
I needed to get this story out there, though. Sharing and publication are not only about the glory of having other people read and love your work; for me, the biggest benefit of publishing something is just to get it out of myself. It doesn't matter whether it's a blog post or a story, whether it's in a giant publication that all sorts of people read or a tiny little thing all of 7 people on Earth ever encounter. It's the expulsion that matters, especially for work that has some sort of emotional connection. Just having it out there means it's no longer in me. Because of when and why it was written, I didn't want "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" to kick around anymore. I needed it out of myself. I needed to be able to let it go.
So here it is. A story-artifact. A thing.
In as close to an ideal form as I can get it. No matter its fate, it's a wonderful relief to have it out there in the world, no longer possessed only by me.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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|Oliver is not impressed with Rambo|
I've promised myself to devote the month of January primarily to work on a book manuscript (about 1980s action movies and their relationship to the Reagan presidency) that a certain academic publisher is interested in. Thus, I need to get work done. The internet looms as an endless temptation, and I am more than skilled at losing hours to idle surfing. I've also got other writing assignments that need doing, classes to prepare for, etc.
So I'm signing off at least until February, barring interesting announcements or cosmic events or just an overwhelming desire to violate my own resolutions. (It usually happens.) I will also likely be only slowly or vaguely responsive to emails, etc. Please don't take it personally. I've got three weeks in which to get real work done, then life returns to its normal craziness.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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I really didn't intend to write anything more
about Django Unchained
, at least not before viewing it again, but I found Jelani Cobb's essay at The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog
annoying, and I know from experience that there's just no getting rid of an annoyance until I write about it. So here we go...
Cobb's essay is well-written and thoughtful, which is more than can be said for many attacks on Django Unchained
, but it is fundamentally flawed for reasons Cobb pooh-poohs as aestheticizing or art-for-art-saking or just callous and insensitive: it's not a movie about actual history as Cobb defines it, but a movie (partly) about the representation of history in movies.
The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter.
This statement is infuriating in its reductionism and simple-mindedness. First, no, the entire appeal
of fiction is not its "capacity to shed light on how we understand [reality]". Fiction has a multitude of appeals — the beauty of form, the pleasures of imagination, the basic entertainment that comes from escaping into a non-reality, the joys of complex thought inspired by stories, etc. There are, I suppose, metaphysical questions of whether we can ever think about anything that is not in some sense reality, but such questions make a concept like "unreality" pretty much meaningless, and I don't think that was Cobb's intention.
Cobb's obtuseness reminds me of a more hilarious response by a historian to a movie that wreaked havoc on historical accuracy. Alex Cox's underappreciated 1987 film Walker
takes certain historical facts related to the career of the famed 19th century imperialist mercenary William Walker
and turns them into a Tarantino-esque mix of comedy, melodrama, and gore, though for a more explicitly political purpose than Tarantino would ever exhibit. Walker
is one of the great movies of the 1980s, superior in many ways to Django Unchained
, but Robert E. May's review of the film in the Journal of American History
in 1990 is unintentionally hilarious in its inability to comprehend that the movie's anachronisms and reveries are central to its substance and purpose, an inability that leads to such ridiculous statements as: "The film invents a black sidekick for Walker and portrays incidents of bestiality and cannibalism that, so far as this reviewer knows, have no documentary basis." If you've seen the film, and know the surrealistic, grand guignol scene that this refers to (a scene that will soon be followed by the landing of an American helicopter — presumably also without documentary basis from 1857), that sentence is a howler.Walker
is fundamentally different from Django Unchained
in that while it is a movie that exploits and subverts genre forms and expectations, it's not a movie about representational history in the way that Django Unchained
is. (Or, in other words, Walker
is very much an Alex Cox movie to the same extent that Django Unchained
is very much a Quentin Tarantino movie.)
Cobb enters amusing territory when he admits, "It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this." Almost
pedantic? No need for the qualifier. It is pedantic. More than that, it grossly misses the point, and is similar to saying of Mel Brooks's To Be or Not to Be
, "It seems almost pedantic to point out that Nazism was nothing like this."
For better or worse, Django Unchained
is not about actual, lived history. Historical fiction, like science fiction, is always at its core about the present, but it fetishizes the accoutrements of the past to create verisimilitude, to paste a veneer of pastness over itself. Thus, the central difference between Django Unchained
and the film it keeps getting compared to (including by Cobb), Lincoln
. Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg, and everyone else involved in Lincoln
worked obsessively to create the veneer of pastness. They even recorded the sound
of Lincoln's actual watch to use in the film. Such historical fiction always fights against its fictionality. It's a genre of repression and self-loathing.
Tarantino makes something other than historical fiction. Call it "historical fiction"
. Or "historical" fiction
. Or historical
FICTION! It parades costumes and props that incite our perception of pastness (but may not themselves be particularly accurate to the historical record), it romps around through sets that function as signs for history (much like certain amusements at Disney World), it uses myths as myths rather than trying to mute them, and it revels in the artifice of its genre rather than resenting it or seeking to repress it. I think that's more honest than pretending a movie can recreate the past.
Since Tarantino's frame of reference for just about everything is cinema, Django Unchained
is not about slavery or racism, but about slavery and racism in movies. This is a real history, not an alternate history, but it's a real history of representations through the past 100 years. Even when making a positive statement about the film, Cobb misses this point, such as when he says, "There are moments where this convex history works brilliantly, like when Tarantino depicts the K.K.K. a decade prior to its actual formation in order to thoroughly ridicule its members’ (literally) veiled racism." That the Klan was created after the Civil War and not before it is irrelevant, because this is not a scene about the Klan of history. (But, to get pedantic myself, Tarantino clearly shows this group to be a proto-KKK, not the actual, organized group. Also, they wear hoods, and so are, indeed, literally veiled, but these men never attempted to hide their racism. It is a norm for them, and to hide it would be abnormal.) This is a scene at least as much about the movie Birth of a Nation
as anything else. It's also about John Ford
Earlier this month, Django producer Stacey Sher alluded to Tarantino's animosity toward Ford at the film's PGA screening. "He’s not a John Ford fan," she said. "Do you know why? John Ford was a Klansman in Birth of a Nation, so Quentin can’t really get past that — and I can’t blame him."
In Searching for John Ford
, James McBride writes
Ford was hired to ride as a Ku Klux Klansman, one of a long line of hooded men on horseback: "I was the one with the glasses. I was riding with one hand holding the hood up so I could see because the damn thing kept slipping over my glasses." (A photograph exists of Klansmen riding across a river in the film, with one doing exactly what Ford remembered doing.)
Thus, the scene serves a plethora of purposes: it advances the narrative (though it's hardly essential to the plot, it gives conclusion to one episode and set of characters), it's comedic, it reminds us of the KKK, it reminds us of Birth of a Nation
(the first movie shown in the White House), and it riffs on an anecdote about the early life of one of the greatest American myth-makers. It punctures at least some of the power of representations of lynch mobs and purveyors of racist violence — instead of being terrified by this fierce mob, we laugh at these pathetic fools and celebrate their demise.
In interviews (e.g. his somewhat contentious recent interview with Terry Gross
), Tarantino can be frustratingly shallow about his use of violence and its purpose — he has become, after twenty-plus years of questions about gratuitous violence in his films, reflexively and unreflectively dismissive of the idea that violent movie images do anything in the world. Yet he clearly believes, even if he won't say so, that those images do real work. He wouldn't have made any movies if he thought that movie imagery has no power to affect people. Nor does he believe that he just makes movies for some let's-pretend fun, to romp around in imaginary worlds and imaginary situations. Of course, that's one of the appeals of fiction, and a central part of the joy of acting or writing or any other creative endeavor, but somebody who thinks the work of imagining and the act of creating stories and sounds and images has no effect beyond entertainment doesn't make movies like Inglourious Basterds
and Django Unchained —
they make movies like Transformers
Note that there is a difference in the violence against the slaves and the violence against the slave-masters. The violence against the slaves is filmed in a realistic style, and its goal is to convey the pain and brutality of that violence. The violence against the slavers is grandiose, unrealistic, grotesque, and with an entirely opposite goal: entertainment. It makes us laugh and clap and cheer. To create such a difference, the creator must believe there is a moral distinction between the two modes of representing the violence.
Movies affect audiences, and so movie violence affects audiences. The interesting question is not whether
it does; that's not even a question. The interesting question is how
does it affect audiences. The only general answer we're ever likely to consider even vaguely definitive is: It affects them in lots of different ways depending on who they are, the social and cinematic context, the type of imagery, the cultural situation, etc. Maybe some people laugh at the violence against the slaves in Django Unchained
. Most would do so, I expect, from discomfort. A few might do so from sadism. Many people will laugh and applaud the violence against the slave-owners in Django Unchained
. Most will do so because that violence conforms to conventions of comedy, entertainment, and the (disreputable) joys inherent in revenge narratives. A few might do so from sadism. To reduce the complex of possible responses to simple good/bad dichotomies invalidates any argument about representations of violence.
Jelani Cobb at least understands this, writing:
The theme of revenge permeates Tarantino’s work. If the violence in his films seems gratuitous, it’s also deployed as a kind of spiritual redemption. And if this dynamic is applicable anywhere in American history, it’s on a slave plantation. Frederick Douglass, in his slave narrative, traced his freedom not to the moment when he escaped to the north but the moment in which he first struck an overseer who attempted to whip him. Quentin Tarantino is the only filmmaker who could pack theatres with multiracial audiences eager to see a black hero murder a dizzying array of white slaveholders and overseers. (And, in all fairness, it’s not likely that a black director would’ve gotten a budget to even attempt such a thing.)
In “Django,” the director creates an audacious black hero who shoots white slavers with impunity and lives to tell about it. In the Harlem theatre where I saw the film, the largely black audience cheered each time an overseer met his end. ... The trade-off for an audience indulging in that emotionally powerful and rarely depicted brand of black heroism is overlooking aspects of the film that were at least as troubling as the other parts were affirming.
