Chadwick Boseman’s Death is a Reminder of All That We Do Not Know

I’ve never seen Black Panther. I think the last MCU movie I saw was the first Avengers. This is due to indifference. I’m not big into Marvel, and only slightly more into DC (the last DC movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises, which doesn’t count). That whole journey went right by me. Don’t take it personally.

So I don’t have anything to say about Chadwick Boseman as an actor. I’m sure he was good, or at least good enough to play the lead in the only comic book movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (what an antiquated term. No one calls them “moving pictures” anymore. Why don’t they call it Best Film?). I’m not here as a critic.

But that Twist. The fact that he’s been fighting Stage3/4 colon cancer since 2016. That he gave those performances, fought his way through Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame while undergoing chemo, catches the heart somehow. And sure, acting in a film is not storming the beaches of Normandy. But it’s not manning a checkout line at Safeway either. They pay you to do it because it’s work.

Above and beyond Bosments’s suddenly-apparent nigh-superhuman toughness, however, sits the fact that such a secret stayed hidden. Granted, Hollywood is good at hiding things. But health ain’t always exactly a secret. If Betty White had the sniffles, the internet would shut down for a day in pre-emptive mourning. But Black Panther had butt cancer and not even the 4channers knew.

That’s the lesson. Whoever you know, whoever you don’t know, whoever you hate, whoever you love, they’re carrying things that no one but God and their general practictioner know about. Things that are not spoken of outside of the four walls of their homes. What you see of a person – any person – is no more than what they show you.

That’s why The Man said Don’t Judge. Not because we’re incapable of judging, but because the full content of a human soul is hidden from us. We need most desperately to remember that in these supremely judgey times. For we are fragile, and our time is short.

Requiscat in Pace Æternam.

The Milennial Nostalgia Machine

Back in the 90’s, when concepts such as “youth culture” seemed relevant to me, I was known to lament the chokehold Boomers had over pop culture. Every time the same damn Beatles songs were repackaged into a new format, I got incredibly annoyed, especially when someone my age bought it.

Looking back, this exercise seems entirely natural. There are a lot of Boomers (hence the name), and naturally as they move from youth to peak earning power, their tastes will dominate the landscape. The Boomers felt the same way about the Hello Dolly/Vegas/Laurence Welk aesthetic their elders went in for. Plus, and if I’m being honest, that era had some quality cultural product. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Classic Rock era, and I’m entirely comfortable with saying that most of it didn’t suck. Neither did late 60’s-mid 70’s New Wave cinema, although I understand why it died. There isn’t any reason for any generation to not want to look back fondly on their youth.

But here’s the twist: When 80’s nostalgia started resting it’s head 20 years ago (just let that sink in), I didn’t like it any better. Mostly because I didn’t enjoy the 80’s all that much, or relate to it while it was happening. But at any rate, I found it boring: a strange, low-cal reproduction of an era, without any of the dark parts that balanced it out. Boomer nostalgia always paid homage to Vietnam and murdered Kennedys; the struggle between order and freedom, and the memory of playing their part in it, was an integral part of the story. But 80’s nostalgia has always seemed shallow; wistful, rose-colored escapism.

It’s been a steady lamentation for most of the past decade that movie companies are unable to move product unless it’s a remake or a film of an existing IP. The question must be why this is the case. Some of it must fall upon corporate inertia/laziness, the habit of the industry to exploit a trend until its dryer than the Red Wind in August. But that dynamic also leads to hunting for new trends, the next big thing, to exploit. Sure, New Wave Cinema had its successes, but that didn’t stop studios from greenlighting Jaws and Star Wars. For some reason, though, the current Nostalgia Well hasn’t dehydrated yet. It doesn’t seem to be the normal kind of trend. This seems to be where we are now, and likely to be for the forseeable future.

You could probably assign a thousand causes to this, and all of them play their part. Large historical trends are ever thus. Single causes yield single effects. But one thing that strikes me about ongoing 80’s nostalgia (which has absorbed 90’s nostalgia, which is wierd, as much of 90’s culture was a reaction to 80’s culture), is what the manner and the persistence of it has to say about its use. And that brings us to the generation that’s using it.

There are a lot of Milennials (which shouldn’t surprise us, as they’re mostly the Boomers’ kids), so their tastes are going to be dominant. In fact, you could argue that their tastes have been dominant since the late 90’s, when the crusty, wierd, ironic grunge aesthetic was replaced, almost overnight, by the Day-Glo Autotuned Bling aesthetic that rode hard into the new century. I felt that whiplash as hard as anyone of that era, and was shocked at the speed of it. I mean, for all of Nirvana’s legend, grunge didn’t come out of nowhere. It was seeded throughout the 80’s underground years, and the mainstream 80’s rock aesthetic wasn’t as uniform as memory suggests. Guns N’ Roses, for example, was a different beast entirely than say, Poison, for all they seemed at the time to be just variations on a theme. So were Motley Crue and Metallica. You can trace the connective tissue. The techno-pop, rap/rock late 90’s, on the other hand, seemed to just arrive from a spaceship and take over, apropos of nothing. It was an odd experience, feeling like you were already on the wrong side of the Generation Gap in your Early 20’s, but there it was.

But as time has gone on, the Millenials have become very protean in their tastes. The Spice Girls/Limp Bizkit era had even less staying power than Nirvana’s heyday. By late 2001, there was a Garage-Punk Riot going on. That gave us some good fun rock songs, but the whole hipster aesthetic that gave rise to it went mainstream as time went on and forced itself to become sillier and sillier to go on. Pretty soon it was impossible to embrace anything without irony, unless it brought some level of comfort.

