I wanted to respond to this Salon.com piece about ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, which laments the state of television’s portrayal of women of colour.  It does so quite rightly, but I might offer a corrective to its reading of the show itself.

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is, it is true, blatant in its use of racist stereotypes; all of Gay’s plot-points (cited from Aura Bogado’s even more dismayed evaluation) do indeed occur:

With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes: black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina…

This leads Gay to make a grim prognostication:

“Unfortunately, we will never see a similar show about a woman of color as a stranger in a strange land, bewildered by incarceration.”

But I feel like this gets at something the show understands that this piece – a good thesis ruined by a somewhat careless reading of the material – does not, and that is that the show (and Kohan) are interested in playing the ball as it lies.

In other words, I want to talk about Taystee.

Jenji Kohan has remarked that:

“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

This is fascinating, and expediently pragmatic so far as it goes, and if it were the whole story writers like Gay and The Feminist Griote would be entirely justified in their disappointment at this half-measure and its deforming effect on our perception of  a hopelessly damaged system; this story cannot only be worth telling because of the tragedy of it happening accidentally, or incidentally, to a white woman such as Piper.

Her legibility AS a walking, talking White People Problems (her nickname to many of the characters is “College”), however, is insistent; she is an avatar of White Privilege, confronted with a naked racial tension her world has been designed to conceal from her sight and, along with many of its viewers, she comes to it with a woeful lack of cultural literacy.  She has “studied to go to prison”, but what she should know isn’t, must remain, off the books, inaccessible to her.

…and Piper most of all.

Not so her fellow inmates; the prison is, we learn, FULL of intelligent women of color – but none of them could be “bewildered” by their arrival here, as Gay’s article’s imagined Ideal Protagonist ought to be, precisely because they come from a world that is designed, with Calvinist inevitability, to send them here. They are smarter characters than Salon’s article wishes them.

The shallow reading of “Crazy Eyes” (her name is actually Suzanne, and she is manifestly awesome) is only part of the refusal to see that; the article’s swipe about the women “fantasizing about fried chicken” is purposely eliding what is actually happening in that scene. When management decides to hold an election, the prison divides along explicit racial lines (evidently condoned by the guards and counsellors themselves – “tribalism, not racism” is evidently more than the casual racism of a dim but well-meaning young prisoner; it is codified).

In a scene ABOUT being elected AS “The Black Representative” – the candidate, Taystee, who manages the prison’s legal library, promises Fried Chicken in the cafeteria.

She does so while underlining the stereotypes involved, shrewdly recognizing that defining yourself AGAINST a racist stereotype is still a capitulation to an oppressive dialectic – which the election itself only concretizes.

Pennsatucky: the most contemptible character in popular culture since Mr. Potter stole Uncle Billy’s envelope of cash.

That it is TAYSTEE who embraces this play to stereotypes, who accepts the oppression because there is comfort in it, isn’t an accident – it’s a curious bit of foreshadowing.  Taystee explains her disdain, and contemptuous refusal to engage with ‘real’ issues, in a brilliantly funny (and, again, racist) refusal to play along with “white people politics”, which she skewers devastatingly with friend Poussey:

It seems important that Poussey and Taystee’s impression of “White People Politics” is full of moments of embarrassed negation; to be a white person is apparently to speak constantly at a remove – “I’d rather not”, “I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have”, to flag uncomfortable subjects, things we ought not to talk about because they are distasteful.

Taystee is a hyper-literate character (she will not abide a copy of HARRY POTTER being used as a foot-stool; she compulsively corrects the grammar of a death threat from “YOUR GOING TO DIE” to “YOU’RE”; she writes semi-original poetry which plagiarizes liberally from the masterful ROCKY 6) and she has studied her text carefully; when Piper asks her why she does not try to effect real change when she wins the election on her Fried Chicken in the Cafeteria Platform, Taystee points out that the power to resist is an illusion; better to just enjoy the donuts offered as hollow treats by the management.  The show emphasizes who is to learn from whom: the banner for Taystee’s farewell takes two tries; Piper’s first attempt – which bids farewell to “Tasty” – has to be junked.  “I thought you went to college,” Alex chides.

Toward’s season’s end, Taystee eventually decides, brutally, to continue to play by this broken system’s rules; set free (“free”), her prison term over, she finds there is nowhere to else to go.  Compelled by its gravity, she returns by her own design to prison, because she has learned – bitterly, again – it is the only space that has been made for her in this world.

Piper is – must be – horrified at the prison’s overt racial divide; her dumbfounded horror upon arriving in a federal institution that sharply splits into racially segregated cell-blocks is met with an eye-roll: “oh, you’re one of THOSE. It’s tribalism, not racism” (and of course the show goes on to prove that this character – bubbly, charming, sweet – is also the most casually racist person in the facility).  Taystee could never be so surprised – not even the FIRST time she was sent to jail.  For her, prison is merely the bricks-and-mortar version of something that is everywhere; at least in prison the meals are regular.

So much of the show is about the dignities we sacrifice and the dignities we won’t. Gay’s article wants a show where no one sacrifices any – where no one is ever forced, by their circumstances, to be flattened into a type or a pattern or a statistic. And it sounds a little boring to me.

The article’s final question – when, how much, are we willing to settle? – is actually the show’s question, too.

——————————-

Anthony Oliveira is a PhD candidate working on the literature of the irrational at the University of Toronto. You can follow him on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/oliveiranth.

Dawn of the Dead

"When there's no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the earth."