This is insightful, but not as insightful as Steven Barnes's take
on the function of the film's revenge plot. (The theme of revenge permeates most action movies, most westerns, most crime films, etc.) Part of Cobb's rhetorical performance in this essay is to construct distance for himself from the unsavory, low-class, perhaps even autonomic emotions associated with the revenege plot, and so his sentence implies it is the other people in the audience of that Harlem theatre who are cheering, not Cobb himself. He's able to stay outside them, to preserve his academic distance, his taste. Because he is separate from this audience, because his own tastes are, he suggests, more cultivated and discerning than those of someone who would cheer at such stuff, he knows what they do not: That their indulgence in base emotion blinds them to "aspects of the film that were at least as troubling as the other parts were affirming".
This is a zero sum assumption that has no basis in evidence and is patronizing to everybody else who was in the theatre with him. For the sake of argument, let's grant Cobb's assertion that "Primary among these concerns is the frequency of with which Tarantino deploys the n-word," and that "Here ... black people—with the exception of the protagonist and his love interest—are ciphers passively awaiting freedom." I find the latter more convincing than the former (again, audiences are complex: some of us do not go numb to that word's repetition through the movie; other people arrived plenty numb to it already), but it would be foolish to say that Django Unchained
is unproblematic in various ways. For instance, as I said in my previous notes on the movie, I think it's unnecessarily male in its focus.
So let's grant Cobb's complaints, add in my own about the male focus, and ask: Is it true that a viewer can either revel in the base pleasures of a revenge flick about a slave successfully wiping out slavers or
a viewer can recognize "troubling" aspects of the film, but not both?
Or, to put it another way: Is this a movie that you can either love or loathe, but not anything in between?
Obviously, I don't think so. It's a troubling movie, absolutely. Trouble-making is not an inherently worthless or destructive activity, but neither is it usually a nuanced or especially multi-layered activity. Additionally, because one of Tarrantino's clear goals is to trouble past representations, to do so he must participate in the replication of at least some of those representations for his troubling to be legible to the audience. There's no way to make a clean escape from such work (cf. Mandingo).
Swim in a swamp and you'll end up smelling like it, even if you spend the whole time screaming about how smelly this damn swamp is.
It may be base and immoral to indulge in revenge fantasies. It may be detrimental to society for so many of our narratives to derive their pleasures from such fantasies. To deny the attraction of revenge fantasies, though, is disingenuous. Repressive, even. Better, it seems to me, to get them out there. Better the shallow, unabashed, frequently-comedic indulgences of a Tarantino than the serious, reality-obsessed revenge fantasies of so much popular culture (24
"Is this how Americans actually perceive slavery?" Cobb asks. Yes. No. Maybe. Who are these Americans
of whom you speak, sir? The great unwashed? The chattering classes? The soccer moms? Every politician's fellow Americans? The people in that Harlem theatre with you?
Tarantino does not generalize: his obsessions are specific genres, films, images. Django Unchained
is not about how Americans perceive slavery, but rather how various films (mostly American) create and distribute a perception of slavery — indeed, how they profit from an emotional economy predicated on certain representations. It is not a systematic nor a scholarly deconstruction. It swims in the swamp.
The emphasis in Cobb's question ought to be not on actually
, but perceive
. The machineries of our perceptions are Tarantino's topics and tools. He revs them past the red line and lets them explode, then revels in the explosion.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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The recent, wonderful profile of George Saunders in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell
reminded me that one of the first book reviews I ever published was of Saunders's first two story collections. It appeared in English Journal
in the May 2003 issue. (They insisted, despite my protestations, that I send them my own dustjackets for the hardcovers of the books so that they could scan them. They promised to return them. They never did. Also, the published the piece as by "Matt Cheney", even though the manuscript and everything else used my full name, as I prefer for my byline. Thus did I discover some of the perils of academic publishing.)
I'd forgotten about this review, and it reads to me as if written by somebody other than myself, but for the sake of completism or the historical record or posterity or something, here it is, a review I wrote, according to the original computer file, in September 2002:
THE WAY WE NAME THINGS IS IMPORTANT, MA
English Journal, May 2003 (vol. 92, no. 5; pp. 84-86)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
George Saunders. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996. 179pp.
George Saunders. New York: Riverhead Books, 2000. 188pp.
George Saunders is one of those writers of whom it is said, “Even if his name wasn’t on the book, I’d know he wrote it.” Since his first stories began appearing in the early 1990s, he has been giving us ever more interesting and distinctive glimpses of a surreal world which is not quite our own, but very frighteningly close — a world of people who regret their lives but still manage to find optimism, a world where free market economic principles dominate every aspect of life, a world where everyone’s language is suffused with corporate doublespeak and self-help homilies. And, more than anything else, a world of amusement parks which don’t quite work the way they’re supposed to.
The basic elements of almost any Saunders story are available in the second paragraph of the title story of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline:
Today my possible Historical Reconstruction Associate is Mr. Haberstrom, founder of Burn ‘n’ Learn. Burn ‘n’ Learn is national. Their gimmick is a fully stocked library on the premises and as you tan you call out the names of any book you want to these high-school girls on roller skates. As we walk up the trail he’s wearing a sweatsuit and smoking a cigar and I tell him I admire his acumen. I tell him some men are dreamers and others are doers. He asks which am I and I say let’s face it, I’m basically the guy who leads the dreamers up the trail to view the Canal Segment. He likes that. He says I have a good head on my shoulders. ... Not to be crass but I sense an impending sizable contribution (3-4).
Most of the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
are written in the first person point of view, and in the best of the stories, Saunders has mastered the voice of so much of modern America: the matter-of-fact affect in which everything seems to be either equally important or unimportant and it’s hard to tell which, the self-important capitalization of terminology for things which are actually common and rather boring, the careful use of multiple words, all as inoffensive as possible, for simple concepts. (It’s as if Saunders’s narrators read The Elements of Style
and decided to ignore as many of the important suggestions as possible.)
Saunders is also, as can be seen from the passage above, a master of pacing. The effectiveness of the voice within his writings comes as much from the rhythm of the sentences as it does from what the sentences actually say. It is hard to tell whether these stories are satires, comedies, pathetic tragedies, whimsical excursions into grotesque absurdity, or some other not-quite-right label, because just when you think you’ve got a handle on what Saunders is up to, he shifts masterfully into another mode. Predictable these stories are not, and much of their odd power comes from surprising language and events which feel, more often than not, exactly right.
In his second collection, Pastoralia
, Saunders has maintained his voice and vision, but his writing is more consistent, more fleshed out, and more varied. But Saunders is still exploring the same quirky people and still exploring a world where reality may be distinct from illusion but is far less important to the economy. The language his characters use continues to be awkward and eviscerated of precise referential meaning. Here’s a passage of dialogue from the brilliant title story, wherein Janet, a woman who lives in an amusement park where she portrays a cavewoman with the narrator of the story, gets some news from her son, who has (against regulations) come to visit:
“You sold the rehab TV to buy drugs,” she says.
“To buy substances, Ma, why can’t you get it right?” he says. “The way we name things is important, Ma, Doe taught me that in counseling. Look, maybe you wouldn’t have sold the TV, but you’re not an inadvertent substance misuser, and guess what, I am, that’s why I was in there. Do you hear me? I know you wish you had a perfect son, but you don’t, you have an inadvertent substance misuser who sometimes makes bad judgments, like borrowing and selling a TV to buy substances” (30).
The way we name things is important
— those words are a key to many of the problems Saunders’s characters encounter. The names for things have become so vague and unwieldy that the English language itself has lost its ability to refer to anything specifically. Many names have been compounded and suffered a Madison Avenue adspeak makeover: CivilWarLand
, HardwareNiche, GuiltMasters, GlamorDivans, ToyTowne, FunTimeZone, PuppetPlayers
. Other names are typical doublespeak, such as the term “Staff Remixing”, used by the administrators of the park in “Pastoralia” to describe what they are doing by firing many of their employees.
Anger and bitterness fill many of Saunders’s characters, but they usually end up tempering their emotions by reciting bland mantras picked up from self-help seminars and TV talk-shows. The mantras are comforting for a few moments, but a sense of hollowness remains. In “Winky”, Saunders even provides a long and hilarious scene in which a typical character, a man who seems at first pitiful but manages to end up, if not noble, at least touchingly humane, attends a seminar to learn how to make something of his life. The famous leader of the seminar says he has two basic concepts: oatmeal and crap. He says,
“Now, if someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say, ‘Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal’? Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time — friends, co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids! — and that’s exactly what you do. You say, ‘Thanks so much!’ You say, ‘Crap away!’ You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, ‘Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?’” (72).
The man listening to this lecture, Neil Yaniky, is then encouraged to identify exactly who is crapping in his oatmeal. And he identifies his mentally handicapped sister, who lives with him. He decides that he is going to tell her she can’t live with him anymore. Then, in a magnificent move, Saunders changes the viewpoint — suddenly, we are in Winky’s mind as she waits, with great excitement, for her adored brother Neil to come home. Previously, we had been at least partially sympathetic to Neil’s plight, and the advice he was getting seemed perhaps useful, if a bit overwrought. But now the situation is much more complicated. Winky is a fascinating character and we care about her. After being in her mind for a bit, Saunders brings us back to Neil as he opens the front door of his house and Winky greets him with a very enthusiastic “Welcome home!”. The last paragraph of the story, a story which has been laugh-out-loud funny so far, is devastingly sad.
The stories in Pastoralia
have more emotional depth than those in CivilWarLand
, for in the time between the two books, Saunders discovered ways of filling his absurd and sometimes grotesque plots and characters with emotional complexity, ambiguity, and paradox. Human beings are complicated, and what we want at one moment may not be what we want at the next, and the later stories demonstrate this with great skill. However, there is an anarchic beauty to the best stories in CivilWarLand
, which contains tales such as “The Wavemaker Falters” and “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” which are masterpieces of the bizarre. They don’t pack the emotional punch of the later stories, but they are gems of a different sort — off-kilter visions of evil banality and good intentions leading to chaos.
While some of Saunders’s stories are certainly stronger and more affecting than others, with one exception they are all, it seems to me, rewarding to read. The exception is the 91-page novella at the end of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
, “Bounty”, a post-apocalyptic story filled with interesting moments but so badly structured that it seemed to me, after about ten pages, tedious and, ultimately, forgettable. “Tedious” and “forgettable” are not words I would use for any of Saunders’s other stories.
