Wednesday, April 18, 2018

getting back to the Slipped Disc reaction to the Kendrick Lamar Pulitzer win, remembering George Walker winning the Pulitzer in 1996 and his comments about that win

In the hundred odd comments made about how Kendrick Lamar should or should not have won the Pulitzer prize for music the people objecting to the win have emphasized that hip hop as a musical category should be exempt from even nomination, let alone a win.

But the thing is ... considering Slipped Disc tries to discuss and promote discussion of classical music, including stuff that's obscure or overlooked, it would seem we've had a few days for somebody, anybody, to mention that George Walker won the Pulitzer for one of his works back in 1996.


 In 1996, George Walker became the first black composer to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize In Music for his work, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, premiered by the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Prior to that distinction, his Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra nominated by the Cleveland Orchestra for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 after its premiere, was the only finalist in this competition.   In 1997 Marion Barry, Mayor of Washington, DC proclaimed June 17th as George Walker Day in the nation's capitol. In 1998, he received the Composers Award from the Lancaster Symphony and the letter of Distinction from the American Music Center for "his significant contributions to the field of contemporary American Music."  In 1999, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In April 2000, George Walker was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
His five piano sonatas are all pretty good and I've enjoyed his string quartets and his sonatas for cello and piano and for violin and piano.  I learned of his work thanks to the blogging of Ethan Iverson. 

So if folks who are upset that Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer are upset because they wanted a composer who was more officially classical to win there's at least one example of the kind of music that's expected to be highbrow enough that could be mentioned as a point of comparison.

But ... George Walker was asked whether winning the Pulitzer really made a difference in his musical career.  Guess what?
Walker’s winning piece, “Lilacs for voice and orchestra,” used the words of Walt Whitman and was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1996.

How did the Pulitzer change his life? “I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner. But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. My publisher didn’t have sense enough to push. It materialized in nothing.”


So as people have been saying, arguably the Pulitzer needed Lamar more than Lamar needed the Pulitzer and George Walker's experience has been that added publicity. While Borstlap might have a point that the Lamar Pulitzer is a publicity stunt, it seems that the Pulitzer itself is not a particularly relevant award, and given Walker's account of how little it changed his career over the last thirty years objecting to who wins what Pulitzer seems moot. 

For folks who want to read another little article on Walker, here you go.
Just complaining that a hip hop artist has gotten the Pulitzer as though that were an outrage and that someone with more "classical" chops and work should have been recognized instead is still going to very likely come off as being upset that some pop star won.  Lebrecht has been clear the vulgarity and misogyny of hip hop as a genre appalls him.  Points noted, though Mozart had his fair share of vulgarity, too.  Cominglings of things people consider profound among and by people with vulgar senses of humor is almost too pedestrian and commonplace to mention but for the fact that if Lamar is considered negatively compared to a Mozart I'm ... not so sure Mozart was the less vulgar one. If you write a lot of instrumental music and that's what you get known for the operas and vocal music get skimmed past. 

Come to think of it, last year was the centennial of the death of Scott Joplin, whose music I've loved for decades and while his work remains known it's not like he got a big centennial observance ... or did he?

consensus so far is that Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer is something Pulitzer probably needed more than Lamar, with some interviews from the folks who voted and the folks who "lost" to Lamar being supportive

