A Post about Shia LaBeouf

Everyone is talking about Shia LaBeouf, for some reason. Because he is being a jerk, or an asshole, I guess?  I don’t have much in the way of opinions on Shia LaBeouf, which is not to say I have none, but rather that my opinions are not so much about Shia himself and more about a vast web of subjective experience that is honestly far more interesting to me than whatever he is doing now.  So I am going to tell you my story about Shia LaBeouf.

The age at which I should have known, or rather cared, who Shia LaBeouf was, was precisely the age at which I did not know or care.  I am referring to his role on the Disney show Even Stevens, which I was not totally informed about since my family never had money for cable or satellite and I only caught the show after the fact, in syndication, on broadcast television.  Still, he existed as a nebulous presence for me, I suppose.

Since television, deprived of the benefits of cable, was not always enough to hold my interest, I also often took to reading.  I read widely and voraciously, and this was something noted about me in school.  When I was eleven and in the fifth grade, a teacher I admired very much asked if I would please read Louis Sachar’s YA novel Holes and share my opinions and experiences with her, because she was considering assigning it for the following year’s English class.

I was familiar with Sachar, primarily from the Wayside School series (grade school David Lynch, and probably a formative influence in those early years) and jumped at the change to read this new book, despite it having a synopsis that failed to tickle that same Wayside itch.

But I read Holes and I loved it, I highly recommended it be read in the future by any and all students.

It is very difficult for me to articulate now, through the gap of the years, precisely what is was that worked so well in Holes.  Part of it, I think, was that it managed to be completely absurd (in a more-subdued-than-Wayside School vein) while tackling some very serious issues (discipline, punishment, authority, race, family, legacy, ethical duty) in a way that did not feel condescending.  That might be rose-tinting, and it could fall away if I looked back too closely.  But I can recall with stone certainty at least one point on which the book captivated me.

The protagonist, a young boy named Stanley Yelnats, is fat.  He is overweight, unathletic, intelligent but not a genius, and bewildered by a world that supersedes the limits of his comprehension.  But the thing I want to stress here is: he is fat.  He is fat and he knows it, and he feels bad about it, outcast by this one other thing in addition to all the other crazy bullshit in his life.

I was a fat kid, and I knew it.  School acquaintances and family members commented on it in sometimes direct, sometimes sly and subtle ways.  I acted like this did not bother me, and performed this bit so well it eventually seemed like it worked, because while it’s not the best of all possible worlds I think it’s much easier to get through school with an abject body-type as a young man rather than a woman.

Stanley Yelnats and Holes provided the one precise instance I can remember reading a book as a kid and picturing myself in the hero’s position, seeing in the hero someone who was like me — not the bland, slim boys that populated the front lines of so many other adventure novels, but someone who was uneasy in the bulk of his own body, who wiped drops of sweat from the smeared lenses of his glasses, and who felt a vague malevolent pressure on him at all points in his life (for Stanley, this turns out to be a family curse; for me, the issue is a lot hazier).

So Holes got made into a movie in 2003, and when I first heard of this, even at the age of 15, I was at first excited about the prospect of seeing Stanley (who was, in my mind, basically me) onscreen.  But of course, as you well know, the Stanley I pictured and sympathized with was not the Stanley I got.

The Stanley I got — the Stanley we all got — was Shia LaBeouf.  Hapless, tousle-haired, lanky Shia, the embodiment of the bland and slim adventure hero-boy as he is available in the “slightly goofy” custom model.

I think the film version of Holes is actually pretty good, all things considered — the casting is actually pretty excellent, and even Shia LaBeouf brings his charisma (which we must remember he had, once).  But it never sat easy with me — never will sit easy with me — how the boy I pictured who was so much like myself was erased from his own story and replaced by the precise sort of person he (and I) was not.

But at least he’s not famous anymore, I guess.

Scare Quotes: Some words on Cabin in the Woods

 

Cabin in the Woods is a recent-ish film from Lost alum Drew Goddard and perennial geek favorite Joss Whedon.  I say recent-ish because the film was shot in 2009 and then lay on a shelf for three years (as the whisper goes, because the studio wanted to force it into 3D post-processing) until finally seeing release this spring.  The critics and the ever judgmental internet appear to love it, at least as much as they can in our age of useless score aggregation, and the film did reasonably well at the box office.  If you’ve watched the trailer above, you know it’s a little different than your normal Cabin in the Woods-like movie, and if you’ve seen the film then you know how different.  In some ways it is a complicated movie, and it invites a lot of discussion of the horror film genre.  Its major problem is that it is not as prepared as it thinks for the conversation it invites.

If you haven’t yet seen the movie and are averse to spoilers, I would say  stop reading this review now — seriously — because I am going to spoil things pretty hard in the paragraphs to come.  If you want a parting word on the film’s value, I would say it is definitely worth seeing; if you can, make sure it’s in a crowded theater or with another group of first-time viewers.  I went to see CitW on opening weekend, as a reprieve during my finals rush, and it was a wonderful group experience; I overheard more positive chatter on my walk through the parking lot than I have in a long, long time.

I emphasize now: despite the criticism I raise, this films deserves to be seen, especially if you like horror, and especially if you like things that are willing to pursue a crazy line of thought to uncertain ends.

