Friday, February 26, 2021

Reduced to Summary

On February 10, a book blogger wrote a post dissecting some of my reviews at Locus, mostly of books by people of color. She discerned a pattern in my reviews that indicated racial prejudice. I believe that she called me out usefully on some mistakes, and that she otherwise selectively read and quoted me in ways that misrepresent my body of work. 

This was all ignited because I reviewed the second volume of an epic fantasy series without reading the first volume. That choice infuriated readers and book bloggers, whose attitude toward books differs in significant ways from that of book critics. One blogger decided to look closer at my work, and these two issues - my purported racial prejudice and my choice to start with book two of a series - got conflated, when I'm not sure even the blogger intended that. 

There's a great deal to be said about all this. The question of whether it should be a requirement to read books in series from the get-go in order to assess later books is an interesting one, when I stand back from it. Up close, the philosophy dissolves. For a few days I was a useful strawman for a lot of necessary arguments on Twitter about book criticism, even though I don't believe everything that's been said about my work and my critical posture is accurate or even helpful. I'm glad that my work has stirred up conversation about diversity in publishing, even as I'm devastated about being the subject of so much wrath. 

I think I became a target for everyone who is mad about authority imbalances in book criticism. I respect that, but given how little I'm paid and how little I'm known, I find this silly. Hitting me is not really punching up for almost anyone. 

I drafted a very long blog post explaining what I think and feel about this whole incident, how painfully it hits me given my history with race and racism, and some of the personal and professional aftermath. Ultimately, I don't think it's useful to make public. The above is all I want to say for now. 

Also, there's a lot more for me to tell you. 

Electric Dreamhouse Press, a UK publisher headed by my friend Neil Snowdon, is going to publish my second book this year as part of their line of Midnight Movie Monographs. My monograph is about Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. I wrote this short book in the space of about six weeks in mid-2020, and I haven't had such fun writing a book since Highbinder (which still languishes, alas). I'm really pleased about joining the small but scrappy field of Ed Wood studies. 

The book contains my central arguments about why it's worthwhile to study bad film. I've been building on those arguments to write a series of essays that I hope will be a whole book about bad film, eventually. I've written about Ruby (1977) and about a series of 1940s films starring "the Teen-Agers," and up next is Death Bed: The Bed that Eats. Other essays will be on Cop Rock, Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, and a tricky dual piece about Showgirls and Staying Alive. I'm ahead of the schedule I made for these essays, which feels good. 

However, I keep getting intuitive signals to work on the Casablanca novel, which has been at a bare simmer in the back of my head for years. Last night I attended a reading with Lance Olsen and Lidia Yuknavitch, and something Olsen said temporarily turned up the heat on that burner. I've made a very tentative plan to write that book once I'm finished with the bad film essays - sometime in the fall, ideally - but if this keeps up, I'll have to pause the bad film essays and set to the novel. I simultaneously feel excited about the project (I haven't written a novel in years) and preemptively annoyed. It's going to be so much work. 

Anyway: the Plan 9 book represents pure joy for me, as it was an intellectual problem which I got to solve to my satisfaction. That the result will be a book (and a beautiful book at that, given EDP's past performance) is extra whipped cream on an already-nice sundae. I found out about the Midnight Movie Monographs series around three years ago, and idly wondered what movie I could write about for 100 pages. My mind supplied Plan 9 from Outer Space, and even though it was a weird choice, the more I thought about it, the more I supposed I could do it. How would I write 100 pages about Plan 9? Well, last year, I wrote until I found out. Thankfully, Neil was interested in what I produced. 

Both of my first two books, as it turns out, will be about weirdnesses my mind picked up and played around with, private obsessions I never thought would go public. Of everything I've written, these two books are the most fringely me, and I'm bemused that they are the two going out to bookstores in bound form. I think this means you ought to write what you love, or at least that I ought to write what I love. 

