Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jay Smooth and the Distributed Personality

Jay Smooth provided a video meditation on Gil Scott-Heron's death, by way of the media aftermath of that event, and it's poetic and insightful, as with all of Jay's work.

I wanted to respond to this with my own thoughts on the subject. I understand where Jay is coming from, in terms of being frustrated with the amount of bile and hostility that seems to spontaneous jump from digital interaction. Seems like trolling is sort of a standard mode of online interaction at this point, doesn't it? And once it starts -- especially from people who often sound well-informed and reasonable -- it's extremely hard not to get pulled into it right along with them, trying to do your own part in regulating the discourse and making opinions (about opinions about opinions) known.

At the same time, I'm a full-on collectivist futurist technophile floozy, so I can't disapprove of this extra layer of mediation that we're all subject to, even in the sort of calm, tolerant, high-level form that Jay's skepticism seems to take. I think there's a reason for this kind of turbulent crossfire second-guessing that happens constantly, in every sort of online dialogue, that creates both these total rhetorical asshats ("trolls") and, on the other hand, those people like Ze Frank, Roger Ebert, Jason Kottke, and Jay Smooth himself: the people whose voices, for the first time in history, are really finding the cultural capital that they deserve.

It seems to me that the Internet is a sort of higher-level processing unit, emerging from all of our consciousnesses, all interfacing simultaneously. It's a larger consciousness, not necessarily exceeding, but at least reflecting, all the confusions and multitudes of our individual minds: our repressed desires, our frustrations at ourselves (which, as part of the Internet, take the form of frustrations at one another); our mixed feelings about very personal things, our submerged prejudices and twisted senses of humor, our crippling second thoughts. And because it's public, open, and accessible from pretty much anywhere at this point, it makes all those things totally transparent, in a way that they aren't when we suppress them in our own personalities.

The id is particularly strong in the Internet. I've been to porn sites, I've seen flame wars, I've witnessed smart people descend into terrible, destructive lapses in logic... I've seen it everywhere. It's only the appointed, contractual watchfulness of community admins and the restraint of the more rational members of these forums that allows this latent chaos to deflate each time it erupts.

So I love seeing Jay Smooth's own conflicted process as he reads other peoples' tweets, and gets frustrated at their limited ways of appreciating a hero whose work is very personal to him. He seems to scare himself, to some degree, with his own frustrations, and he handles it by returning to Gil Scott Heron's music and discovering an answer: a sort of zen withdrawal, a realization that he can't be fully embodied in a digital world, and that he can't idly let that world define him.

And yet, I'm here offering the flip side to this equation. Those frustrations, that instinct to reject others' inadequate appreciations, that possessiveness and bitterness, is a part of Jay Smooth's personality, just as it's a part of each person's. We can escape the Internet for a few minutes at a time, but we can't escape that darker side of ourselves. The people who follow those instincts blindly are n00bs; the people who intentionally incite them are trolls.

But Jay responds as I hope more and more people do, with an inner strength and insight that I think the larger Internet is slowly developing. He steps back and lets his love, his appreciation, his roots in his younger self, speak to the world and defuse his own hostility. This gentleness, too, is an integral part of his personality, and it's a part of him that emerges in this video. Just as we see all parts of the strange and conflicted human race in the information layer, that digital substrate, so we see a full portrait of Jay Smooth in this video: the id, with its competitiveness and resentment, eventually dissolved by the superego, with its rational, uninhibited love for Gil Scott-Heron, and then his ego, his inner mediator, relating the whole process back to us, his audience.

It's a noble act for him to lay this bare for us. It's a beautiful thing to watch. And it's also a noble legacy, issuing from the teachings of the late Gil Scott-Heron.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mirror Themes in Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides

There is a lot of mirroring going on in this text. Lawful and chaotic, land and sea, male and female, decay and renewal... it's all about the dichotomies. At some point, somebody may be able to construct a serious interpretation from these observations. For now, I'm just going to let them stand on their own.

