Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Michael J. Fox : seems real enough to me

So in this commercial, a political ad for Claire McCaskill, Michael J. Fox demonstrates the symptoms of Parkinson's disease while he advocates for embryonic stem cell research, or at least for politicians who favor it. It's started a lot of debate, and I'm going to throw in my media-critical two cents. If you're looking for my answer to whether Fox was "faking," you're not going to get it. I think it's a stupid question to be asking. I'll get to that part later.

A lot of the controversy here comes from Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that Michael J. Fox was either faking his symptoms or hadn't taken his medicine. That's made the video the #1 video on the Internet over the past couple days, and a lot of moderates who remember Fox from Spin City (or even Family Ties, for you old timers) have seen what he looks like at the later stages of the disease. Every so often, we have to thank misguided idiots for bringing our attention to interesting issues.

Now that this is THE Internet meme of the day, we've got a counter-ad from the opponents of the Missouri bill and of the politicians who support it. Again, it's a bad reaction that will probably just discredit the people who aired it. The production value is pitiful, like it was shot by an intern with his dad's camcorder, and the faces they recruited are unrecognizable, at least to me. They're also sensationalist and unsympathetic.

This sort of exemplifies the reactionary mode of the conservative world, though. These guys aren't good on the defensive... Rush makes blowhard comments to misdirect people from the actual political issue, and the Life Communications Fund mobilizes an embarrassing video, complete with unsympathetic actors and one-dimensional sensationalism. This is why I can't understand the success of the conservative clique these days... I can't empathize with them, and I can't seem to get a direct answer out of them on any of the important issues. At least this one guy is an exception, and the Life Communications Fund should probably hire him to produce their next campaign ad.

Seriously, though, I can get on board with Fox for a simple reason. I mean, the fact that he's a celebrity should turn me off, and I don't really care about what's-her-name, or the state constitution of Missouri, so why do I care? I've seen the public lives of superstars, and a lot of them are idiots.

Here's the thing, though... they're rarely vulnerable on screen. Fox is in an unpretentious office, talking directly to the camera, forthright about his opinion and how much it means to him, and he's showing me what his disease has done to his life. Whether Michael J. Fox was "faking" isn't a question that merits a comment, because whether Rush wants to acknowledge his status as a human being or not, he has Parkinsons. These are real symptoms for thousands of patients in the world, and Fox is one of them. He's letting us into a part of his life that's difficult, and being a public personality only makes it harder when you acually get around to laying yourself bare.

"But he's an actor, that's his job." No, you're an idiot. An actor plays characters. Fox is only representing himself, talking to us directly, and he puts that final personal note on the commercial by saying "Americans like me." This isn't a persona... it's a guy making his needs and his vulnerabilities clear. When you open yourself up to a ravenous public like Fox has, things will stick, and there will be people like Rush Limbaugh to make sure you don't get off easy. Michael J. Fox, a childhood star, lurching under the weight of a disease, was strikingly authentic, because making a personal burden public isn't a cheap way to get attention. Fox is offering something that people should see, and because they recognize him, maybe a few more people will notice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Open Season: Boog the soldier, Boog the firstborn son

So I saw this animated flick, Open Season, and it was pretty enjoyable... late at night, lightweight after a long work day, I think Martin Lawrence as the voice of a codependent bear was pretty much what I needed. Unfortunately, I got around to doing that thing I do, where I think about the movie and the implicit themes and come up with a few pages of garbage to post on my blog. This time I managed to wait a few weeks before posting, but ultimately I just can't help myself, you know?

Here's a little warning... this isn't written in the feel-good spirit of the movie. It ends up with a little more liberal cynicism than I'm comfortable with. Still, it's what I started writing, and you get to see where I ended up.

Open Season paints a pretty idyllic world for these animals, not only in the kindness they're shown, but also in the respect. I'm talking here about the two primary human-animal relationships that shaped the movie... Boog the Bear and his handler, Giselle, and Boog the Bear and his foe, Shaw.

First, let's talk about Boog and Shaw. Shaw is the ruthless, brainless hunter of the film, sort of like Gaston vis a vis North Dakota. In the course of the film, as the animals start to team up and rally their latent super-intelligence against the hunters, Shaw gets markedly militant and paranoid about them, treating the forest as if it's a battleground where he's the general. The thing is, that's not what really happens with hunters. The game isn't an enemy, it's not an equal, and hunting has NOTHING to do with combat or confrontation. Hunting is more like a target practice scavenger hunt, where each guy is hunting for the biggest moving object to shoot, photograph, and strap to a hood.