Now hold onto your butts, from here on out I’m going to get insufferable.

 

Audiences and Ghosts both say “Boo”

Cabin in the Woods is a satirical horror-comedy that aims to criticize the horror-going audiences’ loathing of originality.  The film takes the metatextual “final girl” elements of slasher movies as pioneered by scholar Carol Clover and makes them a part of the plot proper.  It is, of course, not the first horror film to do this — Scream did it in 1996, and The Rise of Leslie Vernon did it in 2006.  CitW’s difference lies in the manner of implementation; whereas in the earlier films the slasher “rules” were laid out simply as unquestionable Law — they were the things you did even if they didn’t make sense — CitW figures them as part of an ancient though questionable ritual to appease some nebulous “Gods” who have retreated from the world and lie dormant, leaving behind only fragmentary nightmares which are then turned jealously on a group of hedonistic teens.

The film makes the point repeatedly that the Gods demand this sacrifice out of some intrinsic loathing of the young protagonists.  They hate their youth.  To deconstruct the usual notion of “cannon fodder” characters in slasher films, CitW makes it a point to show how the teens are forced into their slasher film roles — the intelligent brunette dyes her hair blonde, and the chemicals placed in the dye by the puppet masters reduce her to a stereotype, while her forward-thinking athletic boyfriend is reduced to an alpha-as-fuck jock.  And so on.

The final act of the film comes when the stoner character (designated the “Fool” by the puppetmasters) and the Final Girl descend into the puppetmasters’ extensive underground citadel and release every available monster to wreak havoc.  The director of the puppetmasters attempts to persuade the kids to complete the ritual, for if they don’t the Gods will awake and destroy all existence.  The stoner and the final girl deign not to, instead defeating the director and then smoking a jay while the world ends.  “Let’s give someone else a shot,” they say.  The final shot of the film, then, is an immense human hand tunneling up from Hell, destroying the puppetmasters’ facility, the titular cabin, and the camera.

The significance of an ancient eldritch God’s hand being so human is of course self-evident.  The Gods are the audience who bitches and moans whenever a horror film does not meet their expectations: a group of beautiful young people who indulge in hedonism, show their lithe young bodies, and then are systematically slaughtered by a shadowy displacement of the Id.

This reading of the film is not incorrect, but it ignores certain elements and implications.

 

“Let’s split up”

As Zizek would tell us, ad nauseum:

It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world — see numerous apocalyptic films — but not end of capitalism.

Should we agree that the satirical reading I offered in the last section is more or less correct, then herein lies Cabin in the Woods‘ greatest problematic.  It engineers a situational conflict (one that may not exist, as I shall argue) and then begs for a solution to this conflict.  But its solution is nothing more than “let the world end.”

Cabin in the Woods is incredibly critical of the machinery of the stereotypical horror film, and at the same time it is far too reliant on this same machinery to actually pose another model of dramatic action.

The film asks for a third way but it cannot seriously propose it. Consider, as I have said, how it makes the college students more than walking tropes so you actually feel bad when they’re manipulated and murdered.  Near the end of the film, when the puppermaster techs feel they have successfully completed the ritual, they  bust out the champagne and hold a party while on the monitors behind them Dana, the chosen Final Girl, is being tortured by the monster du jour.

By figuring the slasher film tropes as a form of punishing ritual (we are told the college kids need to “suffer” to please the Gods), CitW follows in the footsteps of Rene Girard in making human culture copacetic scapegoat ritual and sacrifice.  This sort of sacred violence is something the film appears to reject; if a society needs orchestrations of innocent suffering, then it is not worth perpetuating.  In the scene I just described the sadism inherent in horror films is put on display for critique — but is then immediately thwarted by what is easily the most compelling sequence in the movie, the “purging” nonsense when every available slasher or horror film monster is released on the puppetmasters.  Since the opening of the film, the techs themselves are gestured at as having remarkably mundane lives outside the office, which might at first seem to be attempt to humanize them.

The problem is that the sheer fun of the purge control sequence, the cornucopia of ridiculous slaughter, effaces much if not most or all of the qualms we might have.  Just like the Gods who need to see the teens suffer, we now desire to see the callous old corporate white people suffer — they are the ones scapegoated, they are the new sacrifice.  But the  social order their sacrifice create is, by the film’s own logic, entirely untenable.  The stoner and the final girl have no choice at the end of the film but to let the entire world be destroyed, because as critical as the film is of systems of oppression, as critical as it is of horror convention, it cannot imagine a world without oppression, and indeed, cannot imagine a horror film without convention.

It is a problem the film makes for itself.  The type of slasher flick it critiques hasn’t been popular since at least the late 80s or early 90s, and the film’s main point of reference is The Evil Dead, which in its own way is already as self-aware as this movie.  Furthermore, the past few years have seen plenty of unusual, original films that more ably criticize slasher-centered or sadistic horror films — Inside, Martyrs, Antichrist, though notably CitW is not as hostile toward its viewers as these films — or offer something more off the beaten path — Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Innkeepers.

CitW, in contrast to these films, does not (consistently or clearly) invite any genuine affective response.  It does not know who it wants us to sympathize with and how, and (here we get a bit subjective) it’s not particularly scary.  It is a very cynical comedy film, really, which uses a horror film backdrop.