And the experience of Millennials, by their own admission, seems to be a seeking after comfort. If you hit your teen years at the end of the 80’s, you became keenly aware of how wicked the world was, but also that it was full of hope. The combination of Crack Wars and the Fall of the Berlin Wall made an impression on me, that things that seemed to last forever could change, and that change could be good. But if you were too young to catch that lesson, history seemed to offer nothing but down notes. The Lewinsky Scandal shredded any faith in the Political Establishment. 9/11 shattered the idea that we had reached the End of History. And the 2008 Financial Crisis exposed the extent to which our economy has become a three-card monte game.

Who wouldn’t rather look back?

There are those who argue that this just opportunity. Unlike older generations, who had no capacity to indulge in the past, and younger generations, for whom the digital world has always been there, Millenials straddle the line between a pre-internet childhood and an online adulthood. They have the capacity to live in the past, so they can.

For our parents, and their parents, that was never an option. From childhood, all the way to adulthood, there was no internet — no easy access to the experiences of their pasts. For our children, the internet will always have been there. They’ll never know what it’s like to not be able to find a friend from summer camp or rewatch a TV show they loved. But millennials are somewhere in between — we remember a time when the past was out of reach, and we’re tech-savvy enough to make full use of the resources we now have to bring it back within our grasp.

Evie.com

That is as may be. But a crowning obsession with things past always hides a discomfort with the present, and fear of the future. Paradoxically, the very loss of tradition can feed this. When the future is understood to be some variation on the past, because we will do what we have done, then we can let the past be the guide it can be. But when all things are in flux, all understandings subject to disruption, the longing for Known can take over. The practical upshot of which is that there was a Baywatch movie precisely because Remember it? This is what Millenials want. The world is full of harshness and fear, and entertainment is escape (Oscar Movies are not entertainment). And it just might be that this is where we are right now, until another generation becomes dominant.

Why Movies Need Stars

Movies are a strange art form. They immerse an audience in a world that looks and sounds real, yet we can only access them through two-dimensional screens. We observe them as though we’re part of them, but the Fourth Wall is absolutely inviolable to us (not to the movie itself, mind). We can’t crash them or disturb them as we can a live performance. Movies are perhaps more product then they are performance. This isn’t to say the form has no artistry or craftsmanship. I rather think, with all the moving pieces involved, there’s more ways a movie can go wrong, and so more craftsmanship and discipline to do it right. But a greater part of that’s the responsibility of the filmmakers and their army, not the performers. There’s only so much even a brilliant actor can do if the director, cinematographers, editors, sound engineers, etc., fail at their jobs.

But the audience can’t see the filmmaker’s army. They can only see the performers. The filmmakers mediate how the audience sees the performers, which can be done a million different ways.

This differs from theater. A stage director puts together the moving parts of a show, rehearses it, builds it, tweaks it, sweats with his actors. And then he walks away, leaving the actor and crew to put together the show, night by night. Once this happens, the show belongs to the actors. I once went to a run of shows at a theater in Baltimore (Single Carrot Theater), where my wife was performing, and saw a performer give a different take of a single line every night for three weeks. It was just one line, but it differed by minor variations, each one communicating a distinct meaning. In a play, every show is different from the one before.

Movies don’t do that. Once the thing is “in the can,” it exists as an infinitely reproducible entity that will be exactly the same every time it is watched. In a film, it’s the actor who does his work and goes. In a very real way, film actors are almost entirely removed from the audience experience of the film. If an actor does ten takes of a scene, he’ll have no way of knowing which one the director will decide to use, or what it will look like. This explains the phenomenon of film actors not even bothering to see the movies they’re in. Such a thing could be an alienating experience.

This is not to say that none of the craft of performance goes into film acting. In fact, knowing from a shooting script and a treatment how to give the director and the camera something resembling what they want, and to give ten variations on that, cannot be easy. But it does present a challenge of a different order. It’s a challenge that will depend to a great degree on whether the actor looks like he fits in the world being built around him. This will depend on the kind of movie being made, and whether the actor steps into the world effortlessly or is swallowed up by it. So the movie actor needs to present a lifelike stability, a persona that the lens can interpret, that the director can build a world around.

And that’s why this quote from Rotten Chestnuts explains the 80’s far better than any nerd-sniffing ever has:

The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.

Insert John Wayne, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, anyone Warhol iconographed, and you get the idea. Schwarzenegger, above all else, was a known quantity: he shows up, commits to the bit, gets his work done. He’s a professional. You can build a movie around him and never have to worry about him not giving you everything he’s got. Arnold was never anyone’s idea of an actor, but the camera loved him. He made, over the course of his peak working years, a slew of films that not only were hits, but that are endlessly rewatchable, and will continue to be rewatched long after this year’s art-house cinema is forgotten by everyone except the Criterion crowd. Schwarzenegger made adventure films for the ages.

And those are the films studios relied upon to keep the wolf from the door. That army a director needs doesn’t pay itself. Star power, of the plodding, committed, Schwarzenegger kind, keeps people buying tickets. Once an actor becomes a star, he becomes a bankable commodity. That’s why Tom Cruise keeps making Mission:Impossible movies. More the point, it’s why he was hired for making the first one. Tom Cruise is a star: he’ll commit, he’ll get it done. What everyone laughed at in that leaked footage from The Mummy – Cruise yelling loudly at nothing – was precisely why he was there.

It sounds way less ridiculous in context, doesn’t it?

