Monday, December 08, 2014
The weekend that came to known as “anniversary weekend” was inaugurated with a viewing of Gone Girl, the new movie by David Fincher, that guy I used to think was a genius. My wife and I had the rare day off together, so we opted to take in an afternoon movie, always an indulgence tied to the sense—real or imagined—that we’re playing hooky. We had lunch first and strolled through some stores like a couple of people with no concerns. A few hours later, when the lights came up and ushers arrived to clean the nearly empty stadium theater, we turned to each other and, through laughter, confessed that it was a good thing this movie wasn’t made four years earlier. We might never have gotten hitched.
This is bullshit. (Not the story—the part about us never marrying had we seen Gone Girl prior to tying the knot. Pardon the cliché (two already and I’m barely into this thing), but it seems fitting to use clichés when discussing Gone Girl, a movie that revels in them. If you have seen the film, you’ll likely be thinking that a movie with so big a twist can’t honestly be accused of delving into cliché, but, of course, the big crazy twist is itself a Hollywood cliché. Anyway, I thought we’d collectively tired of twists in our post-M. Night Shyamalan world.) We would still have gotten married, as evidence by our remaining together after seeing the film, despite Fincher’s prediction that his movie would launch fifteen million divorces. That we even joked about the movie in this way (this prior to reading Fincher’s statement) makes me angry; that goddamn Fincher—he got me. I may not be divorced but I still, in a small way, succumbed to his designs.
I doubt very much that Fincher truly wants to cause anyone to break up. No, his intentions here are standard: he wants to entertain and evoke, engage and amuse. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, I guess, but I can’t help but feel that the director responsible for The Game, that most underrated of films, and Seven, that most successful of thrillers, is now more inclined to standard craftwork with a dash of smarts, just enough to make audiences regard three star fare as prime rib. To a culture hooked on Candy Crush Saga, that’s about the best you can expect.
Gone Girl is not a smart film. This is not an insult. When I regard any piece of art as “smart” I mean that the film/book/song asks the viewer/reader/listener to engage with the material in a way that is more active than passive. Tall order for a movie, but more than possible. Gone Girl only asks that we sit back and watch smart people (well, one smart woman, her dupe of husband, and scores of rubes so inconsequential one hardly notices their passing from the story) do interesting things. This is fun and distracting and even engrossing, but the critics who imply that this is a smart film are full of shit. This is better than average Hollywood fare made by a talented director starring a very talented actress and an occasionally talented actor who should direct more movies like Gone Baby Gone. Again, there is nothing wrong with the film on that level. The world can always use movies of this kind, movies that are fun and full “Holy Shit!” moments and nifty plots. The good old devices work well-- twists (sure, why not), sex, murder, crazy women with sharp objects-- but creaking mechanics are too frequently celebrated. It makes me wonder why the same critics who laud this film are so turned off by horror movies.
Gone Girl is, in a sense, a damn good horror movie. Okay, a thriller if you prefer that term. But I don’t. To me, it’s horror—it has some blood, some sex, and a damn scary villain, though some might regard her as the hero. Why not? I tend to root for Freddy Krueger. As a horror film (let’s just call it that, okay), it is quite good. But the confines of the genre can be a little tiring, and in this case they threaten to strangle the whole thing right around Act IV.
If you’ve seen the movie, think back to when Amazing Amy comes back to Naughty Nick. (If you have not seen the movie, be prepared for spoilers, though who gives a shit?) She’s covered in blood and faking panic. She’s just contrived and executed a perfect murder. She’s onto plan B as her first scheme hit a rough patch after a trailer trash couple got the jump on her (some evil genius she turns out to be). She’s committed to her sociopathic ruses in a way that should be the envy of any Stanislavskian. But things have gone too far, for Amy and for the story. We’ve seen too much. Nick knows too much. But he stays with her because… Actually, I’m not quite sure. Some metaphor here, right? And maybe a good one, and actually this may be the point where the audience is asked to use their head a bit, but the leap from exciting thrills to deeper analysis comes late and requires too great a leap from passivity to really elevate this genre exercise.
Gone Girl seeks to subvert gender norms and fails when it embraces them. Too bad-- I'd love for a horror movie to fuck around with bullshit gender roles. It is possible to play with racial and gender politics in horror, though it’s rare (name a horror movie not titled Dawn of the Dead where the only survivors are a black guy and a pregnant woman). But Gone Girl flirts with the idea and basically takes a giant shit on it. Much has been made of Amy’s rant about the cool girl, the one every guy wants. While I enjoyed the speech, the categorizing does little more than distinguish Amy from the woman her husband is fucking, dividing women into two very clichéd categories. And her litany of complaints is hardly new, sapping some originality from what is supposed to be an original character. A blonde writer with a genius brain and murderous tendencies… have we seen that before? Well, to be sure Gone Girl will likely hold up a bit better than Basic Instinct, though not much. But we might at least cut Basic Instinct some slack. All it wanted to be was trashy entertainment. You gotta respect the honesty.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Now back to Dancing with the Stars
I know that I have a tendency to discuss political subjects with a straight-up liberal bias. Sorry. It has taken me some time to decide that, yes, liberals are as cranky, stupid, and often wrong as conservatives, but you know what: liberalism is still a preferable ideology to American conservatism.