 

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Near the end of the film, one of the tech guys encounters a merman.  It has been set up that he wants to see a merman for some reason, so this is obviously Chekhov’s merfolk.  It’s one of the monsters that can attack the kids in the cabin.  After the stoner and the final girl have released said monster, the man is knocked to the floor during the fracas.  He whips around as something scuttles through the gloom toward him; the music rises as it comes into view; it is horrible, unlike any eroticized or romanticized notion of merfolk, a terrible pinch-faced monstrosity with slimy skin and sharp teeth.  This is it, the man has finally seen the merman, and he says…

Something like “Come on” in a disappointed tone.  The music cuts out and the thing unceremoniously chews through his neck.

This whole sequence bothers me for a few reasons.  The first is: why in the hell is this guy disappointed?  What the fuck did the think he was going to see when he saw a merman?  It makes no sense for him to expect a Little Mermaid-style shell-brassiered sea vixen, because everything the puppetmasters keep under locks is a horrifying monstrosity.  What did he expect?  He’s been waiting for this moment, so it should be something sublime, a quasi-religious experience like the one the film’s ritual is meant to instantiate.  Why won’t the film let him be happy at his moment of death — why can’t he be afraid?

In Cabin in the Woods we don’t know where our sympathies lie, with the techs or with the teens, because it makes us laugh at them and cheer at their misfortunes despite ourselves.  We also don’t know if we should genuinely be frightened for the characters because the monsters and terrors, too, are always presented  as in some way laughable, not really scary at all.  It denies both the notion of religious awe and sublime terror.  “Feeling things sincerely is for people who aren’t as detached and hip as us,” the film suggests.  “All this crap from scary movies?  It’s been run into the ground.  It’s not scary at all.”

As much as I think the film wants to celebrate the horror genre, it can’t bring itself to present anything but an ambivalent parody of everything that’s come before it. The entire film is almost literally in scare quotes. It ends up being just a sort of carnivalization of the genre, which is loads of fun certainly, but is not necessarily constructive in the way the film seems to want to be, or to want people to think it is.  I’ve read plenty of reviews saying CitW is a “new story” or a “new genre” — and it isn’t.  A collection of cliches played for laughs has been around a while, and it’s called a parody.

I suppose another way of reading the film, then, would be as a parodic take on the whole post-Scream metahorror phenomenon.  Scream, as I mentioned, popularized the invocation of Clover’s slasher tropes as plot dressing, in that particular franchise’s case as an added layer of complexity to a gruesome murder mystery (which was itself a gesture to the origin point of the slasher film, Hitchcock’s Psycho).  Yet now that we think we know the rules we can invoke them constantly to justify this or that — the dumb woman needs to show her boobs before she gets her throat slit because that’s the rule! — and hey it’s no big deal because we know the rules so we do it ironically.

The problem, of course, is that even if you’re winking and laughing the entire time you’re still following the rules.  You don’t make them go away, you don’t make them any less tired or gratuitous. As the rules and tropes multiply, filling more tightly packed genre compartments, as meta-awareness grows larger and wider, the whole thing literally become more than the filmmaker or viewer can possibly keep under control.  This ironic meta-awareness seeps outward into the genre, until it becomes less a single aspect than it is the genre entirely — and thus horror destroys itself, kicking back to smoke a jay and have a good time, collapsing into the void of its own complacent self-knowledge.

King of Texas (2002)

Howdy friends and neighbors!  I’ve spent the last week in Seattle, with today being when I am in transit home.  I missed last week, I know, but to make up for it try this on for size: a review of a nine-year-old made-for-cable movie!  It’s King of Texas, starring the one and only Patrick Stewart.  The review itself is not entirely concerned with how good or bad the film is (it’s not very good) but investigating a strange intersection of Shakespeare, the genre history of the Western, and critiques of American expansion.  Hooray!

The opening shots of the 2002 made-for-TV film King of Texas are in a sense misleading.  A wide (as wide as you can get with full frame, anyway) view of the arid desert; a focus on the harsh, almost phantasmagoric inhospitality of the landscape, complete with corpses hanging from a gothic skeleton tree; suddenly, there emerges an actual human being — a close-up on the sweating, scowling face of a nameless man.  You might think you’re watching a film in the style of Sergio Leone, who made shots like this his trademark, or you may at least think Texas is going to be simply a Leone imitation: a faux-Spaghetti Western, a tale set in a  strange world where the American frontier is recast as an amoral comic book, with larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life deeds.

But as I have said, these opening shots are misleading.  King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, imitation or otherwise, but in fact falls in line with the Spaghetti Western’s antecedent, the Revisionist Western.  Added to this is the fact that Texas is not just some made-for-TV Western conforming to a particular subgenre; it’s all of that and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Keeping these things in mind can unlock a lot of the film’s more interesting aspects.