Jack Sparrow meets his double, an imposter who is using his name to recruit a crew, in London, England; he discovers that this imposter is actually his former lover, Angelica, who spends the rest of the film acting as his female inversion: headstrong, clever, fatally loyal to her father, and dangerously fickle in her friendships. At the end of the film, Jack maroons her on a tiny island, a fate to which he has often found himself subjected in the past.

Barbossa, the great pirate, has defected from piracy and become a privateer, working for King George II -- a strange second-degree betrayal, the treason of the treacherous. Barbossa has a history of seeking, and sometimes attaining, a sort of twisted dominance over death, which has brought him to the land of the dead and back. In On Stranger Tides, we meet his counterpart, the legendary pirate Blackbeard, a devoted buccaneer who now seeks the same thing that Barbossa has already found and lost again: the control over his own death, which has is destined to come at the hands of a one-legged pirate (the mortal encounter with his own double).

The mermaids are infamous for being sirens who prey on men, using their beauty and sexual allure to drag them into the sea. The pirates invert this relationship, driving the mermaids toward shore and finally catching one of them, whom they capture and drag onto land with them, keeping her imprisoned in a glass coffin.

This image -- the image of dry land as an inversion of the underwater, always interchangable with it -- is repeated in later sequences, especially the image of the grounded ship of Juan Ponce de León, perched on top of a cliff in Whitecap Bay. Looking at it from below, the main characters seem to be walking on the ocean floor, seeing the Spanish ship floating above them.

The Fountain turns out to be a mirror, as well, through which youth can be attained by way of inversion of the aging process. Two identical chalices are filled, and one of them contains a mermaid's tear; the person drinking from this chalice steals the life force of their reflection, the person drinking from the opposite chalice.

And Jack Sparrow, being the film's center of attention, is mirrored in another way, as well: there's a tiny voodoo doll of him floating around, granting his enemies power over him. This doll, appearing in a sequence after the closing credits, prompts Angelica to ponder an important question: is she sympathetic to Jack, her mirror image, who saved her at the expense of her father's life? Or will her cruelty win out?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

X-Men: First Class can't bear its own weight

This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a broad, sentimental case for reconsidering X-Men: First Class in light of its purview of history. He makes a good observation, but he doesn't really even scratch the surface of the film's politics. It's a film being championed by reviewers across the US, appreciated by critics and fans alike as a return to form for the series, and yet, under even the mildest scrutiny, its politics and fictional histories start to look twisted. And ultimately, First Class proves itself to be a very pure form of that plague of the modern blockbuster: it's a film that doesn't stand up to even a breath of critical thought, and rapidly caves in under pressure of critique.


As Coates points out, X-Men: First Class is a conceit about society and The Other, played out by a small, oppressed group of superhumans, and thematically linked to the Holocaust, one of the greatest genocidal catastrophes to ever affect white Westerners. Aside from being an emotional trigger, the Nazis also abstractly represent the repressed Patriarch, embodied by the evil Sebastian Shaw and eventually co-opted by the troubled Erik Lensherr. This is a worthy background for a film about self-actualization: the rigid, destructive hegemony of the warlike Father is an interesting counterpoint to the whole idea of modern pluralist democracy.

In First Class, there is a proliferation of White Americans and Brits, running the government, running academia, fixing the problems left over from World War II, and managing the new war against Russia. Xavier champions the emerging Western ideals of plurality, rational restraint, and assimilation, the necessary foil to both Sebastian Shaw's wealthy, power-hungry genocidal tendencies and Erik's reactionary liberation violence. What a cluster of conflicts we have here: power, retaliation, and restraint, played out in all those terms defined by Western international politics.

And from the sidelines come our minorities, Darwin and Angel; in the wake of strong men come our female characters, Emma Frost, Raven, Moira, and Angel again. And here is where First Class actually shows its true colors: in the treatment of these marginalized characters, the traces that the real world leaves on this fantasy of rebellion. That's where the film's unstated assumptions appear, and ultimately, these speak louder than any of the pandering aphorisms that Charles and Erik exchange.