If the above equivocation about liberals being as flawed as conservatives at all leads you to conclude that both sides suck, a pox on both houses, I’ll have nothing to do with either, well... you miss a larger point: both sides are populated with human beings and human beings are fallible, often stupid, frequently rude, and, therefore, given to saying and doing dumb things. And in the age of the Internet and immediate connectivity, dumb things can ruin a career. Oh, if Washington and Jefferson were alive in the age of Twitter. What malaprops they might be haunted by!
That stated, I have to admit that my bias against the (rarely) right in this country stems from my inability to hear the intelligent conservatives over the screamers. I have often let my inability mask what I know to be true deep in the recesses of my thick head: there are smart, articulate, learned, conservatives who are separate from the noisy jerks and (sadly) too quiet to hear. Not all of them are dogs responding to tone and ignoring actual words. My inability to hear them speaks to my own laziness (this is the age of the Internet, after all) as much as their (perceived) silence. But for fuck's sake, speak up, people. You do your side no service by letting Michele Bachmann have so much airtime.
To be sure, I am not a fan of MSNBC. Save for the wonderful Rachel Maddow, I don’t care for the screaming left any more than the screaming right (okay, a little more). And though I see the insidiousness of Fox News and the effect of infotainment on the populace, I can only recall Robinson Jeffers’ great poem “Be Angry at the Sun” and cool my own ire lest I join the duped.
Lately I've tried to do as others have been opting to do: keep things light, not start debates, cool the angry rhetoric of social media, keep calm and carry on posting pictures of food. This is, perhaps, a good course of action. But I can’t do it today. While fond of sharing gags, puns, and what I perceive as witty little observations about life and the odd encounters that come with living in Chicago, I see how futile my actions are. No less futile than my previous method of bickering with relatives and strangers over Facebook to achieve what I thought might be some form of common understanding. But nothing changes, especially people. I might as well be angry at the sun for fucking setting.
So I opted not to add my own angry, ill-informed opinions to these angry, ill-informed discussions. That was a nice two weeks. But after last night, I’m afraid I cannot slide so easily back to laughing at adorable kitties. You’ve seen the news, I take it? The grand jury made its decision, people protested, peacefully in some places, violently in other places. I knew what would happen if I went onto Facebook this morning. I’d see any number of blissed-out citizens asking, “Why do they burn their own businesses?” as if the Civil Rights era and the Rodney King riots never happened. How soon we forget conversations we’ve had for decades. How little we learn from them.
So I was willing to stay off Facebook, but, of course, I succumbed. I thought maybe a quick viewing of some footage might be warranted—I should know what’s going on, after all. But there’s a perfect hilarity that comes while watching a clip from some tragic local news outfit from Bumfuck, Iowa reporting on the grand jury’s decision not to indict that cop who shot Michael Brown. They relate this news, which most of America has been anxiously waiting to hear, with what may be seen as trepidation—no one could have expected the reaction to be different than it was—followed by the assurance that they are returning to their scheduled program, Dancing with the Stars.
That was it. I lost my shit. I started laughing like a rabid hyena.
Upon reflection, I see that newscaster’s statement about returning to Dancing with the Stars as pretty beautiful. Yes, there is strife, anger, inequality, violence, injustice, poverty, materialism, stupidity, and confusion to consider, but ignore all that; we’ve got Lea Thompson and Tommy Chong dancing before a panel of self-important assholes! Doesn’t that sound infinitely more interesting? It certainly requires zero critical thinking and social analysis.
By way of going back to my first thoughts about why I’m re-upping with the liberal camp, let me state that while liberals are perhaps too quick to lionize Michael Brown, and that, yes, he was not a perfect human being, the reactions of most conservatives seem to be considerably worse. If you are convinced that the community of Ferguson is taking advantage of the decision or if you are confused about the angry reaction to the story, then let me politely ask you to stop looking at trees and see the forest. And while there are surely some liberals fixating on the wrong questions and hammering away at the old talking points, they at least have an admirable, albeit unrealistic, goal in mind: progression away from obvious social injustice. This is, again, not to say that conservatives are not interested in such things, but more an observation that I can’t help but make: the fringe has hijacked that party. Objective analysis and common ground are elements of the discussion that are sorely missing in the popular sphere. So be it. This is perhaps nothing new: there’s been a long history of sensationalism in news and public discourse. Cooler heads have likely always resided left of the dial, but there was always a sort of understanding that the smaller venue was where you, the individual had to search to find a more reasoned, civil form of debate. The problem is that now we see the popular talk shows, always happy to court the lowest common denominator, as being the bastions of wisdom and the lone voices of the voiceless, the watchdogs of the government, the truth seekers. I’d say we’ve lost perspective if I thought we ever really had any.
So I’m not going to throw my lot in with the liberals to the extent that I will see the conservatives as enemies. I will try to remain a bit more open-minded than that. But damnit, people—you’re not making it easy.
To summarize: liberals are as full of shit as conservatives, but I prefer the smell of their shit. If you’re curious about why people are furious about last night’s grand jury decsion, examine your questions and look outside your own experience. Realize that it is a false equivalency to expect that people will be as rational in their response as you were when you heard the news. Stop listening to the loudest voices. Children scream. Adults think, reflect, and compose themselves. And then they scream.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Best of Chicago
Recently, New City put out their annual Best of Chicago issue, a fine read from start to finish. Nevertheless, it being only as perfect as any such publication, it contained omissions that I felt needed addressing. In short: I was inspired to fill in some of the gaps and write my own Best of Chicago post. So here goes.