In the grand scheme of things, DAMN. being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music is not an especially onerous honor. Few people, if any, rely on the Pulitzer to stay current with music. Throughout its history, the award, granted by a rather narrow circle of jurors, has been effectively reserved for white composers of classical music, with the occasional black jazz artist (or, more recently, Chinese composer) thrown in for good measure. Classical music, and contemporary classical music especially, registering not at all in a landscape of American music determined by pop sensibilities filtered through recording conglomerates, the music Pulitzer was an obscure bauble coveted only by the people who cared about it, of which there were not many. Forget the big reporting and magazine awards; even the poetry Pulitzer mattered more than music. Grammys are the awards that count most in music, and given that Kendrick is already loaded with golden gramophones — though the Album of the Year continues, unconscionably, to elude him — the Pulitzer is just a feather in his Dodgers fitted cap.
Sure, the Pulitzer connotes prestige and carries overtones of High Art, but anyone paying attention to Kendrick would already know to take his albums at least as seriously as one would take an experimental orchestra concerto. Most awards feel like a favor granted to the recipient, but in this case it’s Kendrick himself who’s doing the award a favor. Thanks to him, the Pulitzer Prize for Music feels relevant for the first time in recent recollection. We can only hope that more Pulitzers end up in the hands of popular artists. Metro Boomin would look nice at the Pulitzer ceremony; BeyoncĂ© would be stunning wearing a gold Pulitzer medal. But it’s clear that Kendrick’s winning the Pulitzer is meaningful precisely because he doesn’t need it. He didn’t come to the award so much as the award came to him, and if it hangs around his neck easily, it’s only because he’s long been accustomed to more strenuous burdens.
Well, I suppose ... that might be a bit of an overstatement but, on the other hand, hip hop in particular and musical fandom in general can be given to hyperbole, right?
Over at The New Yorker ...
I would argue that the award is a bigger event for the Pulitzers than it is for Lamar, or for hip-hop’s morale. “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young,” Duke Ellington said in 1965, when he was sixty-six, after the Pulitzer Prize Advisory Board denied a recommendation that he receive a special-citation recognition for his contributions to jazz. With Lamar, just thirty years old, likely sitting on future compositions that will outdo the odysseys on “DAMN.”—and on “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” which came before it—the Pulitzers push a reformation campaign, finding a canny opportunity to stake a place ahead of the curve. (The win bears some relation to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2016, although in that case the referendum had to do with what constituted literature.) Most glaringly, it sets the stage for the argument that the prize of the intelligentsia, which has been disinterested in the flow of popular music, may have a shrewder grasp on cultural impact than the Grammys, which for its top honor, Album of the Year, have snubbed not only Lamar—this year and in the past—but every other black hip-hop artist other than Lauryn Hill and OutKast. ...

and over at Slate there's an interview with the other nominees and they seem pretty happy Lamar won.

This year’s Pulitzer winner was also very political. Are you a fan of Kendrick Lamar?
Gilbertson: I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I am a fan of his music. I remember when I was at Yale, I heard some other grad students give a talk on some of the theological and conceptual narrative depth in his work, and I was really struck by that. It changed the way I listen to his music. I’m really a fan of his work.
What’s your favorite Kendrick track?
Hearne: I love “Feel” so, so much. Incredible poetry, incredible groove, love his use of sampling, love the burst of intensity and the way he fucks with time near the end of the track.
Gilbertson: Probably “Real” from the album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. There are many things I like musically, but I particularly love the refrain: “I do what I wanna do, I say what I wanna say, when I feel, and I look in the mirror and know I’m there.” I grew up a gay kid in Iowa, and it was tough. Music got me through the hardest times. Those words really speak to me.

What did you think of the board awarding this year’s top prize to Kendrick?
Hearne: I don’t put too much stock in prizes, but this is a really important year because Kendrick Lamar’s music is super important to me and to a lot of people. Hip-hop as a genre has been important to me as a composer, but Kendrick’s work in particular. He is such a bold and experimental and authentic artist. He’s one of the people that is creating truly new music.
What do you think his win means for the future of the prize?

Gilbertson: I never thought my string quartet and an album by Kendrick Lamar would be in the same category. This is no longer a narrow honor. It used to be classical composers competing against each other in relatively small numbers, but now we’re all competing against these major voices in music.

Hearne: I think it’s wonderful. When we say classical music, I think it’s a collection of audiences and musicians that have been grouped together and a big part of that grouping together, over centuries, has been about the exclusion of nonwhite people and nonwhite artists. Sure, in some respects, using violins and European classical instruments is a part of classical music, but so are a lot of other ideas. Especially in America, there are incredibly important musical thinkers who have been kept out of classical music spaces for a long time.

