Hot Fuzz

The Cornetto Retrospective, Pt. 2 – Hot Fuzz

As Roger Ebert’s review of Dirty Harry points out, police movies often come with a hint of fascist sympathies in their DNA.  By causing audiences to identify with an officer of the law who is willing to break the law he is paid to enforce, by having the officer’s enemies be racial minorities or other representations of societal “outsiders,” and by suggesting that the solution to the problems presented by these outsiders is their eradication or imprisonment, these films open themselves up to charges of fascist sentiment. The real-life ambiguities of crime, the desperate living conditions of most criminals, the possibility that police officers may abuse their authority: all of these are ignored in favor of a story where Good (in a person who represents Law and Order) destroys Evil (in a person who represents someone outside the popular definition of Normal, morally, racially, and/or socioeconomically), and the people in the theater cheer this destruction, and are encouraged, at least temporarily, to confuse it for truth.  Of course, all this analysis overlooks one important characteristic of cop movies: they’re really fun to watch.

It should go without saying that the second film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, Hot Fuzz, doesn’t forget the second part of this equation, but what is surprising is that it is aware of the first part, and knows how to turn this awareness into a commentary on the buddy-cop genre.  The buddy-cop movie is essentially a less problematic version of the Dirty-Harry-style cop movie, because it’s twice as democratic.  When Clint Eastwood is going after the law himself, he has to be completely right in order for the audience to get its Hollywood ending. He must be right about who the criminal is, his decision to kill rather than capture the criminal must be the right one, and his decision to forgo the Bill of Rights when dealing with the criminal must be right as well.  The correct proportions of Law and Justice must be present in his every action in order for his authority in the movie to not come across as bloody-minded thuggishness.  But the buddy-cop movie can split Law and Justice between two different characters, the by-the-book veteran (who’s likely never seen any real action) and the hothead rookie (but he gets results, dammit!) and let them spend the rest of the movie squabbling over the best way to get things done.  Through their familiar but adversarial dialogue, a declaration becomes a debate, control turns into cooperation.

The first really interesting thing about Hot Fuzz is Pegg and Wright’s decision to initially meld the two halves of Dirty Harry back together in the form of Nicholas Angel. a by-the-books cop who gets results, dammit!  Angel doesn’t have Dirty Harry’s contempt for due process, but then this is 2006, not 1971, and it’s England, not America.  Angel is probably the Brits’ ideal of a cop, a man who knows how to use a gun but chooses not to wear one, who can subdue suspects with a notepad as easily as a weapon, who can lead a SWAT team into dangerous territory and truly believe he’s just doing his job.  Angel is not only so good that the London office farms him out to the countryside before his record prove a humiliation to the rest of the force, he’s so good that it’s not immediately apparent what he’s doing in a buddy-cop film: what does he need a buddy for?

The second wrench thrown into the works is the setting: rather than being the hotbed of criminal activity found in London, Angel’s new country surroundings seem criminally overstaffed with the five policeman that are already there when he arrives.  The town is known for its rustic quaintness, and the chief police activity seems to involve mollifying the Neighborhood Watch Program(me?), whose members become apoplectic at the sight of anything that appears to threaten said rustic quaintness.  The only neighborhood watch meeting Nicholas attends is a broad send-up of small-town attitudes, as the members try to gang-press him into contributing to small community projects, and have themselves a good laugh at his big-city epistemological skepticism.  “You’re an agnostic, then?  I think I have a cream for tha’!”

Every cop movie reassures its audience of two things: 1) Evil in society is capable of being discovered, and (2) capable of being removed and destroyed, the way one would remove a tumor from an otherwise healthy body.  The initial crime that Nicholas begins to uncover would fit into any normal buddy-cop movie or Lee Child novel, a twisty maze of intimidation, conspiracy, codes hidden in misspelled headlines, and a land dispute over a bypass (in what I really hope was a nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).  Being a good cop even by movie-cop standards, Angel solves the case in about two-thirds the time it takes a normal movie to run through the paces, only to discover that the story he has stitched together is incorrect.  Pegg and Wright take the central myth of police movies and flip it on its head: this is no tale of a mad grocer killing his fellow townspeople for personal financial gain, a black mark on society that can be quickly and painlessly removed to keep it from spreading.  Instead, it is part of a larger conspiracy by the neighborhood watch to keep the town’s rural quaintness intact by killing off undesirable elements as they appear.  Even the chief of police is in on it.  The evil that Nicholas Angel is required to eradicate is inseparable from the very fabric of the society it is his duty to protect.  In their own understated way, Pegg and Wright are suggesting that the justice  we are used to seeing meted out in a neat two hours at a movie theater is not nearly as easy an undertaking as the movies make it seem.  In the real world, there are shades of gray, and evil that runs far deeper than the average Lethal Weapon screenplay.

The reason Nicholas doesn’t realize this, seeing evil as a rogue element to be excised rather than a collective belief that has compromised the foundations of the town itself, is because he holds himself apart from the town, living in a hotel and refusing to engage with the populace any more than is strictly necessary in the duties of his job.  This is the fatal flaw that requires a complementary partner to squabble with, and such a partner is present in the form of Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman, the police chief’s son, who gets all his ideas about being a police officer from cop movies, but knows the town and each of the personalities within it.  It is the town’s implicit trust in Danny that lets him fake Angel’s death at a crucial moment in the film, and Danny’s knowledge of the town proves useful in the final obligatory gunfight that sets everything right (as gunfights tend to do in buddy-cop movies).  The importance of Danny’s character to the plot reinforces the flaw in Nicholas’s belief that he can, nay, should hold himself apart from the people he protects: Pegg and Wright seem to be saying that society has deep, systemic problems, but you cannot solve those problems while holding yourself apart from society; you must familiarize yourself with that which you feel needs to be fixed.