 

                        The hairs on your arm will stand up
                        At the terror in each sip and in each sup
                        Will you partake of that last offered cup?
                        Or disappear into the potter’s ground
                        When the Man comes around…

-Johnny Cash, “Man Comes Around” (2002)

If you’ve seen the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, you know that by far the best part in it is the opening credits.  If you haven’t, the film begins with “found” footage of news reports, home videos, etc, serving as rapid-fire exposition of a horrific zombie outbreak gone global and catastrophic – and all the while, Johnny Cash’s dulcet tones describe the Christian Second Coming.

Have you ever wondered why?

Slavoj Zizek brings his essay “Neighbours and Other Monsters” to a close with a brief consideration of  “The Man Comes Around”, which proved to be Cash’s final song, (“Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground / When the man comes around”): “The song,” says Zizek:

 …is about Armageddon, the end of days, when God will appear and perform the Last Judgment, and this event is presented as pure and arbitrary terror: God is presented almost as Evil personified, as a kind of political informer, a man who ‘comes around’ and provokes consternation by ‘taking names’, by deciding who is saved and who is lost.  If anything, Cash’s description invokes the well-known scene of people lined up for a brutal interrogation, and the informer pointing out those selected for torture.  There is no mercy, no pardon of sins in it, no jubilation in it.  We are fixed in our roles: the just remain just and filthy remain filthy.  In this divine proclamation, we are not simply judged in a just way.  Rather, we are informed from outside, as if learning about an arbitrary decision, whether we were righteous or sinners, whether we are saved or condemned (Neighbour 189).

It is easy, then, to see in Cash’s song a vision of the “Spielbergian Other” – the incoherent monster come to wreak an incomprehensible devastation.  Yet, in Christianity’s moment of apocalypse (as with all moments of apocalypse, as we discussed last week), what we face, while cruel, is not, is never, accidental or undeserved.  Instead, apocalypse comes as the horrible moment when a spotlight has been turned upon our darkest corners and the wriggling, writhing secrets that infest them – the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that there would be no warning, but that he would come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:4).   The Greek word “Apokálypsis” means, in fact, only “unveiling;” what we imagine to be an arbitrary, unimaginable horror is only an uncovering of what has always been seething beneath the surface.  This is the moment for which William S. Burroughs opaquely titled his book “The Naked Lunch” (which he eventually explained, when queried and with some frustration, “means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”). [1]

Until, one day, the veil of the Temple is torn, and we stand naked, utterly exposed, before the thermonuclear fires of divine majesty.  And your entire face melts off.

indy arc

Not actually a metaphor.

There is a passage, unique to the Gospel of Matthew, that has always been deeply troubling to theologians, yet precisely echoes Cash’s vision of the God of Terror.  In fact, Christian commentary has visited an almost willful neglect or deliberate cultural amnesia upon it – so much so that, even though it is at the moment of greatest significance to the Christian faith (the redemptive death of Christ), few of even the most ardent Christians are casually familiar with it:

“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost…and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:50-3).

It is easy to see why it has made so many parish priests nervous; identifying the Christian mystery with an apocalyptic zombie attack is not exactly soothing Easter-morning sermon fare.  That the world should shudder at the alleged Messiah’s death seems appropriate, after all – something evil has been done! – but that the saints, the hallowed departed, should come shambling out of their graves?  The incongruity jars us. [2]

Dawn of the Dead 2004

HAPPY EASTER!

judgementYet this tradition of communal forgetting is precisely what this deliberately chilling moment (when the dead rise and visit the living) attempts to disrupt, and precisely why it so troubles its readers: horrors do not just come; they come back.  They are visitations from the unconscious: suppressed nightmares, disturbing images, forgotten traumas.  We forget so easily (because we are wired to forget so easily) that the symbol of the Christian faith, the cross, is an implement of painful state torture (imagine a faith emerging today whose disciples hung in their homes images of a man being electrocuted to death in the electric chair, wrote poetry rhapsodizing his teeth cracking, hair singeing, and eyeballs bursting, and quested for the Holy Electrodes).[3]

After all, what is Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ on the beach, reminding him imperiously of his betrayal, if not a guilt-tormented horror story?  What is the encounter on the road to Emmaus, if not a whispered campfire tale, meant to elicit spine-tingling chills (“and that’s when she realized…the call was coming from inside the house!” “And that’s when they saw…the scratches on the side of the car!” “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight[4] (Luke 24:30-1).

The risen Jesus of Christianity is himself the ultimate profane obscenity, the ultimate returning horror – not a ghost, but reanimated flesh, crawled out from the grave three-days rotten, demanding that we slide our fingers along and into his suppurating wounds, demanding (if translators were more honest with the original Greek), that we “chomp down” on his flesh and “guzzle” his blood.  Christ demands of each of his followers that they become necrophagic fetishists; Christians who justify their ludicrous anti-Semitism by characterizing Jewish people as “Christ-killers” should keep in mind: the Jews may have killed God, but the Christians ATE him[5]

zombie last supper

“This is a difficult teaching,” the incredulous (and kosher!) apostles say, recoiling in horror, “who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

This central mystery of the faith – Messiah as human refuse – has perhaps never been made more apparent than in, of all places, the first South Park Christmas special, in which the town of South Park, after public outcry at the religious content of the children’s nativity pageant (which includes a viscerally graphic staging of the birth of the Christ-child), attempts to mount a PC-version, scrubbed clean of any spiritual overtones (resulting in a staggeringly dull dance number orchestrated by minimalist composer Philip Glass).  In order to correct this mistake, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, an anthropomorphic feces stool in a Santa hat, emerges from one of the children’s toilet bowls, and proceeds to re-teach the town the “true meaning of Christmas” through song, all the while smearing foul stains on every surface he touches.