I first encountered George Saunders when “Pastoralia” was published in The New Yorker
, and after reading it I searched through back-issues of that magazine and others, desperate to read everything else he had written. I have since reread all of his stories in the order he put them in his collections, and I highly recommend this approach, for you will begin with the good fun of the title story to CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
and end with “The Falls”, a story in which Saunders uses the same multiple point-of-view technique he employs in “Winky” to even greater effect, showing how the grand impossible dreams of a couple of misfits are ultimately less important than a single moment of instinctual, and perhaps futile, heroism. “The Falls”, it seems to me, brings Saunders’s characters full-circle in the vivid and tragicomic world common to the two books, and I look forward to seeing how he extends and broadens his vision in the future, for there are few writers whose next work I so deeply long to read.
|New Year's Eve fireworks, 2012; photo by Matthew Cheney|
I have a small contribution in the grand collage that is the Strange Horizons reviewers' "2012 in Review"
. Well worth taking a look at for the huge, wonderful variety of writers' interests and enthusiasms.
Happy new year!
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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I haven't had a chance to write about many movies over the past few months, so here are some stray, incomplete thoughts and blazingly subjective opinions on various films, before I completely forget my first impressions...The Amazing Spider-Man
. I've come to the conclusion that I don't much like super-hero movies, and my love of The Amazing Spider-Man
, which most people
seem to feel at best lukewarm about, is probably because it's not much of a super-hero movie. I didn't care for Sam Raimi's
three Spider-Man movies much — indeed, I thought number 2
, which some people I know consider the greatest super-hero movie of all time, worked vastly better when played at 1.5 speed, and probably would have been even better played faster, if the voices didn't sound like The Chipmunks. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man
with very low expectations, then, and those expectations were exceeded all around. The casting is ultimately the film's greatest strength, because Andrew Garfield (who I've been fascinated by since Boy A
) has a wonderful mix of insouciance, nerdiness, and intelligence that plays charmingly off of Emma Stone's typically bouncy/breathy Emma Stone performance. Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, and Campbell Scott are all delights, as well. The story really isn't much, Rhys Ifans doesn't have a whole lot to work with as the villain, and the special effects, while fine, are nothing particularly special for a film of this budget and type. But I never cared, because I loved hanging out with these characters.Argo
. A fun thriller with a surprisingly low body count. We're used to thrillers in which lots of people die, and yet this is in more than one way an old-school movie, a movie that is optimistic about the world-changing power of cinema, and nostalgic for a time when people thought movies could be a force for good in the world. At its core, it's a true story, but the liberties
taken with the more mundane truths of the tale are all ones that fit the story into a conventional Hollywood mode. (More unfortunately conventional is its marginalizing of women
.) And that's the point, as Jim Emerson has astutely written
. It's enjoyable enough as a thriller, but it's more interesting as an exploration of audience expectations, genre conventions, and what we desire from our "true stories".Beasts of the Southern Wild.
I've been arguing with myself about this movie for a month now, which means I need to watch it a few more times. On the one hand, I was completely taken in by the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, I found some of the cinematography lovely, and I found the ending moving. (The music totally got me.) On the other hand, it felt at times a bit too close to "noble savage" myths for comfort. What I want to look more closely at with a later viewing is the way the film uses Hushpuppy's point of view — as a child, she does her best to make sense of events and circumstances through her own perception, and because the movie is told through her eyes, her perception becomes ours (hence, the aurochs, which I also loved). While the surface of the film may seem to celebrate the self-reliance of the denizens of the Bathtub, and while Hushpuppy's abusive, alcoholic father Wink is celebrated with a lovely funeral at the end ... I didn't come away feeling that the movie itself was unambiguously celebrating all this. I was not left with an uplifting sense of the wondrous potential of human ingenuity in the face of disaster; instead, I left the film feeling overwhelmed by how limited the characters' choices were, how much they had been abandoned by the world beyond them, how much they had been forced to make do by a country that ultimately didn't really care that much if they washed away into the ocean. On the other hand, while I don't agree with the perspective of the Beasts-
haters in this discussion at Slate
, and even less so with the perspective of bell hooks
, their points are worth considering, and I don't have good answers to some of them. On the other hand, there was a lot I enjoyed in the movie, a lot it made me think about, good and bad. (For other views, see Matt Denault at Strange Horizons
and N.K. Jemison
.)The Cabin in the Woods.
Maybe I'm just impervious to the charms of Joss Whedon
(not maybe: I am), but I got to the end of this film, which Whedon co-wrote and produced, and was stuck thinking, "Really? That's all you've got?" I know lots of people find the movie clever, amusing, and innovative, but for me Mark Olsen at The Village Voice summed it up well
: "A horror comedy with a structural twist intended to emit an air of being something more, Cabin
has an off-putting vibe of cocky self-confidence, a 'don't you get it' conviction that it's something special. As with people, it's not a charming quality in a movie."
The Dark Knight Rises.
Ugh. The Honest Trailer
got it right. There were moments in Batman Begins
and The Dark Knight
that I enjoyed well enough, despite the terrible scripts and plodding direction, but The Dark Knight Rises
was just atrocious, the ungainly love child of Cecil B. DeMille and Leni Riefenstahl. It's time for me to give up on Christopher Nolan; the only one of his movies I've completely enjoyed was The Prestige
, and both Inception
and The Dark Knight Rises
were for me symphonies of boredom and annoyance.Django Unchained
. I never really liked a Quentin Tarantino movie until Inglorious Basterds
. There were things I admired in his earlier work, particularly his ability to fill banal moments with tension, but I just didn't care much about whatever it was he cared about. And then came Inglorious Basterds
, where suddenly so many of Tarantino's influences were ones I knew well, having grown up with the World War II movies beloved of my father (the Hollywood movies mostly, but also plenty of German ones — I remember falling asleep while he watched an unsubtitled videotape of Kolberg
). For once, a Tarantino movie felt vaguely morally complex, as if he'd reached a point in his life when he not only wanted to celebrate the movies he loved and revel in the pleasures of a revenge narrative, but to wonder what those movies and pleasures had done to him. Django Unchained
lacks some of the complexities and ambiguities of Basterds
, but it's a different beast. Where World War II and the Holocaust have been subject to every sort of cinematic representation from The Great Dictator
to Night and Fog
to Schindler's List
to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS;
American slavery has been narrower in its representations, more fraught. As Steven Barnes points out in an excellent piece on Django Unchained
, popular culture (for better or worse) thrives on revenge narratives, but there has never been a movie about slavery that ends with unambiguously successful revenge by a slave. And that's what Django Unchained
gives us. Its ending images are thrilling in a way no movie (to my knowledge) has ever been allowed to be thrilling before. While Inglorious Basterds
is more morally complex because it provides moments suggesting we might not want to be so proud of ourselves for our revenge fantasies, Django Unchained
just says: "You've never really been able to indulge in this fantasy before. Here you go. If you can't have fun fantasizing brutal deaths for slavers, when can
you have fun fantasizing brutal deaths?" Interestingly, Tarantino doesn't merely let us fantasize brutal deaths for the slave-owners and -sellers themselves. He flips the normal racial hierarchy of black/white buddy stories, where we all know that the black guy's got to die so the white guy can live on and tell the tale. Not here. While much of the movie is dominated by Christoph Waltz's charmingly brutal Dr. King Schultz, the emotional force is all on Django's side, and he's the one who gets to finish the work. The effect is like taking a pile of nitrate-based prints of Gone with the Wind
and setting them on fire.
I had some reservations about the movie — it's very male, for one thing, and if we're indulging in fantasies, I don't see why Tarantino couldn't have had more female characters contributing to the mayhem. Kerry Washington as Broomhilde especially gets short-changed. Django should have tossed her a shotgun and let her rip. (A note on the name Broomhilde: while the spelling is amusing, it makes sense that all the non-German-speaking characters would spell it that way. Christoph Waltz always seemed to pronounce it correctly as Brunhilde
, as he should, since he's the one who explains the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde to Django. See also, as I'm sure Tarantino has, Fritz Lang's magnificent Die Nibelungen
What are we to make of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Stephen? It's the most flagrantly racist portrait in the movie, and the flagrancy is clearly intentional, because neither Tarantino nor Jackson are complete idiots. As always with Tarantino, there are no answers except in movies past, and Stephen seemed to me an embodiment of the "uncle Tom" figure common to so many old films, the kind of character many black actors were forced to spend a career playing. This makes me want to revisit Donald Bogle's classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks
before seeing Django Unchained
again, because Bogle's description
of the "tom" character type sums up much of Stephen's character:
Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.
The name of course comes from Uncle Tom's Cabin
, and the effect of the 1927 silent film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel did much to perpetuate the most pernicious elements of the stereotype, as Bogle documents:
Tom still came off as a genial darky, furnished with new color but no new sentiments. Yet to [actor James B.] Lowe's credit, he did his tomming with such an arresting effectiveness that he was sent to England on a promotional tour to ballyhoo the picture, thus becoming the first black actor to be publicized by his studio. The film also introduced the massive baptism scene, which later became a Hollywood favorite. Curiously, in 1958 this version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, although silent, was reissued with an added prologue by Raymond Massey. Because it arrived just when the sit-ins were erupting in the South, many wondered if by reissuing the film Universal Studios hoped to remind the restless black masses of an earlier, less turbulent period, when obeying one's master was the answer to every black man's problems.
This, it seems to me, is the character Jackson is portraying, and the loathing we are meant to feel for him is, then, not a loathing for any real person or historical character, but for the one "good Negro" type allowed over decades of popular American cinema. His fate in Django Unchained
is one many black viewers must have yearned for, secretly, for a long time.Headhunters.
An entertaining and often surprising Norwegian thriller that does a marvelous job of starting out as a slow-paced, ostentatiously "realistic" movie and then metamorphosing into a fast-paced twist-upon-twist grand guignol. I've seen few thriller that so well make their form an essential part of their thrills. Just as we're beginning to get a bit bored, just as we're beginning to wonder if this movie will ever actually go
anywhere, just when we think we've figured it out all — bang
. The story is pure hokum and all the better for it. The realism of the first part of the film prepares us to accept all the absurdities of the later part of the story, and thus our pleasure (and terror) is ramped up in a way a more conventional movie could never achieve.How to Survive a Plague.