It’s essentially the same values of collectivism and cooperation that are at the bottom of every buddy-cop movie, the belief that, whatever our differences, we can learn to get along, and in doing so will become a more effective unit.  And Hot Fuzz is, at the bottom, a buddy-cop comedy, one in which the bad guys are rounded up after a gunfight, order is restored, and the two cops at the center learn valuable lessons about themselves…and each other.  But the movie’s willingness to briefly step beyond its own premise and imagine a world which can’t be set right by brute application of police force, a world that requires participation more than censure, sets Hot Fuzz far ahead of nearly all the movies it is sending up.  This is what satire looks like when it’s done right.

Shaun of the Dead

The Cornetto Retrospective, Pt. 1 – Shaun of the Dead

This last weekend, some friends and I re-watched the first two chapters in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Cornetto Trilogy,” and on Sunday watched the final film, The World’s End, in a theater with not nearly enough people in it.  Edgar Wright’s films always seem to underperform in the States, possibly because Wright’s directing style is such an outlier in a period of blockbuster-heavy cinema, with so many films looking, sounding, and playing exactly the same.  When The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, and Star Trek: Into Darkness all have the exact same sequence of events happen to their villain, when every mainstream film seems to be a variation on the exact same story, a filmmaker like Wright can fall by the wayside.  His films move fast and trust the audience to keep up, something modern audiences appreciate less than one would expect.  As the aggregate knowledge of pop culture has risen with the increasing democratization of media, you would expect a greater number of people who appreciate Pegg and Wright’s decision to respect their audience rather than pander to it.

But enough complaining, let’s get to the purpose: rewatching all three films in the same weekend made me realize that there was more to just this trilogy than the reappearance of an ice cream cone and a fence-jumping gag.  Every film engages with one of the more well-worn paths of modern cinema, and rather than simply recreate familiar moments, each film works as a commentary on its particular subgenre.

In Shaun of the Dead, Pegg and Wright look at the zombie movie’s function as a power fantasy.  The near-simultaneous resurgence of zombie and superhero films at the beginning of the 2000s is not coincidence; both subgenres tend to focus on a single character who is physically and mentally exceptional in his current environment.  Most of the time, he was not previously like this- no stronger or smarter than the people around him, just an average person living an average life.  Then something changed, and he was at the top of the pyramid.  The major difference between superhero films and zombie films is that in the former, the protagonist improves himself; in the latter, his people around him degrade.  Both types of stories traditionally work as an escapist fantasy for adolescents who can both identify with the protagonist’s initial powerlessness, and feel a vicarious thrill when he is endowed with power. Anyone who has felt like Peter Parker will immediately grasp the appeal of being Spider-Man.

Likewise, anyone who has been in Shaun’s position, trapped in a world that constantly demands he improve himself, societal expectations hemming him in on all sides, can easily appreciate the appeal of that society being torn down around him.  For the young man in his 20s being forced to grow up against his will, this idea is particularly appealing.  His friends have moved on to bigger and better things, his parents seem to regard him with a deep disappointment that they are reluctant to articulate, his girlfriend is beginning to wonder whether their history together is enough justification to continue the relationship.  The conclusion many such a man comes to is that society is the source of his troubles.  He can’t live a more adult life until he gets a better job, he can’t get a better job because he hasn’t accomplished anything commensurate to the qualifications for a real career, and he can’t accomplish anything because the thousand minor inconveniences of everyday life keep getting in his way.  If all the bullshit was stripped away, all the petty expectations and endless demands of society wiped off the map, then his true colors would show.  Then he would be able to become the sort of person everyone expects him to be.

This isn’t to say he wants all of society stripped away, especially if society is people- he’d like a few of his friends to be around, and his parents, and his girlfriend, and maybe a few of her friends, too – he wants her to be happy, after all – and maybe make them the friends who have never approved of him, who always thought him a waste of time, and let them eat their words as they see the type of person he can be when it really counts, and he no longer has to deal with all the bullshit that was getting in the way before.  And his girlfriend will see it, and his parents, and his friends.  After all, they’re not the problem, it’s the larger societal network of people he doesn’t know and rarely interacts with who are the real problem.  But if he has any self-awareness at all, the young man will realize that this isn’t entirely realistic- you have to lose some people close to you in any apocalypse, and maybe the friend who’s become an asshole, the stepfather you never really bonded with, maybe you could stand to let go of them.  And of course your girlfriend’s friends are only there as a courtesy… really, when it comes down to it, it’s your mom, your best friend, and your girlfriend.  But suppose you had to lose one or two of them… which order?

In Shaun of the Dead, the title character doesn’t articulate any of these desires or preferences (and good thing; he’d be too pathetic for words if he did), but they just seem to happen somehow.  This is another through-line for the Cornetto Trilogy: the supernatural or unreal elements always seem to correspond to a repressed psychological desire of the central character.  This is a major element of Wright’s Scott Pilgrim adaptation, a film that is essentially a videogame-themed externalization of relationship anxiety, and I have seen several people on the internet use this to reach the conclusion that various Wright films take place “inside the protagonist’s head,” particularly The World’s End.  But Wright’s not especially concerned with Charlie Kaufmanisms, and this tendency of his worlds to mirror his main characters’ psychological states can more helpfully be understood as a demonstration of why we need these forms of entertainment in the first place.  People like Shaun may or may not be happier in a world with a zombie apocalypse, but they are definitely happier in a world with zombie movies.  Why is Shaun the only one with a plan, the best zombie-killer of his group, and the person that everyone trusts with the gun despite him being a terrible shot?  Because that is the promise of the genre.