As for the third book, I recently made a (digital) handshake agreement with Blue Arrangements to publish my conceptual novel, Victorian Spam. It's a tee-tiny press, just two people, and all of us are burdened by lives and jobs and other projects, so we are all taking a relaxed attitude to the timeline of this book. I estimate that it'll appear in 2022, and it, too, is super weird. Yay! 

None of these three books has anything to do with any of the others. Ceremonials is lyric fiction, Plan 9 is straight nonfiction, and Victorian Spam is...other. All of them are ekphrastic in some way, and I created all of them, but those are the only two elements I can think of that they have in common. 

As for the fourth book...I finally, finally, finally finished the Misfits essay back in December. A couple of weeks later, I got an important blessing from one of the real-life characters in the essay. Thus, Weird New Shit, my book of hybrid film essays, is really truly completed. It's taken me four or five years to write and assemble these essays, which is four or five times longer than I usually work on a book, so I'm thrilled to be done. I'm shopping it to a few presses I think will like it before I try agents, and have consequently racked up a few rejections. 

I don't think there'll be news on that one for some time yet. My expectations for it are so large and unrealistic that it's probably better to let it settle as a project before it goes into the world, anyway. But I do suspect it'll be the fourth book. Mostly I'm glad to be done. 

Somehow I never put it on the blog that an essay of mine was published online at Conjunctions a few months ago. It's called "All Cities Burn" and when I shared it in November, I said I thought it was the best thing I've ever written. These days, with so many different projects coming to fruition, I don't really know if that assessment has meaning. Read it and let me know what you think. Maybe the most arresting thing I've ever written? Either way, being in Conjunctions is an honor. 

While I was struggling through the emotional aftermath of the February 10 incident, I started cross-stitching tiny portraits of the horses I work with. I've made about a dozen, using various patterns and editing them as needed to communicate what the horses look like (and act like), and have a couple more to go. My plan is to give these to the owners of these horses as parting gifts; I've given my notice at the barn, and will be stopping work there within the next month or so, I hope. I'm sorry to go, but the work is tearing up my body, and I'm turning 40 this year - too old to withstand another summer like 2020's. 

The one portrait I can't seem to settle on how to make is for Quinn, a gorgeous Friesian cross who is smart and eager and generally a lovely horse once he gets out of his anxious head. But he almost never succeeds in doing that. I love him so much and will miss him so much and I don't know how to capture him in cross-stitch without doing a massive, photorealistic portrait, much bigger than 3 inches wide. I don't have time for that. But how can I sum him up in such a small space? 

How can any of us, horse or human, be reduced to summary? 

Saturday, January 2, 2021


This morning I dreamed that I had to unclog a drain. I pried the top off of a side-loading washing machine and used a plastic snake on the drain, which was around the diameter of my spread hand and covered with a flat white cap. Eventually I pulled out a clean, dry, thick lock of hair, tied together with a ribbon, about five inches long, which was the same color as mine. Then I discovered that the white cap was actually black, and it had been covered by a piece of bread and peanut butter, pressed PB-side-down on the top of the cap to further clog the drain. 

Once I had scraped and wiped this, I started scooping a bunch of junk out of the machine - it was white and curded, like cottage cheese, or melted Styrofoam. No smell. I noticed that the junk was yellower and more hardened toward the northeast corner of the machine, and realized I had to break up and remove that part first. I began to worry that the junk was actually part of the machine's workings (an insulator?), and that I was doing the wrong thing by removing it. Once that uncertainty had truly penetrated, I woke up. 

I've long wanted to write a blog post about all the good writing news of the past two months, but this dream was so specific - the textures, the emotions - that I had to get it down somewhere. I do not know what it means. I did watch The Stuff yesterday, so that's probably where the white junk comes from. (Don't give me Freud, please.) 

It feels weird not to do resolutions this year, but I don't know what I would resolve to do. Clean more, maybe. Stop complaining about the stuff I always complain about. Keep to my book schedule, so as to write all the things I mean to write by the end of the year. But I'll only fail myself if I fail those intentions, and I do enough of that, thanks. 