(Side note: I’m sure I’ve done this before, but rather than comb through past blog posts I figured I’d just write a new version because, you know, no one’s reading or remembers anyway. If for some reason you do remember and wish to accuse me of redundancy, well it’s my blog and I can do as I please. So there.)
Best place for Vince to confront how much he and the city have changed: Red Lion Pub.
When the Red Lion closed up six years ago, many of us were adrift. We knew that the remodeling would not be quick, despite assurances to the contrary. And many were upset that our favorite watering hole was getting a makeover, but I understood. The barkeep and co-owner, Colin, said it best: charm is great but not when you have to live in it. And while I was (sorta) okay with the charm of the semi-dilapidated faux British pub being scrubbed away, I accepted that it was a necessary scrubbing and that what emerged would be a bar where I could piss without fear of falling through the floorboards. So when the place finally reopened earlier this year, I was, as the kids used to say, stoked.
But, sorry to report, this new polished incarnation just isn’t for me. A fine place to get a pint (if you have the money—drinks were never cheap at the Lion but now the prices now suggest some staggering remodeling debts), but where there was once charm there is now gloss. And books (most behind the bar or placed high above reach or locked behind glass) that work as decorations but are inaccessible to the average customer/reader. But people seem to like it. Me? Eh, it just makes me long for long gone days.
But not really. You see, I hung out at the Lion in my late 20s and off and on through my 30s. Now that I am in my 40s—happily married and in a very different place with my life—I shall step aside and let others enjoy this new fangled Lion while I opt for an alternative (see below). The Lion has changed, but so has the city. I barely recognize this town, save for the shitty weather. Why hang on to relics of the past? I’m not the same. Why should my city stay frozen forever in 1994?
Best place to spend six hours of your birthday drinking with friends and occasionally reading Ulysses: Red Lion Lincoln Square.
To ease my sadness over the loss of the Red Lion, I’ve been going to the Red Lion. The Red Lion Lincoln Square, to be specific. This location is associated with the other by history only, which is a long story, but I like that this location retains most of the old look and fee of the old Lincoln Avenue location, not to mention the superior fish and chips. And the pints are closer to what I’m comfortable paying, cheapskate that I am (see below). This year, I decided to celebrate turning 43 by sitting on my ass for several hours drinking Guinness at the Lion. Somewhere in there ate some scrod, chatted with friends who came and went, and read a few pages of the James Joyce novel that dominated my summer. It seemed a fine way to usher in another year of living. Some people climb mountains. Some go on vacation. Some eat cake. But for Christ’s sake, 43 is an important year and should not be spent in so trivial a fashion as any of that.
Best place to get a drink: my apartment.
Even though the last two entries on this list have been about bars, I really prefer drinking at home. The booze is cheaper, there’s never a mistake with my order, the pours are heavy, and the company is lovely, even when I’m alone with the dog.
Best library: the Francone Library, my apartment.
Sure, I don’t have the archives of the Newberry or the volume of the Harold Washington Library, but I’ll wager my collection bests most in town, not to mention there’s always something I want to read in these stacks. And the chairs are comfy. Plus: no Nicholas Sparks.
Best place to see a movie: my apartment.
The abovementioned comfy chairs make film watching a pleasure, and while the screen may not be as big as what one will find at the stadium style theaters, one will not find any crying babies, chattering dolts, or incessant texting in my apartment. And there’s cheap snacks and booze. This makes for relaxed viewing, so much so that I often fall asleep before the end of a movie. Thankfully, there are no ushers at my place to kick me out.
Best place to practice playing guitar where no one will hear how much you suck: my apartment.
Never a virtuoso, I did achieve a certain level of skill, though years of neglect have left my chops rusty (mixed metaphor?). So it’s nice to run through some scales without the judgmental ears of anyone but my dog who never complains about missed notes or fumbled chords. Of course, the lovely Casandra is supportive and likes when I play, but it took me longer than it should have to learn “Behind Blue Eyes” and even after I had the changes down the guitar was out of tune. No problem: like Eddie Van Halen, I tune the guitar to itself. Unlike EVH, I… well, everything.
Best place to write grumpy blog posts: my apartment.
Surrounded by the familiar, the outside world seems loud and cruel. And scary. Better to stay inside. I don’t like the looks of those teenagers.
This morning, on Facebook (what a terrible way to start a blog post),I shared an article from Esquire that, in that snarky way quite common to internet articles and Esquire, a takedown of some cherished movies the editors decided to films stupid people think are clever. While the article is pure click bait, there’s something to these choices of so-called stupid films—many of them I like. They don’t stand up to real scrutiny and, at best, can be called pure entertainment with a dash of intellect and some genuine cinematic artistry ( especially Inception, which is a good looking film that feels quite empty). Only one friend has commented on this. That’s fine—I’m past the point of begging for likes—but I am sort of surprised. Most of my friends are film buffs or film watchers or have some sort of opinion about film. I suppose I expected a few to balk at the list and argue in favor of some of the entries. Really, Fight Club is the one that I assumed would generate some discussion.
Watching Fight Club today is like skimming through a journal written in high school. You cringe at the angst, the stretches toward profundity, the shallowness masquerading as depth, the pedestrian sense of entitlement. Yeah, the movie has some interesting things to say about monoculture and corporate life, not to mention Ikea and Starbucks (easy targets, really), but beyond some half-baked philosophy (and that’s being generous) about finding truth by letting go of that which truly does not matter, the movie is pretty goddamn silly.