The genre’s other promise is the slow, inevitable destruction of whatever bulwarks its heroes erect against chaos, and what makes Shaun of the Dead a true zombie movie rather than an Airplane-esque send-up is the way the movie slowly, inevitably demolishes the wish-fulfillment fantasy on which the genre is based.  Let’s face it: most of the anonymous people you wouldn’t blink at turning into undead shells have nothing to do with how you feel oppressed and overwhelmed by the world.  Oh sure, there might be a few people who are rude to you in person, someone who says nasty things on the internet, but those are brief, largely unimportant interactions in the larger picture.  You might imagine a larger force out there, of people who discriminate against you or judge you or don’t give you a fair shake, but in general you run into those people in your imagination far more frequently than you do anywhere else. And aside from your own imagination, your biggest oppressors are the people around you: you don’t feel satisfied with your job because you see your friends with better ones, you don’t feel like an adult because you still can’t identify with your parents, you don’t do right by your girlfriend because you’re intimidated by her, or don’t think you’re good enough for her, or are constantly afraid she is going to leave you.  It’s the people you care about who create these feelings in you; they’re the oppressors, so they’re the people who ultimately have to go.

This isn’t a coded message Wright and Pegg smuggled into the film or a “hidden meaning” in my understanding of the word.  They may well not have realized that this interpretation was likely or possible.  Possibly it’s not: David and Diane die after Shaun’s mum, so clearly the film doesn’t follow the progression in a completely straightforward manner.  But in breaking down the zombie genre to its essentials, they’ve created a story in which the central character gradually matures as the people around him (all of whom, pre-zombie, spend most of their screen time reminding him how he doesn’t measure up) are bitten and killed.  By reenacting the standard movements of the zombie film (the person who hides a bite!  The desperate last stand!) with a modicum of self-awareness, they’ve laid bare the foundations on which the genre rests.

The minor characters in Shaun of the Dead all reveal something about themselves just before they die, usually something that casts their relationship to Shaun in a different light than we’ve previously seen.  Shaun’s stepfather was strict with him, but only because he felt Shaun needed the push, and loved his adopted son enough to let that son hate him, so long as it helped him become a man.  His mother was not being distant or passive-aggressive all those times she told Shaun that she just wanted him to be happy – that really was the only thing she ever wanted for him.  David and Diane might have been constant reminders of how Shaun was failing as a boyfriend in particular and an adult in general, but he was a constant reminder that their relationship was a sham built as much on convenience and inertia as any aspect of Shaun’s life. And though Ed may seem like a millstone dragging Shaun down into the ocean of perpetual adolescence, the big guy ends up being loyal to Shaun beyond all reason.

What happens, in these characters’ final moments, is that Shaun learns to see them as fully three-dimensional people rather than constant reminders of his own failures.  It’s only right as they leave him that he realizes everything else they represented.  At the near-end of the movie, with just Liz and him left, he realizes that he just wasn’t good enough to make it, even in this movie-fantasy analogy for his feelings of societal oppression.  Society dragged him down in real life, and then it turned to zombies and dragged him down again.  He tried to fight it, but ended up destroying nearly all the people who cared about him.  The problem wasn’t out there; it was in himself.  He and Liz briefly consider a murder-suicide pact, but decide instead that, though outnumbered and outgunned, they’re going to face the chaos together.  It is with that decision, and its supreme acceptance, that they are finally saved.

Flash forward a few weeks.  The new world isn’t that different from the old- Shaun is cleaned up, and the coffee table in his living room is free of beer, but he’s still got a basic routine.  He hasn’t defeated conformity, any more than society has destroyed all its zombies, instead he’s reached a sort of uneasy coexistence with it.  Turns out you don’t have to fight a hopeless battle against the great invisible forces challenging your right to self-actualization: you can just step ’round them in the street, change the channel when they show up on TV, and limit your time with them when you feel like indulging in some mindless activity yourself.  If you feel them breathing down your neck, give them a sharp rap on the knuckles and put a controller in their hands.

Light Bulb

The Omnipresent Specter of the Merciful Barbecue Fork

I unearthed a few horribly embarrassing memories last Sunday night around 1AM, after I had been trying to fall asleep for two hours.  That’s the time they usually claw their way out of my memory, their rotted hands bursting out of the topsoil contained in a drawer labeled “MEMORIES: MIDDLE SCHOOL – HIGH SCHOOL.”  Yes, my memory is like a filing cabinet filled with dirt and teeming with corpses.  Teachers always said I was gifted.

My embarrassing memories are like grains of soil my mind continually tills up, so that the second one has sunk into the recesses of my memory, it’s pulled directly to the top again.  At least at this point in my life I have enough that it never becomes tedious.  Back in 6th grade, I only had 3 or 4 really embarrassing memories, and most of them involved getting hit in the face with baseballs.  It wasn’t until school dances became a thing that I could really start stacking those moments up.  But once they did, I could count on an endless bank of soul-crushing experiences to continually horrify me.

One of my favorite Dave Barry columns focused on memories, specifically how the only two things our brain manages to keep track of are radio jingles and embarrassing moments.  Barry wrote that the re-experience of these moments was so vivid, he could easily picture a man with a good career and loving family, while grilling up some burgers over the weekend, recollect a childhood memory so shameful that he stabs himself in the brain with a barbecue fork.  The man’s friends and family would all wonder what must have drove this man to his desperate deed – a second life? hidden financial woes? – none of them suspecting that the man was thinking of the time his entire seventh-grade class looked at him at the exact moment he popped an enormous zit on his face.  While that exact scenario never happened to me, the description of an sudden overwhelming, shameful recollection is so familiar that I am glad I do not own a barbecue grill.

The worst part is, most of the memories really aren’t worth talking about.  They seem to come in types rather than instances of complete and utter humiliation, which, while embarrassing, would still make good stories.  There’s about a thousand variations on “hey, remember that time you started talking about something you knew nothing about because you wanted to be a part of the conversation, and then someone called you on it, and then everyone looked at you?”  And several dozen more versions than I’d like of “hey, remember that time you liked a girl, and you were trying to talk to her, and at some point it became extremely obvious that you had focused on her so much that you were coming across as creepy, and the moment you noticed this you realized that all her reactions to everything you had been saying were the conversational equivalent of running away from a mugger?”