The days are all the same, and I thought I knew what that was like, since life in southern California moves like that, and I've worked at home for long periods before. But this kind of sameness has a hellish edge that reminds me of one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, where the petty criminal thinks he's gone to heaven because he always wins at the casino table and bangs as many pretty women as he wants, but in fact it's hell, because there's no challenge, he always wins, there's no danger or risk, and life without risk is...not heaven. 

I'm not saying that contentment and peace are bad. Just that I always had the option to get in my car and go somewhere if the sameness of my lovely life started to make me itch. I'd look for a workshop to take, sign up, and have something to look forward to, particularly if it was somewhere I could drive and I'd never been there before. (For other people, this practice is known as "vacation," but I never learned how to take vacations in my family of origin, so my version is workshops.) Minor adventures. I can't imagine how difficult this has been for people who thirst after major adventures, as giving up my minor ones is challenging enough. 

The days are all the same. When I lived in danger, I thought that sounded great. It is, for a while. Until it isn't anymore. 

I'm listening to two audiobooks right now: We Were Witches by Ariel Gore and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Both long overdue. The way each deals with witches and women directly contradicts the other, which is fun, because I know which side I'm on. 

Maybe I'll finally write that blog post with all the good news next week, or the week after. The days are all the same, so writing another blog post can pass for a big change in my routine. In the meantime, I'm running out of documentaries on cults to watch, especially since so many of them are padded and contain less information than the corresponding Wikipedia pages. But I'm getting so much cross-stitching done. I partially designed this piece and I'm disproportionately proud of it. 

Friday, October 23, 2020


Yesterday I slept most of the day, on and off, dozing and then getting up to eat or watch a movie and then dozing again. It felt really good. Not much in my life at the moment is urgent, like, with a deadline or consequences, so I'm drifting a little. Spending whole days sleeping is good once in a while, like yesterday, but today, drifting does not feel good. I want to want to do things - writing or chores or editorial. But I don't really want to do any of them, or at least not one more than the other. In trying to decide what to tackle and how, I'm a little frozen, so instead here I am writing a blog post. 

One thing did get done today: my husband and I bought a cemetery plot. The timing may seem weird, but: plots always go up in cost, we have a little money to spare right now, and we're sure about where we want to go. I feel so good about this decision - having a big, final, expensive choice all settled and in order, getting something done as rare and useful as this - that I want to tell everyone, but it's also an odd, macabre thing to talk about or announce. I feel like we bought a house (a very small, very inexpensive, very specific kind of house), but with virtually none of the hassle and responsibility of being a homeowner, so I want to rejoice. Given what we actually did buy, that's weird, right? 

The weather is changing. It's overcast in the mornings now, cool and a little humid, until the sun breaks through and it becomes SoCal again. It's giving me congestion that is definitely not COVID but of course, fear, anxiety, etc. 

I've watched a pile of movies lately, from In a Lonely Place to Repo! The Genetic Opera, including a couple of docs, one about giallo (thumbs-down) and one about cult film (thumbs-up-ish). In general I am tired of the conversation about film mostly being among men. I am tired of that. Watching Magic Mike for the first time I thought about the male gaze, and how that film goes with its flow while kind of stumbling into the female gaze now and then, which doesn't make much sense because the premise depends upon the female gaze, thus the ultimate gender philosophy of Magic Mike is really kind of a mess, which of course has been true for Soderbergh since sex, lies, and I considered the wildly different attitudes of women at male strip clubs and men at female strip clubs, and how wherever you go the phallus is the point, and how deeply goddamn annoying that is, which led me to "W.A.P.", and then I just stopped thinking about it altogether because I really needed another feminist to bounce all this off of, but it didn't stop me from feeling sure that more women need to talk and more men need to shut up in film discourse. In general. Across allllllllll the genres and pockets of participation, from buffs who don't really know what they're talking about to talking heads on Hitchcock DVDs. There were guys in the cult film doc who were barely coherent. It pissed me off to have to listen to them. 