Of course, I loved the movie when I saw it. It was (and is) exciting, visually accomplished, even funny. Brad Pitt is perfect casting. And indeed—David Fincher can direct the shit out of a movie. But I am almost always saddened by lists that rank Fight Club highest among Fincher’s films. The Game is no one’s favorite (I think it's Fincher's best movie), and I don’t expect it to beat out Zodiac or even Seven, but for fuck’s sake it’s a lot better than Fight Club. As much as I love the absurd, and Fight Club gets pretty fucking absurd, I never believe a second of it. I don’t know that I am supposed to, but the intentionally ridiculous story strikes me as alienating. As goofy as the logic of The Game can be, I buy it all. Maybe this speaks to my tastes: I prefer dark and menacing to gross and macho.
I can forgive Fight Club, even look at it fondly, whereas Inception has always been a pretty hard to swallow pill. I don’t know that I’d call it a film stupid people think is clever, but more of a convoluted movie that sacrifices its emotional core—which it seems intent on developing—to layers of what-the-fuck? plot and some nice CGI. The movie looks pretty but is so cold that a pair of gloves should come with the DVD. I admit that it does ask the viewer to engage with it, making it more of an active experience than the average Hollywood thriller, but frankly I prefer the average Hollywood thriller that seeks no claim to complexity or depth.
To say that these are films stupid people think are clever is a tough (and stupid) claim to make, but I do wonder if the point J. R. Jones made about the movie Up in the Air is not one that can work in this conversation: it's a mediocre movie that seems great only because we're used to shitty film after shitty film. When you've lived on peanut butter and jelly for months on end, a boloney sandwich is pretty tasty. But it's still just fucking baloney.
To say that these are films stupid people think are clever is a tough (and stupid) claim to make, but I do wonder if the point J. R. Jones made about the movie Up in the Air is not one that can work in this conversation: it's a mediocre movie that seems great only because we're used to shitty film after shitty film. When you've lived on peanut butter and jelly for months on end, a boloney sandwich is pretty tasty. But it's still just fucking baloney.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
I don’t know—it just seems that calling yourself a hacktivist is a way of ginning up what you really are: a dick.
Dave Grohl and Gwyneth Paltrow would make a perfect couple inasmuch as I hate them equally.
The fact that so many people misread the New York Times article about WMDs in Iraq should depress me but I’ve decided to use this as my excuse to drink more. So thanks, conservatives.
Chicago is beset by beetles that look like ladybugs but are, I’m told, not ladybugs. But they very much look like ladybugs. I’m also told that I should not kill a ladybug. It’s bad luck or something. So I’m not sure if I should kill the beetles I have seen at work or the ones flying toward my face while I walk to the train. What if they are actually ladybugs? Think of all of the bad luck I might incur. My life could spin out of control—more so than it already has—all because of this confusion. Well played, beetles.
TBT—not a thing anymore?
I’m happier in my 40s than I’ve been at any other time in my life, save for age 20. Or maybe 6. Still, it’d be nice to be 39 again so I wouldn’t have to think so much about what I eat and how it will likely kill me.
Jorge Luis Borges said that he was more proud of the books he’d read than the ones he’d written, a sentiment echoed by his admirer, Roberto Bolaño. Having published no actual books, despite being the greatest living poet (not counting Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, Thomas Lynch, Medbh McGuckian, Dunya Mikhail, or Anne Carson), I can also claim pride over the books I’ve read more than the ones I’ve written, though when I say it the statement is diminished, isn’t it? So now I have a new incentive to publish a book.
In mechanized society, there are few things more decadent than eight hours of sleep.
What’s funny is that I’ve always liked long walks on the beach, dinners at home, a quiet drink, and cuddling on the couch while watching a movie, but I like these things all the more now that I have a dog.
If you’re on the paleo diet, why not go all the way: no clothing, no internet, no plumbing. #commit.
Things I’ll never understand: the cult of Bob Dylan, most of science, why people would buy canned fruit over the real stuff, how we’ve let the system get so rigged.
Thursday, October 09, 2014
It is October of 2014 and I have been living (more or less) in the northside of Chicago for 21 years. I made this move (cue Sinatra) when I was 22. Considering I lived briefly in Columbus, Ohio—though I barely remember much about that being below school age at the time—I can safely say that I have now lived longer as a northsider than a southsider. If you are at all familiar with Chicago and the suburban area to the south and west (whose denizens like to call themselves Chicagoans), you’ll understand that my achievement is grand. It is no small feat to defect and doing so can create an odd inner conflict. Those southside suburbanites—all beautiful people, god bless them—don’t much care for us up north. And, of course, the feeling is very much reciprocal. Evidence of this was apparent within weeks of my transition in that magic year 1993 when I heard some born-and-bred northsiders dismiss the entire southside, a considerably larger chunk of town. This after years of being warned not to bend over when up north.
I’ve written about the north v south mentality that, sadly, informs much of my Chicago existence, so I won’t get into that. But last week this schism caused me to feel a familiar feeling, one that I am at a loss to fully understand: defensive pride.