Can you give me an example?
Hearne: Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker. The ideas that Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus were playing with compositionally were more innovative than almost anybody in the entire century. We have to ask ourselves why Miles Davis is not considered part of that genre. It’s great that the Pulitzer Prize, which is considered prestigious in some circles, is recognizing a whole tradition of musical thinkers and bringing them into a space that has been, up until very recently, entirely white.
Of course, it’s great to be included on a list with [Kendrick], but it also bodes well for breaking down the walls of genre.
Gilbertson: A few years ago, Caroline Shaw worked with Kanye West after she won the Pulitzer. Maybe we’ll get some more cross-disciplinary collaborations coming out of this.
Cross-disciplinary or cross-genre collaboration might be endemic to hip hop as a genre, though, couldn't it?  I have not gotten the impression that cross-genre experimentation is closed off on either the hip hop side or necessarily the classical side of the divide ... although ... given how pervasive intellectual property is and how licensing works one under-utilized possibility might be making use of stuff that's public domain but relatively obscure. 
See, there's something that stuck with me about the eruption of predictable disapproval at Slipped Disc but that'll be a separate post.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Apu, Hank Azaria and voice-over work in animation--apparently a show has to be popular and big enough for an Apu controversy to happen because it's aytpical of the industry

That Hank Azaria has voiced Apu for so many decades, and that Apu is a stereotype is somewhat ... odd to consider in animation.  Cartoon characters tend to be cartoony, especially in American animation.  By "cartoony" we can say stereotyped. 

But it depends on how these stereotypes are deployed.  Take The Powerpuff Girls.  Blossom is, as Cathy Cavadini joked, the bossy one of the girls.  Tara Strong has spelled out that Bubbles wants to save the world but she wants to look cute while doing it, the bubbly blonde.  Buttercup wants to fight.  These characters work in the cartoon because we get to laugh with them more than we get to laugh at them. 

But the controversy about Apu as an ethnic stereotype and being voiced by Azaria got me thinking ... animation is normally not an industry where this even becomes a controversy.

Who, exactly, has publicly complained for the record that Phil LaMarr voiced Samurai Jack?  Nobody that I know of and nobody I would or could ever take seriously.  LaMarr's turn as Jack was frankly iconic.  I also loved what he did with Jon Stewart Green Lantern on Justice League. That was fantastic stuff. 

Would people now wish to register a complaint that Mae Whitman doesn't look like a Pacific Islander enough to voice Katara from The Last Airbender?  She was phenomenal in that role. 

One of the better gags among the extras in earlier seasons of Archer was riffing on the idea of what might happen of Sterling Archer looked like H. Jon Benjamin, the voice actor who plays him, rather than his character design. 

From within the animation industry, if you know about how often and how dramatically those who provide the voices for beloved or be-hated characters do not even remotely resemble the physical appearance of the characters then it can make sense why The Simpsons took the "shrug" approach that has been met with some bafflement or frustration.  it may not seem like it was the "right" or appropriate response for The Simpsons crew to have but having been a fan of animation my whole life and knowing at least some of the production processes, that's something that I'm surprised hasn't gotten ... has it gotten any discussion? 

For fans of animation a debating point might be suggesting that studios need to hire Crispin Freeman and Tara Strong less often as the default voices for cartoons not because they're bad (if anything they're both reliably fantastic) but because it dilutes the effectiveness of what they do if lazy voice-casting directors just keep going back to Freeman and Strong.  Some voices are just a given, like Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime.  Or I'd say Frank Welker as Megatron and Soundwave and Fred from Scooby Doo.  I just can't really imagine anyone else voicing those roles.  Though ... until I heard Matthew Lillard as Shaggy I never imagined anyone else could do that voice. 

But then all these other characters I've mentioned from animated shows are not "just" stereotypes even if you could describe the characters by invoking stereotypes.    Whereas, what very little I can remember about Apu is a stereotype and in that sense the criticisms made of Apu are very easy to understand.  One of the arguments that has been presented is that, just to take Japanese characters as a for instance, I just named Samurai Jack but the odds that you could name at least a dozen other characters who are Japanese or of Japanese American lineage in a show that are not "just" stereotypes is fairly high. 

and Kendrick Lamar has gotten the Pulizter Prize for music, naturally debate ensues about if/how/why a hip hop or rap album should get the award for music

