On Stories: Feelings are the best feelings

Cartoons make me cry. Well, not all cartoons obviously– The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner show never made me tear up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have ne’er pulled a glistening drop from mine eyes. Cartoons that conjure up genuine feelings, though, I’m especially susceptible to. Look, I get it– everyone cries during the opening to UpGrave of the Fireflies has devastated more souls than there are stars in the sky, The Iron Giant *sniff* wants… he wants to be Superman and then he…

Okay, I’m back.

My point is I’ve always been emotionally vulnerable when I was watching cartoons… and probably not many other times. In high school, my friends described me as “stoic,” which looking back on it was a funny way of saying “70% dead inside.”

Having a daughter changed this for me. When my wife was pregnant, I would joke that I could feel things changing inside my brain, I could feel myself softening up as my body prepared to be a father. Except it wasn’t really a joke, I could feel things shifting around inside that ridiculous gray organ, making room for another person in my life, getting ready for changes my conscious mind could barely comprehend. Having a kid turned me into a gentler, more sensitive person… and now I cry at Young JusticeThe Incredibles, Steven UniverseFrozen. It’s the scenes of familial loss or jeopardy that get me– the boat carrying the sisters’ parents vanishes into a stormy sea, Elastigirl realizes that her children are trapped on board that doomed plane with her. And yeah, I’m tearing up as I write this because it’s all so scary!

I also like it, though, because the feelings are just so… real.

I also like horror movies, but caring for an infant human– now a smart and chaos-filled toddler– has made those harder for me to enjoy. I think it was Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark where I first saw a child in supernatural jeopardy and thought “Nope. I’m out.” Not because it was too scary for me (it might have been too scary for me) but because it wasn’t fun. So it started out that I stopped enjoying seeing kids in horror films, then it progressed. I’d never enjoyed torture scenes; I’ve always avoided franchises like Hostel and Saw but suddenly on-screen suffering became genuinely painful for me. These feelings have mellowed out some, but there was a time in that sleep-deprived first year of parenthood where I couldn’t enjoy a classic like John Carpenter’s The Thing without getting unpleasantly weepy. I couldn’t enjoy the shocks or the genuine sense of empty dread as the film ends with two men– one almost certainly a secret monster– face each other, a cold Arctic death the best they can hope for. I felt genuine despair as I wondered if I’d ever be able to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes again.

Then I started reading Joe Hill comics and novels; I think his short story “Best New Horror” reminded me why I enjoy horrors. So my standards have been raised– didn’t finish Midnight Meat Train because of its lazy-ass writing– and I appreciate that, but I miss being able to turn off my brain and enjoy watching a zombie impale an eyeball on a spike of wood.

Alas.

The other day my little girl asked me if I’d ever had a cat– we currently are surrounded and virtually overwhelmed by a sea of mostly black cats– and I told her about Watson. Watson was a little gray kitten my mother and I stumbled across on a walk. Playful and friendly, he clearly loved people, but also clearly thought we were only good for a few moments of fun before he started wandering towards the surrounding woods. A half-Persian kitten, his fur was matted; he was tiny and scrawny and sheltering in a lot with a few discarded Christmas trees dumped in it. We carried him home, infuriating our other cat, but we had no regrets. He grew up tiny but tough– a fluffy ball of dusky tiger stripes, he attacked any invading cats mercilessly, knocking out a tooth and almost blinding one big male that started hanging around our porch one Winter. We gave that cat, Clarence, to my mom’s parents and he lived the much happier life of not being beaten to death by a much smaller animal.

Mean as he was to other cats, Watson loved us intensely. I don’t know that I was his favorite; he was always my favorite. As a kitten he was small enough he could walk on my skinny, outstretched, teenage arm. He would often purr when– audibly, loudly– whenever one of us walked into a room. Even after neutering, he was a fighter, and would disappear for days, coming back limping but proud.

As I told my daughter about all of this, she asked why she’d never met Watson. And I teared up, like I do, and told her that Watson had gotten sick (FIV, aka kitty AIDS, probably contracted during his roving and dueling) and he had died, but that he had purred when I came home from college. On a vet’s cold steel table, explanations of impending mortality in the air, Watson started purring the second he saw me.

So I explained this as best I could to a toddler, glossing over most of the details… but I must have looked sad. And then my little girl says, brightly “I can be Watson for you!”