The defensive pride I felt was over the southside, specifically the southwest side where I grew up. I moved a lot as a kid (and as an adult, much to my family’s chagrin), so the area I think of when I think of home is vast and encompasses a good chuck of the Burbank/Bridgeview/Oak Lawn area. The area in question is one that I was in a hurry to leave. Nevertheless, when I overheard this prick running down the area to whomever the fuck was on the other end of his cellphone, I got a little pissed. I can bash the southwest side. I’m from there. Fuck the rest of you haters.
This is nothing new. I have a tendency to defend things I would otherwise trash. I am not a patriot in the least, but I recall suffering through some barely literate critiques of the U.S. from a friend of former friend. How fucking dull, I thought. Pretentious, smug little shit. When he went from trashing the whole country to my city, I threw aplomb to the wind and shared the contents of my mind.
Last week, while in a bookstore near Northwestern University, I had occasion to eavesdrop on a few graduate students, one of which went to great lengths to find a copy of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao so that he could ask his companion if she’d read it, to which she answered: no, to which he responded with a joyous rant along the lines of: “I HATED this book. I had to read it for a class on American lit just because the teacher is Hispanic. It’s about this fat kid who loves sci-fi and wants to get laid. Such bullshit!”
If you’ve read the book in question, you’ll recognize the failure of this summary. My instinct was to engage the grad student in a literary discussion (we were in a used bookshop in Evanston—a conversation about books was more than possible) but I kept quiet. I wanted to defend the book, which I remember liking even though I have recently dismissed Diaz’s work.
All of these things I am quick to defend (Chicago, the southwest side, the United States, the repetitive work of a Dominican-American writer who lately seems short of ideas) are things I have had no problem trashing. Were someone to ask me about Junot Diaz’s works I would likely reply that there are better books out there. I have been openly critical of my country and my city. But again, I can say these things. Not you, pal.
Why? I don’t know, but there it is.
It is exhausting living this way. I am forever disagreeing, playing contrarian. There’s nothing that will escape my scorn including that which I love. I am unwell.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Another Post About Poetry
Not long ago, I wrote a blog post intended to get non-poetry readers to give the old form of written art a second chance. I know it worked on at least one of my three readers, so there’s that. But I felt dickish almost immediately after posting it. Who the fuck am I?
That got me to thinking a bit more about poetry, specifically the kind being written these days and in this country. (I only know about poetry from other countries based largely on what gets translated, which is likely the best work, so there’s reason to believe that other countries are producing just as much crap as the US of A.) Much of the work that has made its way to me via recommendations, workshops, curiosity, and, not long ago, slogging through submissions is bad. This stands to reason: a lot of written work is bad, especially when it's in embryo. But some of it is quite good and impacting. Again, nothing new. (Whenever I hear someone say that music or literature or films were better decades ago I call bullshit. Only the good stuff survives. For all the great music of the '60s there was a considerable amount of junk.) Still, I do worry that I am seeing a lot of mediocre work celebrated. Or even when the work is better than mediocre, there often seems to be a snarky, clever conceit to it that dooms the poem to being a temporary pleasure at best. As I always say, cute and clever lose the race.
A while back, I wrote this letter to Poetry Magazine, a publication that inspires very mixed feelings from yours truly. The essay to which I was responding was centered on criticizing the work of Dylan Thomas, though the real savaging was of E. E. Cummings. Now, I am all for slaughtering sacred cows, but when the knife is wielded by a guy whose book is named after a silly movie, and whose work seems to be of the kind that stretches for irony and preciousness, well… fuck him. Dylan Thomas was guilty of composing some pretty maddening lyrics, poetry with a capital P. But he wrote “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, so he’s got a fixed spot in the pantheon of greats. Ditto Cummings who is often playful to the point of annoyance but who penned more than a few poems that have elevated human existence.
And this is maybe the real issue I have with contemporary poets: they are often too scared to write anything that isn't removed from emotion, too busy relishing the experiment more than the poem. They are skilled at the workshop, the exercise, the clever reference, and the detached gag, but they lack the guts to put themselves out there. Their work is amusing but hollow. So much of the stuff I've seen masquerading as poetry seeks to do little more than amuse briefly, signal to the initiated, and validate the author while doing little for the reader. Think of what Steve Coogan said about jazz music and the band having more fun than the audience. This is what contemporary poetry can often be and this is why few outside of the MFA crowd go out of their way to read poetry.
And this seems to be the case. (Obviously there are exceptions to everything I am stating here—this is fucking blog, for Christ’s sake.) Whenever someone sees me reading a book of poems, they seem to tense up. Oh… poetry. That very difficult, rarely rewarding, utterly confusing, intentionally coded nonsense I am supposed to appreciate. Um... where's my iPhone? Sad, really. But when I read the latest wokshopped convulsions with line breaks, I can totally understand why some readers shrink from the challenge.
I may have written something like this already (I don’t reread old posts very often), but I do feel the need to state that I am not opposed to poetry that is funny, difficult, complex, or challenging. It is not always the job of the writer to make it easy on the reader. But goddammit, if you are going to make things difficult you’d better have a reward at the end. And too often I see poetry that is mere wordplay and evasion without an intellectual or emotional core. Basically: I need something to hang my hat on if I am going to give a damn.
I also ought to state that I not the greatest poet alive, despite my regular insistence to the contrary, and that I do indeed write slight poems that will not—in fact are not meant to—echo throughout the ages, and that funny or clever poems have their place and I more than anyone realize that. BUT… if that is all you ever try to write than you are not much of a poet.