I haven't heard anything by Lamar but I'm at a stage in life where I have a hard time believing that awards recognitions are the same as artistic relevance.  We'll see that Ellington was passed over for the same prize decades ago.  Among musicians there can be jokes that the worst thing that can happen to you is winning a Grammy for Best New Artist. 
Here’s one among the many provocative questions raised by Kendrick Lamar’s Damn winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music: Is Damn the best work of rap or pop ever made? The Pulitzers, whose only stated criteria is “for distinguished musical composition by an American” in the eligible timeframe, have previously only awarded classical and jazz artists. By making an exception for Lamar, the Pulitzers could be seen as saying that he is, well, the exception. That only Lamar’s blazingly intricate 14-track reckoning with vice and Geraldo Rivera can compete with rarefied types like Caroline Shaw (winner in 2013), Wynton Marsalis (1997), or Aaron Copland (1945). That the rest of pop—not to mention the rest of hip-hop—remains of an unmentionable tier, except maybe for Bob Dylan, who won a special citation from the Pulitzers in 2008.
This is a dubious and snobbish thought, yes—but it’s a result of the inevitably thorny logic that always goes along with artistic awards-giving. That it took until 2018 for the Pulitzers to award a work of rap or pop might say something about the evolution of those genres, and Damn really is a work of staggering, arguably historic, sophistication. I look forward to reading the sure-to-come articles positioning it as the greatest pop work ever (even above Migos, who are Better Than the Beatles™). But that discussion will be a sideshow. The rapper’s win is probably more significant to the reputation of the prize itself than to the prizewinner; it almost feels as though the Pulitzers won a Kendrick Lamar, and not the other way around.
After all, the Lamar news will be, no doubt, the means through which lots of people learn that the Pulitzers have a music category at all. Its favored genres, classical or jazz, have long been on the commercial wane, and their practitioners can frequently be found defending their relevance to the wider world. In that sense, there’s an argument against Lamar’s inclusion, and for the previous pseudo-ban on pop, on purely altruistic grounds. The attention and prize money the Pulitzers can provide would be, relatively, of greater impact to the careers of Michael Gilbertson and Ted Hearne, the composers who are runners-up this year, than to the platinum-certified Lamar. But to decide a prize based on who “needs” it more would undermine its credibility, which is to say, its worth
The ability to hear hip-hop as brilliant music, period, is overdue for institutions and observers of all kind—which has also been the case, repeatedly in history, with regards to black music of all kinds. The Grammys, supposedly the most relevant awards-giving body in pop, routinely passes over excellent hip-hop works in its general categories, a trend that continued this year with Lamar’s loss to Bruno Mars. In the case of the Pulitzers, Lamar’s win brings to mind the way it took jazz decades to be afforded recognition: In 1965, an internal dispute over whether to commend Duke Ellington’s entire body of work resulted in no Pulitzer for music being issued that year, and it would take until 1997 for a jazz artist (Marsalis) to win out.
“I’m hardly surprised that my music is still without official honor at home,” Ellington once said of the Pulitzer snub. “Most Americans still take it for granted that European-based classical music, if you will, is the only really respectable kind.” Respect is a slippery thing, and the Pulitzer fallout thus far has made clear that certain traditionalists—those who think saying “rap = crap” is anything but the embarrassing tell of a closed mind—will remain dismissive of Lamar. A prize can only do so much. But Lamar’s catalogue, which includes albums arguably as good as or better than Damn, has often conveyed how potent such regard can nonetheless be: “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us,” he rapped in 2015. After the Pulitzer announcement, his label boss Terrence Henderson tweeted about the “respect” people would now have to pay Lamar, which raises the damning question of who wasn’t already respecting an artist this excellent, and why.
Kendrick Lamar just won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music for his album DAMN. and made history in the process.
Announcing the prize, the Pulitzer board called DAMN. “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
The Pulitzer for music, which was first awarded in 1943, generally goes to contemporary classical music; a quick scan through the list of previous winners reveals a lot of operas and symphonies. Lamar, however, is a hip-hop artist, and DAMN. is a hip-hop album. Lamar is now not only the first person to win a Pulitzer for a hip-hop album but the first person to win a Pulitzer for any music that’s not classical or jazz.
And even jazz, it’s worth noting, is a late addition to the Pulitzers. The Pulitzer jury once recommended giving the award to Duke Ellington in 1965, but the board declined to honor anyone that year. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer, Wynton Marsalis, didn’t take home his prize until 1997.
 And Slipped Disc being Slipped Disc ...
That an art form that isn't even considered art can be taken seriously decades later happens.  I never would have considered rap music twenty years ago.  It's still not exactly my favorite genre but I can respect that musical styles do not get followings out of thin air or for no reasons at all.
And the comments about opera at Slipped Disc have been met with a certain amount of deirision but the comparison of rap and hip hop to opera does not seem historically inept.  Advocates of ars perfecta from the late Renaissance regarded recitative and figured bass as basically the domain of talentless hacks who had no business being musicians.  It doesn't mean that the creators of early operas weren't churning out tons of maudlin over-hyped overheated plot lines with showboating formulaic song and dance numbers.  Compared to ars perfect of a Palestrina the opera singers could come off like they were panting and wheezing and shrieking.  Such complaints about them were not unknown.
So Lamar can have the prize, even if having the prize might not be the best thing. 

after 30 years The Simpsons (which shouldn't be on the air anymore, anyway), has become subject for debate about its stereotypes, specifically Apu.