My daughter pretends to be a cat pretty regularly. It’s just a game she plays, and it’s cute and fun; in this game, cats usually start talking pretty quickly. So she got down on her hands and knees and said “It’s me! Watson!” And… it worked. I talked to her like she was Watson for a little while, told her how I’d dreamed he’d came back, dreamed it so many times, how I still miss him. “But I’m right here!” she said, and yes. She is.

The Dar Williams song “When I Was A Boy” has a line that always spoke to me, about how growing up as a boy means you lose certain things and how “I have lost some kindness.” And having a daughter, being a father, I lost some things.

And I got a lot more back.

 

Update: Things to share

I’ve been uncharacteristically silent this last week or two. Sorry about that. I’ve just signed my first publishing contract, and I’ve been trying to get into a very focused work schedule. That, and I’ve had a ton of little administrative things to do– bills to pay, insurance claims to make, contracts to review and sign– and they’ve absorbed a lot of my time.

Oh. Did the lede get lost in the shuffle? I’M WRITING A BOOK! It’s not Stupid Philosophy 101, but it is nonfiction. The Practical Guide for Librarians is a successful series from Rowman and Littlefield, and I’m proud to be writing their guide to comics and comics programming. Which is to say, it’s about how to buy comics, get rid of comics, choose comics, preserve comics, and find comics worth choosing for a library collection. On the programming side, there’s making comics in the library, book talks, reaching out to local comics creators– trust me, if you’re in America, someone nearby is drawing comics– and how to throw a comic con in your library. I’m more than 10 heavily-edited pages in so far, and feeling great!

Also, while I don’t want to share the Fake News link, a spammer sent me the best of bad comments, filled with delicious irony! Here ya go:

Hello, I llog onn to yopur bloogs daily. Yourr
story-telling style iis witty, keep itt up! I could
nnot reszist commenting. Perfewctly written! I amm sre this articloe
hass touched alll the internt users, itss realkly reaply goood
paragrtaph on builxing uup new blog.

 

Perfewctly written! Couldn’t have written a better pargrtaph myself!

On Books: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

So, as I get into a Larger Project or two– details to come– here is a review I did some time ago and posted elsewhere. It is basically everyone’s favorite review, though, so I thought I should share it.

Sad, compelling, and strange. I’m a fan of comics– graphic novels if you wish, or in this case a graphic memoir. Even though I can’t find many parallels between Bechdel’s family life and my own, I was still struck by how much I felt for her. My own father is the opposite of Bechdel’s– large, gentle, content, and masculine– but I could see shadows of Bechdel’s relationship with her father in my own more recent history. The places that self loathing can take a person are truly terrible, as are the ways a person can inflict their own self hatred onto others. Combine that with secrets and lies, and you have a truly vicious mix. All of this comes across in Fun Home.

It’s remarkable that as sad as this book is, it is also beautiful and personal and brilliant. She doesn’t forget to put the “fun” in Fun Home. The title is an ironic artifact from Bechdel’s past, but it works both as a foil for the contents of the story and as a description of the read. Some of the materials in this book seem pointed directly at me, like a gun– James Joyce’s Ulysses, Charles Addams’ drawings– and perhaps that is part of why I responded so strongly to this book. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly an arresting and entertaining read.

Don’t assume that just because it’s a comic it’s for younger children, though. Hopefully you don’t do that, but it’s best to warn people up front.

 

On Books: Grant Morrison’s Nameless– incoherent space techno-occult horror fun

I’m always on the lookout for new Morrison books, and when it comes to clever, brain-warping horror I can’t think of a series that does it better than The Invisibles. So I was really excited by the cover of Nameless— astronauts with impenetrable occult symbols scrawled on their visors, a sense of existential dread suffusing the light the surrounds them. And while I think Nameless is a good read, it’s not the perfect read I was hoping it was.

I’ll start by talking about the artwork, which is nearly perfect. Chris Burnham’s inks and Nathan Fairbairn’s colors create a kind of dreadful beauty throughout the book. The visual storytelling is solid, and the images are weird and entertaining– I especially enjoy the hunters wearing angler fish masks, one of those inexplicable details I’ve come to expect and appreciate from a Grant Morrison script.

Ick.

However, the fact that the art is both unconfusing and engaging means that the problems with this book come from the writing.