A powerful, important documentary about ACT-UP's
quest to get the world to care about AIDS deaths and treatment. For people who don't remember life before effective AIDS drugs existed, this is essential viewing. I found it wrenching, because my first awareness of what life as a gay man means was formed during the years ACT-UP was most active, and I remember watching a 60 Minutes
report about them that terrified and exhilarated me. It wasn't until my junior year of college that the cocktail of effective drugs was declared effective — I remember reading an article by, I think, Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times
declaring that AIDS could now become a manageable chronic illness, and I thought he was being hyperbolic and ridiculous, and yet I also hoped he was, even to a small extent, correct. I'd been to some ACT-UP events myself at that point (nearly got arrested at a protest against the Pope). Seeing the footage of the assembly room at the Community Center
brought back memories I didn't even realize I had. The story is told well, though inevitably by focusing on the treatment group, various other aspects and offshoots of ACT-UP are left out. I'll be curious to compare it to another new documentary on ACT-UP, United in Anger
, which I haven't yet been able to see.The Innkeepers
. Writer-director Ti West
has been getting lots of press as a low-budget horror movie wunderkind, but so far, I'm a skeptic. The Innkeepers
in particular seems to me to be horror for people who don't want things to be particularly horrifying, but prefer to have a tedious story and shallow characters moving through the familiar turns and motifs of a million other horror movies. If you thought the one thing horror really lacked was a mumblecore
sensibility, then this is the movie for you. (At least it's not as self-satisfied as Cabin in the Woods,
or quite so tedious as West's earlier Trigger Man
Worth seeing for the performances, maybe, but pretty noxious overall. Apparently, some people find the film to be darkly humorous, but I just couldn't access the humor here. It's ultimately a movie about stupid people getting brutally punished for their stupidity, and it climaxes (literally) with a scene where the audience is encouraged to be thrilled by the beating and obscene degradation of Gina Gershon's character, Sharla. It's well made, but a perfect example of a film that does well that which is not worth doing at all.The Life of Pi.
Not as bad as it could have been. I found the first half hour a bit slow and the imagery in the central part of the film schlocky in an unappealing way, like a Hallmark card come to life. That said, I loved the final monologue by Irrfan Khan, and the twist at the end (preserved from the book) in some ways thematically justifies the Hallmarkyness of what has gone before. The film does a good job of raising the question of what we desire from stories and life, but that wasn't really enough to make it a particularly memorable or visceral experience.The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.
I'd been meaning to get around to this classic of New German Cinema, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, for years, but didn't until recently. It's a perfect complement to more expansive, wild portraits of terrorism and Germany in the 1970s such as Baader Meinhof Complex
and Fassbinder's Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven
and The Third Generation
. (It actually has a lot in common with Mother Kusters
, which was released just a few months earlier in 1975.) It also seems to me to be a particularly fine example of how a style of objective, unemotional realism can be used to foster real emotion in an audience and also to suggest depths of history and psychology that would feel forced, obvious, or too convenient if presented through more obvious exposition. We don't really know much for sure about Katharina, especially in the first half of the film. We learn along with everyone else what has happened, and the truth of it all, while apparently present, is nearly lost amid the accusations. We as the audience have to do some work, and there are some things we'll never know. While very much a film of its time and place, it also very much transcends those particularities, as Amy Taubin points out in her Criterion essay
on the film. For America in the Age of the War on Terror, it is a cautionary tale, indeed.The Master.
A movie I very much need to see again before I can decide quite how I felt about it, because the only feeling I had after a first viewing was indifference. I left with admiration for some of the cinematography and performances, and a complete inability to emotionally connect with any of it. I didn't care about the characters in any way, couldn't have cared less if they all died in a nuclear holocaust or suddenly created peace on earth. If the movie had ended after half an hour, I would have felt about what I felt about it after 144 minutes, and if it had lasted for 444 minutes I probably would have started moaning and writhing in my seat, but been no more or less enlightened than I was. Some viewers and critics I generally respect feel passionately about this movie, and I hope with a second viewing I can begin to access some of what might cause someone to feel passion one way or the other about it.Melancholia.
In the first half hour, I thought I would hate this film. Stupid rich people at a stupid wedding being stupid. I was about to turn it off when something clicked. And then it really clicked. And I was entranced. Moved. Astounded. Shocked. Perplexed. Blown away. A perfect complement to another movie from 2011, The Tree of Life
(a movie I continue to think about, wrestle with, and about which I am somewhat more ambiguous in my love for than Melancholia,
although it is still love). Melancholia
seems at times to be about nothing, and that may partly be some of the point, but to really get at all the somethings within its apparent nothingness, check out Steven Shaviro's extraordinary exploration of it
Easily my favorite movie of 2012. I love Wes Anderson's movies, but I've now watched Moonrise Kingdom
three times and been entranced even beyond his other films. It's a marvelous synergy of casting, writing, design, and filming. I haven't come up with any good explanations or interpretations of its wonder; all I know is that it is delightful in every way.Oslo, August 31st.
I adored director/writer Joachim Trier's first feature, Reprise
, which also starred Anders Danielsen Lie
as a troubled young man. Oslo, August 31st
is a less jaunty, more focused movie than Reprise
, but each film's style fits the tale it has to tell. Lie's performance is so captivating, so perfectly modulated that it doesn't really matter if, in the end, we say, "So what?" The so what
is that we've spent time with someone struggling against his addictions, struggling to connect to other people, struggling to feel something, struggling to find meaning in his life. The first hour or so of the film is absolutely perfect, because it makes us care about someone who is easy to write off, and it makes us want for him to succeed. When he slips into a party and takes his first drink in ten months, the effect is overwhelming. We know how this will end. He's told us. We keep hoping he will change, that a great light of illumination will suddenly move him away from self-destruction, but this story has no interest in fantasy, it has no interest in being feel-good entertainment. The ending is not satisfying. It shouldn't be. It's important that we end with the question, "So what?" in our heads, because that is the question Anders himself never escapes. His answer is unsatisfying. We are left to each find our own ways to answer it differently.Sleep Dealer.
A little science fiction movie about the U.S/Mexico border, drone attacks, guilt, and hope. There's nothing particularly innovative or subtle here, but the story is told well, and it's a story eminently worth telling. It was not a big-budget film, so some of the special effects are a bit clumsy when compared to $200-million blockbusters, but it doesn't matter, because it's not primarily a movie about its effects. The plot turns are mostly predictable, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. The familiarity of some of the plotting allows us to think about other things that few more surprisingly-plotted films do: questions of identity, militarism, class. Sleep Dealer
is hardly perfect, but it's more interesting and engaging than at least half of what's slithering through the multiplexes right now.
I have contributions in three new e-books that offer all sorts of wonders and joys:
- Don't Pay Bad for Bad is a collection of rare and previously unpublished short stories by Amos Tutuola (author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, etc.). The e-book includes an introduction by Tutuola's son Yinka, and an afterword by me in which I try to give some of the context for how Tutuola's writing has been perceived by readers over the years. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Wizard's Tower (Epub & Mobi), Amazon.]
- Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn is a nearly-indescribable novella, easily one of my favorite pieces of writing of the last few decades, and so I'm thrilled to have provided an afterword for the e-book. [Available from Weightless (Epub & Mobi formats), Amazon.]
- The second issue of the lit journal Unstuck includes all sorts of stories, poems, essays, whatzits, etc., including a little story of mine, "The Island Unknown". The list of authors is awesome: Steve Almond, Kate Bernheimer, Jedediah Berry, Gabriel Blackwell, Edward Carey, Brian Conn, Rikki Ducornet, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Caitlin Horrocks, AD Jameson, J. Robert Lennon, Jonathan Lethem & John Hilgart, Paul Lisicky, Elizabeth McCracken, Ed Park, Donald Revell, Mary Ruefle, Tomaz Salamun, David J. Schwartz, Mathias Svalina, Daniel Wallace, Dean Young, Matthew Zapruder, etc. You can get the issue as a beautiful paperback, and/or you can download the e-book version from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Joanna Scott on William Faulkner:
Writing that flirts with incoherence can just as readily flounder as writing characterized by simplicity and composure. There is no reliable formula for originality, and strategies that are distinguished as innovative in their first incarnation can quickly become stale in the hands of lesser artists. It’s all too easy to conflate dense prose or jumbled narrative structures with literary ambition. But in this age of trending and blogging, with paragraphs growing shorter and the spaces between them growing larger, it’s also easy to dismiss the kind of fiction that might not yield readily, docilely, to our first attempt to comprehend it. This is the worry that [C.E.] Morgan and [John Jeremiah] Sullivan express; they know how quickly readers—and writers—will turn away from fiction that dares to cast itself as difficult. Sullivan admits that he has done the same. And when, in The New York Times, a contemporary writer derides Ulysses as “a professor’s book,” he assumes that as readers, we have nothing new to learn.
If, however, we allow ourselves to think of reading as a capacity we keep cultivating, then we have reason to turn to books that have something to teach us about the medium they use to convey meaning. While it can be pleasurable to move speedily through a work of fiction, there’s a different sort of pleasure to be had in lingering, backtracking, rereading the same page. As children know, there’s lots of fun in nonsense. We never stop benefiting from staying flexible, open and responsive, even in the midst of confusion. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to keep learning how to read.
Scott's entire essay is lovely. Faulkner is my favorite American novelist, and his most difficult book, Absalom, Absalom!,
is my favorite American novel — partly because when I first read it, I literally threw it across the room three times. But I kept going back. It's not a book I've ever written about or am likely to write about, because each time I read it it opens up new wonders and new perplexities, and I respond to it with awe and terror and humility, not analysis. To write about something that affects you in that way, to reduce it to words other than its own, feels obscene. All I can do is keep reading, and learning to read, the book itself.