There are also the litany of more minor embarrassments, which quickly recede into the background of my consciousness and generally don’t come up again, but which tend to greet me every time I wake up after a night out with friends.  Even if I didn’t drink at all the previous night, I wake up in the morning absolutely mortified by at least half a dozen things I said.  Was I talking too much?  Was I spending too much time silent, and making people believe I wasn’t having a good time?  Why did I go out at all when I had so much work to do? (that’s not an embarrassment, but it’s usually the first thought once regret begins to take hold of me).

The truth is, almost none of these regrets are necessary- most likely I didn’t say anything that was even memorable, let alone something that is cause for deep regret.  One of the things it took me way too long to realize was that other people are generally focusing on themselves much more than anyone around them, and that it takes them actual effort to pay attention to you.  So most of the things you say will barely register an hour later, and they’re unlikely to remember you embarrassing yourself unless it’s the only impression of you they get.  Possibly not even then.

But though I know this, I can’t seem to stop myself from feeling bad about most of the things I end up saying most of the time.  Even though intellectually, I know it’s pointless to obsess over this stuff, it feels like somebody keeps pushing a button in my head that doesn’t let me stop. I’ve been told that I will eventually feel more comfortable in my own skin, but I’ve been hearing that since middle school.  Maybe I just need to accept that my skin isn’t that comfortable.

Tom Jones

Tom Jones: A Masterful Slog

(along with the next few posts that will appear on the blog, this one should have been put up some time ago.  Blame life for getting in the way, or me for letting it.)

My previous post started out as an attempt to grapple with the joys and pains I encountered reading The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding.  Better known simply as Tom Jones, this novel is as good an argument for fighting one’s way through a book as I’ve ever encountered, and I started my previous essay attempting to explain the sensation of reading Fielding’s masterpiece.  But I discovered two things in my exploration of the ideas of literary “difficulty:” one, that the concept itself was worthy of at least 1500 words (which I should have anticipated), and two, that the experience of reading Tom Jones is different from the usual experience encountering a “difficult” text.  When reading most works that predate the 20th century, you tend to move toward the novel’s understanding of “entertainment.”  It might take a comparatively inexperienced modern reader 100 pages or so to get past the archaic style and diction of a Charles Dickens novel, but once he has firmly settled into the Dickensian mode, he can go back to the beginning and discover that, for example, the first two chapters of Oliver Twist are just as bleak and vicious as anything in the middle (guess what I’m reading right now!).

Fielding’s novel, however, moves toward the reader as it progresses; even as the reader gradually acclimates to Fielding’s digressive and intrusive narrative voice, and settles into the unhurried pace of the first hundred or so pages, Fielding sends his narrator into the novel less and less (finally bidding the reader adieu with 50+ pages to go) and gradually amps up the pace, until characters and letters are pursuing each other in coaches at breakneck speed up and down the worryingly-crowded streets of London, and a slight romantic comedy has turned into a literal question of life or death for the novel’s eponymous protagonist. The first hundred pages remain as much of a chore as they ever were, and the reader is likely to feel that Fielding is, like Daniel Defoe, gradually figuring out how to write a novel as his narrative goes forward.  But then those final 50 pages come, and Fielding reveals that he’s known exactly where he’s been heading from the start, as every detail from those first hundred pages (even the first description of Tom Jones, that he was “born to be hanged”) pays off in the novel’s denouement.

As I said, the plot swerves from romantic comedy to legal drama near the end, as the question changes from “will Tom get the girl?” to “will Tom get to keep his life?” but the apparent change in genre emphasizes what the novel’s true aim is: the judgment of its hero’s moral character.  The questions: “does Tom deserve the girl?” and “does Tom deserve his life?” are really the same one, “Is Tom good?”- and to the novel’s credit, this question is never quite as straightforward as the reader would like it to be.  Make no mistake, by the time Tom is sent to the gallows, we are on his side one hundred percent.  His indictment is a result of monstrous legal injustice and an untruthful twisting of every good deed he has done to that point, and if, upon finishing the chapter in which Tom is imprisoned, I happened to meet a person with the temerity to suggest Tom deserved his imprisonment, my first and best instinct would be to punch that person in the face.

But this visceral, throat-rattling support for the central character makes us aware that we are on Tom’s side, right or wrong.  That’s a telling phrase, and while it is good and right that we are on Tom’s side after such injustice, it does not logically follow that Tom is himself either good or right.  This ambiguity about Tom’s character was a major sticking point for Fielding’s contemporaries, who found it very hard to root for a character with certain persistent moral weaknesses.  And by “persistent moral weaknesses,” I mean that Tom Jones fucks his way across the English countryside, and once in the city hires himself out as a gigolo to a wealthy lady, excusing all or most of his behavior as part of a justified effort to win the true object of his affections, the Lady Sophia.  Worse, he never gets punished for it in any permanent manner – even the morally pure Sophia doesn’t seem too concerned that, for the entirety of the novel, she literally does not discover a single location devoid of individuals with carnal knowledge of her “true love.” Even if readers admit that Tom does have justifiable reasons for sleeping with other women, and does suffer some sort of punishment each time he does, the frequency of these episodes were enough to leave a bad taste in the mouths of 18th-century critics: most of the novel’s defenders eventually revert to the defense that the novel was so unrealistic that it would be impossible for anyone to mistake it for a celebration of immorality.

True, us readers in modern times are less horrified by the idea that people may have sex out of wedlock – may, indeed, have sex for reasons other than love – but we are also more horrified by the discrepancy in sexual standards for Tom and Sophia.  Not only is Sophia not allowed to have sex at any point in the narrative, but we get the feeling that, if she ever did, Fielding would feel obligated to punish her in a much more permanent manner than he ever does Jones.  It is stated throughout the narrative that Jones values Sophia for her purity, and is thereby implied that if she did once what he does almost daily, he would lose all regard for her, even after he has fallen into so many different women that it becomes difficult to consider these episodes mere “slips.”  It’s possible for modern readers with liberal sexual attitudes to see Tom’s behavior as immoral even without this sexist discrepancy (whatever he might think at the time, in reality Tom rarely sleeps with women for any good reason), but it helps to drive home some of the same basic revulsion an eighteenth-century reader was likely to feel.