The Marge and Lisa B-plot involves the two discovering that one of Marge’s favorite books from her childhood is full of racist caricatures, which results in Lisa saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” before panning over to a photo of Apu. (My colleague Caroline Framke has a further dissection of the scene.)
It’s, to say the least, a stupid way to respond to the controversy (and has only been made worse by showrunner Al Jean’s week on Twitter, which mostly involved retweeting people telling him that they didn’t find Apu offensive, in the classic “lighten up” posture of anybody who doesn’t want to change a thing about themselves). But it’s even stranger in light of the rest of the episode, which features Apu, but in a non-speaking role, and also casts Jimmy O. Yang, an actor who was born in Hong Kong, in the role of Sun Tzu, rather than having Azaria affect an exaggerated Asian accent (as it might have done in the ’90s).


Comedian Hari Kondabolu loved The Simpsons until he thought harder about the character of Apu, an Indian convenience store owner whose thick accent came courtesy of Hank Azaria doing his best Peter Sellers. So while at first he was excited to have an Indian character on TV — as he told Vox, “even if it’s brown paint, you’re glad there’s something” — he reevaluated his affection for Apu and realized that the stereotypes the character embodied were maybe doing more harm than good.
The result was The Problem with Apu, a documentary featuring Kondabolu interviewing comedians, South Asian and otherwise, about their complicated relationships to Apu and how it might have changed over the three decades The Simpsons has been on the air.
The Simpsons team gave glancing reactions to the documentary as it picked up some steam, with Azaria calling the criticism of Apu “distressing” and promising that the show would address the controversy. Since the turnaround time of an episode of The Simpsons is generally several months, that response finally came via the April 8 episode “No Good Read Goes Unpunished” — and amounted to a deadpan shrug.

The moment comes out of a storyline about Marge struggling to share one of her favorite books from childhood with Lisa, only to discover that just about every page is heavily laced with racism. “Another childhood classic bites the dust,” says Lisa, to which Marge responds by trying to revise the entire book to fit what she sees as 2018 standards. (For example: The princess goes from being a petulant little slaveowner to a “cisgender girl” fighting for net neutrality.)

But rather than liking this “inoffensive as a Sunday in Cincinnati” version better, Lisa furrows her brow and complains that if the character starts out perfect, she’s got no room to grow, so what’s the point?

“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,”
Lisa says, her eyes flicking over to a framed picture of Apu on her nightstand. “What can you do?”

“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge replies.

“If at all,” Lisa adds.

Here, both turn to look pointedly at the “camera,” blinking embodiments of that “what can you do” shrug — and that’s it.
That Lisa is the character to make the pronouncement not only seems out of character for the most righteously indignant and sanctimonious know-it-all in the regular cast, it could sugges tthat the writers have to be aware of Lisa's general character traits.  For Lisa Simpson to say "What can you do?" isn't like Cartman saying whatever Cartman would say.  As the article notes, an episode of The Simpsons can take months to put together.  It's not like an episode of South Park where the script isn't necessarily done until within a day of a production deadline like, say, "Woodland Critter Christmas."  Which is to say that The Simpsons may have just pulled what might be annoying or funny from South park but altogether expected from a show that has passed the twenty year mark.

Jeet Heer has written about the matter over at The New Republic (because that's where Heer writes).

It's possible for something to not seem offensive over the last thirty years and have it seem offensive recently.  I.e. the way The Simpsons writers chose to handle things could have fueled a fire that was maybe not so much a fire before.