For quite a lot of years now I have wanted to own a full-size replica of Tom Servo. It took six weeks, but the one I bought on Etsy finally arrived. Here is a picture of me with him, and I promise you, I really was this excited. 

After taking the pic, I put him on a chair and just looked at him for a minute, smiling like a goober. I don't know why this puppet brings me so much joy, why I'm such a fan of this inanimate channel for comedy, really I do not know - but I am, and it does, and now he sits next to the TV so whenever what's on the screen is uninteresting I can just look at him and grin. 

Are we all as deadened and drifting as I am? I think I'm okay - there is happiness in my life (clearly), I can do what I need to do in order to live without dragging through it, I don't care much about missing dinners out or parties or concerts, I still feel love and sorrow and all the emotions in between. But all my days are the same, one upon the other, and it means I have a condition that's sibling to boredom but not quite it. Foreshortened motivation, based on having nothing at all to look forward to, no consequences for failure or sloth. I like my quiet life, and even though the days stretch out, I can always find something either practically or artistically useful to do for my brain. Yet I feel like two-thirds of myself. Whatever's missing is not fatally missing, but I do notice its absence. Is this familiar to anyone out there? 

Anyway, come see me read (virtually) at Vroman's on Monday. Deets here

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Retail Feet

I haven't written anything other than book reviews, emails, and tweets in three months, and the reason is my day job working with horses. I cannot adequately communicate how hard I have pushed my body in these months. I feel as if I've used every single cell, from scalp to marrow, to work and sweat and breathe and then work some more. 

The physical burden of these months has reminded me of the job I hated the most of any I ever had, selling women's clothes at the mall. I used to cry at night because my feet hurt so much. I cried when I cleaned the dressing room mirrors in the morning, feeling so trapped and aimless in the recycled mall air. I was miserable beyond belief, and part of the reason was that my body was not built for the job. I asked my coworkers what they did about their feet hurting, and they just shrugged. I asked if it drove them as crazy as it drove me that the music tape repeated every 2 1/2 hours, that we heard the same songs in the same order every single day for months, and their answer was along the lines of "what tape?" 

Both these answers boggled me. Hot vines of pain wrapped around my feet by the end of an eight-hour shift; I thought I'd rip the speakers out of the ceiling and hammer them to pieces if I heard "The First Cut Is the Deepest" one more goddamn time. (To this day I shudder when I hear one of the songs from that tape.) The other people in my life at the time mostly worked retail too, and my complaints puzzled them. "Complaints" doesn't really cover it; working retail crushed my spirit, melodramatic as it might sound. Everyone else was like, well, yeah, it's retail. It was like pointing out the brimstone and the demons burning you on the ass with pokers and hearing, well, yeah, it's hell. Get over it. 

My best explanation for this is that I'm not built for retail. It takes a specific constitution to withstand retail: physically, you need the feet for it, and mentally, you need a kind of psychological reef on which repetitive behavior can break without breaking you. I don't have retail feet, and I don't have a retail mind. What I find absurd (Kafka-type absurd, almost-funny-but-horrible) about this is that out there in the world, retail is considered a low bar. Anybody can get a job at the mall. But coping with that job is, for some people, a labor that will destroy them, while others can just shrug indifferently. 

Mine is not the hardest job at the barn. The guys who muck and feed work a lot harder than I do. I feel ashamed that I can't do as much as they can. But I don't have retail feet. When I get home I have to rest, aggressively. It's embarrassing that I can't bounce back, have to treat myself with Epsom salts and excessive couch time, but it's how my body is built. I had to accept it back in my excruciating days at the mall, humiliating as it was when everyone around me met the demands of retail without a flinch, and I have to accept it now. 