By: Matthew Cheney,
Blog: The Mumpsimus
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Behold!The Weird Fiction Review
website has existed for a year now. During that time, it has published work from around the world, including such wondrous things as a new translation of Bruno Schulz's "The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hour Glass"
, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum's "The Night Watchman"
, and Finnish writer Leena Likitalo's first story in English, "Watcher"
. And tons of other things, including my own "Stories in the Key of Strange: A Collage of Encounters"
. The website has become a hugely valuable resource, and it just keeps getting better, more varied, more surprising, more impressive. If you haven't spent time with it, you're missing a treasure trove.
Locus this month has been conducting a poll to find out the "best" science fiction and fantasy novels and short fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries. Though I first suggested on Twitter that I would be filling it all in with Raymond Carver stories, I gave in today at the last minute and instead filled in the poll with some choices other than Carver stories (though I was tempted to put "Why Don't You Dance?" on there, since it has a certain fantasy feel to it, at least to me).
I'll post my choices after the jump here.
Because I did the poll at the last minute, the choices were as much impulsive as rational. I'm not much interested in differentiating science fiction and fantasy, so I paid only the barest attention to categorization. For lengths, I used the lists Locus posted or what I could find on ISFDB, and for the few items not on either, I just relied on my own memory and guessing.
Were I to write the lists now, or tomorrow, or next week, they would be different, both in content and order. Such is the nature of these things. Only a few items are absolute for me (e.g., Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is the best science fiction novel ever written). Many of the choices are there not because I think they are Eternally & Canonically Important (though many are) but because they remain vivid and powerful reading experiences for me. Also, some things didn't make it on because I would need to reread them to decide — for instance, I couldn't pick one of the novellas from Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness, because though I'm fairly sure one of them belongs on the list, I haven't read the book recently enough to decide between them. M. John Harrison's Viriconium probably belongs on there, too, but I couldn't decide on one of the books in particular, wasn't sure if the big collection would count as a single novel, and in any case had The Course of the Heart on there already (it's another absolute for me — no list of best 20th century fantasy novels is complete without it). And then there are things that probably belong on such a list, but I've never read them, such as Gormenghast. And then there are the obvious items I forgot and will be chastising myself for tomorrow.
I know of lists from a few other folks: Niall Harrison, Cheryl Morgan, Ian Sales. Once Locus publishes the results from the poll, I'll put a link here.
Finally, I am perfectly aware that I will be the only person voting for quite a few of these.
(Note: Because I cut-and-pasted these into the Locus poll form, I deliberately removed diacritical marks and any other punctuation that might mess up the tally. And I'm being lazy here and just pasting my master list in.)
20th century science fiction novel
1. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
2. Ubik by Philip K. Dick
3. 1984 by George Orwell
4. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
5. 334 by Thomas M. Disch
6. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
7. Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
8. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
9. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
10. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
20th Century Fantasy Novel
1. The Castle by Franz Kafka
2. The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
3. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
4. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
5. The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
6. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
7. Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier
8. Neveryona by Samuel R. Delany
9. Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner
10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
20th Century SF/F Novella
1. The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
2. Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany
3. The Stains, by Robert Aickman
4. Great Work of Time, by John Crowley
5. Souls, by Joanna Russ
6. Pastoralia, by George Saunders
7. Pork Pie Hat, by Peter Straub
8. R&R, by Lucius Shepard
9. The King’s Indian: A Tale, by John Gardner
10. Mr. Boy, by James Patrick Kelly
20th Century SF/F Novelette
1. Invaders, by John Kessel
2. The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, by Lucius Shepard
3. The Asian Shore, by Thomas M. Disch
4. The Hell Screen, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
5. The Hospice, by Robert Aickman
6. A Little Something for Us Tempunauts, by Philip K. Dick
7. The Juniper Tree, by Peter Straub
8. Solitude, by Ursula K. Le Guin
9. Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler
10. Sea Oak, by George Saunders
20th Century SF/F Short Story
1. A Country Doctor, by Franz Kafka
2. Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, by Jorge Luis Borges
3. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. Le Guin
4. Day Million, by Frederik Pohl
5. The School, by Donald Barthelme
6. Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!, by Raccoona Sheldon
7. Or All the Seas with Oysters, by Avram Davidson
8. The Terminal Beach, by J.G. Ballard
9. Abominable, by Carol Emshwiller
10. One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts, by Shirley Jackson
21st Century SF Novel
1. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
2. Light by M. John Harrison
3. Liberation by Brian Francis Slattery
4. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel R. Delany
5. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
21st Century Fantasy Novel
1. Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
2. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
3. The City & The City by China Mieville
4. Oh Pure & Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
5. One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak
21st Century SF/F Novella
1. Tainaron, by Leena Krohn
2. A Crowd of Bone, by Greer Gilman
3. Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
4. Near Zennor, by Elizabeth Hand
5. Memorare, by Gene Wolfe
21st Century SF/F Novelette
1. Stone Animals, by Kelly Link
2. Only Partly Here, by Lucius Shepard
3. Yellow Card Man, by Paolo Bacigalupi
4. The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford
5. Revenge of the Calico Cat, by Stepan Chapman
21st Century SF/F Short Story
1. There’s a Hole in the City, by Richard Bowes
2. Cold Fires, by M. Rickert
3. Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot, by Daniel Alarcon
4. Delhi, by Vandana Singh
5. Safe Passage, by Ramona Ausubel
Rex Reed pointed to
perhaps the best criticism of the new adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina,
written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, a criticism that is over 100 years old. On 18 September 1905, James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about Tolstoy: "He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical." Wright's film of Anna Karenina
is often dull, often stupid, sometimes tired, sometimes pedantic, and literally theatrical.
I have a fundamental problem with any adaptation of Tolstoy's novel. If someone (e.g., William Faulkner, F.R. Leavis
) were to tell me that Anna Karenina
is the greatest novel ever written, I would not disagree. Not having read all of the novels ever written, I'm not in a position to rank them, but I've certainly never read a better novel than Anna Karenina
(and I've read War & Peace, —
but for all its glories and wonders, it falls apart at the end, so Anna
has a point up on it there). Additionally, Konstantin Levin is just about my favorite character in any novel.
Much of what I love about the book and its characters is not, though, its drama. One of the things that distinguishes Anna Karenina
for me is that it doesn't work as anything but
a novel, because novels can encompass, enliven, and embody so many discourses: dramatic, yes, but also philosophical, journalistic, political, historical... It takes genius to do the same with a dramatic genre, a play or a film, and Joe Wright is not a genius.
Alas, though I've seen more than my fair share of the many adaptations
of Anna Karenina
, none has struck me as getting very much of a glimmer of what makes the book so marvelous. My favorite is the 1935 version
, mostly because of Greta Garbo
and the fine cinematography of William Daniels
. As with most of the adaptations, the 1935 focuses primarily on Anna and her affair with Vronsky, but despite my love of Garbo I find it all grows tedious because Fredric March is so utterly uninteresting as Vronsky (and at least 10 years too old) and Basil Rathbone plays Karenin as such a caricature that it's often unintentionally humorous. The script had a difficult time getting through Joseph Breen's
censorship office, leading to an adaptation that is mostly chaste and staid.* (Garbo is magnificent, but that goes without saying.)
Wright's Anna Karenina
begins promisingly, introducing an anti-realistic conceit in which all the events take place in a theatre — and not just the stage, but the orchestra, balconies, and wings. It's as if Wright had set himself up to adapt a Nabokov novel and ended up with Anna Karenina
at the last minute. While utterly un-Tolstoyan, it does at least give the film some energy and inventiveness. Additionally, the film begins with Matthew Macfadyen
, who is perfectly cast as Stiva. Every moment Macfadyen is on screen is delightful, and the character is quite faithful to Tolstoy's original. An early scene in his office, with robot-precise clerks, is great fun and also redolent of an earlier film scripted by Stoppard, Brazil
. Unfortunately, Wright doesn't seem to know what to do with the theatrical conceit, and he moves in and out of it without, as far as I could tell, any good reason, though this may just be a failure of attention on my part. It is hard to maintain attention on the film, because so much of it is just so tedious, with a plodding clunkiness to most of the scenes. I had to keep reminding myself that Stoppard had written this, because little of the intellect, complexity, playfulness, and lightness of touch that we generally associate with Stoppard as a writer was present. Taking a glance at a draft of the script
, the fault seems to me mostly Wright's. At least when Fassbinder took Stoppard's adaptation of Nabokov's Despair
and turned it into a very Fassbinder and very un-Stoppard and un-Nabokov movie in its feel, he did so by absorbing it into his own style and concerns. Wright doesn't seem to have any concerns, so what he has is a mishmash of style to no purpose. Sometimes it looks nice, sometimes it's at least momentarily interesting, but it's all too random and off the shelf. For a simple comparison, see how a theatrical conceit can add to the power and meaning of films made by two of the greatest directors ever to work in the cinema: Lola Montès
(Ophuls) and The Golden Coach
(Renoir). Comparing a pedestrian filmmaker like Wright to Ophuls and Renoir is like comparing Tolstoy to Terry Brooks, but such exemplary uses of theatricality highlight just how shallow Wright's choices are.
What of Keira Knightley, our Karenina? She's not as terrible as she could have been. Given the film that she had to be in, she seemed to me to do as well as anyone could be expected to, and I can't think of another actress who would have moved the film from being a patchwork dud to something smarter and more engaging. Some of her scenes with Karenin, played quite well by Jude Law, are interesting, but that's mostly because Stoppard and Wright seem to have wanted to give Karenin a bit more depth than he's gotten in other feature film adaptations, so those scenes are given the time and seriousness they need to build into something. On the other hand, the scenes with Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are mostly awful. Vronsky is in many ways the most difficult character to pull off, because it's easy for him to be little more than a dumb pretty boy (or, as played by Fredric March, a plodding middle-aged man). The observational dramatism of film especially struggles with such a character. Taylor-Johnson gives it a good shot, and is sometimes successful, particularly toward the end of the movie, at showing Vronsky's evolution, but he's not given enough to work with, and Wright is frequently tone-deaf in his staging of the scenes between Anna and Vronsky.
