Sunday, May 31, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 279: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Man of Adamant (#279)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Man of Adamant" (1837) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches:

A classic sort of Hawthorne tale:

  1. It started from a line or two in his notebook. (His notebooks are full of ideas.)
  2. It features a fiercely and sternly religious person.
  3. There's an elaborate metaphor.
Or maybe not so elaborate: Richard Digby is a hard-hearted man who believes that he's got the true faith, so he leaves society, and finds a cave where the water seems to petrify everything. Oh, also, he's got a medical condition where his heart is hardening. 

So maybe we shouldn't call the metaphor here "elaborate"; it's more like "belabored." How many ways can you connect a guy to "hard" and "stone"? He's petrifying on the outside, while calcifying on the inside. Meanwhile, the petrifying quality of the cave isn't exactly hidden.

From that, you might consider this story a little obvious--and it is, but that's not necessarily a bad point. Back when Hawthorne was writing, this sort of sentimental and obvious tale might be pleasing to people; today, you can read it with a slight wink; and honestly, it's not clear that there wasn't a wink here this whole time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland vs. The Gernsback Continuum vs. BioShock

It's hard to dislike Tomorrowland and its central message that imagination is a positive good--that thinking that some task is possible is better than thinking that all tasks are impossible.

It's hard to dislike that message and yet...

(Spoilers ahead.)

Getting out of the Gernsback Continuum

William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum" is a story that shadows Tomorrowland as a nightmare to a daydream: both focus on an alternate dimension where the 1950s dream of jetpacks and age-defying shakes is real. They're both rocket- or space-age dreams.

Gibson's genius in "The Gernsback Continuum" is to connect those rocket-dreams of what our future could've been both to the failures of that imagination (just about everyone is white and hetero in 1950s sf) and to the failures of our actual post-rocket time (where our rockets were pointed more at each other than at the moon).

Tomorrowland addresses this a bit, at least in the commercial for it, by presenting a multi-ethnic future; and by presenting our dreams of that Tomorrowland as an antidote to our obsession with our trending slide to dystopia and apocalypse.

But it doesn't all iron out, in the end. (Actually, the ethnic variations of the final recruiting scenes is pretty nicely done to remind us that Tomorrowland needs all kinds of people (even if all the lead actors that make it possible are white).)

The villain is appropriately named Nix, since nixing is the ultimate sin here, whether that's saying no to NASA funding or saying no to trying to change the world. He has one great monologue at the end where he points out that we enjoy apocalypse because it doesn't ask anything of us. (The fake movie billboard for "ToxiCosmos" bears the tagline "Nowhere to go," which lets us off the hook; it's almost like someone read Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster.") If nothing you do can help, than you can go on enjoying your rain forest-destroying burger and your conflict-mineral-related iPads.

(I would argue that the other great benefit of apocalypse is imagining a return to the Real: to that time when we're reduced to pure survival. I mean, in the apocalypse, I wouldn't be blogging and we can all get behind that.)

The heroes respond to this by saying, hey, let's try imagining progress rather than disaster. Which raises all sorts of questions that the movie can't ask: Whose progress? What sort of trade-offs are we willing to go through for this progress?

Let's have a utopia and invite everyone some people!

I also think BioShock might be instructive here (at least if you're interested in why I got some less-than-great vibes from this movie): BioShock is the great video game that showcased the art deco city of Rapture, a place where the elite could withdraw from the world to live out their Ayn Randian fantasy of self-fulfillment.

Which is kind of the end of Tomorrowland: they reopen the future and send out recruiters to find "dreamers." Among the dreamers are engineers, mathematicians, scientists, ballet dancers, street-artists--just a wide variety of people from the arts and sciences. (Notably missing: movie producers. Fuck those guys, am I right?)

And I'll admit, I got a little chill when I saw the last image of everyone, all together, standing up in the corn field and looking out at the city of tomorrow. All those people, all coming from their own particular places, all coming together to make something.

Except... there's like maybe a hundred people there. And that's the remit of Tomorrowland: it's not a place for everyone, but only for a small group who can work unencumbered by laws and social mores. (Hey, isn't Jurassic World about to come out? That's another story about people moving to a place to do something scientific.) Sure, maybe--maybe--the Tomorrowlanders will come back to Earth and share their great scientific advancements. Yeah, that's imaginable.

(What if they came back not as saviors but as technocratic rulers, with disintegration rays and robot armies and--but no, that's the bad imagination speaking.)

This is another aspect of the movie that leaves me wanting more answers; and it connects to the original question: if you limit your society to just the people who pass the test (not the Voight-Kampff, because that would prove empathy and that's not what Tomorrowland is about), then you can maybe all agree on what sort of progress you want.