Because of owner vacations and COVID, my workload was much heavier across August and September than it was for the first seven months of the year - right at the time when the weather is the most demanding. This summer I've done nine-hour days, walking 10 miles and climbing 500 vertical feet and lifting one 20-lb saddle after another onto the backs of moving 1200-lb animals, in 95F heat. And then went back and did it again the next day. Which means that my rest periods have extended to almost all the days I don't work. Which means that I haven't written anything. 

Since my job as a writer is largely about thinking, the almost-year of this job has been overall good for me. It seemed at first like working at the barn half the week, totally out of my head and into my body, and then working at my computer the other half, totally out of my body and into my head, would be a perfect life. 

But I don't have retail feet. 

Although I haven't produced much of anything new (and I miss it, and I want to, and I'm a literal year behind on finishing just a single essay, and I really want to start a new long project, really bad), I've continued to submit old stuff. That has led to a pretty significant publication coming at the end of this month, God willing. 

Also, a hybrid essay I wrote in I think the first class I took with Higgs, or maybe the second, got published in Wig-Wag. It was rejected twenty-three times before Brad Efford accepted it and then blessed me further by wanting to make very few edits. Now that it's in the world, some of the smartest people I know are telling me it's incredible. I want to be humble about this, but the truth is I know it's incredible. I know that every sentence in it is deliberate, that its threaded-together layers of meaning make it hard to parse but worth the trouble, that it was rejected so often because editors didn't get what it was doing or because their publications weren't daring enough for it. I included a slew of obscure, flashing references to critical theory and a comment on Fred Astaire's hands that the reader won't get unless she already knows the story; deal with it. I don't care that the Sun would never publish an essay like this because it's too weird, too disjointed, too up its own ass; it found the right market, and it's finding an audience (a small but excellent one) because I wrote it exactly the way I wanted to and withstood the consequent rejections. 

If you're a creator, I'm not going to urge you to do the same, because it's not any fun to write and [attempt to] publish this way. But "Bright White American Smile"* is writing only I can do, and I feel wonderfully content with that. 

*This is the title I chose for the essay, but Wig-Wag's format means it didn't appear that way. 

Its publication means I need to update my website, like really bad, and assemble a newsletter to go out when the end-of-month publication happens, if it happens. I've been putting these tasks off for MONTHS. Partly, you know, retail feet; I've been really goddamn tired. But also ugh. I have to figure out what book reviews have appeared since I last updated (March?) and link them all, and then try to fix some of the buggy pages since the last Wordpress update, and then redo my Favorites page and also the home page since it's all **Ceremonials Is Just Now Out in the World!** which is no longer true, and blaaaaah. Website work is usually satisfying to me, but I've put it off so long that it's turned into a regular old chore. 

Other stuff going on: I watched Lost across the last few weeks. I really liked the character work and the wide-open imagination, but I was annoyed as fuck at the dropped threads and hand-waving. I'm left thinking about how men act when they're hit by the thunderbolt, how they move the earth for the women they love, in the same way I've given long thought to male regret. Both ideas underlie a lot of art by men (...all of it???), but they aren't often on the surface. 

I hit the six-month wall, and so did Matt, but it's breaking. I've been cross-stitching in a frenzy, and I made this (pen for scale): 

I'll be participating in a virtual reading through Vroman's on October 26. It's a reschedule of the triple-play ghost-girl-books reading that Gayle, Jennifer, and I originally put together for April. I hope you can come, but if you don't even want to, truly, I understand. I think I've been to one virtual reading in six months. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Smaller the Pond

Matt and I have been playing The Last of Us Part II for a few weeks. There's a lot going on in our experience. The first game was devastating, as any scenario which purports to be about the apocalypse but is actually about the people who survive the apocalypse generally is. This one is almost unbearable. The two main groups of characters struggle against each other bloodily, murdering each other until almost no one is left. 

I haven't been able to get the title out of my head. 