The racial minority characters in X-Men: First Class are both African-American. There's nobody of any other race in sight. In a movie taking place in the 60's, during the height of civil rights activism, this is significant: this is a sign that Xavier has already reached the level of consciousness that the whole country is still struggling to attain. These black characters are a stripper and a cab-driver -- two blue-collar jobs, the employment of people just trying to get by, avoiding attention, already assimilated. And in the very first encounter with the primary antagonist, one of these two characters betrays the cause, and the other dies trying to prevent her defection.

I don’t know if this happened to anyone else, but in my theater, there were some groans and boos when Darwin appeared to defect, and then died at the hands of Sebastian Shaw. And why shouldn’t we jeer? These characters, the only two actual minorities in a whole film about being a minority, are treated in the most frivolous way possible, as triggers for our emotional response. The sting of Angel's betrayal is sharp but absolutely empty, coming from somebody who has no apparent reason to betray the rest of the group; the sting of Darwin's death is even sharper, and though we have no more than a few minutes total devoted to his real life, we have a solid 30 to 60 seconds to gape as his body burns up and falls apart. He was effectively rendered a Black Cop Sidekick with no inner life, only developed enough to be a victim, an emotional patsy with a melodramatic long death scene, and a demonstration of Sebastian Shaw's evilness.

I want to keep writing about the stupidity and callousness of this treatment, but writing more about it won't help. If you're not outraged by the first viewing, you should be angry now, since you've gotten a chance to think about it. If you're not, then maybe you'll be outraged on the second viewing. If none of the above, then you're probably not going to be very sympathetic to the rest of this critique, either.

It sucks being a non-white person in this alternate-universe 60's (New?) England, but you know what sucks even worse? Being a woman!

Now, I know women weren't doing so well in the 60's, which were still trying to correct the hyper-domesticated gender relations of the 50's. I know Sebastian Shaw is an autocratic villainous fascist superspy, so it makes perfect sense that he would order Emma Frost around to get ice from glaciers in her underwear. In fact, that line of dialog was one of the few occasions in the film where it seemed to be aware of real-world oppression -- where the actual struggles of human beings seemed to impinge upon its fantasy for a moment -- so I applaud it. There is a wealth of potential here: being a woman, born powerful, in a society that devalues you based on your gender? Being a person for whom "pride" might mean complicity in an entrenched system that constantly oppresses you? What opportunities!

But in First Class, there was a tragic consistency -- an equal treatment of all women, whether they were villainous or noble, willfully subservient or supposedly "liberated" -- in that they were all treated as trophies for the three major patriarchs. Their value within the plot was reduced to sexual interest and ideological loyalty, which were constantly conflated. Emma Frost was basically a concubine for Shaw, and Angel started the film out as a stripper. Raven's key dramatic moments had a consistent sexual/romantic component: her moment of jealousy and suggestivity toward Xavier in Oxford; her fleeting romantic encounter with Hank, which could have become an important character development, but was actually just a way of creating an artificial sentimental bond between them; her apparent attempt to seduce Erik, apropos of nothing. Moira, the CIA agent, was one of the only female characters with any institutional clout, and she attached herself to Xavier from the beginning of the film; in the end, of course, it's revealed that her interest in him went beyond "professional."

The females in this film are not oppressed minorities or the unacknowledged Other, or even independent, active characters in the field of powerful personalities. They're basically a scorecard, awarding points -- in the form of sexual and ideological loyalty -- to whoever's rhetoric is winning at the moment.

A film that deals with The Other is great, and if it can wrap it into a fantasy in order to make it easier to digest, all the more power to it. But that kind of purpose comes accompanied with some responsibilities. In a film about oppression and marginalization, you have to make sure you're always CONSCIOUS of the ways you put that oppression on display. X-Men: First Class was unforgivably blind to its own politics, and its representational devices totally sabotaged its explicit message of self-actualization and liberation.

I would have liked to say it was a good movie, just because it was fun and the young mutants were endearing -- but someone once said to me that you can't call anything "good" if it doesn't stand up to some reflection without immediately becoming "bad." Sorry, Matthew Vaughn... you're going to have to retake Earnestness in Storytelling and Critical Thinking 101.