Roberto Bolaño, who was not much of a poet but was a great novelist, said that were he planning a bank robbery he would take with him “true poets” as they were the most “valiant” of people. Now, this is perhaps debatable, as is the meaning of the great writer’s statement, but I take something from this along the lines of: the true poet is brave enough to put in a poem what others would shy away from saying. They are unafraid of being serious, even when being funny. They do not detach from their work. They put it all in there: themselves, their lovers, their enemies, their god, their breakfast, their dreams, their guts, their all. And they fear not retribution or ridicule.
I may not be a true poet, but I’m not afraid to try to be one.
So I’m going to close by sharing this poem, which is lovely and ought to be read and understood and enjoyed by damn near anyone. It is neither difficult nor simple. I like it, mostly for the last line. This is the job of the true poet, in my opinion, a duty shirked by too many poets today. Get to work.
Friday, August 15, 2014
God Bless the USA: Wanted and the Way of All Stupid
(In the past I have been accused of being a film snob, which is ridiculous when one considers that Repo Man, Big Trouble in Little China, and Return of the Living Dead are a few of my favorite films, none of them ever compared to The Rules of the Game. What follows will only make me seem like more of a snob, but I’m writing it anyway because, 1. It’s fun, and, 2. it’s my blog, so there.
I wish to also preface this rant with the acknowledgment that, yes, action movies are supposed to be mindless fun, but you know what—the constant reminder that I ought to lighten up and let a stupid movie just entertain me is starting to seem pretty tired and, frankly, as stupid as the movies such a statement would defend. Why must we excuse pieces of shit simply because they entertain? The claim that we need downtime, distraction, so-called brainless fun is fine and very possibly true, but it seems we are in no danger of running out of that brainless fun. It dominates our culture. Thus, let me posit this to any and all who would have me chill and watch Wanted with uncritical eyes: maybe you need more brainy fun. Maybe you ought to feed your head something a bit better than crappy movies. Maybe then mediocre fare such as Up in the Air won’t be lauded as a superior film. Hell, I’ll gladly sit down and shut up during Wanted if you will kindly do likewise during a film of my choosing. Those who are up for that, email me and we’ll discuss details.)
July 4, 2014:
The day started off well—a long session of reading on the beach, a reasonable lunch, and a walk with the dog. Like me, my wife enjoys small, calm celebrations. Like me, my wife does not care to be outside our humble home when fireworks are indistinguishable from gunshots. We live in Chicago, after all.
At dusk, I ventured outside for junk food. I returned in time for the all American ritual of searching through cable channels and settling for the least offensive piece of crap, which turned out to be the epitome of the dumb American movie, Wanted. This was the perfect way to celebrate my country’s independence: watching a terrible, empty-headed film while eating chocolate. God bless the U.S.
It is curious that Wanted stars a Scottish actor and is directed by a Russian. What can we read into this? Maybe something about the melting pot, America the land of opportunity where all cultures can thrive under a common credo, in this case: guns are cool and logic gets in the way of the awesome. Only in the dumb American movie can a man berate his overbearing boss and not be escorted out by security. Only in the dumb American movie can the same man assault a coworker without going immediately to jail. (Clearly the writers of Wanted, assuming the script wasn’t just cobbled together from notes scribbled on cocktail napkins, have never really worked in an office.) No, I don’t see Wanted as the American dream realized by a partially foreign cast and crew; it is evidence of the dumbest of American movies enveloping other cultures— cinematic hegemony, if you will.
But this is nothing new, right? The dumb American heist film is the staple of British cinema. The dumb American actioner has been adopted by filmmakers from Hong Kong, Korea, and Argentina. The not-so-dumb American zombie movie was exhausted by very dumb Italian fare. Of course, all of these countries have a long history of their own dumb cultures, and all of us, Yanks or otherwise, have a long history of good cultural output and intelligent storytelling. Sure. And now that I’ve gotten that qualification out of the way, let’s move on with a look at the dumbest movie ever shit from Hollywood’s gaping asshole, Wanted starring Angelina Jolie, whose last name is French for pretty, I’m told. Oh, how perfect! A smart woman who makes dumb movies should indeed be saddled with a foreign name.
The movie begins à la Fight Club with its narrator, Wesley, bitching about having a job. Not just any job, but a job in an office, oh my! How terrible that he has to work in a cubicle surrounded by jerks. Clearly, life would be so much better if he were picking fruit for fifteen hours a day or shoveling animal guts in a slaughterhouse. But no, our poor hero works in an artificially controlled climate that distributes free cake. My heart bleeds for his noble struggle.
From there we learn that the woman who lives with Wes is sleeping with his best friend. His best friend is a prick, as is more than evident, but as I watched the details of his friend’s boorishness and his girlfriend’s deceit, I remembered the old saying about knowing yourself by looking at the company you keep. The girlfriend, by the way, is a terrible person for many reasons, mostly because she never shuts up. You ladies! Can’t you leave us alone? Well, this is soon cured by the silent woman, Angelina Jolie decked in tattoos and smugness. She sees him in a grocery store and pretty much stalks him hard. Wordless for the most part, she manages to say something about our hero’s father being a kick ass assassin. Actually, she says something closer to “your father was one of the greatest assassins who has ever lived,” which can only be a point of admiration in a dumb American movie.
But never mind: the man who killed our hero is IN THE STORE! And he wants to kill the son of the greatest ass kicking assassin ever because, I guess, the son, who has never met his father, will one day come after him? Could happen.