But rather than being a fatal misstep (as Samuel Johnson, among others, believed it to be), the novel’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards morality invests the moral quandaries of Tom Jones with an urgency unmatched by the more didactic moral novels of other 18th-century authors such as Samuel Richardson.  Many critics have noted the structural similarity of Fielding’s novel to Paradise Lost, with Jones being expelled from a life of pastoral innocence and condemned to death in a fallen world, only to be given a miraculous reprieve at the last moment, and be led into his father’s house, finally recognized as its rightful master.  I have seen less criticism that notes two other affinities with Milton: Fielding is careful to point out that, in a system of strict justice, his man (Hebrew word: Adam) does not really deserve his final reward, and that part of what makes Sophia such an exemplar of morality is her ability to forgive Jones even in those instances where he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

Also like Milton, Fielding turns the moral platitudes of Richardson into a moral interrogation of the reader.  He makes us aware that Jones is not deserving of his reward, that we want Jones to get that reward anyway, that Squire Allworthy’s Godlike sense of absolute justice tends to tip into legalistic buffoonery and lead to exactly the wrong conclusions, that every other system of philosophy in the novel seems designed to contort Allworthy’s goodness into toadyism and corruption, and that most of them succeed.  As in Paradise Lost, our ability to reconcile these moral quandaries, and the way we tend to interpret them, possibly tells us things about our own sense of morality that we hadn’t realized before.  The novel is as much a moral litmus test as a moral declaration, and in attempting to make some sense of its philosophy, we sharpen and refine our own.

Lots of Books

The Joys of Literary Bushwhacking

When I teach English literature, possibly the most difficult thing to communicate is the reward of wrestling unruly books into submission. The entertainment value of books that fly by is self-evident; if readers were not interested, they would not be turning the pages so fast. Every book that has been advertised as something that will “get children to read” is a page-turner, and my own blog feed is full of authors and publishers who emphasize the necessity of “readability,” how the most important characteristic a book should have is the ability to keep its readers turning the pages. Far too often, I see students consider “bad” any book that requires a larger than average amount of effort and concentration to complete.

This makes sense intuitively- if readers actively seek out the page-turning compulsiveness of the Harry Potter series or the latest Dan Brown novel (and whatever the merits or demerits of Rowling and Brown, both know how to keep you wondering what happens next), then clearly books with the opposite effect must be bad: the nigh-impenetrable first half of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the plodding and ponderous openings of most Dostoevsky novels, the hodgepodge of confusing phonetic spellings that bamboozle first-time readers of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then of course Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which somehow manages the trick of seeming disorienting and meandering at the same time. These works, and many like them, often present an apparent contradiction that most students are unable to ever resolve: teachers say these are the best works of literature the language has produced, but the books so named are frustrating and obscure, with language that is often difficult to understand and characters that are often impossible to sympathize with. The students conclude that high literature is “not for” them, and retreat to the safer waters of genre lit and bestsellers, with Oprah’s Book Club entries marking the outermost edge of their reading level.

There’s nothing objectively wrong with imposing such limits on one’s experience, any more that there is something wrong with, say, knowing how to use a computer without really understanding how computers work. But most people who work on computers are at least aware that this knowledge is an option, that it would be possible to understand the inner workings of hardware and software, and that for many otherwise average people this is a desirable thing to do. When it comes to reading Moby-Dick, however, the average reader seems to mentally separate himself from the type of person who enjoys such books. Many individuals seem to believe that there exists a class of people who find such reading as easy and relaxing as they find the Harry Potter books, people that attend Ivy League schools and spend their spare time engineering a fully-functional Iron Man suit. People who believe in the existence of such an intellectual super-class are likely to decide that such works of literature are somehow “above” their own understanding. Either that, or they believe that literary studies are a large-scale fraud, a sort of intellectual pyramid scheme wherein teachers do not understand difficult books any more than the student, but agree to say they are astonishing works of art in order to impress everybody else and gain a false intellectual reputation. To such individuals, the entire literary tradition is little more than a Masonic handshake of ever-diminishing cachet in today’s technological age.

Both of these understandings of literature are equally misguided. There is neither an intellectual super-class nor a faux-intellectual conspiracy in literature, or any other part of life for that matter, and even a passing acquaintance with most experts is enough to convince the average person that the two of them are more similar than different. Between a reader of “literature” and a reader of “books,” the difference is not one of intellect, or even of taste, but rather a different understanding of what literature is capable of accomplishing, and what its goals should be.

For the reader of books, the goals of reading are straightforward and functional: be entertained by the plot, be allowed to care about the characters, be given some knowledge about the world (either fictional or real) that they didn’t have before. Note that this applies to nonfiction books as well as fiction. Strong narratives and interesting characters are a must no matter the type of book. The benefits of this reading style should be clear to most people, because it’s the reading style we all start out with, the basic type of cognition necessary for reading. It keeps the text tied to some sort of tangible reality, keeps the basic telepathic, transformative, miraculous operation of reading intact. By looking at small shapes written on a page or screen, we begin to imagine events and people, each of which, if drawn particularly enough, may begin to seem as real as something we actually witnessed, or a person we really knew.

This type of reading is a necessary component of reading, say, Virginia Woolf, because no matter what the importance of style or narrative tricks may be for any given novel, we still need to be able to break it down into basic actions and people- in order to appreciate the way To The Lighthouse deals with the effect our conscious and unconscious thoughts have on our perception of reality, it is first necessary to understand the existence of the various members of the Ramsay family, and the events that they experience in the course of the novel. But if we read To The Lighthouse using only this basic, characters-and-events understanding of books, To The Lighthouse is likely to be underwhelming: the reader will notice that not much of consequence seems to happen to any of the characters, that the most dramatic events all occur between or before the book’s three sections and are only alluded to, and that the characters often seem contradictory, passive, and frequently unlikable. The reader of “books,” if he tries to boil Woolf’s novel down to its basic plot, will find the story slight and the language overwhelming, and is likely to turn back to his eminently digestible mass-market paperbacks, which only require the one type of reading he feels comfortable performing.