If Open Season is going to compare hunting to a war, they're not acknowledging some essential characteristics... your army is entirely made up of snipers, their army doesn't have guns, and only one side is aware that the fray has been joined. That's why I say this film is "idyllic in terms of respect"... because the respect portrayed is the glorious kind that you feel in war, and hunting isn't like that. It's more like... I don't know, shopping, maybe. Yeah, shopping for the biggest dear, and snatching it out of the case before anybody else does. I bet the hunters among us will LOVE that shopping analogy.

So if "hunter as soldier of the forest" is a bit of an exaggeration, what do we say about Giselle's role? She's clearly taking on the role of the mother, encouraging her child's interests, trying to nurture him into adulthood, and communicating with him about when he wants a snack. Again, as much as I hate to say it, this is a bit of an exaggeration. We don't treat animals like furry little people. We don't ask them when they'd want to eat (I don't want to picture what would happen if I gave my dog control over his eating habits). We don't moralize to them or fret about their upbringing. There's always an exchange going on that isn't going on with kids... I feed you and pet you as long as you keep me company and amuse me. He's a dumb dog. Doesn't even sit. But isn't he fucking cute?

So an analogy: "hunting : war :: pet-keeping : motherhood." Relationships of submission and endearment hyperbolized into relationships of confrontation and love.

So when we watch Open Season, are we seeing the world as animals would have it be, if they could talk to us and tell us how they'd like to be treated? "If you're going to shoot me, do it face to face!" says the buck. "Don't just pet me, put some stock in my emotional well-being," says Spot.

Or maybe these are the things we tell ourselves to make our alienation from the non-human world more palatable. Now that we've commodified the outdoors, all we can do is pretend we're approaching it like an enemy. Now that we've domesticated the animals we live with, the only way to bring them closer is by calling them our children, as if it's us giving them the world, and not the other way around.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Good call, Dove

Dove's released this here video, which shows the dizzying process that a normal person undergoes to become a billboard spectacle. It's a pretty cool video for a pretty amazing campaign... not directed at an issue that too far away to comprehend, like world hunger, or too abstract to really care about, like globalization. This is a campaign that's directed at the everyday lives of men and women, who pass from mass media experiences to lives in the home and the office, carrying around the baggage of confused standards and unrealistic self-images. We all do it, people... men and women... and Dove's right. It's stupid.

I think, at ten years old, a lot of us males generated a sort of ideal fantasy woman who we imagined seducing us as we got more comfortable with masturbation. TMI? Too bad. She looked a lot like the women in fashion magazines and hair product commercials, and she was an internal experience that the advertising world has spent years manipulating and trying to capture. Girl X, the unrealizable perfect woman, stands as a theoretical limit for a scale of beauty that we all carry around with us, men and women alike, and it's perpetuated by the old boys of fashion and advertising, who still think their popularity depends on approaching this limit as closely as possible.

Here's my abstract representation of the scale, as we tend to culturally understand it. Don't read too much into this... it's subconscious, and a lot of us spend tons of time trying to fight it, but it's still a ubiquitous cultural model that infects our thinking.

And I've noticed something strange. Almost every woman I've ever been intimate with, whether sexually or emotionally, from the shy to the sexually-secure, sees herself as part of the "Normal" section of the scale, but every one sees herself as being at the bottom of that section... like, right where "average" turns into "mediocre."

And it's not because I tend to like women with low self-esteem. This is also true of female friends who were smart and aggressive, and who are more than capable of well-informed reflection. Somehow, by taking away our control of our criteria for attractiveness, the media has caused a universal self-image pandemic. Every woman looks around her and sees the world teeming with girls who are prettier than she is. Maybe it's the ubiquitous "neurotic mom" syndrome... that's another trend I've noticed. All moms inadvertently transmit their habitual neuroses to their daughters in their earliest years.

At any rate, women have to realize something about the people who fantasize about them (I include in this category straight men, gay women, and all varieties of bisexual). First, we've given up on... no, in fact, we've literally lost interest in Girl X. We've realized she's as flat as the billboards she adorns, and if she were real, and we were dating her, she would probably ditch us to go to the gym and the tanning salon. We don't think about her when we masturbate any more. We think about our girlfriends and strangers we saw on the subway, because Girl X got REALLY BORING.