Action is had. And what action! Bullets fly and curve and spin in slo-mo so that fanboys can jerk off without being cheated out of their money shots. There’s a crazy car chase. It’s all very intense and implausible. Which leads me to the big revelation I had while watching this, the dumbest of Hollywood movies: action needs to be believable in order to create suspense.
After the preposterous car chase and gun fight, Wesley is taken to a secret place and introduced to Morgan Freeman who tells him that the collection of young sexy folk among him are a league of assassins, to which I had to reply: No you’re not. As open to fiction bullshit as I am, which allowed me to accept the spectacle of Jolie, from the hood of a speeding car, shooting guns so big they might snap her twig arms, I could not accept that Morgan Freeman & Co. are a group of hired killers. And, a few scenes later, it turns out they are not hired so much as ordered to kill by a quilt. But I get ahead of myself…
Wesley the hero returns to his life as a meek peon but not before confirming something Morgan Freeman tells him: Daddy the Kick Ass Assassin’s money has been deposited into Wesley’s bank account. This is upward of three million! So, naturally, our hero quits his job, grows a set of balls, attacks his best friend, and jumps into a car with Angie, who just happens to be waiting outside the office. In the car, he puts on a pair of sunglasses so the audience will know that he is a pussy no more.
That it only took money to change Wesley should cause any viewer to pause, though somehow I doubt audiences saw this as anything other than natural. Well yeah… if I had 3 mil I’d quit my job. Fuck yeah, bro! Okay, sure, but would you quit your job and run off to be an assassin? Would you cheerfully sign up to kill people without further explanation? Would you not consider for a goddamn second that maybe the money that was deposited into your account was not really yours, that the father you never knew did not really leave it to you? (Hey Wes, I’m your long lost cousin from Nigeria and I need you to play the human role as my next of kin as I have a bank account with 32 Million Pounds Sterling in it and I must ask you to help so I can take the money out, at which point you will receive 35%!) Why does it not offer pause to the American viewer? Because we are dumb and because we like money. Sure, neither of these qualities are uniquely American, but along with being dumb and money-obsessed, we tend to romanticize assassins. These three may very well be the trifecta of American stupidity in a post-Tarantino cinematic landscape.
Off goes Wesley to assassin camp!
First he learns a bit of history about the textile factory that has no place in the Chicago I know. Maybe they set up shop on Goose Island and I didn’t notice. While there, our hero gets his face punched and his life threatened (don’t worry- the Fraternity of Assassins has a magic goop that heals all wounds in no time! Which they have decided never to share with the rest of the world because… I have no idea), none of which bothers him as much as the many things that have been bugging him up until now. Why not? Because Morgan Freeman has explained, as only God can, that Wesley has a specialness that would allow him to do amazing things if only he stopped taking his anti-anxiety meds. This tall, dapper stranger is surely trustworthy, so Wes lets him chuck the pills in favor of a good ol’ ass kicking. After all, a man who takes his orders from a quilt can’t be crazy.
And let’s talk about that fucking quilt. We learn later that the Fraternity takes orders from a pattern of irregular stitches produced by a loom. Stitches are given a number, which are assigned a letter, which spells out a name. And that is the next target of the assassins. Seriously. A league of killers is set forth to execute people based on the whims of a loom, which, I should add, is run by humans. This loom is not ever said to be magic. It does not run on sorcery. Thus, men control the loom. But… the loom seems to have some otherworldly magic that dictates the actions of the most lethal killers the world has ever known, people who can shoot bullets that curve.
If this strikes you as silly, well congratulations: you have a brain.
Now, I am in favor of what my Uncle Danny calls “comic book logic.” He does not use this term as an insult and neither do I. If you are going to read comics, mostly the superhero tales, you’d better be prepared to suspend your disbelief. I can and do suspend mine, but a good comic (and Wanted was based on a comic, one I have not read but have to assume is better than the film) will not ask its readers to believe that seemingly intelligent humans would ever take orders from a piece of fucking fabric produced by a man made machine.
Now, our hero actually comes to the conclusion that it might be crazy to kill a man because a blanket told him to. But Angie puts him in his place with a story about how someone once had a similar doubt that led to the target escaping and that target went on to kill her father. Sad Angie… but NOPE. Not a good reason. In my ENG 101 class I refer to this as anecdotal evidence and warn my students against using it. And here the true insidiousness of Wanted is evident.
Thesis for my rant: Movies like Wanted are dangerous to our society as they substantiate the worst form of argumentation and dampen critical thinking.
Support by means of digression: when I was an undergrad, I heard an otherwise intelligent classmate say something stupid and indefensible. She told me that she hated Mexicans. This came after some bitching about an immigration reform march that inconvenienced her by being audible in the distance. I asked her to explain why she was opposed to the rally and Mexicans (not revealing to her that I was dating a Mexican).
“When I was in high school, these two Mexican girls jumped me.” End of story. So, this is what we call a logical fallacy, specifically the hasty generalization. Or, to be more blunt: a stupid stereotype. But it is also a form of anecdotal evidence. Not a perfect example, but it may do.