Older desi, not just me and Shanker but Kondabolu’s own parents (who joke about his “Apu hair”) see Apu as a minor inconvenience. But younger desi, including many comedians and actors that Kondabolu spoke to for his film, have experienced a very different reality. They grew up in a world where The Simpsons was a pervasive part of popular culture and Apu the only Indian-American character everyone knew. They were taunted and bullied in school, with Apu’s name and catch-phrase (“Thank you, come again.”) used as an insult. It’s their lived experience of growing up with Apu that shows why this minor character is so pernicious.
Apu is now a slur more than he is a character. It’s true, as Shanker argues, that other slurs existed before Apu. But those slurs didn’t carry the cultural authority of The Simpsons. When a bully calls an Indian American “Apu” or says to them, “Thank you, come again,” he isn’t just demeaning the person by himself (though that is wrong enough); he’s using The Simpsons to justify his contempt. As The Problem With Apu showed, Apu makes desi kids feel insulted not just by individuals, but by American culture at large. That’s why the film changed my mind. It featured testimony about Indian-American experiences I wasn’t aware of. I was bullied for being Indian American, as Kondabolu’s subjects were, but I wasn’t bullied with language from one of the most famous shows on TV.
The common defense of Apu is that The Simpsons has many stereotypes (the Italian Fat Tony, the sometimes-Jewish Krusty the Clown, the Scottish Groundskeeper Willy). But none of these characters exist in a cultural reality where they are the only representative of their ethnicity: there are myriad Italian-American and Jewish characters on TV, but for many years, Apu stood as a singular representative of desi culture. That’s slowly starting to change with shows like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, but these programs haven’t yet had the cultural impact of The Simpsons.
There’s a big difference between the self-deprecating ethnic comedy of Kondabolu and Kaling, which belongs to a tradition of Richard Pryor and Jerry Seinfeld, and having a white man do an Indian accent (as Hank Azaria does for Apu). As Kondabolu argues in a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg, there’s an undeniable element of minstrelsy in Apu. The documentary makes this clear by juxtaposing Apu’s clowning—dancing with a cane, for instance—with blackface antics of early 20th century films. In both blackface and Apu, the main character is a loveable but silly clown, defined by an accent. When I used to watch The Simpsons, I thought Apu was at least more affectionately intended than Peter Sellers’s brown-face character in the movie The Party. But one of the disheartening revelations of Kondabolu’s documentary is that Azaria modeled his accent off The Party.
One of the reasons I think we live in an unjust world is there's still Family Guy anything.  I think The Simpsons had a strong start and did okay for a decade.  The movie would have been a place to end things.  But that's not how American film works.  If something is construed as successful you don't do what Bill Watterson did, quit while you're still basically ahead.  Nah, you have to keep draining the well until you're squeezing blood from a turnip.  You could have a show that was a triumph, like The Last Airbender and then follow it up with a ghastly self-congratulatory trainwreck of entitlement like Legend of Korra
That comedy shows on television traffic in stereotypes s a given.  That after thirty years Apu has gone from being a stereotype that could have been considered innocuous to one that isn't doesn't have to just be a sign of social justice warrior times.  I have a mixed lineage, half white half Native American.  So when I saw Cameron's Avatar I was startled at how many clichĂ©s from the magic white boy joins the Indian tribe and gets the Indian princess idiom were strewn all over James Cameron's film.  ever been one for cowboy and Indian films on the whole.  Westerns have not aged well because the mythology surrounding the West has so often been dependent on a narrative that has too much racist baggage.  It's not that I never liked ANY Westerns.  I enjoyed the Coen brothers' take on True Grit, actually.  But, obviously, that's a different kind of American Indian character stuff.
I've made this point a few times at this blog, that there are only two basic modes of humor, laughing with and laughing at.  I can appreciate why some of a more Puritan bent felt that it was better to be an earnest and even moralizing lecturer than to traffic in humor.  After all, jokes tend to be at the expense of someone.  I'm not against humor as such, but the Apu situation of late seems like a reminder that jokers who make their livings making fun of this or that don't just decide that maybe they're in the wrong for trafficking in stereotypes. 
Maybe Harvey Dent's line in a Nolan film is apt here, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.   After all, if The Simpsons had called it quits even ten years ago it wouldn't be part of this cultural moment. 