In a wholly personal judgment, I think Lear as Shakespeare wrote it is more suited (if anything) to a Spaghetti Western; it’s really a jumbled kaleidoscope of increasingly fractured and bizarre occurrences.  There’s a staggering amount of major and minor characters, a winding and at times surprising plot, a quasi-supernatural storm, faked (and real) madness, the recitation of the names of a few dozen demons, a set of villains who, in the Spaghetti Western tradition, are wholly evil bastards seemingly just because they can be, and they are opposed by a group of good (really, less morally bankrupt but still highly flawed) people, all inhabiting a world that seems to have no particular moral plan or order.  Lear could be adapted rather faithfully into this context.

The fact that King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, then, means that some work on the part of the writers and director has gone toward tailoring the original play until it fits rather snugly into the Revisionist Western mold.  This, I think, is the cleverest aspect of the film’s production: it takes a story that can be (and often is) interpreted as amoral or nihilistic and, with what seems to be a minimum of jiggering given the re-setting, fashions from it a social and political point.  Not that Revisionist Westerns are all about social activism, but they’re more closely attuned to what we think of as social activism.  In the original Western, bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white hats; Native Americans are savages and Mexicans are crooks; good always triumphs over evil; the sheriff marries the schoolteacher and they ride off together into the sunset as the United States of America brings order and civilization to lawless wilderness.

The Revisionist Western, as the name implies, casts a more critical eye toward the starkly black-and-white issues presented by its predecessor: ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t really helpful terms, but ‘antihero’ is; sex, if present, is blunt and unromantic, swapping out the schoolteacher for the prostitute; the Indian and Mexican are victims of systematic oppression, theft, and violence; good and evil don’t really seem to exist, much less have an opportunity to go head-to-head, and if the protagonist (usually an outlaw of some stripe) doesn’t die at the end, then he probably only survives to see the end credits by selling someone else out.

King of Texas falls into the realm of the Revisionist Western, then, for multiple reasons, one of them being its decisions in regard to the actual Lear character.  There are, broadly speaking, two ways to read Lear: a comically capricious blowhard, a mad king who spends a significant amount of the play naked, or a once-great man who is losing his dignity and sanity as he ages.  In the former reading Lear is merely an object of spectacle; in the latter his actions and selfish desires provoke dislike, but his situation inspires sympathy — he is an antihero.  Texas chooses this latter route, and Patrick Stewart plays the analogue John Lear with stuffy dignity and moments of grandfatherly warmth in between bouts of childish, impetuous shouting.

But impetuousness is not, in fact, John Lear’s greatest failing, and though it is an important character flaw, it is not the one the film brings to our immediate attention.  I’ve already described the opening scenes and its corpses hanging from trees; this is our introduction into the film’s world, but Lear is nowhere to be seen.  Instead we meet a silent but obviously angry man who shows up a few scenes later at a party Lear is throwing — the man, it turns out, is a Mexican landowner named Menchaca and the hanged men from earlier are in fact his men.  He berates Lear for having them killed, but Lear insists the men were trespassing on his land and he had the right, a claim with which Menchaca takes issue.  It’s made abundantly clear that the majority of Lear’s land was seized from Menchaca’s father and other members of the Mexican gentry prior to the Alamo, and though Menchaca still owns a hacienda to the south of Lear’s ranch the property lines are more than a bit muddy.  The only thing keeping true conflict at bay is a treaty Lear and Menchaca’s father agreed to following their altercations, and the fragility of the bond demonstrated here does not bode well for Lear’s choice to cede responsibility of his holdings to his daughters.

But he does, and in predictable King Lear fashion things spin out of control pretty quickly.  His oldest daughter Susannah and her brother-in-law Highsmith (the ciphers for Goneril and Cornwall) make it known early on that they desire more than the land Lear has bequeathed them — Menchaca’s remaining property is sitting idle to the south, ripe for the taking.  This is where Texas most clearly diverges from the Lear formula (other than, of course, being set in post-Alamo Texas) and, I think, where as an adaptation or re-staging it is at its most intriguing.  In Shakespeare’s play, after Lear divides the throne between Regan and Goneril, the strife is mostly isolated — Britain bears the brunt of the old king’s mistake as the new rulers squabble and vie for power.  To set things right, help must come from outside: the exiled daughter Cordelia and her husband the King of France must invade.

In King of Texas, this is situation reversed: Lear’s successors are still squabbling and scheming, but they are the ones who stage an invasion, in this case of the land owned by Menchaca, the France analogue.  In other words, military action is not a solution to the chaos but rather an effect of it — a very powerful shift, because John Lear has made himself an important figure through wars with Mexican landowners and finally, as the movie hints, during a harrowing but victorious stand at the Alamo.  Violence — specifically warfare and violence for personal gain — is John Lear’s great sin.

Comparatively, Shakespeare gives his own Lear little to work with.  He is certainly not opposed to violence — he kills Cordelia’s executioners before his own death and rather offhandedly claims, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, / I would have made them skip” (V.iii.333-334).  The point here isn’t that violence is bad, but rather that Lear used to be badass.  The discovery of Poor Tom in the storm does more to underline how he has failed morally: “I have ta’en / Too little care of this.  Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretched feel, / That thou may shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (III.v.37-41).