Morrison describes the book’s thesis statement as an attempt to undermine the idea that some male “chosen one” can save the world; this is an idea I can totally get behind. He also describes the book as being replete with “dream logic,” an attempt to create the feeling of being trapped in someone else’s nightmare. I think that’s where the book get in trouble. While the details of someone else’s nightmare might be individually interesting, they generally only make sense to the dreamer, and then only while the dreamer is asleep. Dragging an incohesive narrative into the daylight isn’t always a great idea.

Supporting this thesis is the fact that Morrison fills up the final pages of the Nameless collection with an expansive list of footnotes. Some of them are interesting and helpful, but it’s a trick I’ve only ever seen Carla Speed McNeil pull off in her Finder series. Most comics with piles of footnotes end up feeling ponderous and incomplete– Alan Moore’s From Hell leaps to mind– and Nameless ends up being more the rule than the exception.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book– 3 stars, it’s a good book. The story’s impenetrable chaos felt lazy to me, though. If Morrison had worked harder at making his story accessible, or even just at making sure the plot didn’t contradict itself regularly, then this would have been a better, scarier book.

Still, if you want to see a post-modern horror version of 2001, this is as close as you’re going to get. Just don’t expect multiple readings to yield a lot of treasures– sometimes chaos is as shallow as a puddle, and doesn’t give us much to decipher. Sometimes chaos is merely chaotic– that’s probably what Morrison and his collaborators were trying to create and I guess they succeeded. Complaining that it’s not what I would have created is probably juvenile… but it’s also true, and probably the main reason that I liked-but-not-loved this book.

On Youth: I Was A College White Boy

This article came out of the previous article. Sort of a natural bi-product of writing about someone else’s horror movie.

At the risk of making this story about me, I’m going to tell you a tale about my college friend O. O’s a good guy, an intellectual, a black man. He’s currently at large in the world as a pretty radical academic thinker and speaker about race in the U.S. I’ve seen him complain about his ignorant white students on Facebook; he’s not wrong, and he has a sense of humor about it. When we lived in the same dorm together we acted together– did drama. Years later I saw O in a national commercial spot and reached out to him because he was a complete badass in the commercial, and he wrote back to tell me he appreciated it and he’d appreciated the notes I’d given him when I sat in on a different rehearsal, many years before. So I don’t think there were any hard feelings between us.

I told you all that so I can tell you this: I fucked up.

It was during an improv game O, myself, and my lovely friend M were playing after rehearsal. The scenario that blossomed organically was that he was coming home with her to meet her disapproving countrified father, played by myself. We skated around the issue of race, making it feel like my character was racist without actually saying it– so much so that I accidentally dropped a “boy,” in there, which I immediately regretted but didn’t have the sense to apologize for. To us white folks it was a joke, with the punchline being that my character was actually confused by O’s bald head; he was scared of skinheads without really understanding what they were.

Well, I thought it was funny. At the time.

A few weeks later O freaked out and very angrily dumped his white girlfriend; I was told he called her and a lot of other folks “white devils.” This was during the heyday of Louis Farrakhan, so I can guess where it came from, but it was pretty bad, a lot of feelings were hurt. Much later he made amends, but the fact is he’s still a kind of thoughtful firebrand, an intellectual bomb-thrower and I can’t blame him. Now more than ever there’s ideas that need blowing up.

I know O’s life is not about me and his decisions weren’t about me. He’s dealt with far worse things than one ignorant teenager’s empathy fail. I also know that O has very little use for white liberal bullshit, which is more about making people in my position feel better than it is about improving the world or getting anything done. That said, I wish I’d apologized to his face. I had a sour taste in my mouth after that improv session, and now I can articulate the obvious: you don’t make light of what you don’t understand.

I don’t want to be a part of anyone else’s horror movie ever again.

On Horror: Code Switch Talks About Race and Horror

I’m a proud liberal dork, so it’s no surprise that I listen to NPR. In the last year I’ve started subscribing to a ton of podcasts as well. The majority of them are NPR podcasts, mainly because they are consistently Not Terrible, something I don’t see everywhere. Reliable reporting and sourcing in the news podcasts, smart content, good vocal talent, professional editing all in one place. And like a lot of smart, professional people they don’t get enough credit for how funny they are. I value humor not above all else, but as the quality that elevates information to the point where it becomes entertainment. You can’t add explosions to raw data until skater dudes proclaim it rad and then chug a Mountain Dew– all of my references are leftovers from the 90s– but you can make data’s presentation funny and accessible, and this is where NPR and its podcasts excel.