The game recounts stories of the last of us - the remaining members of the human race after a zombie-making virus has wiped out most of us. The title chills me more the longer I meditate on it. Last indicates a dwindling, a winding-down. Us indicates the community of species we all share, no matter our values. The end of humans. The closing chapter of our long, long story. 

Yet in this game, the characters are driven by revenge and tribalism to murder other humans, rather than just the zombies that threaten their lives. It would make sense for the last of us to band together against the common threat, to make more people, to perpetuate our existence rather than closing down more and more lives. But the drive to be correct about the values by which we live is apparently stronger than the drive to survive at any cost. 

That sentence demonstrates the hardest part about playing this game at this moment in the lifespan of the human race. We are murdering each other, softly or the hard way, every damn day, out there in the real world. We're not taking the coronavirus seriously enough to do whatever's necessary to survive, and for months I've thought it was because: the virus takes a long time to curdle and kill; it's not a sure thing (in the game, one bite and you're definitely dead); and there are enough of us that it doesn't seem like a species-wide existential threat, not really. 

But playing The Last of Us II has made me think differently. It has made me believe that tribalism and cursed American individualism are stronger than our survival instincts. In observing the past month or so of national behavior, I have begun to understand just how many people think that rules do not apply to them. Even in my little universe: the rich people at the barn don't wear their masks, they leave them around their chins. Maybe they think the risk is minimal, outdoors and with only a small handful of other people around. Or maybe they just...don't think the rules apply to them. 

In my early 30s, I started to think that greed was the worst human quality, the drive that caused the most suffering. Whatever single word expresses the trait of "surely they don't mean I have to follow the rules" is causing far more chaos in our world right now, although greed surely isn't helping. And the tribalism underlying the (supposed) ideological implications of who wears a mask...ugh, it's so horrible, causing such excessive needless suffering. But that's not what's going on in The Last of Us II. It's something more primal, and a tiny bit less petty (although not much). 

Years ago I wrote a novel about a secret race of people, Viking descendants, living in a massive cavern under Greenland's ice sheet. (I know it sounds awesome, but it was a failed novel; one day I'll rewrite it to be better.) I imagined a struggle for the throne of this kingdom on the level of the old English monarchy: poisonings, conspiracies, betrayal. Matt asked me whether I thought it was realistic that people would struggle so hard for a throne that meant so little, in the scheme of things. The power that anyone can hold in a closed community is naturally limited. 

This was a rare moment in which Matt was wrong. He is never wrong about human nature, or almost never - in this instance, as the years pass, I grow surer that he was. People struggle most bitterly for the smallest fiefdoms, I have found. English departments at colleges and universities are the primary example I'm aware of, but there are many others. The smaller the pond, the more fish get eaten, so the biggest one can grow fat. I don't know why humans are so dogged about what they control, and so much more so when what they control is minor, but they are. 

The Last of Us II is a beautiful, harrowing exhibit of this behavior. In light of the sunset of the entire species, you'd think that matters of revenge would fall by the wayside in favor of survival. Alas, no. The two main characters cut through dozens, hundreds of human beings in order to try and kill each other. (I think it's possible that the player kills fewer zombies than healthy people in this game.) Their strength, their will, could bolster entire communities, help them thrive; instead, they expend their resources on ending each other. 

They are compelling characters. Their choices are organic and agonized, and they make terrible mistakes, which always jump-starts a narrative. But I cannot stop thinking about what it means that they are the last of us. The very qualities that make them so good at surviving the apocalypse have also buried vengeance and bloodlust deep down in their natures. How does one dig those qualities out to cooperate with the others who have lasted, instead of killing them? 