Mr. Hankey
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.” (Matthew 7:14-15).  Parker and Stone’s Mr. Hankey is perhaps the most sophisticated and reverent expression of 20th century Christian theology.

Mr. Hankey is a nexus of Christology: he simultaneously represents the humble, rejected Jesus of lowly origins (if the toilet bowl shocks you, remember: there was A LOT more shit in the stable Luke has Christ born in, and the Pharisees in all the Gospels are obsessed with Jesus’ poor hygiene) AND the moment of Judgment, when your dirty little secrets come back up from the drain and wipe shit all over your nice, tidy life (the -ahem- “log” in your own eye).

Zizek, in his Pervert`s Guide to Cinema, discusses a similar scene of returning remains in The Conversation.  In the film, Gene Hackman`s character, a private investigator, searches a bathroom.  His gestures carefully echoing shots from Hitchcock`s Psycho (including a careful perusal of the shower drain, which in the latter film is morphed in-shot into Janet Leigh`s unblinking dead eye, returning our gaze), Hackman`s detective nearly gives up on the search – until he flushes the toilet, and gurgling from its depths, spilling onto the floor, it blossoms a torrent of blood.  Zizek explains: “In our most elementary experience, when we flush the toilet excrements simply disappear out of our reality into another space, which we phenomenologically perceive as a kind of a netherworld, another reality, chaotic primordial reality, and the ultimate horror of course is if the flushing doesn’t work, if objects return, if remainders, excremental remainders return from that dimension” (Pervert`s Guide).

Zombie JC

We're so used to the "sacred heart" that we forget how GRUESOME it is - and intentionally so. The photo-shopped zombie face here is virtually redundant. (and don't even get me started on stinky old mummy Lazarus...)

Mr. Hankey, Gene Hackman’s plugged toilet, and the Risen Christ calling us to Judgment (the man who comes around) are all symbols for the same thing: the crime, the concupiscence we cannot escape.   The “eye” of the sink, of the drain, of the abyss, vomiting our sins back at us – filthy, but all the filthier because it is our filth.

But they are also a reminder that accounts are being kept, that books are being balanced – and that one day, the order will be overturned.  “The last,” says Jesus in the Gospels over and over again, “shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 10:31, 19:30, 20:16; Luke 13:30, Thomas 4.x).

“Holy shit!”, then, is not just a curse; it is, collapsed into two words, the whole of the Christian project: the deification of the excremental remainder, the glorification of a newborn king laid in a trough, and the apotheosis of a naked criminal, nailed to a plank outside the city limits – “the stone the builders rejected has become the corner stone” (Acts 4:11), they claim – and claim in triumph.

To “sanctify” Christ – to make him clean, and well-mannered, and meek, is to forget the key message of his ministry.  It is to forget the man who came not to bring peace, but a sword; it is to forget the man who flipped tables in the Temple, who back-talked the Roman oppressors, cursed a fig tree (but it was not the season for figs!), and whose final promise was to return to bring the earth to judgment, once there was no more room in Hell, and walk the earth again.

All hail Zombie Jesus!


Footnotes:

[1] Forgiving Spielberg: While I am, for simplicity’s sake, calling the facile idea of the Other as ontologically incoherent “Spielbergian”, I must point out here that, in his defense, Spielberg, when not caught up in post 9/11 “God bless America” fervour, does indeed understand this was never true, and that the apocalypse is always a function of the sublime – behold the grisly fates of his Nazis, their flesh melting like wax, in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the titular Ark of the Covenant is opened at film’s climax (“Its beautiful”, one of the Nazis remarks – seconds before his head literally explodes).  Here, Spielberg’s hero, Indiana Jones, is not spared because of his virtue, or his love of his children, or the enduring goodness of the American people, but merely because he refuses to return the fearsome horror of the divine gaze.

That the eventual fate of the Ark is to be boxed away, housed in a colossal storage facility filled with identical crates, is the film’s ingenious reiteration of the standard human encounter with the numinous: divine revelation followed by careful anaesthetization and compartmentalization: Institution always clothes the divine, like the mute, mad angel caged in a chicken coop in Gael Garcia Marquez’s Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. One would not be surprised to discover St. Paul himself among the security guards of the Ark’s dusty prison.

Everything that's ever been wrong with organized religion, in one breathtaking shot.

And, after all, even in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, despite Spielberg’s best intentions to make the Martian invasion as “random” as he perceived the 9/11 attacks, the plot connives to make Mars’ assault a similar return: Spielberg’s Martians, unlike in any other adaptation of the story, have “long been buried” beneath the planet’s crust before “awakening” for their attack; they may, in fact, have been here first – just as Jurassic Park and Jaws both emphasize the fact that the horrific Other is, again, an ancient evil come back to menace neophyte man.