It becomes paramount, then for films to have stars whose personas fit the movies being made. Some actors will have greater range than others, and be able to make their work fit a variety of worlds. Others will be more limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stars or that their work is any less valuable.

Take Harrison Ford. He was and is a star. But after his initial hit films, his career went on a weird tangent. He seems to have picked up the idea that he was, or could be, a Serious Actor, and so wasted decades of marketable time chasing roles that never suited him. Ford was, when all was said and done, the low-rent Clint Eastwood. If he’d had the balls to go truly counter-cultural, he could have made westerns relevant in the 80’s (and at what time in recent history would movie audience have loved Westerns more than in the 80’s?). Instead, we got The Mosquito Coast, a movie no one except Ford still cares about, and pseudo-emotional schlock like Regarding Henry. No one wanted that. We wanted variations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, who were really just Harrison Ford, as much as John P. Chance and Rooster Cogburn were just John Wayne. “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” was, if not a line for the ages, at least memorable and droll. Watching him yell about how he didn’t kill his wife (more than one film centered on this) had an unpleasant desperation to be liked. Even DiCaprio doesn’t sweat that hard.

{Also, not a great Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero; he’s a bookworm who has a Marine somewhere in his muscle memory. Alec Baldwin got that, and made his Ryan vulnerable, constantly trying to keep ahead of a world-historical devestation, so when he gets the drop on the KGB guy at the end of Hunt For Red October, and reveals that really, Ryan has seen death before, and isn’t just an analyst, it means something. Ford fulminating about “right and wrong” is not only boring, it’s words no one at Langley has ever said, ever. But there hasn’t been a good Tom Clancey novel since Red Storm Rising, anyway, so whatever.}

The result is, movies need stars, and stars need to know themselves as such, that they may understand their work. And critics need to understand what stars bring to movies, and stop judging them by theatrical thespian standards (Meryl Streep might be a star, but Elizabeth Taylor was a bigger one, and Taylor’s films are more rewatchable than Streep’s), the way the audiences already do. Then the art of cinema might finally understand itself.

Beyond Cowboys and Indians

{The following was first written for my defunct Medium.com account in 2012. In some sense it has been overtaken by events. The success of the indie film Bone Tomahawk, among others, in some sense supports my premise. And the points it has to make about the nature of the Western, especially as against the Noir, are worth reconsidering.}

I am an unrepentant fan of Westerns. I love old ones; I love new ones. I love John Ford and Sergio Leone. I appreciate them at their most romantic, and at their darkest. I enjoy it when they confound the genre’s expectations and when they play to them. And I weary of the contention that they are irrelevant.

People have been declaring the genre dead for decades. They said it in the Eighties. They said it in the Nineties, despite the existence of two big-budget films — one the truth, one the legend — about The Gunfight at the OK Corral (Everybody loves Tombstone, but it’s Costner’s Wyatt Earp that gets better on repeated viewings). Most recently, the utter collapse of the big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger prompted Atlantic writer Michael Agresta to offer an interesting premise:

If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it’ll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

He goes on to craft a curiously incomplete history of Western films of the last quarter century, seeming to believe in the hype of Unforgiven as the “last Western”. He makes no mention in his piece of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, of 2003’s Open Range, 2008’s Appaloosa, all of which were traditional westerns with known stars, and all of which turned a profit (a more modest one in Appaloosa’s case, but still better than The Lone Ranger’s utter commercial flop).

Agresta then praises The Lone Ranger on highly questionable grounds: for being a film with the courage to stare the subjugation of the American Indian in its face without blinking, thus faintly suggesting the film’s honesty made it simply too much for an American audience, clinging quietly to the white privilege of a conquered continent, to bear. He also suggests that such continued honesty might be the seeds of a reborn Western, heroically confronting the baggage of the past.

This is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, The Lone Ranger hardly broke new cinematic ground on the suffering of the American Indian. In the second, Western stories are not really about the Indians.

Indians are less important to the Western than they would seem. Most of the time, they exist as part of the backdrop — a threat that can irrupt, but may not. True, some films — John Ford’s 7th Cavalry trilogy, for example — deal with the conquest of North America directly. But even these do so with a great deal of moral ambiguity. The righteousness of white colonization of the West is rarely assumed, and often challenged.

The Red Man’s View, 1909

In fact, awareness of the injustice meted out to the American Indian is present in the earliest Westerns, from D.W. Griffith’s The Red Man’s View, to Buster Keaton’s The Paleface. Even 7th Cavalry films like Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On, make a point of portraying the natives as more sinned against than sinning.

This does not mean that those depictions of Native Americans are without their own problems — how could they be? And certainly, the Nations should be encouraged to tell their own stories, find their own voices (provided, of course, they want to do so). But collective guilt over the conquest of North America is a nonsensical reason to avoid our homegrown genre of romance. We can deconstruct it, and we have. But we can reconstruct it, too, and that must be just as legitimate.

In any case, most Westerns take place in a land where Indians are already gone, but the new civilization barely present. The reality that everything could come crashing down is the true driver of the plot. You can argue that this glossing over of how and why the Indians are gone is itself questionable, but it’s a problem of what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. Every act of writing or speaking consists of saying one thing and not another. The existence of once voice does not preclude another.

Claudia Cardinale on the set of Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969

So if the Western is not really about the Indian, what does that leave us? A bunch of white people killing each other? How is the Western then any different from any other setting of shoot-em-up?