It's not like people are retroactively condemning Madonna for cultural appropriation for songs she released twenty years ago.  One of the advantages of knowing when it's time to "fade out" in popular culture is that if you've ended up on the wrong side of trends people can forgive you if only by dint of you not being particularly active.   If Woody Allen had stopped making films twenty years ago the debate about his work would have a different tone and substance.  But he's been out there actively making films year after year. 
Perhaps we can just say that after thirty odd years The Simpsons are like The Rolling Stones, enough of a legacy act that they'll be around a bit but nobody really imagines they "matter" except as legacy by now?  Obviously the ... kind of matter, but I stopped watching the show more than a decade ago. 

Helen Mirren concerned that the rise of streaming services mean people don't see films in theaters as they used to, which in terms of art-religion could be saying people don't go to church these days like they used to

Dame Helen Mirren has said the rise of watching films on streaming services at home is "devastating" for people who want to make films for the big screen.
"It's devastating for people like my husband, film directors, because they want their movies to be watched in a cinema with a group of people," the actress told Total Film magazine.
Dame Helen, 72, is married to Taylor Hackford, director of 2004 biopic Ray.
She said the "communal" experience of cinema is in danger of dying out.
"An audience, a movie, and you're all in it together," she said. "You're frightened, you laugh, you cry all together. So it's a communal thing. And that's beginning to disappear."
The Oscar winner's comments continue a debate about services like Netflix, which has bought films like Annihilation and Mudbound for its own subscribers.
Its business model generally bypasses cinemas - a fact that has unsettled many in the film industry.
Of course, as noted in the title, if we replaced watching films with going to church to hear a sermon or participate in the sacraments the concern about a lack of go-there-in-person piety could translate. 
Not that I'm trying to be only sarcastic in making this observation.  That there are fewer and fewer apparent bonding rituals to further social cohesion across groups might really be an issue.  Conversely, intra-group bonding seems to be consolidating and calcifying in some strata of society to levels that could be considered dangerously isolationist or, to put it in less esoteric terms, patently racist, ethnocentric and so on.  Whether everyone going to see movies necessarily "fixes" the problem seems hard to establish.  I personally don't mind at all if Black Panther beats the box office take of Titanic. If directors like James Cameron or Ridley Scott at some point lose their magic touch at the box office I can't say I'll feel too badly for them. 
There's apparently some kind of showdown taking place between Cannes Film Festival and Netflix. 
The ongoing publicity battle between one of cinema’s hoariest institutions (the Cannes Film Festival) and its loudest new “disruptor” (Netflix) is a standoff where it’s tough to really sympathize with either side. Last year, after some internal uproar over the presence of Netflix’s Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) at Cannes, the festival announced it would require all competition titles to receive theatrical distribution in France going forward. This year, the Cannes director, Thierry Fremaux, stuck to that edict. In response, Netflix pulled all its movies from the 2018 festival—even the out-of-competition premieres unaffected by the rule change.
But sometimes I find myself asking what the cumulative carbon footprint for a movie is.  What if there had never been a film industry?  What if there had not been mass production of stuff like film?  Would our ecological situation be better or worse.  Yes, I'm floating a hypothetical of an entire art form not existing as a question to consider regarding the long-term ecological health of the planet and the human race.  Art forms rise and fall over time.  Opera is not what it once was.  The novel hasn't gone out of style but how widespread is poetry?  By poetry I mean the stuff college professors wouldn't be ashamed to hear their students or relatives reciting. 
One of the ideas I've considered over the last twenty years is whether or not the decline of the music industry as often touted within said industry is not so much an end of th industry as the downward turn of what was maybe a century long bubble.  Maybe Picketty addressed something like that in that book of his, which I haven't read, but the possibility that the whole of post-industrial Western civilization can be thought of as a kidn of bubble is an idea I've been mulling over for a while.  Film isn't dying off as such, but it could be that there's a ... so to speak, market correction? 
The symphony may be less prominent an art form than it was a couple of centuries ago, back before there was television or movies, but the symphony still exists.  New symphonies seven get composed and premiered, right?  Just not at the level we read about in history books.  Perhaps film is approaching a comparable peak, rather, perhaps film is on a decline that is not something to freak out about but to regard as a natural stabilizing or fading out dynamic after a century.  If we compare things to the symphony there was probably an explosion of activity and a tapering off of the number of symphonies that were actively engaged by the public.
Considering the narratives established about what symphonies did and didn't matter there's that element, too, it could be there's a lot of activity but if it's not of the sort that grown ups who take themselves seriously regard as really being art it doesn't count. 
So if last year's My Little Pony: The Movie beat Aronofksy's mother! by a hoof at the global box office does that mean the former is going to get discussed like it's art?  Nope.  I haven't seen either movie and, frankly, I'd probably be more likely to watch the adventures of Twlight Sparkle.  I liked the homage to parlor mysteries with a goofy hardboiled noir vibe MLP had for "Rarity Investigates".   The whole Inception homage with Princess Luna as a kind of benevolent Freddie Kreuger was funny.  But ... cartoons equals kid stuff even in our era.  On that note ... .  