Second, even though we tend to see this scale as universal, it takes on a unique hue in every person's head. There are no identical scales of attractiveness... one gentleman prefers women in size 11 to 15, another likes girls with really strong cheekbones, a girl likes women with big thighs that taper down to small feet. A few select people, like Miss Amp, understand this, and she says it with a lot more attitude than I can muster.

Any self-respecting girl can, and WILL, find somebody who places them toward the "very attractive" end of the spectrum, and who will be overjoyed to date them, especially when they find out about the awesome personality that goes with that great body.

I don't know who I've really been writing this to, so I'll assume it's to everybody. Here goes...

GUYS: Don't be ashamed to like whatever it is you like in a woman. If you really like skinny girls with bags under their eyes, then go to the fucking Calvin Klein studio. But if you're like me, and you find a girl attractive because she's got fucking brilliant curves and a warm smile, then make it clear to everyone around you. Idle man-talk is standing squarely in the way of anybody having any perspective, because in idle man-talk, everyone is supposed to agree that the skinny chick with blonde hair is totally bangin'. More often than not, it's a goddamn lie that only one in twenty of us actually believe.

GIRLS: I know it's hard, but don't get suckered into this body-image shit. Whether something is listed as being "healthy" or not, whether it's talking about "self-image" or not, if it's telling you to lose weight or smooth out your skin tone, ignore it. When you look at other women, try to look directly in their eyes before you decide that they're too chubby, or overdressed, or boring-looking. We need to extract "health" and "self-esteem" from "looking your best" and "fitting" into anything, because we're at a point in history where improving your looks is directly at odds with improving your emotional health. There is no open space between indifference and neurosis... when you force your belt one hole tighter, the judgement train has already left the station.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

300 Trailer and Acts of Rage

There's this trailer I just discovered on it's for a movie called 300, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name about the Battle of Thermopylae. It looks REALLY pretty, with a piercing, metallic color scheme, gratuitious use of slow motion, and some fantastic cinematography. It's also obviously a violent movie. The media critic in me wants to reprimand this, but at the same time, the consumer in me is mad excited to watch it all go down.

Don't mistake... the trailer makes this film look ruthless. Looking through Frank Miller's comic, it seems that King Leonidas is a stone-cold warrior king. In the film, he seems to be seething with proud rage, and Gerard Butler's hard-edged delivery makes me really happy. So what makes this violence seem distinctive, different from all that cops-and-robbers shit in Scorcese's new film, different from the uninhibited vigilanteism of Boondock Saints, a thing unto itself?

Well, let's look at the dialouge. The trailer is short, so I can transcribe it all.


Persian ambassador: "Be afraid. Sparta will burn to the ground. ... (King Leonidas draws sword) This is blasphemy. This is madness!"
King Leonidas: "Madness... THIS IS SPARTA! (kicks him into a well)"

Persian lord: "The thousand nations of the Persian Empire descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun."
Spartan soldier: "Then we will fight in the shade."


King Leonidas: "Before this battle is over, the world will know that few stood against many."

That's all of it... beautiful, emotional, hyper-dramatic little snippets of rage and defiance that boil through this little preview video and make me DESPERATE to watch the film. But there's something interesting about this dialouge that you won't see in transcriptions from other action films. Where are the references to honor? Truth? Heroism? Legacy? Even freedom?

This is about rage and violence of a primal civilization that wrote the book on explosive emotionality. There's no moralization... no couching this battle in terms of the greater good, or the sovereignty of free people against tyrants. That's how it's different, at least as I read this trailer, and I hope the film itself doesn't disappoint. This isn't about the "democratic world" against the "axis of evil." It's about a small city-state that had so much rage and such a sense of self that a tiny band of warriors would stand alone to defend it with no hope of coming out alive.

Is that bad? We're suddenly tolerant of pure, unabashed violence that doesn't seem to have a point... kind of like GTA, right? Where's the value in that? But honestly, there is value in facing that primal instinct every so often, watching it divorced from all the bullshit justification and pretensions to "civilized war." This movie is a hyperkinetic fantasy, and I can enjoy this world because it's an idealized hell that I would never want to live in. And in the meantime, the masturbatory propaganda of world governments looks like a crock in comparison. We're fighting a war for humanitarianism? You're promising a better life to the country we're tearing apart?

As twisted as it may be, that rhetoric sounds more unbalanced than a Spartan king screaming for blood in the face of an unbeatable enemy. At least one resonates, if only romantically and emotionally... the bullshit cries of Iraqi freedom, echoing from the pedestals of the wealthy and evangelical?

So my violent side will go watch a movie next year. I keep it so well under wraps, at least I can give it that one gift.