Some version of this behavior exists within each of the two parties in our political system right now, and between them. Here I started writing some examples, but realized midway that you are likely to get mad at me for some of them, because that is how deep tribalism goes: it's impossible to read criticism of one's values without feeling personally insulted. We cannot even unite against the common enemy of the virus, a phenomenon that could swipe away a major chunk of our population, because we can't agree on the deeper meaning of wearing cloth on our faces. What the fuck

So the revenge and murder in The Last of Us II is striking deeper than it might at any other moment in American history. Five years ago it might have seemed like pure fantasy - the only way revenge stories feel good to me is if they are fantasies, because revenge is always going to harm more than help - but now it seems extremely realistic, that the last of us are killing each other rather than the common enemy. And God, how that aches. How it stings. How I wish it were not so relevant, so true to life. How I wish we were not in so desperate a fix. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Some Things I Keep Thinking About

  • AIDS and sex ed in the early 1990s
  • the score for Midsommar, the score for There Will Be Blood, Penderecki, and Wagner 
  • what loneliness is 
  • whether I should write a novel (again) and/or look for an agent (again) after several years' break from both 
  • ritual and totem 
  • desperation for fiefdom in situations of mortal stress (The Last of Us II
  • unread books in my home 
  • mail carriers 
  • the particular feeling of not wanting to absorb new art by a favorite artist, for fear of something: maybe disillusionment, maybe using up all the possible new art by that artist so there is no more, maybe upsetting the status of my expertise 
  • the personality traits of women in horsedom 
  • the personality traits of people in teadom 
  • life choices and trades and bargains and how they play out in extremely unlikely situations, like worldwide pandemics (cf the Fukishima disaster) 
  • what to do about my work at QMT 
  • [him] 
  • reducing movies and books until they are "boring" / reducing stories until they are 1) stranger comes to town 2) someone goes on a journey 3) someone falls in love 
  • the Mouth of Sauron and the nature of horror vs. torture porn
  • gore-bucket horror and splosh 
  • this essay and "giving primacy to the erotics of your own experience" 
  • whether life experiences during certain historical periods make it simply impossible for two people to see eye to eye 
  • hunger and its expiration 
  • whether I am going to be well-known 
  • whether I am as smart as I think I am 
  • whether my writing is doing what I think it's doing or I am in fact Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys 
  • [that] (just answer me) 
  • the role that the phone object plays in our lives, not the phone function 
  • what Ed Wood wanted 
  • money spent on smoothies 
  • my arms 
  • that fucking tattoo already, what the fuck 
  • how and when various famous people will die 
  • whether Twitter-famous people are always ultimately obnoxious (the honeymoon of a Twitter follow) 
  • threes 
  • whether other people think this much all the time 
  • whether people who don't are happier 

by this person

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Unbearable

Yesterday I watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I'd seen it around when it was released, and had found it badly directed, and elected to use it as an example in the project I've been working on since the beginning of May. I wanted to make sure I wasn't mixing it up with Civil War, so I rewatched. (I wasn't. It is not a well-directed movie. I kept yelling to Matt about how Michael Bay would frame the car stunts and how anyone else would frame and edit the conversations.) I love Cap more than almost any other Marvel hero brought to the screen. Like me, he barely has it in him to lie, and he represents and defends everything my father raised me to believe America is. 

Last week, Matt and I watched the David Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express, which we hadn't seen before. It was very late in Suchet's run as Poirot, post-9/11, post-Sopranos (i.e. after TV changed, irrevocably). I gave Matt the whole set of Suchet's Poirot as a quarantine gift, and we've been working our way through it chronologically, but we skipped ahead to Orient Express due to one of my moods. I remembered the solution of the mystery but didn't remember anything leading up to it. 

The foibles and light humor of Poirot earlier in the run have given way to a quiet, introspective Poirot. Suchet plays him, as always, as if he knows him better than anyone ever has. But Poirot is almost incidental to the ensemble at work in Orient Express, and Suchet knows that. He mostly leaves aside the old self-centered Poirot and acts as an immutable part of the landscape instead. 