To answer this, I compare the Western with that other old-school genre of violence, the noire. In noire, evil triumphs, or at least survives. The rich bastard has the cops in his pocket and gets his way. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown. No matter what happens, the powers that be remain the powers that be. They have been too long on the ground, they fulfill a need. They have become respectable. Noire takes place in the tight, square urban landscape: the only way out is through a door that only leads to another room. The city has been built, and you cannot fight city hall.

But the western takes place in the wide open, in untamed land. Possibility has not yet been closed off into concentric squares of concrete and steel. Have gun, will travel. Civilization is light on the ground and we can make up the rules as we go.

And as Deadwood points out, that’s not always a good thing. Natural man is remarkably un-free from exploitation; indeed, he makes exploitation his common coin. When the powers-that-be are still in flux, they are the more ruthless because of that.

James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicut, and John Wayne, El Dorado, 1967

But they can also be fought. The first Western I ever saw, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, pits a ruthless, cruel cattle baron against a drunken sheriff (played with flinty brilliance by Robert Mitchum) and his gunslinger friend (John Wayne, showing a few small chinks of vulnerability in his usual heroic panoply). Indians are mentioned only once, in passing and already passed. The rich man employs thugs to push out competitors and acts as thought the law does not apply to him; the sheriff must see him punished. Law and wealth are directly opposed to one another, and it’s possible for one side to win, and for that victory to matter.

Or take Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the jumping-off point in the Man With No Name Trilogy and at first glance, the polar opposite of a film like El Dorado (both were made around the same time). A reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo¸ Fistful depicts a border town under the uneasy dominance of two warring clans, one Anglo, one Mex. Both claim to be the true authority, both employ gangs of hoods and engage in an endless cycle of murder on each other. Our anti-heroic protagonist plays both against each other to put money in his own pocket. This would seem a brutal inversion of the law vs. lawlessness tale that El Dorado spins, in which the camps of good and evil are clear.

But it happens that the leader of the Mexican clan, Ramon, exceeds his opponent in cunning and cruelty. He is a man without scruple, who murders the innocent and forcibly steals a poor man’s wife. That the level of his corruption differs only in degree from his enemies does not matter. He is manifestly a bad man. He’s got it coming, and in the Wild West, one man with courage can make sure he gets it.

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, 1964

“What does it take to make justice happen?” is a common question in Westerns, from True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Shane. “What are the fruits of violence?” is another, found from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven and on and on. These issues are timeless, and they should be discussed at face value. Westerns are a good vehicle for discussing these issues precisely because the wildness of the backdrop puts them at the center of human existence, where they belong.

So I propose that we dispense with the notion that the Western needs to be “fixed”. It doesn’t. It just needs to do what it always does, spin tales of good and evil, of corruption and honor, of exploitation and heroism. And it will adapt itself naturally to the needs of our culture, if we let it. The Western is only as dead as we declare, and nothing that has to be declared dead ever really is.

On Dorks and Spirits

My last post, about the slapfight between William Shatner and RLM fans, contained a passage perhaps intemperate:

More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

It seems I let my rhetoric get away with me. This won’t stand up to objective analysis. Am I saying everyone who has a Funko Pop, or has ever been to ComicCon, has something wrong with their soul?

Let me concede: no, that isn’t true. It’s obviously not true. It’s not true according to the point I was making, that fandoms are not automata, but contain multitudes. There isn’t anything wrong, in itself, with collecting things, or going to events where things you collect can be purchased.

And you don’t need me to tell you that. I’m not the Pope of Fandom, and this blog is not my Index Expurgatorius. I wouldn’t want that job, and if it existed, I would rebel against it. I’d rather be the Martin Luther of Fandom.

My personal tastes are what they are, and while I understand (and engage in) collecting media that can be read, viewed, heard, or otherwise experienced – consuming art – I will continue to dislike the modern practice of people identifying themselves with what they enjoy consuming. That’s the problem I have with “fandom”, as a thing. It elevates consumption of media to a social identity.

Obviously, this exists on a gradient. I’m not going to become the John Calvin of Fandom, demanding that you destroy your icons. That would make me a prig, and the universe would be justified in telling me to shove a hand-glazed statuette of IronMan in the most convenient orifice.

But consider this:

Now, I’m on record as disliking almost every decision Lucasfilm has made over the last quarter century. If “the fans” are in revolt against Lusasfilm, it’s entirely Lucasfilm’s fault. SW fandom was low-drama and chill until George Lucas started treating the universe like a rented mule in the 90’s.

But consider the mindset it takes to interpret corporate rumor as Proof of Victory. Who does that? Who pours through Mark Hamill’s anodyne public statements like they’re Samizdata from the Underground Resistance? Who has this much energy for this? Why?

There’s a difference between critiquing art and raging about it. An ocean of YouTube videos saying “The Last Jedi Stinks Like an Outhouse Under a Bridge, and Here’s Why” will not raise a single eyebrow from me. That’s a human encountering art, and rises to the level of argument.

But that’s all it is. George Lucas didn’t rape your childhoods. Kathleen Kennedy is not a monster from the deep. Star Wars being bled out like a Passover lamb is unfortunate, but it doesn’t cry out to Heaven for vengeance. Dial it the fuck back.

By the same token, people who don’t like things that you like are not heretics. Criticism can be argued with, but dismissing it with banal rhetorical tropes (blah blah fat blah blah parents basement blah blah incel) is just you trying to control who gets to sit at your table, and what color they wear on Wednesdays. And in case you haven’t noticed, it doesn’t work.

The fact of these behaviors is a sign of devotion, and I’m sorry, but I question devotion to this kind of object. I understand it, and have experienced it. But I don’t think it’s reasonable or healthy. I think it reflects a spiritual lack. I think it’s turning everything into a war of Us and Them, the definitions of which change daily.