And then there's my beloved Levin. You might think it would be good thing for the story of Levin and Kitty to be given more time than it is in other adaptations (I don't know of one that's not a tv mini-series that gives him much, if any, time at all). That would be true, if the filmmakers were actually interested in him. However, they are only apparently interested in Levin as a symbol of some sort. The casting of Domhnall Gleeson
in the role is the first sign that Wright isn't much interested in the character Tolstoy created, because the Levin of the novel is described as having a large build, strong shoulders, and a curly beard. This is not a description one could fit to Gleeson in the film
, despite his beard. Certainly, no movie needs to capture every physical detail from a novel, and actors of very different build and physicality from a description could still give a powerful performance, but Levin's largeness and strength seem especially important to his characterization, particularly once he's out in the fields working with the peasants. The meaning is quite different if he is a small-framed, weak-shouldered man working in the fields, clearly out of his element, than if he is a man who looks like he could physically fit right in and is distinguished from the peasants purely by the circumstances of his birth. Worse, though, Levin suffers the same problem as the portrayal of Vronsky: most of the life and richness he possesses in the novel isn't translated into the performance or its staging. It's okay for Vronsky to be a bit bland, so long as he's pretty, because his blandness is a part of his character, but Levin is such a vivid, richly imagined person that it's heartbreaking (in a bad way!) for him to be so often little more than a holy fool in the film.
It's okay that this Anna Karenina
is not Tolstoy's. We have Tolstoy's, and it is superior to any possible adaptation. But it's unfortunate that this film is not more enlightening, more thoughtfully clever rather than just cleverly clever, more, at least, entertaining.
*It's an interesting comparison to Garbo's earlier outing as Anna Karenina in the 1927 silent film Love
(also shot by Daniels) where she was paired with perhaps the only great love of her life, John Gilbert. Their relationship had reached a complex and quite public moment by then, one that at least partly motivated the title change of the movie: the studio reportedly got very excited at the idea of making posters and publicity materials reading, "Gilbert & Garbo in Love
!" It's less epic than the 1935 adaptation, and less faithful to Tolstoy, but there are some lovely scenes. Unfortunately, the only readily available version I know of is the Warner Archive DVD
, which features an atrocious soundtrack recorded at a live performance of the score where an audience of idiots had a great time laughing at every close-up. The sound can be turned off, but the other flaw of the Warner disc is that it only includes the happy ending, while some television broadcasts have included both that ending and the alternate, more-accurate-to-Tolstoy end.
The question is not whether Red Dawn
is a good movie. It is a bad movie. As the crazed ghost of Louis Althusser
might say, it has always already been a bad movie. The question is: What kind of bad movie is it?
(Aside: The question I have received most frequently when I've told people I went to see Red Dawn
was actually: "Does Chris Hemsworth take off his shirt?" The answer, I'm sorry to say, is no. All of the characters remain pretty scrupulously clothed through the film. The movie's rated PG-13, a designation significant
to its predecessor, so all it can do is show a lot of carnage, not carnality. May I suggest Google Images
My companion and I found Red Dawn
to be an entertaining bad movie. I feel no shame in admitting that the film entertained me; I'm against, in principal, the concept of "guilty pleasures" and am not much interested in shaming anybody for what are superficial, even autonomic, joys. (That doesn't mean we can't examine our joys and pleasures.) No generally-well-intentioned, "diversity"-loving, pinko commie bourgeois armchair lefty like me can go into a movie like Red Dawn
and expect to see a nuanced study of geopolitics. I knew what I was in for. I got what I expected: a right-wing action-adventure movie based on a yellow peril
premise. Red Dawn
is an unironic remake of a 1984 movie
predicated on paranoid right-wing fantasies; it's not aspiring to even the most basic Starship Troopers
-levels of intertextuality and metacommentary. There's none of the winking at the audiences that fills so many other 1980s remakes and homages (e.g. Expendables 2
, which relies on the audience's knowledge of its stars' greatest hits — the only convincing performance in the movie is that of Jean-Claude van Damme, who, apparently overjoyed to be released from the purgatory of straight-to-DVD movies, plays it all for real, and becomes the only element of any interest in the whole thing). The closest Red Dawn
comes to acknowledging its position in the cinemasphere happens when it turns the first film's very serious male-bonding moment of drinking deer blood into a practical joke, giving the characters a few rare laughs.
What are we supposed to feel good about in this movie? The 1984 Red Dawn
was not even remotely a feel-good movie, but it gave us a space in which to feel proud of an idea of America that could survive even the most devastating attack by the Soviet Union (and its Latin American minions). It made a point of showing concrete objective correlatives for the abstract idea that is "American freedom" — the one that was most impressed on me by my father when we first watched Red Dawn
together was the scene where Soviet soldiers talk about going to a gun shop to collect the federal Form 4473s
, and using them to track down gun owners. This, to my father and many other people, demonstrated exactly why even the most minimal type of registration of guns is not merely annoying, but a threat to freedom. I vividly remember my father
saying, "If the Russians come, we burn those damn forms." Red Dawn
was not merely an action movie; it was a documentary.
But Red Dawn
was a movie made during a time when the U.S. was not officially at war. It appeared in U.S. theatres less than a year after the invasion of Grenada
, and just at the time when the actions that would eventually become the Iran-Contra Scandal
were making their way into the public consciousness. The hawks of the Reagan administration needed the public to be both patriotic and fearful of the Red Menace, because otherwise it was difficult to justify the massive transfer of wealth into the Pentagon. Red Dawn
did that better than any other movie of the time. (For much more on this background, see the article by J. Hoberman in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Film Comment
Now, though? The new Red Dawn
comes as the Iraq war is winding down and the war in Afghanistan (our longest
) may be nearing some sort of end. (And then, of course, there's Libya
.) But these have been wars where we have been invaders fighting insurgents. They have been long, unfocused wars with no clear victory conditions. They began with some popularity and unanimity of public opinion, but the longer they went on, and the more that people learned about them, the less popular they became. They continued because the U.S. military is, while a huge part of the national budget, not a particularly concrete and visible part of everyday life and concern for many Americans. Without the threat of a draft, and with the rise of long-distance and drone strikes, most Americans can ignore the immediate reality of American wars, the hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on every side.
It's in what the new Red Dawn
makes us attach our feelings of pride, joy, and power to that it really differs from its predecessor, because the idea of America that it presents is neither particularly clear nor the product of much conviction. There are flags and some general genuflecting in the direction of "freedom", but the original Red Dawn
offered a vision of how its idea of "freedom" actually works in the world, and what threatens it. There was an attempt at creating a certain amount of plausibility and verisimilitude — one of the advisors to the original film was Alexander Haig
, Reagan's former Secretary of State, who worked with writer/director John Milius
to craft what seemed to them a relatively realistic invasion scenario, the weapons and vehicles were as realistic as could be accomplished without being able to buy actually Soviet weaponry (the CIA inquired about the tanks after seeing them being moved to the set; later, the Pentagon used images of them to train the guidance systems in spy planes), and the tone is dark, with war presented as hell for both sides. Milius made numerous references to his masculine hero Theodore Roosevelt, and the vision he presented was stark, painful, and apocalyptic, more Hobbesian
. It was Panic in Year Zero!
by way of The Battle of Algiers.
Ours is the Age of the Tea Party, not the Age of Reagan, and so the new Red Dawn
is closer to the ideological vision of The Patriot
than that of its original source. The Patriot
is the story of a man in Colonial America who doesn't see much point in fighting against the British until his own family is affected, at which time he becomes a psychopathic vengeance machine, and then at the end returns home to a small community not to help build up a new government or create the idea of a common United States, but to become the leader of a little utopian plantation. (He had already been leader of a utopian plantation before the war, because the black people doing work on his property were not actually slaves, but free employees. Really. As William Ross St. George, Jr. wrote in his review (PDF)
of the film for the Journal of American History,
this must have been "the only such labor arrangement in colonial South Carolina".) What matters in The Patriot
is not country or government — all government is portrayed with contempt in the film — but rather self-reliance and, especially, family. Despite the movie's title, it's not about being a patriot, but about being a loyal, strong, independent, and avenging father.
The new Red Dawn
, much more than the original, is also a movie about families and fathers. Jed, played originally by Patrick Swayze and in the new film by Thor, is now an Iraq vet who struggled to be a good son to his father and, especially, a good brother to Matt (originally Charlie Sheen, now Josh Peck). Lots of family melodrama is alluded to. The boys don't visit their father in a re-education camp; instead, the Evil Korean Guy (whose name I thought was Captain Joe, but IMDB tells me it's Captain Cho. I prefer my version), who for some unfathomable reason recognizes from the very first moment that Teenagers Are The Enemy (he was probably a high school teacher back home), rounds up their fathers, brings them to the Evil Dead Cabin where the kids had been hiding out, and makes the fathers plead with the kids to come in. Of course, the weak and collaborating mayor pleads with them to give themselves up, but the strong and noble father of Jedmatt (in a much blander performance than the clearly unhinged and perhaps psychopathic man portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton in the original) instead tells them to fight to the death, causing Captain Joe to channel his inner Nguyen Ngoc Loan
and shoot him in the head. Oh dad, poor dad. Jed and Matt then go on to learn how to be good brothers to each other, just in time for— Well, you don't want to know the ending, do you? (For a moment, I thought it would turn out to be a movie climaxing with brotherly kisses and fellatio, but, alas, it did not. Well, not exactly. Although the more I think about it...)
We have to talk about the ending, though, because we have to talk about who lives and who dies. The original Red Dawn
was not Rambo
— while it certainly stirred up feelings of patriotism against the Soviet enemy, and admiration for the U.S. military, its tone isn't all that far away from The Day After
. The end is a downer, but it's not nihilistic. We zoom in on a memorial plaque, its words read to us on the soundtrack: "In the early days of World War III, guerrillas, mostly children, placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone and gave up their lives, 'so that this nation shall not perish from the earth.'" The memorial asserts that these lives were lost for a great cause, and by quoting the Gettysburg Address, it connects their sacrifice to that of soldiers who fought to preserve not just some idea of Americanism, but the union itself.
The remake turns patriotic tragedy into personal tragedy — Jed is killed just at the moment when he has reconciled with his brother. Toni (Adrianne Palicki
in the remake, Jennifer Grey
in the original) and Matt both survive in this version, along with many of the other Wolverines. Well, the white Wolverines.