Anyway, what’s the problem with that? Why should anyone feel obligated to read obscure and ponderous writing that they have to fuss over before they can understand? Isn’t this distinction between “books” and “literature” just an elitist attempt to privilege complicated writing over direct writing, and make the readers of murder mysteries and vampire romances feel bad for reading books that are actually fun? Well, I’ll explore the implications of this distinction later, but for now I’ll address the main problem with “book reading.” If one limits one’s reading to only those sort of books that are immediately readable and straightforwardly written, one quickly finds that most of the stories fail to really sink in. In high school, I read The Janson Directive by Robert Ludlum (or, as I later found out, from an old manuscript of Ludlum’s that was completed and touched up by a ghostwriter), and ten years later, I remember exactly one thing from that book: that the radar detectors you can install in cars to let you know if a cop is reading your speed occasionally come with jammers that increase the amount of time it takes to get a read on your car, and that these detectors are illegal in many states. Nothing about the plot, except that it seemed fairly similar to the Bourne books. Nothing about the characters, except that they seemed to fit into the same general archetypes employed in the Bourne books. In fact, I’m probably exaggerating The Janson Directive‘s similarity to The Bourne Identity because I remember the latter so much better than the former, because The Bourne Identity is a genuinely good book, whereas The Janson Directive is merely empty competence, at least as far as I can be bothered to remember it. Anyone who’s read the mid-80s output of John Grisham, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or Tom Clancy can remember how those novels tend to blend into one another, becoming reworkings of the same few situations- a lawyer gets caught between two powerful institutions that both possess the ability to destroy his life, some aspect of everyday lower-middle-class life becomes fraught with the supernatural, some advance in scientific understanding promises great things for humanity and terrible things for the people who first encounter it, various new advances in military technology become the cause of, and solution to, all of America’s problems in establishing global hegemony over various foreign powers. The plots blend together and genre fatigue gradually sets in. Anyone over 40 has read books by at least two of those four authors, and since stopped because they got the sense that every new book was the same old thing. Of the four, King is the only one who has broken out of his 80s mold and is still creating appreciably new types of stories; Grisham made a break for it in the late 90s with A Painted House and some other non-legal-thriller works, but he was gradually pulled back into his previous orbit.

This is one thing that literature (as opposed to “books,” and yes, we’re getting to that distinction) offers the reader, at once one of the simplest and most important things in writing: texture. The difficulty, the elusiveness, the overwhelmingness of a literary work creates a stronger impression on the mind than work designed to disappear completely. Once one has read a book by Henry James or William Faulkner, the elusive, allusive, and radically indeterminate qualities of the former, or the manic, incantatory, and effusive verbal assault of the latter, will forever be encoded in one’s brain. Writing stops being a mere description of events and people, something that puts the pictures in your head and gets out of the way, and instead becomes physical and tangible, as three-dimensional as the characters and as important to the novel’s success as the plot. This, I would say, is the ultimate distinction between “books” and “literature”- one gets out of the way, gives you the important events and character traits, and keeps you moving from one page to the next; the other requires that you modify your usual way of thinking, that you accept into your own brain a process of expression that you would be unlikely to come up with on your own.

Ultimately, this process of altered thoughts, of inhabiting another’s mind or grappling with non-intuitive means of expression, is one of the principal benefits of literature. By coming to terms with these alien types of thought and expression, we come to appreciate the variety that exists around us. By forcing ourselves to understand this new perspective, we are reminded that our one perspective is one in a sea of millions, that the people we interact with every day see the world in a fundamentally different way than we do, and that we must keep this in mind if we want to truly understand the world. This sounds like a pat lesson that can simply be repeated, as one would repeat a mantra or prayer – and it’s worth mentioning that both mantras and prayers are, at the bottom, attempts to reach some greater understanding outside one’s self – but in my experience, the lesson only really sticks as long as we continue to practice it. And it is this practice that readers of literature continually engage in when they set out to read Melville, Joyce, Pynchon – all authors that they find just as difficult as the book-readers who grumble through them in school and then retreat to the supermarket for the remainder of their life’s literary diet. The difference is that the readers of literature welcome the struggle such authors provide, and turn to it with the same happy labor that one employs in the service of Things That Just Need To Be Done. Anyone who regularly works out or makes a point of cleaning their entire house every spring knows the attitude to which I refer.

It is true that reading purely in the literary sense can present its own problems, particularly with contemporary fiction. Attempting to read a new “literary” author who has remained untested by the scrutiny of the ages, the reader of literature may be too easily seduced by evocative language and unique expression, and fail to realize that the novel has no ideas, or at least none worth engaging. This is one of the unsung benefits of reading the classics- you can be sure that what you’re reading is at least decent, and if you feel strongly that anything is not, the reputation of the book’s supporters require you to create a theory of fiction sufficiently comprehensive as to provide an effective counterargument – Kingsley Amis and Mark Twain are two examples of authors who have effectively done so.

Likewise, it’s true that the distinction between “books” and “literature” is not nearly as clear-cut as I seem to make out. Literary theories rarely survive contact with reality, but take a single economics class, and you begin to understand that theories that don’t necessarily reflect reality can still be of use. Most people read a mix of books and literature, and many of the works they read aspire to tell an exciting story AND create a distinctive voice, falling somewhere in the middle of the two categories. But if you keep trying to read an older work that everyone has been praising, but can’t seem to get into it, it’s helpful to try reading it differently, paying more attention to the form of expression and the ideas behind the writing, and a little less to the superficial details of plot and character. Sometimes, the best way to conquer a book is to surrender to it.