Being a fan is fine on its own. It doesn’t need a dom.

William Shatner, Red Letter Media, and What Everyone Gets Wrong About Fandom

Never meet your heroes.

I’ve mentioned Red Letter Media before. They’re a YouTube channel that discusses film in a serious way, but with lots of jokes – spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. They’re different from most cinema nerds on YouTube in that they’ve actually undergone the process of making movies themselves – schlocky B-movies, that they themselves do not take seriously. But they’ve done it. They have some understanding of what it involves, so they talk about the nuts and bolts, which for a layman is an education.

Their infamous 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace taught a whole generation why the prequels weren’t working. Yes, they’ve savaged the Disney films as well. They especially made fun of Rogue One, which is the one everyone seems to love. They’re fair-minded and upfront about their perspectives.

They also do a MST3K-ish panel discussion of bad movies, called Best of the Worst, and they’ve had other creatives on as guest stars. Schlock ninja filmmaker Len Kabasinski has been on a couple of times, as has comic artist Freddie Williams, screenwriter Max Landis (before he got cancelled), comedian Patton Oswalt, and Macaulay Culkin, who’s practically a regular at this point.

I mention all of this because they’re a growing brand that is gaining widespread awareness. They hit 1 million YouTube subscribers recently. People have heard of them. Now, two of the three RLM stakeholders (Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans) are big Star Trek fans (I’m not going to call them Trekkies, for reasons that will become clear later). They talk about Star Trek a lot. They’re critical of the Next Generation movies, but love the show. They have nuanced criticisms of the recent film reboots. They do not like the more recent Star Trek Series, such as Discovery and Picard. But they stood up for one of the least-liked Trek movies, the 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture – a movie I’ve been wont to dismiss as “two hours of blue stuff”.

These two trends explain why RLM fans may have gotten it into their heads that William Shatner might become a guest on their show. They never invited him, but it became a meme anyway. This is an important point I’m going to come back to later.

Now I’m going to let Mike and Jay explain what happened next:

If you don’t want to spare the 20 minutes, Shatner got tired of being bugged on Twitter by RLM fans to be on the show. He was polite at first, if a bit shakey on the definition of “podcast” (which is fine, as “podcast” has a shakey definition). Then he started being less polite, then he started casually dismissing the RLM crew, watching tiny snippets of their videos and picking nits. This being Twitter, the volume increased, until the RLM guys had to stop what they were actually doing to announce that this was all a tempest in a teapot and it should all go away. Mike ends with the words “Leave him alone, because I just can’t take Captain Kirk pulling up pictures of me on The Nerd Crew (a satirical show they do) set, and calling me a moron. I just can’t take it.”

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. That video came on Thursday, (July 23rd). Yesterday (July 27th), Shatner unloaded both barrels at the RLM guys with a Medium.com article called “The Toxic Empires of Egoligarchies“. If you’re having a hard time getting past the title, I’ll summarize it for you: Shatner didn’t watch the video, even though he used pieces of it, and brings in GamerGate and a host of screencaps to prove that… RLM sent its fans on Twitter to harass him.

In William Shatner’s mind, this is the only possible explanation. Three guys from Milwaukee have a zombie horde of fans that they can turn on and off like tap water. That’s how fandom works.

The absurdity of claiming, in the face of no evidence, in the face of all contrary evidence, that the RLM guys signaled their fans to harass Shatner staggers the imagination. The entire pretentious diatribe (truly an accomplishment for Medium, a platform that specializes in transmogrifying peoples’ shower thoughts into “essays”) has enough circular reasoning in it to flatten a trailer park.

William Shatner knows better than this. William Shatner has had to deal with his own fans being out of control. So has George Lucas. So has everybody who has a fandom. Fandoms (oh, I how I loathe that word) are not armies, sent out into the world like digital stosstruppen to do their master’s bidding. If they were, then Red Letter Media, which is based on fans being critical of product, couldn’t possibly exist. Fans are human beings, and act along the gradient of human behavior. Some of them will be monsters, and some saints.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was small. I’ve never gone to a fan convention. I’ve never bought a lightsaber or any other Star Wars paraphanelia. The only T-Shirts I have were given to me as Father’s Day gifts. I sold my old box of Star Wars toys at a yard sale for $5. More to the point, I think people who do fill their house with junk and go to such conventions are spiritually depleted dorks. Am I still a fan?

Art is a worthy topic of discussion. That’s why I have articles about Star Wars on this blog. But art is meant to be enjoyed, considered, and critiqued, not worshipped. Liking something is not a substitute for an identity. The RLM guys get that, which is why I watch their YouTube channel.

But I would never bother an octogenarian actor on Twitter to be on their show. I don’t understand why anyone would. I think doing that is just brainless schoolyard trolling, of the kind that makes Twitter nothing more than a blood-pressure surge device. Anyone who bugged William Shatner about a YouTube channel he’s never heard of is a waste of a rational soul. There’s no reason for it; you didn’t achieve your goal, and you manufactured the phoniest kind of drama in a world that is filled with real-life, actual drama. You are shrieking gibbons flinging poop and bits of half-chewed berries at the gravestone of our culture.

Now ask me: am I still a fan?

Go ahead, ask me.