The new Red Dawn
isn't just a yellow peril movie, it's a vision of white supremacy. Only one nonwhite Wolverine has much of an identity (Daryl, played by Connor Cruise
), and the others die pretty quickly. Finally, Daryl is, without his knowledge, injected with some sort of tracking device that can't be removed from his body, so he's given some supplies and left to wander away, probably to be killed by the North Koreans. Almost all of the white Wolverines survive, presumably with a new understanding of the miraculous powers of their skin color.
Remember what happened to (white) Daryl in 1984? His sleazy father (the mayor) forced him to swallow a tracking device. He knew it was in him. After barely surviving the assault that followed, the Wolverines take him to the top of a freezing mesa with a captured Russian soldier and get ready to execute him. Jed and Matt fight about it, with Matt saying it will make them worse than the Russians. Jed kills the Soviet soldier, but doesn't seem to be able to kill Daryl. Robert, whose experiences have fully brutalized him, shoots Daryl. It's a wrenching, disturbing scene. Again and again, the original Red Dawn
says: War is a horrific, destructive experience for everyone involved, and it reduces us to our most animalistic natures — naming the guerrillas Wolverines
was not merely the naming of a mascot or a rallying cry, it was a statement of what they had become.
The new Red Dawn
doesn't hurt. It's superficially entertaining in a way that the original is not. Sure, it's shocking that Jed dies, but the way that scene is set up and edited highlights the shock, not the pain. In the original Red Dawn
, Jed and Matt know they're heading out on a suicide mission. Jed survives a little while longer only because the Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O'Neal
) feels some respect or sympathy for him and is tired of the whole war. Jed1984 kills the Super Nasty Russian Bad Guy, just as Jed2012 kills Capt. Joe (with his father's gun, because they just happen to be in Dad's Police Station!), but the original film then takes the brothers to a frozen park, where, mortally wounded, they sit together on a bench and drift off to eternity.
The new Red Dawn
instead puts its concluding weight on the idea that you probably shouldn't trust the black guy, even if he's friendly and well-intentioned. He's probably got a tracking device in his blood. Even though he doesn't want to be, he's a traitor. Best to leave him in the wilderness. This in a movie that begins with a montage showing us that President Obama and his minions are ineffective at defending us from the North Koreans (and their secret Russian puppetmasters).
The original Red Dawn
had an unabashed political purpose — it warned us not to let our guard down, it encouraged us to support massive increases in defense spending, it encouraged us to stockpile guns and canned goods. It especially wanted us to call our congresspeople and tell them to support funding for the Contras and similar anti-communist forces. The September 1984 issue of Soldier of Fortune
magazine includes an article about Red Dawn
's production, particularly its weaponry, that begins: "Military strategists have often discussed the repercussions of a communist takeover of Central America. One worst-case scenario has the Soviet Union training Cubans and Nicaraguans in the offensive use of advanced weapons such as the MiG 25 and T-72 tank." The article ends:
Red Dawn seriously attempts realism. Milius spent $17 million trying to give the American public a taste of what Soviet weaponry, tactics and occupation practices are all about.
Liberal critics will howl about Reagan's deleterious effect on the creative arts and scream that Red Dawn is unabashed saber-rattling propaganda. It sounds like our kind of movie.
Red Dawn opens across the country on 17 August.
So yes, Red Dawn
was propaganda in 1984. But it was not merely
propaganda; there is cleverness and even humanity to it. It's an action/survival movie, so character development isn't a particular goal, but where it spends it moments of character development are telling. Instead of just building of family melodrama, the original Red Dawn
gave humanity to some of the antagonists (particularly Colonel Bella). While the Soviet commanders are cartoons, the Russian soldiers are clearly just as trapped in the horrific logic of war as the Wolverines.
The new Red Dawn
also wants to be propaganda, as the opening montage shows us. But there are more subtle connections to not just right-wing militarism, but extremist nuttiness. The key is three letters: EMP.
How do the bad guys invade North America? They wipe out the American defense infrastructure, and apparently the entire American military, by setting off at least one electromagnetic pulse
(EMP). Now, EMPs are real. Boeing is even developing
an EMP missile. But who gets really excited at the idea of an EMP knocking out electronic infrastructures? The apocalypse addicts at WorldNet Daily
. Famed doomsayer Newt Gingrich brought it up
during the Republican primary. Right-wingers get positively giddy at the idea. Why?
Because it justifies
lots of spending on missile defense. But according
to the right wingers, President Obama is not spending nearly enough money to defend us from missiles. We could be wiped out at any moment by an EMP. But the weak, appeasing black guy in the White House is, whether he knows it or not, a traitor.
The politics of the new Red Dawn
are about as coherent as those at a Tea Party rally, where really the only unifying theme is hatred of anything that can be called "government" (and doesn't contribute to the life and happiness of the complainer), hatred of the Socialist Kenyan Muslim Manchurian President Nazi Obama, and love of weaponry.
Whatever can be said about John Milius, at least he was committed enough to his concept to have thought it through. The new Red Dawn
seemingly unintentionally opens itself to all sorts of odd moments, such as when Jed says, "When I was overseas [in Iraq], we were the good guys, we enforced order. Well, now we're the bad guys. We create chaos." In 1984, when the Wolverines went into the desert on horses, they evoked images of the Mujahideen
in Afghanistan. (The cover of that September 1984 issue of shows a guerrilla and the headline "Exclusive: Afghan Raiders on Russia's Border".) In 2012, when a character talks about the order enforced in Iraq, it's hard not to think about all the insurgents created by the chaos of the American invasion. When the Wolverines are called "terrorists" by their enemies, who doesn't think of the War on Terror? No wonder the U.S military has been disappeared by the new Red Dawn
(instead of being assisted by active duty soldiers, the Wolverines are assisted by retired
Marines). Nobody can forget that the U.S. military of the 21st century is an invading force. In 1984, the U.S. wanted to arm and train the "freedom fighters" of the world. In 2012, insurgents and terrorists "hate our freedoms".
In the nearly thirty years between the two films, gender roles seem to have become more confining. There weren't many women in the original Red Dawn
, but Toni and Erica (Lea Thompson
) in the original were interesting, active characters. They were stereotypically, tragically traumatized by something that happened with the Russians (likely, rape), so much so that their grandfather hides them in the cellar, but though they remain traumatized and quiet, they also assert themselves against the assumptions of the men, and (like the women in Battle of Algiers
) prove to be excellent, committed guerrillas, and more resilient than many of the men. When she dies, Toni makes sure she takes at least one Russian with her. The women of the original Red Dawn
do not end up as objects of our pity or our lust, but rather of our respect.
Toni and Erica both survive in the new Red Dawn
, but that's about all they have going for them. Erica is a sharp-cheeked blonde (Isabel Lucas
) whose entire job in the movie is to be gawked at and pined for — Matt is so in love with her that he repeatedly risks the safety of the Wolverines to save her. (Girls are dangerous! They make boys stupid!) Once her role as the Imperiled Love Interest is over, she mostly disappears from the movie. Toni exists primarily to help Jed get in touch with his emotions. Her costumes tend to highlight her figure (the opposite of the costumes in the original film), and though she gets to shoot stuff and blow things up like everybody else, there's little sense of her as an integral member of the unit.
One of the problems for the new film is that it doesn't really know what to do with its characters. The mayor is set up to be just as sleazy and appeasing as the original, but nothing much is made of his story. He's just another weak, naive black guy. But that's what happens when you allow black people into government, as we should have learned from Birth of a Nation
. While the original Red Dawn
ended by invoking Abraham Lincoln, the new Red Dawn
conjures the glory days of the John Birch Society.
But I'll end where I began: It is entertaining while it lasts. There's lots of action, lots of explosions. Some of the action is badly filmed — a car chase in the beginning is particularly incoherent, much to its detriment, because though part of the point of this action is to get us excited for our protagonists in peril, it also has some information to convey, and it can't do it because it's so badly shot and edited. There is moment-to-moment excitement. But though I went into the film determined to give it the benefit of the doubt, soon the entertainment was at least partially because of the film's idiocies. It's breathtakingly racist, but I also found it difficult to be disturbed by its racism, because it was so obviously stupid that it was comic, and my companion and I kept nudging each about the blatant, self-parodying silliness.
However, as Twitter showed
, plenty of people found the movie inspiring, convincing, and powerful. Its political message got through. Its racism buttressed the inherent racism of many people who went to see it during its opening week. Its ideology did some work in the world.
Thinking about that fact is very far from entertaining.
The latest issue of The Revelator
is now online. Eric Schaller and I put this one together with love and craft
. It includes new short stories by Meghan McCarron and Laird Barron, poems by Sonya Taaffe, comix by Chad Woody, a column on music by Brian Francis Slattery, art by Adam Blue, miniatures used in the movie The Whisperer in Darkness
, a previously-unpublished interview with H.P. Lovecraft that Nick Mamatas discovered, etc. Once again, we have, we believe, fully embodied our motto: The Truth ... And All.
The easiest way to keep apprised of the always-unpredictable, regularly irregular schedule of The Revelator
is via our Facebook page
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at Sandy Hook Elementary School was the sixteenth mass shooting
in the U.S. in 2012.
Looking back on my post about "Utopia and the Gun Culture"
from January 2011, when Jared Loughner killed and wounded various people in Arizona, I find it still represents my feelings generally. A lot of people have died since then, killed by men with guns. I've already updated
that post once before, and I could have done so many more times.
Focusing on guns is not enough. Nothing in isolation is. In addition to calls for better gun control, there have been calls for better mental health services. Certainly, we need better mental health policies, and we need to stop using prisons as our de facto mental institutions, but that's at best vaguely relevant here. Plenty of mass killers wouldn't be caught by even the most intrusive psych nets, and potential killers that were would not necessarily find any treatment helpful. Depending on the scope and nuance of the effort, there could be civil rights violations, false diagnoses, and general panic. (Are you living next door to a potential mass killer? Is your neighbor loud and aggressive? Quiet and introverted? Conspicuously normal? Beware! Better report them to the FBI...)