The Old House

The Old House

The weekend before last, I went up to Flagstaff to visit my mom and celebrate my birthday (a few weeks late, but I was busy).  With all four kids out of the house, she’s downsizing, moving to a nearby neighborhood that’s closer to her parents and isn’t filled with empty bedrooms.  When I arrived, she was almost done, though she said it didn’t feel that way.  I suppose you never feel that close to the finish line when you still have to move a piano, but most of the rooms were cleared out by the time I arrived, the carpets ready for steam-cleaning and the rooms blocked off so the dogs couldn’t try to pee in them.

We moved into that house in 2000, and the twelve years my mom has lived there is the longest space of time I’ve considered any particular place “home.”  Today I realized I would probably never see the inside of that house again.

It’s strange how places you’ve lived in for a long time can seem charged with significance even after everything that made them yours has been stripped away.  By the time I left, the only thing left in my room was a spheroid candle that I think I got as a Christmas present around 2004.  It had never been lit once, because I’m absent minded enough that if I had ever lit candles as a child, I would have forgotten about them and burned the house down.  I can’t even remember why anyone would have given it to me.  The rest of the room was completely bare, and for the first time I could see the entirety of the Mercator-projection map that completely covered one of my walls.  So now I know what Australia looks like.  Everything else that could have brought up any memories of the room was gone, but I still felt like the air was somehow different there than anyplace else in the world, that the specific yellowish off-white color of the overhead light was utterly unique.  I remembered retreating here when I felt defeated by the world, listening to albums on my six-CD stereo (so very awesome), reading countless books under the light of my bedside lamp, including Stephen King’s On Writing, the book that made me realize I wanted to be a writer, and made me think it was possible.  When I recall those days, it seemed as though possibility was a tangible thing, something you could just barely taste in the air, or feel playing along the surface of your skin.  I remembered my first attempts at keeping a journal in this room, typing on an eight-year-old former family computer until my interest in the journal petered out after 5-7 entries (this would become a pattern).

I found the journal entries, too.  Fortunately, they’re stored on 3.5″ floppy disks, so my natural instinct for choosing the exact wrong technology spared me the embarrassment of finding out what I was actually like in high school.  With any luck, this instinct hasn’t failed me, and wordpress.com will go out of business the day after I finish my 100th entry.

The concept of “home” has always been somewhat dilute for me.  The first twelve years of my life, I lived in eight different locations spread across five different cities.  Even though I’ve considered this last house my home longer than any other, I lived there permanently for only one year, and always had at least one other place I called home.  When my parents divorced around 2001, us kids changed houses weekly, and when I moved to college “home” became more like a drop-off station for everything that couldn’t fit in the dorm.  To this day, nothing feels like home quite like stepping through the front door with a duffel bag, walking it straight to my room, and falling on the bed for about five minutes before wandering back towards the kitchen.  Now that both my mom and dad have moved out of my childhood homes, nothing’s ever going to feel quite that way again.

Not that it’s a sensation I’m unfamiliar with; I always seem to get emotional when I’m leaving a place, even if I haven’t been there for that long, even if the whole nature of my stay was temporary.  I still remember crying when we left a rental house in Steamboat Springs, Colorado… to move into another house about 2 miles away. I tend to stay in one place when given the choice; even though I’ve supposedly been trying to get out of Arizona since 2005, the fact that I’m still here says something about how active those efforts have been.  Should I have been traveling this whole time?  Will I still be here a year from now?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure where exactly I would want to go.

These are always the most vivid memories I have of houses, entering and leaving.  That’s probably true for most people.  You don’t tend to think of all the times you were just existing, bothered by a dozen things and trying to focus on six others, just a little more noise coming down the hall that you want to hear, trying not to think about how late you were going to have to stay up to get all your homework done.  Location means less when it’s static.  Just as you start to take the beauty of the Grand Canyon for granted after camping there for a week, you don’t really think about the things around you unless there’s some awareness you won’t be seeing them for a while, or possibly ever again.  The last time I visited my dad, his dog (who’d been around a little bit longer than the house) was really sick.  When I said goodbye to her, I thought about all the times I’d spent with her in the same house, the same room, and had ignored her or not even seen her.  And now I was saying goodbye, and I had to go, and there was time give her one last hug and kiss, rub her belly (avoiding the tumor), tell her she was a good dog.  And then it was time to go.  I could have stayed, but how long can you take to say goodbye to your dog, knowing it’s the last time you’re going to see her?  Would any amount of time be long enough?  So I kissed her goodbye, patted her, told her she was a good dog.  Two weeks later she died.

There are the truly terrible memories associated with any house as well, but not too many of them, and they don’t come up  often: despite what Shirley Jackson, Peter Straub, and plenty of other horror writers have told us, houses swallow their ghosts quite easily.  I can pass by the basement a few dozen times without thinking of my dad milling around down there playing pool, waiting for us to go to sleep so he could start setting up his bed on the couch without us seeing it.  And that’s so long ago now that it’s not even a bad memory, just curious- remember when there were six people living in this house?  Most of the bad ones just don’t come back.

When I came by two weekends ago, my mom spent most of her time sorting through a vast collection of papers and files that had piled up in her room over the last twelve years.  Most of them had little recognizable purpose, many had been important at one point but were no longer necessary, and a few were perfect little instances of nostalgia.  There was one note from the oldest of my three younger sisters to my mom:  Dear Mom, I’m not mad at you.  Let’s talk when you get off the phone.  Love, Kiki.  Even though I couldn’t remember the exact provenance of this note, I instantly knew the context: during the first onset of her teenage rebellion, my sister would have long drawn-out shouting matches with my mom that would end with my sister storming to her room and my mom having loud phone conversations with her friends and family about how unreasonable my sister was being.  If my sister overheard my mom’s version of events, she would inevitably get mad and start handing notes to my mom “correcting” the story, until my mom would tell the person on the phone “I have to call you back” and the two of them would resume yelling.