Quick Review: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, I finally watched it. I’d had a hard time getting into it: first off-put by the banality of “LOL HItler” (World War 2 was eighty years ago), then by being bored during the first half-hour. Frankly, for a film that billed itself as a trangressive comedy, there weren’t nearly enough laughs (the most transgressive thing in it is the opening credits, which juxtaposes Nazi propaganda reels with a German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). The funniest character is Sam Rockwell’s Captain K, a one-eyed drunk with deadpan lines and a silent humanity miles under the surface. He’s actually a character, unlike Rebel Wilson’s Nazi matron, who’s a parody.

One struggles to find laughs otherwise. The Hitler Imaginary Friend bit isn’t as funny as it wants to be. One gets the gag – Hitler talking like a ten-year-old – and it’s not bad for all that. But it’s a shade short of being brilliant, especially as the film’s hook.

I must pause here to make the Historian’s Grumble. What year is this supposed to be? There’s talk of The Allies Landing in Italy, which was 1943. But then Imaginary Hitler references the Von Stauffenberg plot as occurring “last year”. But that plot occured in 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the film ends in the Gotterdamerung of 1945. But it annoyed me, and prevented me from getting into it.

That said, the charms outweigh the faults. Scarlett Johanssen picks this film up and carries it on her shoulders. She’s easily the best thing in it: a performance light and nimble, yet utterly grounded. The film grows whenever she’s on screen, and her character’s arc provides meaning and heart to it. The character of Jorgi – Jojo’s porky pal, who ends up in the Volksturrm – is a delight, remaining entirely child-like as the world goes blood-mad around him. The relationship between Jojo and the Girl in the Wall gets better as it goes on, becoming less “LOL Nazis” and turning into something human. Both characters overcome distrust and establish grounds for social intercourse, which grow into a familial relationship. Elsa becomes Jojo’s long-lost sister (who is dead at the start of the film, for reasons that remain intriguingly unknown), and they come to rely upon each other. In that respect, the film is a human success.

Quick Reviews: Dovlatov and The Death of Stalin

What can I say, sometimes my mood becomes very Russian.

Dovlatov is a film about a Soviet dissident writer before he became well-known. It’s less a move than it is a portrait of the writer as a winsome rapscalion. Not very much happens except you spend a week or so in this guys’ life in 1971, deep into the Brezhnev Twilight, which is my favorite era of Soviet history because of the pure Empty Nothing of it. It’s after the War and after the Purges, but before anyone dared to let anything thaw. And the movie positively swims in that: letting the USSR of the 70’s make you want to put a bullet in your brain, and enjoy the fact that Our Hero remains himself in spite of the fact that he can’t get 25 rubles together to buy his daughter a doll. In an era where everyone feels oppressed, watching a man deal with actual oppression while refusing to give into it is quite inspiring. Nothing happens, plotwise, but that’s kind of the point. It feels bad in that way that feels so good.

The Death of Stalin was one of those things that I waited eagerly to finally pop onto Netflix. In today’s poltical climate, the idea that anyone would satirize the Soviet Union is kind of astounding. The ever-present Communist Alibi would seem to preclude its existence. And yet, it was praised by all the usual suspects. Sometimes things aren’t as black as you fear.

That being said, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. The Death of Stalin bills itself as a black comedy, but the reality of the Soviet regime really defies humor. You can draw mirth from seeing hapless individuals drawn into the blood void of communism for a little while, but the ferocity of the feud between Kruschev and Beria is too real to be laughed at. When Kruschev shouts “I will fucking bury you in history!” to Beria’s burning corpse (Spoilers if you’ve never read a history book), you agree, you sympathize, but you don’t laugh. It isn’t funny.

Also, those two are miscast. Steve Buscemi, playing Kruschev, looked like the real-life Lavrenti Beria, and Simon Russel Beale, playing Beria, is practically a ringer for Kruschev. And it’s not like Buscemi, who spent 5 seasons as a gangster on Boardwalk Empire, couldn’t have pulled off that mix of worming and psychopathy. A missed opportunity.

I will say that the film doesn’t even attempt the line that the Soviet Union was a good idea inexplicably run by bad men. After the monster Beria is shuffled off, we get barbed postlude captions telling us that Kruschev stayed in power only so long as he could keep a wilier sharp – the aforementioned Brezhnev – down. There may have been no pure monsters after Stalin, but gangsters they had, and Dovlatov doesn’t speak well of the world those gangsters maintained.

When Critics Don’t Help, and When They Do

When I say “critic” I don’t mean “someone who gives you feedback on a piece of art”, I mean “someone who applies a formal critical assessment to your work”. You know, the nerds.

This video, worth watching in full (it’s less than 9 minutes), discusses well two things:

  1. That authors/artists don’t necessarily follow a logic of intent, per se.
  2. That critics are guilty of imposing narratives on works, under the guise of “uncovering”.

In the process of creation, very often the thing being created takes on a life of its own. The logic of decisions made at the begining have a way of binding the creator’s hand. When a character starts with a set of facts an author has given him, that set often requires actions in the context of the story that the author may not have considered. So unconsidered ideas have a way of bringing themselves to the top. Hence, while Tarantino did not start with the idea “Mr. White and Mr. Orange have a father/son kind of relationship”, because of the way he drew those characers and the positions he put them in, that came to the surface. Intent is not a linear reality.

Having said that, I can’t abide the notion that “The author is dead”, and critics and audiences can simply decide what a thing means and is. Anyone can describe their experience of a work, and have it be subjectively valid, even unassailable. But the post-modern inversion that the audience creates the work is inane. The video discusses the King Kong/race theory, the idea that King Kong is a metaphor for slavery in America. The makers of the film didn’t intend that. Critics have pointed out the metaphor after the fact of its creation.