So maybe Steven gets it after all…

[2] Recollections from My Fucked-Up Childhood: I recall, when I was child, asking after Church about this bizarre moment when zombies attack Jerusalem, and my poor mother conjecturing that perhaps the force of the earthquake had bumped the graves open, and the dead only seemed to come back, as though animated by the jostling of the shockwave.  Anything else was probably the Devil’s doing.  That she seems to have suppressed or forgotten at the time that the passage clearly asserts it is God’s doing reminds me of an older John Milton, summarizing his manifold arguments for a powerful presence at work in human history: “In short, many visible proofs, the verification of numberless predictions, a multitude of wonderful works have compelled all nations to believe, either that God, or that some evil power whose name was unknown, presided over the affairs of the world”(Milton in De Doctrina.2).  William Empson noted drily, “not even Voltaire could have written such an icy sentence” (Milton’s God 303).  As Kierkegaard knew, that the divine is first and foremost fundamentally terrifying is the first religious lesson every child learns, and every adult, to their spiritual and psychological detriment, forgets.

[3] Sacred Torment: One cannot help but here see the image of Francis Bacon’s “Pope” series, in which the artist, working in the period following Pope Pius’ shameful lack of intervention or outcry during the atrocities visited upon the Jews and others during the Holocaust, produced image after image on black canvas of a horrifying Papal revenant shrieking, surrounded by grisly hanging slabs of meat.

[4] The Unspeakable Grammar Problems of the Greek: I have resisted the temptation to add the extra-textual exclamation mark, as to my knowledge Koine Greek, to its obvious detriment, has no such effusive punctuation.

[5]  Bad Boy of the Baroque: The artist Caravaggio’s career is nothing but a series of attempts to restage and rejuvenate the sacred obscenity at the heart of the Christian mystery (to the detriment of his career and the everlasting benefit of his infamy): his Calling of St. Matthew depicts not a first century tax gatherer, but a wealthy contemporary merchant, cowering under the gaze of Christ’s imperious summons – exactly enacting a man caught in Johnny cash’s spotlight; his Death of the Virgin scandalously uses an infamous prostitute as the model for the mother of Jesus, and painted her not passing in quiet dignity, but “like a bloated corpse fished from the river”; and his The Doubting of St. Thomas shows the sceptical disciple inserting his probing finger into the wound of a euphoric Christ’s side – a “wound”, it was widely claimed, modelled on the anus of one of Caravaggio’s rent-boys.

caravaggio

And that's why, to this day, getting your wound finger-banged is called "getting a St. Thomas Didymus." I know they sound weird, but Cronenberg says they're totally righteous.

War of the Worlds Tripod Attack
 

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creaturesthat swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.  No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise.

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

–          H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Is it the terrorists?!?”, a doe-eyed Dakota Fanning shrieks (all her lines are delivered at a brain-melting high-pitched keen) to her father (Tom Cruise in unconvincing Joe Six-Pack drag) while, in the rear-view mirror, friends and neighbours disintegrate into dust, filling the air with greasy white ash and settling at the feet of sinister iron colossuses.

Dakota Fanning

Welcome to the Desert of the frigging Real, Dakota Fanning.

Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds comprises the second installment of his 9/11 trilogy.  If Munich considered the need for vengeance, and if Minority Report considered the dangers of the corresponding constriction of civil liberties, then his War of the Worlds is about nothing less, and nothing else, than the raw, incomprehensible horror of those first few hours of the attack on New York City.

“We didn’t set out to play upon the tremendous paranoia and anxiety about terrorism in the environment right now,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, “but we do live in the shadow of 9/11. And every iteration of this story has occurred during anxious times in history. Orson Welles made his radio play right before World War II. George Pal made his movie in the middle of the Cold War. And now I’m making mine” (Spielberg in Ryan).[1]

WOTW scare

Oh, Orson, you SCAMP.

Wells’ masterpiece has, like Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, become a leitmotif in popular culture, retold and reconfigured freely every few decades by another auteur’s cultural temperature-taking (the word “auteur” is here applied with quantumly vacillating quotation marks).  Whether virtue or defect, however, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is faithful to his source material, indeed is nearly verbatim, in one crucial detail: the opening narration.

But I am not convinced he understands its purpose.

War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, is about the terrible moment when Judgment comes.  The Other arrives howling from the abyss, without words, without reason, and plunges our world into perdition’s fire.  Zizek, echoing Freud, called the Neighbour “primarily a thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose way of life…disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails” (On Violence 59).  This Spielberg seems to grasp, and it is precisely to this end that he has used Wells’ classic to explore the dreadful eruption (or, perhaps more truly, irruption) of the Real that 9/11 represented (throughout the movie, the image recurs of one of the main characters staring out at us through a pane of shattered glass, as though the film itself pathologically and compulsively duplicates this perforation of “reality’s” fragile lens).  He understands the awful terror in being beheld by the ineffable and found wanting, as the scene (invented for his version) in which the Martian ship’s monstrous eyestalk insinuates itself through the family’s subterranean hiding place, implacably seeking them like an avenging angel of the superego, makes clear.[2]

But Spielberg has not understood one crucial detail: in the mythopoetic pattern of Wells’ War of the Worlds, we are meant to be the Martians.

Spielberg’s version is about the terror, but that is all it is about.  His story is, as usual, one of the indomitable triumph of the family over adversity, culminating in the saccharine Hallmark-card reconciliation at movie’s end.  He describes the film as “a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life” (Spielberg in Reader’s Digest).  The enemy is not just unknown; it is unknowable; Spielberg is governed by the same logic which somehow made George W. Bush’s explanation of the motives of the men who perpetrated the attacks on the World Trade Center – that “they hate us for our freedoms” – an acceptable answer.  To question the motives of the aliens (or the terorrists) is akin to questioning why Gargamel is after the Smurfs: perhaps to kill them, perhaps to eat them (and at least for a while because they are somehow a necessary ingredient in transmuting lead to gold) – the point is that he’s evil; any other motive merely extends from this Aristotelian first premise.

gargamel bin laden

"Gargamel hates us for our freedoms!" For most Americans, the motives of both these figures remains equally unclear - and irrelevant.