That said, I expect there are things that could be done, systems that could be improved, creative and useful ideas that could be implemented. I'd actually want to broaden the scope beyond just mental health and toward a strengthening of social services in general. I'm on the board of my local domestic violence/sexual assault crisis center, where demand for our services is up, but we're hurting for resources and have had to curtail and strictly prioritize some of those services. It's a story common among many of our peers not just in the world of anti-violence/abuse programs, but in the nonprofit social service sector as a whole.
What we have is a bit of a gun control problem, a bit more of a social services problem, and a lot of a cultural problem.
One of the best books I've encountered on this subject is James William Gibson's Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America
. It's from 1994, but is in some ways even more relevant now.
Gibson ends a chapter called "Bad Men and Bad Guns: The Symbolic Politics of Gun Control" with these words:
To argue ... that many of these murderers could have been stopped solely by increased gun control is to pretend that the social and political crises of post-Vietnam America never occurred and that the New War did not develop as the major way of overcoming those disasters. Paramilitary culture made military-style rifles desirable, and legislation cannot ban a culture. The gun-control debate was but the worst kind of fetishism, in which focusing on a part of the dreadful reality of the decade — combat weapons — became a substitute for confronting what America had become.
We seem to be a generally less violent
country than in the past, and yet this specific type of crime (mass killing) is on the rise. Coverage of killers
in the media certainly adds to the attraction of these acts for people who seek such glory. More broadly, mass killings such as this should cause us to consider hegemonic masculinity
, a culture of child-killing
, and the privileges
of white male terrorists
. (Those last 4 links via Shailja Patel
.) We should remember that the President who shed tears for the deaths of children in Connecticut authorized drone strikes that have killed
many times more children.
The desire to get rid of all the guns is understandable, but it is useless and counterproductive. 300 million (or more!) guns aren't going away, sales have been strong
for at least 10 years, with at least 1 million guns sold legally every month (good luck finding reliable statistics on illegal guns).
Meaningful policy needs to be pragmatic. We've got tons
already. Additionally, the utopian desire to get rid of all guns only plays into the paranoid narrative the NRA uses to keep fundraising strong: "The liberals want to take your guns! Send us money to stop them! Meanwhile, stockpile because the liberals always win and they're going to ban all gun sales next week!"
Many people have called for a renewal of the assault weapons ban
. I expect the gun manufacturers would be thrilled. First, because it would incite panic buying. Second, because it's primarily based on particular rifles' aesthetics, and the last time the ban was in place, the manufacturers found easy loopholes. So they get the best of all possible worlds: increased demand, which allows them to raise prices on items they've already manufactured, and then relatively easy design changes that don't cost them a whole lot of money and still allow them to sell lots of guns. Indeed, if anything, the ban increases the aura around such weapons, making them even more desireable to would-be killers. The NRA would love it, too, because they would finally be able to pin some actual gun control measures on the Obama administration, and their fundraising would skyrocket. They'd never say it publicly, but the gun industry and the gun lobby might as well stand there just waiting for the assault weapons ban to be renewed, saying, "Go ahead. Make our day."
Probably the most practically effective part of the ban has nothing to do with the guns themselves, but rather how much ammo they can hold before reloading: the magazine capacity limits. Ban all magazines beyond a certain capacity and no matter how scary the gun looks or how light the trigger action is, it's not going to be able to fire lots of bullets. To control guns in the US most effectively may mean controlling not the guns themselves so much as their components and ammunition.
Which brings us to a worthwhile question: What sort of practical gun policies might have prevented what happened in Newtown, Connecticut? The sad, frustrating answer seems to be: maybe none. Even a fantastically perfect system for preventing potentially mentally ill people from buying guns wouldn't have worked: the killer used his mother's
guns. She bought them legally. She could, presumably, pass any background check. I'm all for better funding and implementation for the background check system, but let's not pretend it would have done anything in this case.
What about bans on high-capacity magazines? That has more potential. Such magazines would still exist, so the effect of a ban would not be immediate. It would have been entirely possible for the killer's mother to have some high-capacity mags that she'd bought some time before the ban, or bought second-hand. There are hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of such magazines out there. Even a draconian confiscation system wouldn't eradicate all banned magazines; it would create a black market. Still, we know from experience that high-capacity magazine bans do generally cause prices to rise and supply to fall.
Then there are the arguments from the other side of the issue: More guns!
If you don't regularly spend your time among the core gun-rights-at-all-costs activists, you might think such a suggestion is a joke. It's not. It's the only direction in which the absolutist philosophy of the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and similar groups can go. And there's a core of a truth-like substance to it: crime rates generally have been falling. (But individual gun ownership may also be falling
.) The fundamental problem with the MORE GUNS! argument is that it is based on a wild west mystique that assumes far too much competence among people in crisis moments and ignores how easy it is for mistakes to become deadly when guns are involved. Even if the premises of the argument were reasonable and desireable, it doesn't take a lot of deep thought for the practicalities to show their problems.
That's not to say that people don't successfully defend themselves with guns, or reduce the number of casualties
in some situations, or even that the presence of guns does not deter some crimes. In plenty of such situations, though, if everyone were armed, the likelihood of the moment escalating into total, even more deadly chaos would increase. I'm completely in favor of more gun safety training (in a nation of guns, it makes sense for as many people as possible not to freak out when they encounter one), but I don't want to live in a world where everybody feels the need to be armed.
An important point to note, though, is that the current situation didn't just pop up out of nowhere. It was constructed over the course of decades, and the NRA is partly to blame. But they couldn't have done it alone.
There's an insightful post at Talking Points Memo
, a letter from a reader who, much like me, grew up in the gun culture. The reader notes the rise in popularity of military-style weaponry since the mid-1980s.
I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends - all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives - for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol - with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements - effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks - e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends - might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy. Not “creepy” in the sense that he’s a ticking time bomb; “creepy” in the sense of…alternate reality. Let’s call it “tactical reality.”
Some of these people are my friends and acquaintances; indeed, when I inherited a gun shop and got an FFL
to sell off the inventory, I sold some of those tactical guns to my friends, the fetishists. I certainly don't think they'll go on a rampage, but I do think they live in an alternate reality — a reality my father was very much part of, where black helicopters fly over the house to spy on us, where conspiracies and threats lurk in every social crevice, and where anybody without a bug-out bag
is a moron who will die in the ever-impending apocalypse.
The TPM reader who notes this proposes the change in US culture happened sometime between 1985 and 1995. It's probably a few years earlier, but in general that seems right to me (and fits with the information and argument in Warrior Dreams
). It was in the early 1980s that my father started selling fully-automatic machine guns, then moved to primarily military-style semi-automatics after the 1986 Firearms Owners Protection Act
banned the civilian ownership of new machine guns and added a lot of regulation and taxes to existing machine guns, turning them essentially into collectors' items (many cars are cheaper to buy than a legal machine gun these days). Business was very good for a while, and the threat of the assault weapons ban helped sales considerably. When the ban was in place, those guns became even more desirable — much like banned books or banned movies, once somebody says, "No, you can't have that!" then people who never wanted it before suddenly become interested.
I haven't been able to find any reliable statistics on gun sales in the 1980s (good data on gun sales isn't easy to get, for various reasons
), but 1984/1985 seems plausible as a critical mass point for the shift in gun culture — conservatives' push within the NRA to shift the organization's tone and political attitude had succeeded*, Reagan was President (the first President endorsed by the NRA), TV shows like The A-Team
were popular, G.I. Joe
and other military comics were common, various paramilitary books and magazines filled newsstands, and Hollywood had started making movies like Red Dawn
and Rambo II
The last fact is significant. When Dirty Harry
came out in 1971, sales of the Smith & Wesson Model 29
increased significantly. But that was just a big revolver. In 1985, Rambo II
seemed to do wonders for sales of the H&K 94 and MP 5
. Warrior guns.
It would be facile for me to end by pretending I have any easy or immediate solutions. I don't. Perhaps we need some feel-good measures, but I fear they make us think we've accomplished something when we haven't. There's a strong desire right now, it seems, to do something
. But symbolic laws and security theatre won't help us.
Here's the final paragraph of Gibson's introduction to Warrior Dreams:
Only at the surface level, then, has paramilitary culture been merely a matter of the "stupid" movies and novels consumed by the great unwashed lower-middle and working classes, or of the murderous actions of a few demented, "deviant" men. In truth, there is nothing superficial or marginal about the New War that has been fought in American popular culture since the 1970s. It is a war about basics: power, sex, race, and alienation. Contrary to the Washington Post review, Rambo was no shallow muscle man but the emblem of a movement that at the very least wanted to reverse the previous twenty years of American history and take back all the symbolic territory that had been lost. The vast proliferation of warrior fantasies represented an attempt to reaffirm the national identity. But it was also a larger volcanic upheaval of archaic myths, an outcropping whose entire structural formation plunges into deep historical, cultural, and psychological territories. These territories have kept us chained to war as a way of life; they have infused individual men, national political and military leaders, and society with a deep attraction to both imaginary and real violence. This terrain must be explored, mapped, and understood if it is ever to be transformed.
*Jill Lepore in The New Yorker sums up the change
In the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense. Fights over rights are effective at getting out the vote. Describing gun-safety legislation as an attack on a constitutional right gave conservatives a power at the polls that, at the time, the movement lacked. Opposing gun control was also consistent with a larger anti-regulation, libertarian, and anti-government conservative agenda. In 1975, the N.R.A. created a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, headed by Harlon Bronson Carter, an award-winning marksman and a former chief of the U.S. Border Control. But then the N.R.A.’s leadership decided to back out of politics and move the organization’s headquarters to Colorado Springs, where a new recreational-shooting facility was to be built. Eighty members of the N.R.A.’s staff, including Carter, were ousted. In 1977, the N.R.A.’s annual meeting, usually held in Washington, was moved to Cincinnati, in protest of the city’s recent gun-control laws. Conservatives within the organization, led by Carter, staged what has come to be called the Cincinnati Revolt. The bylaws were rewritten and the old guard was pushed out. Instead of moving to Colorado, the N.R.A. stayed in D.C., where a new motto was displayed: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”