Or put in question form: is progress compatible with democracy?

(You know who would say no to that? The 1930s Technocracy movement that seems to cast a long shadow over a lot of 1950s sf, where slide-rule-bearing engineers are clearly the right men for the job of making the rules.)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 278: Peggy Hull Deuell, Death of Carrier Described (#278)

Peggy Hull Deuell, "Death of Carrier Described" (1944) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946:

I know this is getting repetitious, but this is another example where I want to hear more about Peggy Hull Deuell: a war correspondent who started off by reporting on Pancho Villa, was rejected as correspondent during World War I because she was a woman, but who continued on.

Compared to her story, the story of the USS Princeton doesn't quite stand up. Or rather: we get to hear the story, both the objective what and the subjective POV of the captain telling the story of the day he lost his ship (with less than 10% loss of human life on his ship), along with Deuell's report on how the captain keeps almost being overwhelmed with emotion.

And what it leaves me with is a wish that she had interviewed everyone on that day, from the Japanese bomber whose single bomb started the fire, to the surgeon who had to amputate the scrap of a guy's leg with a sheath knife, to the guys who were just trying to put out the fire. That is, the death of a carrier sounds like a single event, with a single story; but we're so deeply in the POV of the captain that I can't help wondering what it looks like to everyone, all combined.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 277: Wong Chin Foo, Experience of a Chinese Journalist (#277)

Wong Chin Foo, "Experience of a Chinese Journalist" (1885) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

A short and humorous take, reminiscent of the old joke about Hollywood:
Do you know how to make a million dollars making movies? Start with ten million dollars.
Wong Chin Foo sounds like an interesting guy, a sort of Chinese American Mark Twain, making enemies all around the world. This short piece from Puck doesn't really showcase that directly, though he does talk about how he was denounced by white Americans and Chinese Americans; how he made enemies of gambling den owners; etc. But it's all mixed in with jokes about treasurers walking off with the treasury, which is fun, but doesn't really get to the heart of who this guy is.

Also, the fact that this is from the Writing New York anthology seems extra bizarre, as there's nothing particularly New York-y about it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Taming Taming of the Shrew

This last weekend, I went to see a production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, which I may not have ever seen before in person.

(Also new to me: the hillside theater at Zilker Park, which was very nice, especially with the addition of a little picnic basket.)

This version was set in 1890s Texas (more or less), with all the place names changed. So in the original, where a traveler says his trip will take him far as Rome;
And so to Tripoli, if God lend me life
in this version, the traveler says that he's going to Dallas or Abilene or Fredericksburg. I can't remember which, which shows that that sort of info is easily swapped out. You could place this on a spaceship or in modern day New York and easily replace the place names without changing much about the play.

What you can't replace is the central plot, about Petruchio crushing Katherine's spirit by starving her, disrupting her sleep schedule, dressing her in his clothes, and teasing her with beautiful new clothes that he won't let her have. Or some combination of tactics that may remind you of standard cult activity. (Or standard activity at a military bootcamp, or Gitmo, or... Lots of organizations like to break people's spirit.)

(Well, teasing someone with clothes that they can't have is perhaps a little more specific; but in general, offering/teasing people with some reward is pretty standard.)

There's a lot of argument about the meaning of this plot. Is Shakespeare advocating it? Is he making fun of it? Is it about more than gender?

But however you take it, seeing a man torture a woman into submission is a little offputting.

(I remember going to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the University of Chicago Theater; and I remember the sound of the entire audience catching its breath when we remembered that this play was about a viciously unhappy couple in academia. I felt a similar moment at the theater when Petruchio starts starving his wife.)

Maybe it's just that I recently watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that has me thinking about things this way, but I'm wondering what's a way to play Taming of the Shrew and be smart about this plot? Perhaps you could rewrite it literally as the story of a cult...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 276: James Thurber, Lavender with a Difference (#276)

James Thurber, "Lavender with a Difference" (1951) from James Thurber: Writings & Drawings:

Maybe I oughtn't to call this "non-fiction" exactly. Or maybe I shouldn't call it "comedy": It's James Thurber's recollection of his funny mother and all the pranks she pulled. Well, judging from this piece, this is considerably less than "all" the pranks she pulled.

Mary Agnes (nee Fisher) Thurber was a frustrated actress, kept from the stage by her family's moral sentiments (in Thurber's telling); and that urge towards the dramatic and the outlandish and the fictional expressed itself in her pranks around town: throwing a carton of eggs (sans eggs) at a lady's luncheon; dressing up as an outlandish tycoon to buy a friend's house; cooping up all the neighborhood dogs in the cellar so that her dog-hating sister would face a tidal wave of them when she opened the cellar door, etc.