Kenneth Miller, in reviewing the film, sings damning alleluias:

Martian death rays and war machines lay waste to civilization — but the bad guys get wiped out by a virus to which humans are immune. Their traits as people give the Earthlings the strength and resilience their enemies lack. That’s the real theme of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: When all hell breaks loose, Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, overcomes his shortcomings as a dad and a human being. He’s one man, struggling against evil for the sake of his family. It’s not an entirely happy ending — the title is War of the Worlds, after all. But don’t discount the hidden strength Ferrier has inside — the strength of his humanity (Miller).

The gap in logic which Miller’s review contains (“aliens are destroyed by virus”, therefore “our traits as people – the strength of our humanity – give us resilience enemies lack”) is not his own; it is a cohesive rendering of the film’s message.  We deserve survival, our goodness is identical to our humanity, so God will furnish it.  For Spielberg, the Martian susceptibility to Earth’s diseases is an act of Providence.  For Spielberg, the trust in God that America stamps into its coins has not proven counterfeit.

To this end, Spielberg deploys Wells’ original opening (quoted in full at the beginning of this essay) because it seems to him, of course, to license exactly the reading he wishes to further.  The narration is read in the film at a folksy, leisurely pace by Morgan Freeman, who has made a career playing what Spike Lee called “Super Duper Magical Negroes” – patient, wise engines of exposition and enlightenment,[3] while the opening image, the presumed gaze of this lackadaisical, authoritative/ authorizing/ authorial voice, is of those same bacteria that will eventually kill the Martians, busily going about their business within the dewdrop of a leaf – the tiny saviors about to be implemented in God’s (Morgan Freeman’s?) wonderful salvific plan.

bacteria

Spielberg's film begins with a "zoom-out" from the bacteria which Wells makes the bane of the Martian invaders. For Spielberg, these microscopic foes represent Divine Providence. For Wells, however, they are a symbol of dumb luck and the dangerous risks of colonization.

It is ironic, given this microscopic view, that Spielberg has not looked close enough.

Wells’ beginning is about a terrible conflation: the Martians behave just as we behave; the Martians invade just as we invade.  Like the first dreadful clangs of a requiem, Wells begins his theme of cultural annihilation with a series of metaphors that vector around humanity’s horrfying similarity to the Martians: just like us, just like us but now we are the observed; now we are under the microscope.

Tripod

"I am an allegory for the decadence and imminent collapse of the Victorian Empire! ZORP ZORP!" Alas, critical inquiry cannot fully explain the martians' magnificent pimp-walks.

If Spielberg had read more closely, he would have seen in Wells’ slim novella a parable for the rotting Victorian empire, a creature that had once, too, beheld the world with envious eyes, and now, in its dying anemic spasms, realizes too late that it has spread too fast, too thin, and exposed itself to indigenous pathogens it cannot not hope to metabolize.  He would have seen in the Martians an invader with technologies that outclass the beset “colonized” and hungry for the resources these wretched beasts squat upon, scorching the earth to call it peace.  He would have seen that Wells has very carefully and surely made the eyes that gaze across the gulf of space our own.

With War of the Worlds, Wells in many ways gave birth to science fiction – and in the same moment, made it a vehicle, not merely for imagining the purgative, apocalyptic gaze of the Other, but a tool for reconfiguring ourselves as that Other.  He made it a means of parallax: for beholding the monster, but also for beholding that we are that monster.  The masterstroke is in that first opening movement; the rest merely elaborates the melody.  The true horror of Wells’ War of the Worlds, which has utterly eluded so many of its adapters and interpreters, is that there is nothing alien about its aliens.  We do not just for a moment gaze with their eyes; they gaze, always, with ours.  Behold the Other – ourselves.

Had Spielberg understood this, he would, indeed, have seen an opportunity in adapting War of the Worlds to comment on the aftermath of 9/11, and call, as Wells had done, a civilization to judgment.

And little Dakota Fanning, cowering in the backseat of an SUV as poison-light seared the horizon behind her, would have screeched what she should have screeched: Is it the Americans?!?


[1] How his 2004 film Terminal, which followed Minority Report but preceded both Munich and War, and treats a fumbling buffoon stuck in an airport (played by perennial fumbling buffoon Tom Hanks), links into these three films would require a second viewing I find myself unwilling to extend it.  Perhaps, as in ancient drama, or as Marx so famously observed, tragedy must be followed by farce, and thus the film is a meditation on the horrors of longer wait-times while Homeland Security subjects the more darker-skinned (or, in Hanks’ case, more hilariously accented) of passengers to their perverse, procrustean ministrations.

[2] This moment of the merciless, relentless Real seems to haunt Spielberg’s oeuvre; recall in particular the “pre-crime” cops of Minority Report, who know your sins before you have committed them (yet always arrive just in time to cause maximum drama and collateral damage to all points of ingress in apprehending their targets), or the ludicrous (yet no less terrifying) moment in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs pursuing the children unlock the door in order to gain access to the kitchen.


[3] While there is no shortage to examples in his career, see especially Shawshank Redemption, Robin Hood, Seven, Driving Miss Daisy, both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the host of documentaries he narrates, and, at the ultimate zenith of the form,  the two “Almighty” films, in which Freeman literally plays God.