So Lear realizes that while he’s been living the good life as a king, he’s let a lot of people go on suffering.  That’s interesting, but it’s not the overarching interest of the play; what we get from this exchange is not “Lear should have taken care of the poor” but “Lear has realized that without his status he isn’t much different than a beggar.”  There may be another past mistake — Goneril and Regan hate Lear, and maybe they have a reason, but given their personalities and actions it doesn’t seem likely they resent him for not combating poverty.  Nevertheless, other than pride, being an uncaring ruler is the only concrete fault attributed to Lear in the text.

In King of Texas, Susannah’s land-grab acts as a parallel for John Lear’s own faults — he’s reared a child who is willing to treat others (including Lear himself) as ruthlessly as he has.  Likewise, Lear’s epiphany comes not during the storm — he spends most of that time simply being crazy — but during the actual siege of Mechaca’s hacienda, when Claudia/Cordelia is killed by a stray bullet.  He finally sees warfare — the thing that has made him great — as something horrible and pointless; the grotesquerie of fighting over land hits home.  This is why King of Texas is a Revisionist Western: it  exposes the traditional ideas of the Old West and early Western films, revealing that expansion and Manifest Destiny are ultimately a brutal, immoral, and absurd business.

 

Sumer is icumen in

Ah, spring! The temperatures are in the balmy mid-60s, we’re being sprinkled with warm thunderstorms every few days, the cuckoo is singing loudly, the ewe bleats after the lamb,and there’s a new Roland Emmerich movie on the horizon.

A new Roland Emmerich movie about Shakespeare.

Yes, so the director of Independence Day is making a movie about Shakespeare, and I can die happy.

But wait, you may ask, what the holy hell is this movie actually about?  Other than, I guess, Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare and also late 1500s London looks a lot like Middle Earth when it is an aerial CG shot?

Wikipedia tells me it is about the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship, but not just the boring old “A noble decided to write some plays under a pseudonym which was actually the name of another, real dude and for some reason everyone just went along with it” theory!  That is not exciting enough for cinema, not exciting enough for Roland Emmerich, and not exciting enough for you or me — so instead we get the Prince Tudor theory, aka the unorthodox Oxfordian theory.  Why is it called unorthodox version when it is in fact a heterodoxy of a heterodoxy?  BECAUSE OF ALL THE SEXINGS, MAN.

Specifically the movie is paying attention to the version of the theory where the Earl of Oxford was 1) the illegitimate son of Elizabeth, and 2) the lover of Elizabeth, resulting in 3) their incest-baby, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and supposed Fair Youth of the Shakespearean sonnet cycle.  As a friend of mine remarked, this sounds like the setup for an awesome Greek tragedy.

Wait: why in the holy hell is Roland Emmerich making this movie?  Again, Wikipedia has the answer.

[F]or me there was an incredible script that I bought eight years ago. It was [initially] called Soul of the Age which pretty much is the heart of the movie still. It’s three characters. It’s like Ben Jonson, who was a playwright then. William Shakespeare who was an actor. It’s like the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays. We see how, through these three people, it happens that all of these plays get credited to Shakespeare. I kind of found it as too much like Amadeus to me. It was about jealousy, about genius against end, so I proposed to make this a movie about political things, which is about succession. Succession, the monarchy, was absolute monarchy, and the most important political thing was who would be the next King. Then we incorporated that idea into that story line. It has all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy. That was the way and I’m really excited to make this movie.

So wait, this started out as a taut conspiracy thriller centering on the jealousy of Ben Jonson (who was absolutely baller), Shakespeare, and Oxford, and it is all like Amadeus but with old theater dudes?  This movie sounds completely awesome.  Unfortunately Emmerich doesn’t seem to realize that!

Now we have to throw in the Queen, too, and also the Essex rebellion, and the question of succession, because the audience won’t be happy without explosions and beheadings.

Incidentally, if you poke around enough about these Shakespearean authorship debates, you’ll find a lot of people quoting Supreme Court justices about what they think.  This is because people like to stage mock trials to determine Shakespeare’s identity, and these justices make rulings.  Other than the fact that this is all vapid pageantry, it… wait, nope, it’s pretty much all vapid pageantry.  Why the fact that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor thinks Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays should have any sort of weight is completely beyond me, when someone like, oh, I dunno, BEN JONSON (baller) KNEW SHAKESPEARE AND NEVER DOUBTED HIS AUTHORSHIP?

Incidentally, this is one thing the movie seems to take care of — by implicating Jonson in the conspiracy.  I am so excited, guys, you do not even understand.

Lovecraft on stage

Because I realize it’s sort of dumb for me to keep links to neat articles in a pen until Friday, why don’t you all saunter over to The Economist, where there’s a great little article about Lovecraft, theater, and the nature of horror:

These theatre artists appreciate what Lovecraft understood: that the essence of horror is mystery and an actively wandering mind. No film director has made monsters with as much creativity and innovation as Del Toro, but if he directed “At the Mountains of Madness” he would give shape to its creatures, which would in turn domesticate them. As horrible as they looked, they could not approach the terror of what they might have been. Dormant, the project will receive an arguably happier fate, as fans can only imagine what they missed. The perfect cult film is the one never made. Lovecraft would surely understand.

Here.

Hagrid Shrugged: On Class and Economics in Harry Potter

Hello, anyone visiting from the EC Word.  If you want more of an introduction to this blog, go here.  If you like to live dangerously, continue reading.