Speaking of funny and accessible…

The Code Switch podcast is where a handful of smart reporters and critics talk about the intersection of race and culture in America. It’s named after “code switching,” where people speak differently depending on who they’re talking to. As a Southerner, I know I sound more Southern when I address rural white folks. It’s not intentional, it’s just a mode I slip into, natural as pajama pants when I’m getting ready for bed. And lots of people of color do it when they address white folks because… well, because of the weight of history, as well as more practical matters like communication and wanting to be taken seriously.

Today’s episode zeroed in on one of horror’s most infamous tropes: the black dude dies first. It happens so often in horror movies that it’s a joke– not a funny joke, exactly, more of a thing we all know is stupid and shake our heads at, shrug. “When movies magically come into existence, that’s what happens,” seems to be our underlying feeling. And it’s certainly not the biggest evil in our society, the One Thing we should be spending all of our energy on improving. What it is… is interesting. I love it when stuff like this happens, when it feels like the barrel of book or  conversation is aimed directly at me. Intellectual claptrap about horror movies? Definitely my cup of squiggly tentacled things!

This episode talks about race in The ShiningNight of the Living DeadJurassic Park, and Alien. It talks about Cecil B. DeMille’s (extremely racist) Birth of a Nation as a horror movie with black people as the monsters, about the Gill Man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, about Damnation Alley, about Blackula! And while it glosses over some significant details–Dick Hallorann is just as heroic in King’s novel The Shining, but he doesn’t die; John Hurt’s character is the first person to die in Alien— the substance of the episode addresses some important and interesting ideas. The way that Duane Jones’ character in Night of the Living Dead survives an all-out zombie assault only to be killed by white cops, for example. The way that horror filmmakers use big tough black men the same way Star Trek: The Next Generation used Worf.

As an icon of style?

Worf was an imposing figure from a warrior race– played by a black actor, b-t-dubs– who spent an uncanny amount of time losing fights to aliens and women. This was to demonstrate villain badassitude– if that bad guy took down Worf then he must be dangerous! For the same reason the first no-name to get velociraptored in Jurassic Park is a black guy with a gun— the monsters are so scary they can eat stuff that already scares white people. They repeat a non-racial– no wait, differently racial– version of this trope when the raptors kill the Great White Hunter later in the film, leaving the audience to wonder how a group of kids, scientists, and an old man will survive alone on Dinosaur Island. (Spoiler: they don’t. Raptors are too smart and they take over the world, mainly by turning doorknobs.)

None of this is to say that Steven Spielberg is a racist or anything of the kind. He is a white filmmaker making a horror movie, though, and he’s studied his art. He knows how these things are done and he’s doing them. When we don’t ask questions and don’t examine why we do things, that’s when we get the uncomfortable weirdness that comes from borrowing other people’s subtexts. For my part, I’d never consciously noticed that the Jurassic Park worker killed in the film’s first scene was black– but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it.

The conversation about the mostly forgotten post-apocalyptic film Damnation Alley struck a peculiar cord with me. I remember being in 4th or 5th grade after this film had aired on network television, and my classmates– all the little white boys in particular– talking about it. Talking specifically about the ignominious death of the Paul Winfield’s character Keegan– the black character– at the tiny mouths of “armor-plated cockroaches.” My classmates thought this was hilarious; years later, when I read the Roger Zelazny novella the film gets its title from I was strangely disappointed that the book was devoid of killer bugs. I didn’t think about the implications about how much black lives matter in horror movies… or the lesson those little white boys were learning.

There’s talk about the humor Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy got out of these tropes in their stand-up routines, about the clash between how white Hollywood uses black people and how black people see themselves. Plenty of serious conversation, sure, but the conversation also made me want to stream The Shining on Netflix which is exactly the right tone to strike. This didn’t ruin horror movies for me, but made them more interesting. The show never stopped being light-hearted and fun.

They also talk to Jordan Peele about his new film Get Out which takes horror tropes and subverts them by placing a black man in the position white women usually inhabit in slow-building horror films. Sort of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner mashed up with movies like Rosemary’s BabyThe Stepford Wives, or Hot Fuzz. Running at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing, it sounds fantastic.