Now, I’d like to draw a careful distinction here. Applying the slavery framework to King Kong is an interesting way of looking at it. It provides a fresh perspective on both. It syncs up. But so does Dark Side of the Moon sync up with The Wizard of Oz (Although not perfectly. The album’s only about half the running time of the movie). It’s interesting. It gives you a fresh perspective on both. But it’s absurd to argue that either work was created with the other in mind, or that either are necessary to the other. It is not necessary to view King Kong as a metaphor for slavery. You can do it, sure. It’s worth discussing. But it’s simplistic to take the next step and say “That’s what King Kong is. That’s all it is.”

To my mind, critics are the ones who need to be careful in insisting upon their juxtapositions. Criticism absent acknowledement of authorship is theft.

Let Us Now Discuss Gone With The Wind

There are two ways this can go: desperate attempt to defend this oh-so 1930’s take on historical drama, or dump all over it as the irritation it is. I will do the second thing. I do not like Gone With The Wind and never have. I don’t know why anyone does. I shall give a set of reasons why, and then I will lament its erasure anyway, because it’s really not hard to do that if you aren’t a millenarian bookburner.

Why I Detest Gone With The Wind:

  1. Scarlett O’Hara.

The big problem I have with this film is the protagonist.  You see, the protagonist has to be someone we identify with, someone whose values and motivations are roughly on a par with ours. This way, when the protagonist encounters conflict in the story, we have sympathy for her. Sympathy is a Greek Word that means “feels with”. We feel what the protagonist feels, and thus we are involved in the conflict of the story. We want the protagonist to win and the antagonist to lose, or if there is no antagonist, to overcome the conflict.

But if the protagonist is someone whose motivations we either don’t understand or don’t respect, we can’t identify with that person. This doesn’t mean the protagonist has to be perfect and without flaw, but there has to be some desire or motivation that we share with that person. These can be, but are not limited too: love, success, discovery, etc.

As to values, the protagonist needs to be someone who has a set of ethics roughly in line with the audience’s. Otherwise, we don’t like the protagonist and won’t sympathize with them.

Finally, the protagonist needs to be someone who we could sit in a room with for five minutes without desiring to slap the living hell out of them. She needs to be a more-or-less likable person, or even if their motivations are clear and their ethics impeccable, we won’t want to see or hear them, much less root for them.

So, a quick protagonist checklist – the Protagonist needs:

a) a clear and reasonable motivation

b) a clear and acceptable set of ethics

c) not to be irritating.

And for me, Scarlett O’Hara fails on all three counts. Her motivations are murky and/or ridiculous, her ethics are at best questionable, and she has absolutely no personal charm that would balance that. She’s a spoiled little rich girl who spends the bloodiest time in our nation’s history angry that she can’t marry the handsomest man she knows, and she deals with everyone around her with a mix of high-handed contempt and vicious infighting. She’s Goneril in a green gown.

Far from sympathizing with her, I revel in her misfortunes and desire that she suffer more of them. The first time I saw the movie, even as kid, I kept watching because I dearly wanted to see her suffer. I wanted someone, anyone, to teach her that she wasn’t the center of the known universe. The only other time I’ve had this experience with a movie was when I first saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when I wanted someone to do the same to Charlie. Just kidding. I meant Veruca Salt. But considering Veruca is supposed to be a villain, the fact that she and Scarlett remind me of one another is not a good thing.

2. Ashley Wilkes Useless Wanker

Neither can I stand the to-the-manor-born fopwagon Scarlett spends three hours obsessing over. It may sound odd an American like myself to use the insult “wanker”. It’s a word we generally associate with English people, especially working class ones. And that’s kind of the point I want to make about Useless Wanker, which is that some things don’t sound right in the wrong accent. 

So will someone explain to me why Useless Wanker is the only character in the movie who speaks in an English accent, even though he’s supposed to be from Georgia, just like Scarlett? This makes no sense, and is never addressed. They don’t even come up with a stupid cover explanation, like Useless went to finishing school in London, or is mom is English. They don’t give us anything.

Feed me no swill that Leslie Howard was English and couldn’t do a Southern accent. Vivien Leigh was English, and she trotted out her stage-southern “fiddle-dee-dee’s” just fine. I don’t know if anyone in antebellum Georgia ever talked like Scarlett O’Hara, but at least she tried. She helped us to suspend disbelief. Howard was just being lazy. Which is why I supposed he’s playing Useless.

You might argue that not everyone ostensibly Southern in the film has an ostensibly Southern accent. Gable doesn’t, even though Rhett Butler hails from South Carolina. You would argue fairly. However, Gable’s lack of an accent offends less than Howard’s, for a couple of reasons:

a) Gable was already an established star. American audiences knew what he sounded like. If he’d tried some rinky-dinky accent, it might have distracted audiences rather than helping them.

b) Rhett Butler is an outsider. Sounding different from the people at Tara or Twelve Oaks helps to establish this character’s first noteworthy trait.

c) Gable still sounds like someone from the United States of America. Suspend disbelief is easier on his behalf.

d) Clark Gable was cool. He’s the best thing in this movie. He gets a pass.

On the other hand, Leslie Howard was mostly known for playing – guess what? – stiff-necked Englishmen. So he actually needed that effort not to sound like himself, to resemble someone belonging in antebellum Georgia. Instead, every word out of the mouth of this belle idee of the Southern Gentleman announces to everyone with ears that he’s a foreigner, and again, this is never explained.