Here’s a better example: When teaching ENG 102, I often require my students to give a presentation as part of their final project. One student wrote a research paper on the subject of rape culture. Her presentation was spectacular. During the Q&A portion, another student mentioned that he didn’t believe women who claim they were raped because a friend of his got arrested for rape because his ex-girlfriend, a liar, was angry about being dumped and wanted him to go to jail. This struck me as preposterous. I said that, assuming this happened, I was very sorry to hear of this but his example was easily the exception to the rule and by no means could serve as solid evidence that rape survivors are lying. He refused to accept the idea, as did someone else who told of a friend’s friend’s brother who met with a similar fate. I explained again what anecdotal evidence is, though it didn’t seem to convince anyone that their individual example didn’t stand in for the whole.
This is my fear. Forgive me if I seem to be a bit of an alarmist, but the more we accept the indefensible generalization and the anecdotal form of evidence, the more the culture devolves. And I think movies as dumb as Wanted (with a 71% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) go some way toward substantiating the indefensible as legitimate. Angie’s line of reasoning seems compelling to the viewer too distracted by action and special effects, but a pause reveals the flimsiness. This sort of stupid acceptance of stupid claims may not be a true reflection of a distracted country willing to go to war for no goddamn reason and put it all on a credit card. But then again…
Back to the amazing plot!
Wesley finally kills his target. He does so while riding atop a train and by shooting a bullet that curves perfectly, like every bullet since his many failures to execute this nifty trick. Apparently doing something well once makes you an expert. This newfound skill with a gun allows him to shoot bullets at other bullets that have been shot at him, thus smooshing them nicely as opposed to, I don’t know, making them ricochet in who knows what direction and killing someone. Anyway, our hero shows no signs of conscience over his first kill. He may as well have gone to the dentist for all the emotion it inspires. Just another day until he can get revenge on the man who killed the father he never knew, which is now the most important thing in Wesley’s world for some reason. Of course, there’s no indication that he ever, you know, asked his mother about his dad and why he left and who he is. But now that he has discovered, via a relative stranger, that his dad was a kick ass assassin, avenging his death is priority numero uno.
But wait! There’s a twist!
The loom finally shits out a quilt with Wes’s dad’s killer’s name on it. Oh, happy day! He goes apeshit on a mission to kill the guy, only to find out at the last possible second that the man he shoots is actually HIS FATHER! What a twist! M. Night Shyamalan is shitting himself with jealousy. After all, who the fuck could ever have seen that coming?
The thick plottens. Wes is an outcast, no longer in the Frat. He is told by another stranger with zero evidence to back up his story that the man he killed, his pops, was always living within eyesight. He had an apartment across the street from Wes and a telescope so that he could watch him do whatever. Shit, fuck, jerk off, eat Pop Tarts, you know… Dad just wanted to be close by and always watching. Wes is filled with increased love for the creepy stalker/absentee father he never knew, just as he was all agog over the last dude who was, for a brief period, his dead father. Sorry, Wes, but you’re a bit of a dead father slut.
From there… well, the climax is full of so much silliness I fear this long post would turn into a book were I to go into it all, but suffice it to state that there are rat bombs that don’t do nearly as much damage as they should, because we all know from practical experience how deadly rat bombs are, right? And we all know how easy it is to strap watches and explosives to a million rats. Just another day at the office.
Wes, a mere freshman assassin, manages to infiltrate the deadliest place on Earth and confront the senior assassin squad. Our hero informs them that Morgan Freeman is lying about the magic quilt. Imagine that. And he’s been making up names for profit. Wow, someone actually kills for money in this movie—finally a plot line I can believe. Morgan tells the assassins that all their names have come up and that he buried that info to protect them. Angie, zealot that she is, shoots her best bullet ever, one that curves perfectly and flies through the heads of each assassin before coming full circle and landing in her own skull. Only someone so slavishly devoted to their own flimsy anecdotal evidence would be hard headed enough to stop that bullet, so this makes some sense.
Digression/Alarmist Cry # 2:
Another insidious aspect of this movie: Angie is seen as an admirable character. She is sexy, strong, can shoot a gun ever so well (a treasured American quality). She’s no Wes, the hero, but she’s pretty important to the film and certainly a better person than her lying, corrupt boss. Well, she lied to Wes, but that’s beside the point. The movie clearly wants us to like her or find her cool and sexy. But she’s devoted to a tradition so strongly that it defies all logic. She’s willing to kill anyone, including herself, for her belief. And her belief is utterly stupid. So, am I paranoid when I read this film as promoting blind faith even if it means picking up a gun? Was I wrong to have watched Angie’s murder-suicide and thought of a recent ideologically-based kill spree in Vegas?
So the assassins are all gone save for the baddest of the bad, Mr. Morgan Freeman. He sneaks up on Wes who has returned to his previous job in the office because, of course, anyone can get rehired after insulting a supervisor and assaulting a coworker. But that was Wes’s trap all along! No, the man who looks exactly (not really) just like (sorta, I guess) Wes from the back is NOT WES. Wes is in his father’s old apartment holding a big gun with a scope and, yep, he sends a bullet through Morgan’s head! This is done in super slow motion because we all want to see what Morgan Freeman’s head looks like with a bullet coming out of it. Actually, no… I never wanted to see that. And now I can never watch that fucking penguin movie because I’ll always imagine its narrator with an exploding head.
While all this was happening, our hero, via voice over, reminds us that we are pathetic. I’m almost thrilled at the idea of a dumb movie that directly tells its audience that they are pieces of shit. That almost seems subversive. And at the end, Wesley breaks the fourth wall and asks us “What the fuck have you done lately?” Um… watched a shit movie, that’s what.