Easy A Poster

While crossing a shallow but turbulent river, a powerful surge overtook Teresa of Avila, knocking her from her donkey and down into the mud.  As she sat up, wiping her eyes and wringing out her clothes, she saw the Lord appear, sitting on her overturned cart.

“That, Teresa,” he said with a smile, “is how I treat my friends.”

“And that, Lord,” she replied, “is why you have so few of them!”

Oh god, the filthy things I want to do to this movie. 

The religious mysticism student in me wants to talk about Stone’s heroine as what Robertson Davies called a “fool-saint” – a quasi-martyr who gives of themselves until nothing is left, even when their actions seem counter to conventional morality.  Olive has a lot in common with Davies’ Mary Dempster – and indeed with all the best saints: not the cloyingly pious, and not the glorified bureaucrats, but the crazy motherfuckers who ate shrubs and talked to birds and lived on top of pillars or in weird little holes and reconquered France and yes, who shouted at Jesus while he was chillaxing next to their donkey in a river.

The other part of me, the semiotician, wants to talk about Olive not as saint, but as author.  The film gets a lot of mileage out of comparing Olive to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, and it certainly makes for some striking visuals (and ensembles) – but Olive runs circles around dumb old Hester when it comes to fucking owning it – another narrative Olive reshapes to her ends (the film is full not only of Olive’s personal-address webcasts, but footage from old films from dawn-of-cinema to brat pack; Olive explains the world by taking bits of story and recutting them to taste, just like she does her outfits).  Contrary to what the poster claims, this is not the story of Olive the social outcast, but of a girl who seizes the narrative by the throat, over and over again, and makes it her bitch. Who learns to control the flow, and spin, and valence of information, and who most importantly, by film’s end, learns where the lacunas go, and where the line of disclosure warps and ends.  

Wood-Chuck

Also, Penn Badgley occasionally pops into the story dressed as a wood-chuck. Because this is (ostensibly) a rom-com, however, he has a decidedly better time of falling in love with a lunatic devoted to a mission of self-ruination than that one sexy monk from PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC does. Better hair, too.

Either way, the film is about the slippery way story shapes being.  At one point, Lisa Kudrow’s late-arriving character declares that Olive “can’t be a slut because sluts can never admit it”, but Olive is already well on the way to realizing the opposite is true: you can’t be a slut unless you let someone tell you you are.  Kudrow’s hissed, staccato “who would you believe?!?” when Olive threatens to speak truth to cuntiness is only the opposite side of Kudrow’s “whores lack self-awareness!” coin: approval of the Non-du-Pere granted, and rescinded.  Olive don’t play that game.  Her final address to her webcam made me cheer in my seat; if every girl in the audience had the same revelation, we would have an apocalypse (the best kind) on our hands. 

The film is getting a lot of comparisons to Saved, and I suppose that’s fair – but unlike Saved, Easy A refuses to stabilize Olive’s moral compass; it lets her twist in the wind, and decide for herself what the ethical thing to do is.  It both refuses to make organized Christianity the (only) bad guy by making the Jesus-freaks a vocal but by no means monopolizing group (characters distasteful and pleasant alike both express their contempt for Amanda Bynes frankly staggeringly genius turn as an honest-to-God psychopath – don’t retire yet, Amanda Bynes! I don’t know who you are, but obviously you are AWESOME!), and by much more realistically identifying the (cartoon) mob not as Christian maniacs, but normal kids – even former best friends.  Olive’s parents are cavity-inducingly wholesome (the film may well have been pitched as “what if Burton’s Catwoman had had a stable and supportive home-life?”) but they are also patently clueless, as are her teachers – in fact, the film twice pulls a neat reversal with its faculty where Olive becomes not their pupil, but their, well, redeemer in the most gratingly Christian way – she suffers, and takes on their sins, so they don’t have to.  Saved is about looking at the dumb motherfuckers of the planet and saying “you know what? Fuck ’em.”  Easy A is about how you’ve got to rescue their dumb asses from the cave, too. 

Bernini's Teresa of Avila

"Communion with God? Well, it's like an angel, shoving an arrow made of molten gold repeatedly into your crotch until you dissolve into inundating folds of orgasmic pleasure." Teresa makes being raped by the Divine seem not so bad, but Olive (and Jaye Tyler) may have a different take.

The story of Abraham and Isaac bothers a lot of people because they trip on Isaac – it’s tough not to sympathize, after all, with the kid who’s dutifully preparing his own sacrificial altar because daddy has a notion (and if you think that’s fucked, try reading the infinitely-more-fuckeded story of Jephthah and his daughter, which has the same beginning but significantly one less handy goat). 

But the point of the Abraham story, and the reason he is the father of the People of the Book, is because he was willing in that moment to give up the thing he loved most, defy every instinct, and every ethical code – just because God said to.  That’s the part about religion that terrifies people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Because it’s crazy, and gross, and means you don’t even really exist – you’re just the universe’s butt-monkey (and if you haven’t watched Wonderfalls before, you really, really should).  Olive does the crazy thing, the thing everyone tells her is wrong (including herself!), just because she knows it’s what she has to do (the scene of her attempting to find solace or guidance in religion, and repeatedly getting shit on, INCLUDING AN EMPTY FUCKING CONFESSIONAL, okay, is maybe my favourite bit.  Saved ain’t got SHIT on that bizness).