<digression>Wait! Was the Living Statue in Hot Fuzz played by a black actor? That would be grim– killed off-screen, his body is revealed for a grisly laugh and then… wait, no, false alarm. Very white British guy. I don’t think there are any black actors in that film. Is that… better? Or is it better to take the risk of exploring race and gender in art, and then possibly getting it wrong? Yeah, you’re right, rhetorical friend. Always take the risk, always try not to f*** it up.</digression>

One of the topics of conversation with Peele is how, for a black guy, meeting a girlfriend’s white parents can be a real horror situation by itself, even if nothing bad happens. And of course it is– meeting the parents is scary enough for any man; if you have even once had a door slammed in your face because of your skin’s color, you’re going to be terrified of relying on strangers’ kindness. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. It helped me come to a new understanding.

The fact is America’s scarier for black people than for whites or even many other minorities. Taking a good long look at their role in the movies that scare us is productive… and a lot of fun besides.

On Reading 2: Grant Morrison’s Klaus

Comics weirdo writes a story about Santa Claus? Yes please! That was my first thought when I saw this book and I was not disappointed. A fantasy that almost mirrors the plot of any Hallmark Christmas movie this story takes things to satisfyingly strange places. Morrison borrows from Conan and Game of Thrones to tell the story of a town where “Yuletime” is outlawed and the barbarian toymaker whose divine mission is to bring happiness to kids– the revolution he foments is just a happy side effect.

The story that came to mind while I was reading this one is Walt Kelly’s retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin– “The Town on the Edge of the End.” An isolated place where anger and paranoia claim to protect people while conjuring demons, inner and outer. Inspired by either drugs, extra-dimensional entities, or Philip K. Dick style temporal lobe seizures [it’s the middle one], Klaus comes to save the children from the authoritarian forces that forbid laughter, dancing and toys. And when a Krampus-like demon arrives to claim the “naughty children,” it’s a Christ-like Klaus who thunders “THERE ARE NO BAD CHILDREN!”

So there’s a hero here. A good one. However, in typical Morrisonian fashion, people can’t just sit back and wait for a champion to save them. Heroism is required on all fronts– men, women, and children– to banish the darkness and create a better kingdom. Good men who have been silent find their tongues, oppressed workers rise up against their oppressors, clever children battle to survive.

Is this a political story? Absolutely, but only because all authoritarians look and talk alike. Grant Morrison wears many faces, but my favorite is the face he show as an avatar of freedom. He wears it well; his characters wear it well.

And I appreciate his clever ju-jitsu here. Who among us can be against Santa Claus? Against Christmas?

Grant Morrison’s at his best when he’s positive and conherent, pointing out the basic stupidity of evil and urging readers to partake in a better world. This sorta-kinda Christmas story is a good stand-alone example of what I consider Morrison’s finest qualities.

Rating: An “A and minus” book.

On Politics 7: Just Keep Talking, Just Keep Talking

Dear Mister President,

Here we are again. I’m still writing, you’re still… being you. Being more yourself than I think anyone knew you could be. I’m sure you agree, it feels like you’ve been president a lot longer than just 1 month. What should we talk about? Michael Flynn? Russia? Your press conference?

Being the president is a hard job. All jobs are hard jobs when you do them well. There’s a school of thought– as you would put it “lots of people say”– that implies that anyone could be a political leader. The fact that you’ve been choosing a cabinet with (mostly) no experience in their representative fields makes me think you’re a member of this school. There’s also the part where you figured you would be an excellent choice for president, but I’ll just chalk that up to Exceptionalism– you think you’re exceptional, maybe you think other billionaires are exceptional too? I’m veering into speculation so I’ll quash this line of inquiry, but… sure. Fine. You have to make decisions somehow. I’ll focus on something you’re doing well, if not doing right.

Intentionally, accidentally, or haphazardly, you’ve done a good job of harnessing fake news. You’ve recruited one of its Sith Lords to your team… or you’ve been recruited to his, it’s hard to tell. There’s evidence mounting that you aren’t information literate, that you just assume what you’re told or see on Fox News is true. Not that you’re adverse to lying when you think it will help you, but there’s nothing that says no one can lie to a liar. Con men are often the easiest people to con. I think you’re legitimately mad at the media because a lot of what you’re saying feels true to you. It must be difficult.

Of course, you also get really sad when the media talk about the stream of falsehoods falling from your lips. Not because the reports are wrong, but because reporting the facts makes you look bad. You basically said this in your last press conference. There’s only one way to make this better– change the facts. No, don’t state “alternative facts,” that’s what got you and Kellyanne in trouble to being with. Start putting in the work necessary to do a competent job. Literally start educating yourself, humbly ask former presidents how to do the job, what skills you need to do the job. Put yourself in president school NOW, while you’ve got a chance to learn, and don’t rely on the freaking Steves (Bannon and Miller) to write your executive orders.