It has long been obvious to me that the Harry Potter series may be profitably read as an extended meditation on economic class and class mobility.  What is intriguing about this reading of the texts is that doing so provides not a single clear answer as to the nature of class dynamics and economics, likely because the themes are inadvertent on Rowling’s part.  But, by my way of thinking, that only makes them more honest.  So if you like, come along with me, and we shall together explore the myriad ways in which Harry Potter describes both the dream and the nightmare of the disintegration of economic class.

Michael What Are You Talking About This Is a Story of Magic and Wonder How Does Class Come into It

Well it’s quite simple, really.  A cursory glance at the Potter books should be enough to make the theme of class obvious.  The first antagonists of the series are the Dursleys, who are characterized almost entirely by their bourgeois excess.  The family’s insistence on propriety and material wealth is a characteristic of the materialistic upper-middle class; they are concerned only with doing what is right or what is expected, in the interest of appearing normal.  The final result of such an life, Rowling’s texts suggest, is Dudley, who is spoiled and cruel.

But the Dursleys are only comic-grotesque versions of the true villains of the series, Voldemort and his Death Eaters.  The Death Eaters are, by and large, degenerate aristocrats; this is also mostly true of the Slytherins, who remain quite malevolent even as exceptions like Snape and Malfoy garner our sympathy.  The Death Eaters are concerned with maintaining an oligarchic blood-purity over the wizarding world, a grim mirror of the Dursley’s own insistence on keeping up appearances.  But while the Dursleys only yield oafish Dudley, Voldemort’s designs yield death and destruction.

Stop Being Stupid, Michael

Let us take a moment to consider Voldemort himself.  His anxieties as a villain are fueled in large part by his own feelings of inadequacy brought about by his class history; he is a descendant of the once-powerful Gaunt wizarding family, whose insistence on purity brought about their total decadence and degeneration.  The desire of Voldemort’s mother Merope for the muggle Tom Riddle, Sr — an aristocrat, with all the material and economic comfort and security therewith associated — brought her to charm Riddle by way of a love potion.  The false union engendered Tom Riddle, Jr — that is, Voldemort — and the death of Merope in childbirth.

With the loss of the love potion, Riddle the Elder abandoned his son to an orphanage, leaving young Tom with only the barest notions of what he could have been.  As Voldemort-to-be grew older, his entrance into the wizarding world allowed him to search into his family history and discover what had been denied him: not only the Gaunt legacy, lost before his time, but the muggle Riddle legacy as well.  The rage resulting from his comfortless and loveless life led to a strongly classist/racist stance.  (And here we see the close ties historical notions of class such as aristocracy have with bloodline in the UK, as opposed to the more fluid conception in the US.)  If Riddle could not have the legacies lost, he would take them by force, by murder and by magic.  Thus the creation of the pure-blooded, aristocratic Death Eaters and the implicit delusion that Voldemort himself is not only one of them, but their lord.

In this way Harry is in fact the best possible foil to Voldemort.  Born into a historically affluent wizarding family — but, notably, not pure-blooded, as Lily Potter was muggle-born — Harry is robbed of his own legacy by Voldemort’s murder of James and Lily.  Like Voldemort, Harry is raised in relative squalor and misery, pressed below his class by the gross Dursleys.  This is, I suspect, what saves Harry; though the Dursleys’ treatment could just as easily breed in Harry a desire to perpetuate their cruelty, Harry instead learns to live a stoic and simple life in the cupboard under the stairs.  In the first book, upon discovering the hoard left for him by his parents in Gringotts, Harry does not rush to claim his inheritance and lord it over everyone, as Voldemort would, for his exposure to the excesses of the Dursleys — and especially his bully Dudley — has already made him conscious of material comfort’s negative influence.

Harry struggles throughout the series with his own ties to Voldemort, for his own capacity for evil; the Sorting Hat even wants to place him in Slytherin.  Given his pedigree, he could easily fit in — but instead he opts for Gryffindor, the more inclusive House, after his instinctively negative reaction to the mode of snobbery exhibited by Malfoy & Co.  Harry instead makes friends with Hermione — middle class, indeed, but from a muggle family — and with the Ron — whose family, though pure-blooded, is not degenerate, quite poor, and portrayed fondly by the novels.  In fact, the most negative portrayal of a Weasley is Percy, who aspires toward a bureaucratic role that requires him to act somewhat above his station; by contrast (to both Percy and the Slytherin families) the Weasleys are generally respectful of if not outright interested in muggles.

Michael You Are Dumb and This Is Dumb I Am Only Reading the Bold Headings

This brings me to the point that the wizards themselves are a separate class from muggles, though the difference is not established in normal economic terms but through a cipher: magic.  Magic is its own economic signifier, in that it allows even a family as poor as the Weasleys to live in relative comfort; it is a resource to which muggles have no access.  Until we are told in book seven that we cannot summon food, gold, or resurrect the dead, it might seem that magic is key to some sort of post-scarcity utopia.  This, however, is not the case; magic does have limits, and these limits cause some people to desire to surpass or control them, just as Voldemort desires to rewrite his own class history.