Until the end. He is furious about the perversion of justice. It betrays everything he has always believed in. He weeps a little. You realize, looking at this man, that what he is forced to accept in this situation may break him. (We do not all break through torture or atrocity; sometimes ideas will break us.) 

After I finished The Winter Soldier, I thought about watching Captain Marvel again. Much as I love Captain America, his powers are a lot less showy than hers, and I kind of wanted to watch a hero do things well beyond the reach of normal humans - things that render guns and fists irrelevant. And, incidentally, I wanted to watch a woman doing them. 

This morning I thought maybe I'd watch the scene where Fury sings "Please, Mr. Postman," in Captain Marvel instead. Not sure why, just a whim. When I entered "captain marvel" into YouTube's search bar, one of the auto-fills was "vs. thanos" and I went, yeah, okay. There was a video that collected all of her scenes in the Avengers movies, so I watched that. It was about four minutes long. She was awesome, of course, but I realized (somewhat stupidly, belatedly) that the nature of her power is the ability to destroy on an enormous scale. Maybe she's powerful enough not to need fists and guns, but what she can do outstrips fists and guns; it doesn't render null the violence inherent in them. 

It's not fun to wake up and look around at the world these days. Injustice has always been this bad, of course. But living through a pandemic is much more depleting than history has ever recorded. 

What occurred to me this morning is how different the world of The Winter Soldier is than the world I live in today. Part of the reason Cap is such a balm to audiences in a post-9/11 world is his idealism, his belief in fixing whatever is wrong and the attendant belief that he can be the man to do that fixing. Yet his solutions are the same old solutions we've been thrusting at the world's problems for centuries: fists and guns. 

The movie repeats that it's a different world now and Steve Rogers is not psychologically equipped for that world. This is a pretty careless interpretation of the past, which was always complicated, but in this limited case the point is solid. Punching Nazis is a different thing than sorting through (un)reliable intelligence from morally dubious sources. But the movie does not offer a new solution, or at least not a nuanced one. Captain Marvel, too, uses the old solution. Awesome as she is, her powers are all violence and destruction, no nuance. 

You cannot shoot the coronavirus. You cannot punch corrupt police departments. 

What Cap is asked to bear across the movies made around him seems unbearable. That's another reason I love him so much. He copes with profound burdens and still wants to carry whatever others can't lift. I don't know what he would try to do in this national moment. I think he'd be central in a public relations campaign to get people to wear masks and stay home (he of all people understands influence and inspiration), but that's incidental to what he's built for: action. Violent action. How he would cope with having to sit still, I don't know. 

Poirot must learn to live with, and in, a world in which arresting people is not the only solution when a murder is committed. When we watched the episode last week, I found him deeply naive, in his resistance to believing that justice is not always found in a courtroom. That's the nature of privilege: the ability to be naive about justice for decades of a life. Truly coming to terms with such naivete can break a man, particularly if that man's profession depends upon this premise. 

In my early thirties I had to reckon with the lie of America with which my father had raised me. This nation is built on broken backs and genocide, and all the fine ideals of its prized documents and the genuine beliefs of the good men who wrote them do not excuse what lies under its foundations. It nearly broke me. Such a process meant unstitching essential seams of my identity. But I did it, because Cormac McCarthy is right, James Baldwin is right, Angela Davis and Ta-Nehisi Coates are right. This place is a nightmare and we have done virtually nothing to wake up from it. We parade over the bones. We wave flags at the breaches. 

Cap is part of that lie. He is the very best of it, I think, embodying what we all want to feel if we could stand to be patriots. 

If anything, I think the two major issues of this year (so far, God help us) demonstrate that we can't throw the same solutions at new problems. 9/11 tried to teach us that: you can't get an aircraft carrier into a foxhole. You can't use guns on a deadly virus, and you can't throw tear gas at ideas. 

Because our heroes continue to operate on old premises, they will continue to fail us. They must learn new ways of being in the world. But they may break, if they try. 

What will we do? How will we survive? What will we be asked to bear for each other?