Read this and start learning how to know when people are lying to you.

I’m not going to lie– you’re not the president I want or wanted. This is the job you wanted, though. I still think the best thing that could happen is that you have your Thomas Becket moment– you try to serve the office instead of serving yourself. You seem really unhappy right now. You know you have to change something so start by changing yourself. Grandma Moses started painting at 78; it’s not too late to start.

Also, I know getting measured is really boring, but you need a suit that fits. Spend some of your own money and get it done.

Don’t look like this guy dressed you. Damn.

 

On Politics 6: The Extreme Middle

“I’m against all extremes: the extreme right, the extreme left, and the extreme middle.”

-Walt Kelly

I’ve been an admirer of Walt Crawford Kelly Jr’s work since I was 4 years old. In fact, I credit his long-running comic strip Pogo as the catalyst that led to my literacy. My father was and is quite a collector, and I wanted nothing more than to read the Forbidden Books filled with cartoons. Eventually he trusted me… or just realized I hadn’t hurt them when I snuck them off the bookshelf.

Kelly influenced my personal philosophy profoundly, and the man himself was a factory for quotable material. I always liked the above quote; he had the credentials to back it up. He mocked both Joe McCarthy and Nikita Khrushchev in his gently vicious way.

Khrushchev was a sinster pig in the strip which… well, fair’s fair.

I laughed at the idea of an extreme middle, but recently I’ve started to understand what he was getting at. Kelly’s opinions were his own, not governed by the constraints of ideology– but he wasn’t afraid to commit. He believed in believing in something– and acting on those beliefs.

Recently, I made the terrible mistake of talking politics with a stranger. It’s a legitimately terrible way of introducing yourself, even when you agree with someone. In this case we’d preemptively agreed to agree to disagree, but to stay civil and to do our best to appeal to logic and not emotion (“like Jesuits” is how I framed it). I learned a couple things from this discussion.

First, not everyone knows about “logic.”

Second, it’s very hard to grapple with an amorphous argument.

The discussion started around the question of the current opening on the Supreme Court and whether the Democrats should oppose the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. He said he “didn’t like Trump,” but that the seat wasn’t stolen. So I asked him what the Democrats should do. He said that “all politicians are hypocrites,” and “seek power.” He strongly implied that the Democrats would likely lose this fight regardless of what they do.

To which I said “Sure. But that’s not useful. It’s a battle. What should they do to win the war?” At which point he begged off and promised to check out my blog.

His arguments were cynical, but hard to gainsay at first glance. However, they were not logical. The proposal that ALL politicians– every slimy eel among them– are corrupt, power-seeking hypocrites is an assumption, not a fact. It’s an assumption that most of us make in hearts every day, but there’s no logical proof. Politicians are people and we can logically assume that pols act like people. They don’t always do the right thing… but sometimes they do.

As evidence for my position I would point to THE MAJORITY OF HUMAN HISTORY. Life in the U.S. has definitely gotten better over time– our economy is no longer based on human slavery, for example– and in spite of widespread anxiety and fearmongering, life is better now for most Americans than it was 40-50 years ago– less crime, less poverty (though still way too much), and if justice and equality are still struggling, things have gotten better.

And the reason that things have gotten better is that sometimes people do the right thing. There are good politicians and sometimes even the bad-to-mediocre ones take a stand.

My father and his father before him were both politicians. My grandfather was a state senator; he ran (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was a Superior Court judge, re-elected many times. He had the kind of backstory contemporary politicians often wish for– a poor family from a poor county, a violent alcoholic step-father, nights spent in the local library, Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Army, law school on the G.I. Bill. He was smart and able, loud and sometimes childish, 6 feet 5 inches tall with red hair and blue eyes, handsome for a man who looked like he could twist your spine into a loop, full of country charm. A Southerner seeking office during the Civil Rights era, he publicly left the VFW because they wouldn’t admit black veterans into their club. He was a good, principled man.

My father ran for Superior Court 3 times during his career; he’s never been defeated. He’s spoken out against corruption in state politics, forced local officials to maintain their courthouses, worked hard to keep the citizens of North Carolina safe from the likes of Blanche Taylor Moore and Michael Hayes. Campaigning for him, Republicans told me– not just friendly but joyous!– he was the only Democrat they planned to vote for*. I don’t always agree with my family or my family’s politics– my grandfather was a great advocate of Victims’ Rights, which I feel are a mixed bag and sometimes favor revenge over justice– but I know neither Daddy nor Pappy ever looked for power. They sought to serve. They worked hard because there is satisfaction in hard work, because they were capable, because they believed in their work. Don’t tell me about ALL politicians, friends. I know at least two who believed/believe in real things and knew/know how to take a stand.