The film keeps trying to be a John Hughes movie.  With apologies to John Hughes, thank God it isn’t.  It’s uneven, and rough, and in places feels like a tonally-wonky first draft, but it’s also fecklessly, scrappily charming, and if I had a teenage girl I’d make her watch it every fucking week. 

And if anyone can explain WTF is up with all the oranges in every single shot, I will give you a dollar.

Final Score: 8.4/10

I didn't realize the tagline was a WARNING.

Imagine the most boring person you know describing their dream from last night to you.  For 2 and a half hours.

There is a moment during Inception when Ellen Page’s (groaningly named) Ariadne beholds DiCaprio’s dreamscape and gasps with wonder: “You made this?” We are meant to be dazzled by the vista; this, after all, is the film’s purest version of creativity unbridled and the human mind unfettered. But all we see is endless, faceless skyscrapers extending into oblivion. Welcome to the creative vision of Christopher Nolan, apparently.

One need only compare it to Tarsem Singh’s The Cell to understand what a colossal failure of artistic innovation Inception represents. Nolan opens the Pandora’s Box of a film set in the dream-world only to slam it closed and bind it shut in ludicrously constrictive rules: characters can calculate MATHEMATICALLY AND EXACTLY how long a dream will seem (this expands exponentially, and with no loss in precision, as the dreamworlds concatenate); if you die in a dream you wake up – except of course when you don’t, due to another set of stupid made-up rules.  I never imagined a movie about dreaming would be so obsessed with timelines, guidelines, caveats, and mechanics.  Say what you will about Jennifer goddamn Lopez, but Singh’s The Cell (and to a lesser extent, The Fall) is a film where both the characters and the story recognize and exploit dream-logic both in world-building and navigation.  Inception is a categoric failure of imagination – a film with the budget and concept to literally get away with anything, but damningly low on vision.

For example, in a scene where DiCaprio recruits Page as a kind of dream-architect, he follows at her heels, whining at her for fucking too much with reality because she buckles a bridge or adds some accent mirrors. In the shot now famous from the trailers, Page realizes how much power she now has as she folds Paris in half overhead, and takes the job because as an architect, she gasps, “there’s nothing quite like it” – but she never dares do anything like this again.

Apparently given a world free from physics and limitations, the world’s greatest architect designs worlds that look pretty much exactly like downtown Chicago. Sounds a lot like Nolan himself, actually.

Chicago Street View

Behold! The pinnacle of the human imagination unbound, as captured by Google street view.

I think the most telling and damning moment is when Gordon-Levitt explains the Penrose Stairs to us. Rather than giving us a gleeful MC Escher moment, the film weaponizes and euthanizes all the joy and fun out of this possibility. “A paradox”, he grimly intones both times he uses them, so he can beat up another Agent Smith. And then the camera FULLY PANS DOWN AND SHOWS US THE TRICK. The Penrose Stairs, instead of being an impossible-thing-made-possible, are just a way to service a story riddled with plot-holes and half-baked character concepts.  One of the biggest:

There are few problems that cannot be solved by moving to France.The grubby denizens of the interweb (above artist unknown) have been gleefully skewering Inception’s many glaring plotholes for months, but in the film’s defense, there are few problems in life that cannot be solved by moving to Paris. (exceptions: “I am crippled by debut-de-siecle ennui”; “I am attempting to overcome the collapse of my relationship with Chuck Bass“; “I am being mercilessly persecuted for my racio-ethno-religious identity”.)

The film is indeed a descendant of Kubrick-by-way-of-Tarkovsky – full of shrewish dead wives (Poor Marion Cotillard – still, Polly Pocket Femme Fatale is still better than all-suffering wife in Nine) and long hallways of great import – but the difference is that both these directors used their rules (and broke them) precisely because they knew that their power came from the something terrible, the something senseless, hovering at the margins. Nolan’s world has no such danger. It’s just another lifeless heist movie – it just placed its routine action sequences in a nesting doll rather than sequentially.

Which is fine; don’t get me wrong, I love a good action movie (though i don’t think they need be quite so stiff and humourless in order to be potent).  But Christopher Nolan found a magic lamp, and when the genie emerged, he asked for…a regular lamp.

Don’t even get me started on this fucking nonsense.

Final Grade: 6.7/10
Gossip Girl 4x01
Care-Blair Stare

Four young people at a picnic. The men are fully-clothed, with a charming, bohemian flair; they are monied but slumming it – young poets or artists (they were in fact modelled on the painter’s friends and brothers), taking the rowboat out for an afternoon picnic, and enjoying all that Paris had to offer at the height of the belle epoque.

And what they are enjoying at present is the company of the woman sitting before them – a woman unlike any in the history of art. The model was Victorine Meurent, and between Dejeuner Sur L’herbe and Manet’s other masterpiece, Olympia, her glance and refusal to compromise or demure would change art forever. She is nude, but not like any classical nude before her – she’s not a sugary-sweet nymph, but a real and vivacious woman – her stylish clothes in a heap beside her, she seems to have effortlessly enraptured her two suitors, and arrests the painting’s viewer with her knowing, flirtatious gaze.

Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe scandalized Paris. Not because Victorine was nude, but because she was so unapologetically so. Without the excuse of mythology or the air-brush of smooth lines (“she looks like she rather needs to work out”, one art critic said), Manet had depicted a vision of total social chaos. A woman who refuses to play by the rules – and is all the more enchanting because of it.