Consider the origin of the Deathly Hallows, in book 7.  The tale concerns three brothers who, in their quest for unlimited magical power, murder each other in bizarre and tragic ways.  Rowling knows her English lit; this story is very obviously lifted from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, in which three drunkards set off to conquer death but instead find a pile of gold beneath a tree by the side of the road.  Each, in his haste to claim the gold for himself, kills the other two.  The moral of the story is Radix malorum est cupiditas — the root of evil is the love of money, to give a clumsy translation that sidesteps the truism.  Rowling simply replaces money with magic, and we’re off to the races.

So magic is another economic and class signifier.  For Voldemort, et al, a lack of a magical bloodline is an abomination, a cause for purgation.  For the Dursleys (and historically, other muggles), the opposite is true: magic is an abomination, and the solution is an old-fashioned burning at the stake, or at least ostracism.  This is when the progressivism of Harry Potter as a series really shines, as the most positive characters are always those inclined to learn more about the muggle world and be more accepting of muggle-born wizards and witches.

This desire to break down class distinctions is most readily exemplified by the marital statuses of the main characters by the end of the series.  Ginny, a pureblood, marries Harry, who has a pedigree but is not pure-blooded; Ron marries Hermione, a muggle-born.  Contrast that with Malfoy, who remains aloof and aristocratic; likewise, the main trio of the books is still recognizably middle class, but not nearly as bourgeois as the Dursleys.  The intensity of the classism of the prior books — and of the prior generations of wizards — has been scaled back.

Oh My God Will You Just SHUT UP

But it may serve our purposes just to take a look at those prior

NO NO NO NO STOP IT

take a look at those prior gener

MICHAEL I SWEAR, YOU ADENOIDAL PEDANT, IF YOU DON’T SHUT UP

TAKE A LOOK AT THE PRIOR GENERATIONS OF WIZARDS AND CONSIDER ROWLING’S SURPRISING CAVEAT FOR THIS PROGRESSIVE TURN TO THE SERIES, WHICH SEEMS VERY SIMILAR IN TENOR TO AYN RAND

wait what ayn rand

Yes.

Seriously, are you taking this there.

Yes.

Well I Am Still Unhappy But Now Sort of Grossly Fascinated, Continue

As I was saying, the arc of the Harry Potter series throws class divisions into a distinctly negative light, and the plot is broadly about how the pursuit of either becoming a member of a different (higher) class or the sequestering of those of a perceived lower class leads to ruin.  The slow degeneration of these class distinctions is an overall positive development.

But it has consequences.

Hagrid Shrugged?

Think for a moment about the Hogwarts Harry’s parents — and Lupin, and Sirius, and Peter Pettigrew, and so on — would have known.  A time of magic and adventure, as you might expect, but what sort of adventure?  Well, for one thing, pretty goddamn awesome adventure.  Consider the things the earlier generation did:

  1. Illegally taught themselves to be animagi
  2. Created the fucking Marauder’s Map, if you can believe it
  3. Snape wrote his own completely badass dismemberment and mutilation spells IN THE MARGINS OF HIS TEXTBOOK
  4. Fought a long, brutal and bloody war only matched in the past by Wizard World War II (in which Dumbledore single-handedly defeated Wizard-Hitler)

Now think about what Harry and his friends do:

  1. Fight a war that basically lasted for a year and had one major battle
  2. Rely on systems put in place by their parents, Dumbledore, and a house elf to win said war
  3. Sneak out of their dorms a lot
  4. Brew polyjuice potion about 75,000 times

The point to be taken from this is that there is indeed a definite decline in the way the generations of the wizarding world played out, from Dumbledore to the parent generation to the generation of our protagonists.  The closest any of the ‘modern’ characters come to the old ingenuity are Fred and George, whose tricks and gags echo the Marauder’s Map in tone and Snape’s mutilation spells in technical accomplishment.  But alas, the duo are forever crippled when Fred dies in the Battle of Hogwarts.

Ayn Rand would say this is a terrible thing.  The movers and shakers of the past — the ingenius giants — have given away to relatively insignificant moochers who rely on the accomplishments of those who came before to get anything done.  Consider how much Harry does is orchestrated by Dumbledore; consider how his final triumph against Voldemort comes from his mother’s overpowering love.  What does Harry actually do?

Nothing.  He’s quite boring, actually, and not a very good student.  It’s a miracle he manages to become an Auror at all.  He’s very middle-of-the-road, honestly, and even the things that make him exceptional — his wealth, the privilege he has to just do whatever the fuck he wants so long as he saves the world — are things that at times sit uneasily with him.

This is not a bad thing, though, for what makes Harry important is not who he is per se, but rather the relationships he cultivates with others.  Without Hermione and Ron, or even Neville and Luna or Lupin and Tonks and Mad-Eye or whoever, we’d be hard pressed to give a doxy’s ass about Harry.  His relationships, the communities the characters form, the ways in which they live and act in concert, are the true lifeblood of the series.  The community of Hogwarts lives and breathes; it is what we’re interested in, and Harry is simply our gateway.

That amazing individual talent, that startling innovation, that egoistic single-mindedness that characterized the earlier wizarding generations didn’t only give us Dumbledore and the Marauder’s Map — it gave us Voldemort, and the sick philosophy he peddled.