So I disagree with my erstwhile conversational partner’s arguments. My disagreement with his unspoken philosophy runs a lot deeper.

What the Extreme Middle cannot do is take a stand. Cowards often accuse everyone else of cowardice. To justify a lack of character the Extreme Middle claims no one has ever had character. Instead of saying what they would do to make things better, they disparage the idea of resistance or action. They have a lot to say– like Polonius in Hamlet, they give as much contradictory advice as they can, hoping they’ll sound smart. Hoping they’ll feel like they won an argument they wouldn’t take a side in. Their minds are small and their numbers are legion.

Remember that quote about good men doing nothing?

This old thing?

If the current crop of Right Wingers are reminiscent of the Know Nothings, the Extreme Middle represents the voice of the Do Nothings. By the Extreme Middle’s self-fulfilling arguments nothing can get better; by default people who love money and power make things worse for everyone (themselves included– there’s no hallucinogen like money and power). It’s not much of an end game. They could be smug on the Internet, which admittedly is 75% of the reason for the Internet. In the end, there’s no cure for uselessness, no substitute for being useful.

Sometimes people mistake philosophy for useless rhetoric. It’s actually incredibly useful for finding direction. We are defined by the things we do, and defined even further by the things we fail to do. Counseling patience is one thing– if someone counsels giving up, then it’s not a rational argument. There’s no scenario where giving up makes things better, and nothing ever stays the same. Things can get better or worse; the only other questions are about quantity.

What? Ben Franklin said it first.

America is so very great; it can get so much worse. Let’s, like, do stuff, m’kay?

*If reading this blog makes my father look like a superhero, well, I haven’t exaggerated any of his achievements or exploits. Until I actually find the entrance to the Batcave, though, I’ll have to assume he’s merely awesome.

 

On Movies 1: The Devil’s Rejects

The Devil’s Rejects is a fan favorite with a good reputation in the horror community. Directed by one Robert Bartleh Zombie and featuring his wife in a starring role, I had my misgivings. His record on directing horror films is not spotless. However, I did sort of enjoy House of 1000 Corpses and TDR is a kind of a sequel to House so when I saw the film was free on Hulu I thought I should watch it. Eventually. Honestly, I don’t watch a lot of tv these days and I took my time getting to it. There is a lot to talk about in this film, so I’m glad I took the time. I’ll try not to spoil in the paragraphs ahead, but the movie is almost 12 years old, so I won’t be trying particularly hard. Caveat lecteur.

This film is about the fall of the murderous Firefly family, a crowd of marginally clever serial killers who stick together as a family and prey on the rest of the world– mostly ladies– from their decaying farmhouse. This sequel fortunately abandons the paperclipped-on subplot involving the cyborg-building Doctor Satan that semi-hilariously presented itself at the end of 1000 Corpses [is Doctor Satan the titular Devil of this film? If so, he is curiously absent.] and moves on to the day that local law enforcement closes in on the Fireflys (Fireflies?), killing and capturing several of their number and leaving the rest on the run. The film details their attempts to reunite their family and find a safe haven, murdering for convenience’s sake along the way and torturing when they get bored. This continues until the tables turn, forcing them to run from their own monster, and the wicked family meets its end Butch and Sundance style.

For the first half of the film I wasn’t engaged or having a good time. Otis and Baby’s cliched cruelties were not entertaining, and I was distracted by the loose plot threads I saw unraveling everywhere I turned. Oddly, I didn’t mind the myriad problems in House of 1000 Corpses nearly as much as I did in this film. I think my expectations were raised by the higher caliber camerawork and the fact that there were professional attempts to keep the plot moving forward and no random arthouse music videos slowing things down. I found myself mentally talking to the screen– “Nice homemade body armor! Looks cool, but did you know that you can buy those now? For a lot less money than y’all peckerwoods spent overstocking on guns.” and “Yes, leave the body in the road and take the car. No one will find a body in a road. It’s not like cars and drivers have some sort of connection police can use.” “Oh good, quote Charles Manson disciple Tex Watson, no one’s ever done that before,” and of course my constant cinematic refrain “Guns make sounds. Sounds travel. Motels call police when you fire guns.” All of these problems seemed positively designed to convince of the Fireflys’ stupidity. I don’t like horror movies with stupid protagonists; apparently when the protagonists are 90% evil this rule still applies.