…But in the background, there is another young woman, knee-deep in the water next to the rowboat. She awkwardly adjusts her wet clothes, her face twisting downwards away from us in a shy grimace that is the opposite of Victorine’s self-possessed, unapologetic glare. She seems to have arrived with the picnickers, but she stands apart, unsure, clutching nervously, even desperately, at her clothes – “stiff as a bookcase”, you might say, if you were a particularly unfeeling photographer.

Unlike Victorine, no one remembers her name.

Blair Waldorf and her Prince

I was at first somewhat baffled when Blair said that Manet was her favourite; I assumed it must be an accident of production availability and scale – Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe is eminently recognizable, permanently on display, and notoriously – critics even said inappropriately – massive, so it makes for good TV; it says “Paris” as much as the Eiffel Tower, and in an episode chock-ful of name-dropping, even by Gossip Girl standards, I thought it was one more among the gaggle. Blair herself even admits that standing in front of the painting or “reading Colette in the park” (an insert shows her with Gigi) is half-pose to catch a guy (subtly foreshadowing Juliet’s more sinister intent when we come upon her at the restaurant “reading” House of Mirth (one of the key inter-texts of Gossip Girl as a series, it also makes sense that a character as obsessed with these wealthy teens would be a Wharton fan – even if I do worry that Juliet is just Poppy Lifton 2.0, it is sort of hilarious that she’s basically using Wharton’s “I’m secretly poor pretending to be rich” book as a manual. I guess she hasn’t got to the end yet?)).

But we’re given more of a clue to Dejeuner’s centrality to the story in the Orsay. Blair stares at the painting in such a state of rapture that when Louis starts talking to her, she barely acknowledges his come-ons – so much so that I thought they were setting up a slapstick Blair-doesn’t-actually-speak-French joke (God bless Leighton Meester, but Louis is certainly generous when he calls her French “flawless”).

As meet-cute becomes double-date and prince becomes pauper, Blair watches Louis and “the prince” become entranced by Serena. What follows is essentially Blair’s neurotic attempt to impose one version of the painting upon her life while categorically denying the other version; at all costs, Blair is hellbent upon being Victorine – the lovely, commanding queen with all eyes upon her – while suppressing the terrible awareness that so long as Serena van der Woodsen is in the frame, she will always be the anonymous, frumpy friend in the background of paparazzi photos or proto-Impressionist masterpieces, as the case may be.

Serena Paintsnaked dude

Like Manet’s Victorine, Serena is a muse (Gossip Girl’s word in this scene, not mine!) whose gaze (and here, her brush) implicate *us.* We are the subject, not the viewer.

Blair attempts to insist on the importance of social graces and decorum when Louis talks about being ejected from a party for his blue jeans, trying to rout Serena’s je ne sais quoi charm by neutralizing it with good manners. When the actual tableau of Dejeuner asserts herself at the dinner table, with both men wildly gesticulating and hanging on Serena’s every golden word, Blair, as usual, loses her entire set of marbles. In the episode’s broadest moment of slapstick, and recalling both their infamous hair-pulling Yale fight and that time Serena threw her into a cake (so awesome, you guys), Blair even tries violently to recast Serena as the nameless wet girl in the background of Dejeuner by dropping her into the fountain – to no avail, of course; even wet, Serena has got It in a way Blair never can.

Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe

Blair loves Manet for two reasons: the first is because he gives her the fantasy of a world stripped of social niceties and rigid class. To be allowed to be as careless, as free, and even as sloppy as Victorine (or Serena) is a pleasure that Blair, buttoned-up and snugly coutured, has always been denied. Even naked, even totally abject, Victorine can remain adored and in control. That is the first reason, and perhaps the more obvious.

The second, however, is because, as much as Manet allows the fantasy of supreme self-confidence and assuredness even in the face of total exposure, he knew, cast as he was in the mire of hypocritical bourgeois values that so inhibited his quiet bohemian spirit, what it was like to feel not-quite-right in one’s clothes – to feel awkward, and exposed, and out-of-sync. To be the girl in the background, lonely, wet, and embarrassed.

“We write our own fairytales,” Serena warns Blair when she sees that gleam in her eyes. It’s the lesson Blair never learns, and the reason Princes in Disguise keep appearing in her story, only to have her fail, every time, to recognize them. She attempts to escape and reinvent, only to have the same patterns reassert themselves. Chuck’s new identity as “Henry Prince” is part of this same suspension-and-reinscription: a new name that blots out his old one, but, in choosing Shakespeare’s Henry V as his inspiration, re-asserts his old life just as potently: Chuck is the prodigal Prince Hal, getting his kicks in to the chagrin of a dismayed and disappointed father, and now, in his shadow, attempting to build an empire – attempting, in fact, to conquer France.

Just like the Hamptons before it, the interlude in Paris is an attempt to forestall the inevitable (“We should’ve stayed in Florence with Eric and Elliot”, Rufus says, just before he hits the big red button marked “VANESSA”. And i mean, who the fuck wouldn’t?). And Blair always knew it; when Louis meets her in the Orsay, he recognizes instantly she is American – not by her accent, but her watch. “It is set to Eastern Standard Time.” Four months, and she never changed the time – “But you love New York!” she chastised her mother when she herself threatened to move to Paris, “You always say that anyone who lives anywhere else is fooling themselves.”

The City of Love was just a fantasy – just a chance to disappear, to go unnoticed, and to pretend. Of course it fell apart the instant she checked up on Gossip Girl.

Episode Grade: 8.0/10.