It's an incredibly warm and funny portrait of someone who wouldn't entirely let the social norms dictate her actions--even if she didn't follow her big dream of becoming an actress. It's a warm picture of the small rebellions of life, with no real trace of bitterness or tragedy.

Note: Yes, this is two week's late. No, I won't date it correctly, but use the scheduler to slip it in where it should've gone.

Monday, May 4, 2015

So I just finished Daredevil...

... and I didn't love it the same way that everyone else seems to. Or at the very least, NPR's Peter Sagal showered love on Daredevil on Twitter, while my nerd friends showered love on it on Facebook. I didn't check Pinterest or Instagram, but I'm sure there's love being showered on it there.

And there are things to love about Daredevil! I mean, I watched 13 episodes of my own free will--and very little of what kept me going was a sense of obligation. (Though there was that too.)

(Slight digression: Why is Drew Goddard credited as "creator"? There must be an agreement or a discussion that makes sense of that credit. Someone please explain that to me.)

Here's some of the things to love:

  • Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of a damaged Wilson Fisk, not yet the in-control Kingpin; 
  • the love of friends between Wesley/Fisk, Foggy/Matt;
  • some of the fight scenes.

And here's some of the things not to love:

  • repetitive and trite women and children in peril storylines; 
  • yet another Batman-ization of a character--the centralization of trauma;
  • most of the fight scenes;
  • so much empty talk.

To expand on trauma's central role in comic book characters: since the beginning of modern superheroes, creators have recognized that it takes a particular sort of person to put on a mask and hit people for justice. And often, that "particularity" takes the form of some trauma: the death of a loved one (Batman, Spiderman), exposure to some dangerous mutagen that might make normal life impossible (Fantastic Four, the Hulk).

Matt Murdoch, the Daredevil, gets a double dose of trauma in his origin story: blinded and granted heightened senses by exposure to some dangerous chemical, he also loses his father to gangsters. And yet, until Frank Miller took him over, Daredevil was something of a light-hearted character. (There was a running joke in the comics about how bad he was at keeping his secret identity, since he kept revealing himself to pretty women.)

And yes, Frank Miller did grim and gritty for Daredevil, which made a lot of sense: a street-level character dealing with police corruption and inner-city violence. (Hell's Kitchen also made a lot more sense back then. These days, every time someone in the tv show talked about how bad Hell's Kitchen was, I had to stop myself from laughing. It's the double-edged sword of Marvel using the real-world as a setting: they get the benefit and disadvantage of instant recognition.)

So the creators of the show could have pointed to Daredevil's history as a reason for either way they wanted to go: cartoony and fun or dark and heavy. No money for guessing what they did.

The problem with that, for me, isn't that I'm fatigued with grim-gritty superheroes. The problem for me is that, about half the time, they did grim-gritty in a predictable and boring way. For instance, in the opening scene Matt Murdoch talks to his priest:
"I'm not seeking penance for what I've done, Father. I'm asking for forgiveness... for what I'm about to do."
Not a bad line, unless you saw it coming from a mile away. And that sense of grimness such suffuses so much of the show, from the acting (so much heavy pauses in the speaking, as if the weight... of what you were saying... was exhausting), to the fight scenes (so many of which were muddily lit, robbing them of any excitement).

I could go on, but I want to end with just one comment on the role of women. Matt Murdoch is motivated, in part, by his father issues. (Get it--he starts the show by talking to a priest because he has father issues. Wah-wah.) Which would be fine change from being motivated by protecting women--except there's no hint of his mom at all. As if Matt sprung fully forth from Jack Murdoch's forehead.

Besides that glaring omission, we could go through the women in the show and their relation to the men, particularly Matt. The tally isn't so great. Sure, Karen Page (secretary) and Claire Temple (nurse) get at least one moment of revenge or beating someone up. (Heck, even Foggy gets one moment of beating someone up.) But most of the time, the women are objects of rescue: Karen, Claire, Vanessa (an object of rescue not for Matt, but for Fisk).

Oh god, and I didn't even get into the 80s-esque racial/crime components, particularly the inscrutable Asian gangs: the honorable Japanese ninjas (which are so Frank Miller), and the secretive Chinese drug-runners.

In short, I didn't hate the show, but it seems to have some really apparent problems and some missed opportunities.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 275: Anna Cora Mowatt, The Morning of the Débût (#275)

Anna Cora Mowatt, "The Morning of the Débût" (1856) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

Meh. Nothing much to say here. Anna Cora Mowatt was a writer and actor, who wrote both a biography and a fictional account of stage-life. This is from the fictional version, but clearly close to some actual experience: a young actress first going on stage in a major role. Rather long, didn't keep my interest.