Which brings me to a point of interest. There’s an intentional protagonist problem in this film, and this fact pulled me back in when I was watching. Are the Fireflys the protagonists? Or Sheriff Wydell, whose quest for the felonious familias pulls the already over-intense cop over the edge and into the Dark Side? The film can be viewed either way, a twist that I appreciate. In fact, what I think happens is that the protagonist/antagonist relationship flips as the film progresses. At first the Sheriff is the protagonist, trying to bring the family to justice. However, as the Sheriff turns to hired guns and murder and the Fireflys reveal themselves as both pathetic and capable of familial love and sympathies shift. I never felt myself wanting the Fireflys to get away, but I didn’t want to see them tortured to death either.

As you can tell, this film has a depressing narrative. There are a few scenes that help buoy the film, keeping it afloat. I enjoyed the reveal that both the Fireflys and monstrous paterfamilias Captain Spaulding are named after Grouch Marx characters (This was my favorite Easter egg in House of 1000 Corpses. I love both Duck Soup and Animal Crackers where the names come from) even if the film critic character was a laughable (in a bad way) cartoon.

Seriously, <3 the Marx Brothers. Plus they resonate with the film’s twisted “family” theme surprisingly well.

I also enjoyed a scene that parodies Tarantino dialog, focusing Tarantino’s trademarked cadence and intensity on chicken fucking instead of on a “Royale with cheese.” Both of these scenes are probably middle fingers playfully directed at Tarantino himself– a notorious film nerd. This is in keeping with the Fireflys “smarter than you” brand of anti-intellectualism as well, making me suspect that Rob Zombie is putting his voice into the mouths of his least likable characters. That said, RZ is also obviously quite the film nerd, with obvious influences such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and visual references as diverse as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jason Vorhees’ original sack-wearing appearance in Friday the Thirteenth, Part 2, and as I’ve already mentioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Marx Brothers.

I also enjoyed the character arc for Captain Spaulding’s apparent half-brother Charlie. Charlie’s role as the Lando of the Dark Side is amusingly signaled early in the film, not only because he’s the movie’s only non-white character but because he’s a literal Nevada pimp with his own little town that the Fireflys seek refuge in, and one of his employees is adopting  a Princess Leia theme. I didn’t expect a ton of film literacy in an evil clown horror flick, and the nerdity added an enjoyable extra layer to the movie.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the unfunny slapstick of a woman running around wearing her husband’s face as a mask before she gets erased from the film by a truck like she’s Wile E. Coyote. It really undercuts the genuine emotions that Zombie manages to evoke in the second half of the story.

That’s where the screen finally got my full attention. When the story turns a corner and the Sheriff starts outright murdering prisoners, when the Fireflys are revealed as the pathetically human monsters they’ve always been, that’s when the movie got me thinking. For all of their bravado, all their hate speech and cruelty, all of their crimes against the unsuspecting, they are human. They are just as vulnerable to cruelty and brutality as their victims. They can and do sacrifice for each other, and when Baby is hunted the same way she hunted a girl in the first move she runs and bleeds and cries– just like the girl she chased down in House of 1000 Corpses. It’s a kind of corrupt Old Testament justice represented in the Sheriff’s odious person.

Sheriff Wydell is not as hideous as the Fireflys, but he’s strangely less likable… well, less likable than Captain Spaulding. The closest Otis and Baby come to being likable is when they’re desperate and broken. And make no mistake, the whole family is broken by film’s end. They’ll never find their strength again, the false strength that let them be boogeymen… not that they’ll get the chance. Sure, they strap on their brave faces so they can go down shooting in that beautifully filmed finale, but it’s the knowledge that it’s over for them that gives them the strength to make that token effort. Dying is easy, living is harder.

Still, I’m human. When I see a family, beaten and bleeding, on the edge of freedom I’m going to root for them… some. A little bit. Even if they are the worst cartoon villains to adorn the screen since Tranzor Z. If that’s Zombie’s point, then it’s a point well taken.

Both The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses are free with a Hulu subscription, and Hulu’s smart enough to not play commercials during movies, unlike Crackle. Stupid Crackle. A solid ‘B’ effort. If you’re a horror fan you’ll probably want to check them out.