It was sad, funny, and oddly touching, thinking about how this piece of passive-aggressive baiting survived God knows how many years in the same room.  While the memories it brought back weren’t exactly pleasant, getting to think of them again somehow was.  It makes you realize how small most conflicts are at their core, how yesterday’s Serious Business is tomorrow’s piece of paper that you’re trying not to laugh at too hard in front of your mom.  “This is why it’s so hard to pack everything up,” she said, sounding almost wistful.  But that’s also what makes the packing up worthwhile: it unearths everything that made this place belong to us, and it leaves some of that everything behind it, as though suffused throughout the air.  No matter how much we take with us, the rooms we leave behind will never be the same.

buffy-the-vampire-slayer-season-1

The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Buffy

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer looks cheap in the way movies and TV aren’t able to look cheap anymore, because to look this cheap would be too expensive.  Technology has changed our conception of what cheap looks like: any handheld video camera you can buy at Target has a higher possible resolution than the cameras used in Buffy, and it’s easier than ever to create professional-looking editing and greenscreen using cheap (or even free) software on a computer.  Cheap TV in 1997 meant that the artifice of TV was slightly more obvious than average, the monsters made of rubber suits, the sets static and confined, the stunt sequences obviously canned, or at least quickly-choreographed.  Cheap TV in the 21st century is exemplified by shows like Tosh.0 and Jackass, where the costumes and sets are nonexistent, the characters are semi-autobiographical personas, and the material either improvised or crowdsourced.  The tens of thousands of dollars it would take to construct and maintain even the most rudimentary types of sets are far beyond what many producers are willing to pay for cheap TV.  Compared to a contemporary episode of ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer looks like a B-movie, but it cost far more than the average modern reality show.

For a first-time viewer like me, the subpar production values of the first season lent the show an endearing quality that transforms its most dated aspects from something eyeroll-worthy to something wonderful.  I mean, look at the photo above these words!  Look at those costumes!  I (vaguely) remember when it was acceptable, nay, cool to dress like that, and it still looks like something from a distant and primitive era of human development.  The crazy 90s fashions, sludgy alt-rock, kung-fu fights, and monster makeup worthy of 1960s Hammer Horror films, a combination that must have seemed edgy and “alternative” in the late 90s, today creates an effect of dislocated timelessness, comparable only to reading Archie comics.  The world Joss Whedon creates here is dated in every imaginable way, but it’s also somehow pure, a self-contained B-movie universe where high school sophomores who look like fully-developed women band together with sarcastic nerds and severely Anglophilian librarians to high-kick the crap out of rubbery evil in a variety of dry-ice-bedecked underground locales.

Please note that my admiration for all of the above is completely sincere and earnest, even if watching Buffy Season One ironically would be the ultimate homage to the 1990s.  I understand that the season is unpopular among die-hard fans of the show, and that a friend of mine who attempted to use it as a gateway into the rest of the series deemed it “unwatchable.”  With all that in mind, I went into the first season expecting a rough ride, but instead found something irrepressibly fun. As with Archie comics (or Scooby-Doo, the more frequently-quoted reference point for Whedon’s gang of high school misfits), irony seems to bounce off Buffy, as the desire to watch something relentlessly uncool gradually gives way to an appreciation of show’s commitment to its own aesthetic.  A good example of this phenomenon is the episode “I Robot, You Jane,” one of the most openly-reviled episodes of the whole series, and in my opinion one of the most entertaining.  The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray sums up the slant of general criticism when he describes the episode as one “in which we learn that the world of 1997 is a whole new era where people get ‘jacked in’ and ‘go on line,'” and bemoans the sub-Wargames plausibility of the episode’s storyline, about an evil spirit that somehow gets scanned into a computer and begins wreaking havoc in cyberspace.  What his review fails to appreciate is the utter abandon with which the script throws itself into the Daemon-Ex-Machina scenario, which is partly an artifact of the show’s origins in the 90s (a time when movie and TV producers were all too quick to believe that Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous quote was finally coming true), and partly a result of Whedon’s admirable willingness to follow any crazy conceit all the way down the rabbit hole (see also: Dollhouse).  The world of dial-up modems and free plastic discs offering 1000 free hours of America Online seems so quaint today that it’s easy to forget how exciting and scary the whole world seemed to certain parts of the population- I remember a brief period in my childhood where I semi-unofficially collected those AOL discs, which seemed to come with radically different branding every time they showed up in our mail.  If I recall correctly, my plan was to save up the discs until my dad was willing to shell out for a dial-up connection, and then use them all at once so I would get tens of thousands of hours of free internet.  It was the perfect plan!  PERFECT!

Ahem.  The point being, scanning a demon from a cursed book into a machine , only to send it back with the help of a coven of “techno-pagans” was no doubt ridiculous even in 1997, but it seems an apt metaphor for the way I felt about the internet at the time, and how the magazines I was reading seemed to write about it (mostly “Family PC,” but also some “PC Magazine” that definitely went over my head).  There was this whole parallel community beginning to take root, and who knew what wonders, what horrors lurked within?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s strengths, at the end of its first season, seem to most often reveal themselves in a sublime facility for summary and metaphor, establishing the norms of the high school experience and connecting them to supernatural phenomena in a way that rarely feels forced and often seems insightful.  The witch-mother who literally decides to live vicariously through her daughter, the mad scientist student stuck in his older brother’s shadow (disappointing parental figures are a common theme throughout Whedon’s work, if you hadn’t realized that yet)- they all mirror the tendencies of human behavior that we hear about in the most depressing news items, and occasionally observe in the people around us, or even ourselves.  Which is, of course, the whole point of the monster in fiction.  I’m reminded of the dragon’s words to Grendel in John Gardner’s novel of the same name:

“You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shirk from—the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment—that’s what you make them recognize, embrace!”

If high school is where young adults begin to define themselves (it is) and improve themselves (in the best cases, it is), then it must have monsters to stimulate that self-definition.  It does, and the great trick of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, up to the end of the first season, is the show’s ability to reveal those monsters, and in doing so dramatize the process of self-definition.  Also, the alternative/grunge soundtrack fucking rocks.