In Harry Potter’s universe, it is better to be unexceptional but loved and loving than it is to be exceptional and terrifying.  This is achieved through equity — material, economic, and social.  At the end of the series, though the wizarding world is still separated from the muggle world, though there is an air of snobbishness still clinging to Malfoy, we seem to be heading toward a new, more just, classless society.

This Was Such a Goddamn Waste of Time

well that’s what four years at a liberal arts college gets you

This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine

I’ve written an autobiographical poem:

It is okay
to take a shot of whiskey
at 3 am
when you are awakened
by a false fire alarm.

So that’s me, channeling my inner Bukowski.  I’m sorry to say that I don’t have any choice historical literary criticism to dish this week, although I’ve been reading some Stephen Greenblatt and some Frank Kermode and there are bits in there I like.  They may find their way here for my future reference and your momentary enjoyment.

I’ve also got the Patrick Stewart Macbeth in my backlog — it aired on PBS’s Great Performances this week but I couldn’t catch it at the time.  Anyway, it ought to make a good addition to what seems to be Macbeth-a-Thon 2010 — and I have a friend haranguing me to watch Throne of Blood, so that may end up falling under the same banner.  Anyway, if this latest Macbeth raises any points for me, I’ll address them here, as is my wont.

In the meantime, though, let’s take a look at this:

And then…

It may or may not be apparent in reading my blog but there are very few things that have the power to make me genuinely happy to be alive.

That is not some confession of crippling depression on my part but a statement of fact — life, in general, is not something I have very strong feelings about.  Existence, as such, simply is.  DFW has that thing about the fish in the water — this is water, this is water, this is water — and he’s right when he says you have to make a concerted effort to realize, at every single moment of your life, that not only do you exist, but you are surrounded by other people that exist, and this in and of itself is pretty damn amazing.

Sometimes there are artists who help me realize this.  They are the ones who affect me the most strongly, the ones I feel the most affection for.  Shakespeare is one of them.  Satoshi Kon is another.

I am not saying Kon was Shakespeare’s equal or anything, but that for me, at least, he was a remarkably important storyteller.  When I heard he died today, I was upset — about as upset as you can be about the death of a person whom you’ve never met and can’t really make any sort of personal judgment on.  I didn’t cry or weep or anything, but I was disheartened in knowing that one of the few bright lights in the pantheon of pop culture I constantly ingest had gone out.

Kon liked fantasy.  He liked showing us how cool fantasy could be, but also how dangerous — how our fantasies can consume us.  When I was in high school, for various personal reasons, this became a very important idea to me.  For other reasons it still is, because I deal in fantasy.  I study fantasy for a living, in a sense, and my eventual desire is to teach it to others.  And our fantasies, the little stories we tell ourselves, can have incredibly important impacts on what constitutes real life.  Kon helped me realize this, and he helped me realize it without being some sort of materialist reactionary.

He knew, I think, that fantasies can be dangerous, but they are also humanizing.  His film Tokyo Godfathers is one of my favorites, and probably near the top on my list of “things that are important to me as a human being.”  I watch it every Christmas.  While it’s his least fantastical movie, I think it’s his best, because it’s the one where I think you see the painful beating heart of Kon’s humanism most clearly.  The fantasies of the characters are harmful, yes, but they’re also how they survive — and in the end the theme of the film seems to be an urge to be discriminating about our fantasies, to be critical of them, and to choose not the ones that simply make our pains and fears and jealousies go away, but the ones that tell us that everyone is subject to pains and fears and jealousies, and that it is only by reckoning our own existence and the existence of others with these inevitable disappointments that we can be healthy people.

We need fantasies that remind us, in DFW’s terms, that this is water.  We need fantasies that help us understand what it is to be alive.  We need fantasies that help us understand the connections we make with each other, and the kind of existence this fashions for us.  We need fantasies that help us understand the world, not hide from it.

There are very few things that make me genuinely happy to be alive.  Satoshi Kon’s films are one of those things.

The Slasher in the Rye

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll want to know is where I was born, and what deformities I had, and how my parents didn’t help when the townspeople burned me alive in our house after what I did to those two little girls, and where I got my mask, and all that Jason Vorhees kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my fans would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything that made my backstory even more complicated and nonsensical than it already is.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially the fat ones.  They’re nice and all — fans generally don’t run away when they see me, at least until it’s too late — but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.  I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around that summer camp just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and lay low.   I mean that’s all I told J.C. about, and he’s my producer and all.  He’s in Hollywood.  That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend.  He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.  He just got a Hummer.  One of those retired army jobs that has chains and everything in the back for holding back bombs and junk, but I bet I could break them.  It cost him damn near an arm and a leg.  At least that’s what I would’ve paid.  He’s got a lot of dough, now.  He didn’t use to.  He used to be just a regular writer/director, he used to be small-time.  He made this terrific film, Dark Star, in case you never heard of him.  The best scene in it is with the alien.  It has this alien that looks like a beachball with feet and claws, it’s like a mascot, and the main character chases it around the spaceship and slaps it with a broom.  It killed me, which most things can’t really do, considering the number of sequels. Now he’s out in Hollywood, J.C., being a prostitute.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.  Don’t even mention them to me.