Since we’re on the subject of accents, I should point out the silly brogue that Thomas Mitchell throws on to play Gerald O’Hara, Scarlett’s father, an immigrant from Ireland. It’s not a dreadful accent, although I do find myself expecting him to fulminate that the Yankees are after his Lucky Charms. I am instead confused that none of his Hibernian nature seems to have rubbed off on any of his three daughters. Not one of them say anything like what their father says. Not completely implausible, given growing up somewhere vastly different from Ireland with rather strong pressures to conform, but still weird, and it adds to the difficulty I have with Scarlett. 

She seems completely unrelated to her father, despite the emotional bond the film takes pains to establish between them. Despite her name, Katie Scarlett O’Hara is about as Irish as everyone pretends they are on St. Patrick’s Day. This is another opportunity to give the protagonist depth that the film chooses not to make, despite the labor involved it making Gerald O’Hara the most Oirishest paddy what ever drank whiskey from a pot o’gold.

3. Fetishization of the Confederacy

I’m just gonna display my biases. I’m a Yankee. I had two ancestors who fought in the Union Army. I’m not a big fan of the Confederacy or the people who engage in apologetics in its name. I have never understood why anyone would want to honor it.

The Confederate States of America lasted a little bit longer than a presidential term. Every state in it has been part of the USA way longer than the CSA. The states on the Eastern seaboard were British Colonies longer than they were part of the CSA. The CSA was a failure in every respect.

Not only did the Confederate government lose the war, but it violated its own principles even as it fought for them. Far from being a libertarian haven, the CSA was a borderline fascist state by the time the war ended. Let’s go through the checklist:

  • Conscription – check
  • Assumption of dictatorial powers – check
  • Roving bands of terror squads seizing goods and executing those who resisted – check

In fairness, a lot of this stuff happened in the North, too. There was also conscription, and a pretty corrupt system of hiring substitutes to go with it. And Lincoln and the War Department certainly assumed dictatorial powers during the war. But the north didn’t go to war as a protest against the loss of liberty. The North went to war to put down a rebellion.

The only way you can possibly look back at this egregiance fondly is if you have grievances from that time that you cannot let go of. Which is exactly the problem that people who want to tear down Confederate monuments and to erase this movie have. But more on that later.

4. That Music

Look, it’s not a bad piece of music. It’s memorable, or hummable, or whatever. It used to be the CBS Million Dollar Movie Theme, when they had that sort of thing.

I even get the reason it’s repeated so many times. One of the themes of the movie is Scarlett’s profound and mystical connection to the plantation she grew up on – Tara. And the theme is called “Tara’s Theme” So, the idea must be that every time something significant is happening in the movie, Tara is all around her, swelling its heaving slave-flecked bosom in emotional catharsis.

Unfortunately, since none of these scenes ever indicate anything but plot points, and never actual moments of catharsis in the character, it just sounds like they’re turning on the music as a kind of punctuation, like the scene wipes in Star Wars.

Consequently, the theme is overused, overused, overused and I become numb to anything good about it. This isn’t necessarily the music’s fault, but I still come to hate it. It’s hardly great music, anyway. It’s a pretty simple melody, actually, and really only evokes one emotion, that of nostalgia, and considering what the film is nostalgic for, I’d just as soon not. I’d rather listen to someone torture a cat with a nail file, or someone playing harmonica with their rear end. I would rather listen to ABBA, than ever hear that theme music ever again.

So let’s do like HBO Max and erase it, so I can be happy. Down the memory hole with this trash! Right?

No.

Gone With The Wind is not a film to my tastes. The story it tells doesn’t interest me, and it’s full of the 1930’s being nostalgic for the 1850’s in a way that frankly offends me. But the solution I have for that is the one that occurred to many readers a good way through my rant:

I don’t watch the damn thing.

It’s that simple. I watch other things, which are too my tastes, instead. Gone With The Wind is not a requirement in anyone’s life. No one will be shocked that you haven’t watched a movie that no one under the age of 85 will remember seeing in a theater. You don’t need to have anything to do with it.

And by all means, correct the narrative that Gone With The Wind offers. Give us Twelve Years a Slave instead. Raising a voice to describe the horrors of our history is necessary and good.

But erasing voices is not. Healthy cultures do not destroy art. Yes, Gone With The Wind is art. Have you seen it? Whatever my problems with it’s characters and framework, it’s an epic piece of visual storytelling. Even I, who can’t stand the film, think the Burning of Atlanta is gloriously shot.

And that’s the last time there’s been a film that even touched on The Burning of Atlanta. Think about that. 150 years ago half of our country underwent invasion by the other half, and we can’t abide to look at how this was done. (Is this one of the reasons I wrote The Sword? You think?) We’d rather smash anything that reminds us of it.

And to no purpose. Erasing every last statue or rememberance of Robert E. Lee won’t change his place in the course of history. Commanding his name be slashed from the books like an Egyptian Pharoah won’t change that we are in the world he had a hand in making. His ghost remains with us.

You don’t like the fact that a sizable portion of your fellow citizens find Lee honorable, and Scarlett O’Hara an iron woman? You will not change their minds by attempting to crimethought it away. Quite the opposite in fact: The Blu-Ray Edition of Gone With The Wind is now the #1 Move on Amazon.com. That’s right, people are panic-buying an 80-year-old film because they think their cultural history is being destroyed by people who despise them.

Gone With The Wind deserves to be replaced by a better film. It doesn’t deserved to be removed from film history, or attached with a lecture telling us what we should think about it. The only way its unpleasant influence can be undone is by outdoing it. Make an epic about the Civil War that’s more entertaining, more satisfying, that stares our history in its face and balances the loss of the past with the joy of progress. Add to the art, lest we find ourselves repeating its subject.