Sunday, April 15, 2018

at The Atlantic, Libby Copeland has a piece on how guilt is good, and how the right kind of guilt is a prerequisite to a stable society

In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Roy Baumeister proposed that two important emotions in the moral and social formation of a person are fear and shame. These have had a bad reputation in American psychology popular and otherwise in the 20th century but fear of bad consequences and shame at the reality (or even the prospect) of harming someone are substantial disincentives against what is colloquially known as anti-social behavior. 

In the twenty odd years since the internet has become what it has become, pseudonymity (as opposed to anything like actual anonymity) is apparently enough to catalyze vitriolic conduct on the part of all sorts of people.

There is, per the article in The Atlantic about how to guilt trip your kids, a "right" way for them to feel shame.  Americans can be so set on avoiding shame or regarding shame as an a priori bad approach to moral development we can ... well, there's that South Park episode where Randy Marsh insists that we need a shame-free America, and America without shame. The punchline being that that ,of course, is precisely the problem with American culture, it's so shameless that many people don't feel any shame about how they interact with people.  While those unfamiliar with the twenty-plus seasons of South Park might say "as if" or "the pot calls the kettle black" we're looking at a television program that is arguably an exemplar of more prevalent patterns.  It's not like anyone who watches a single episode of Rachel Maddow couldn't get the sense that there's condescension about the question of whether people who are more conservative than Maddow actually have ideas or genuine lives of the mind, much as a single episode of Keith Olberman waxing political could convey the same general impression.  The Jon Stewart and the Rush Limbaugh are not necessarily different in methodology so much as in platform. 

Satirizing how shameless Americans can be while insisting that they not be shamed doesn't seem like it's that bad a thing to do, as popular culture goes.  Anglo-American culture can produce guys who won't watch cartoons but will actually enjoy comic books by Garth Ennis as if those are somehow actually less juvenile than cartoons by Parker and Stone.  But I digress.

There's a kind of shame and a kind of guilt that is bad, obviously, but when blogging on a weekend there's such a thing as letting that stand off to the side.  It seems like we've got a cultural moment in which the temptation to shift shame and guilt into an a priori bad category is prevalent ... although ... to go by what I've seen in the roughly twenty years I've been in the Puget Sound area observing a certain religious movement the thing that stands out for me is the double standard in how guilt and shame get used.  Somebody had no problem invoking guilt and shame at "how dare you!?" levels as long as he was yelling at men for the way they treated the women in their lives as though he were the more exemplar of how to do it better.  Then a few years later when he was confronted on air with questions about the integrity and legitimacy of his intellectual property somebody was suddenly considered to be saying things that were accusatory and unkind.  Everyone can be a hypocrite who falls short of his or her highest ideals, but what played out in a leadership culture here in Puget Sound looked more like the pervasive use of a double standard in which guilt and shame were totally fine to use on the tithing peons but guilt and shame being used in anything like a comparable way on the leaders?  That was being accusatory and unkind, or being mistrustful and prideful.

But if the majority of those guys use the methodology of appealing to what they regarded as legitimate grounds for guilt and shame toward themselves first how many of them would have even considered being even volunteer pastors or elders at Mars Hill? 

Now I'm hardly a Lutheran but I recall a Lutheran saying that Mark Driscoll was very much a Law preacher and that the Law is a necessary and important part of preaching and teaching. The problem, however, is that Mark didn't have Gospel.  Being a Presbyterian myself I'm going to differ with Lutherans on a few things but this core idea seems legitimate.  Years ago I told a by-now former Mars Hill member that Mark's shtick was basically appealing to shame as a motivation to do better.  It's not even that this is really a bad way to do things in every single case.  There are cases where the Apostle Paul wrote "I say this to your shame."  The difficulty with a guy like Driscoll was how prevalently he used it as a kind of one-size-fits-all approach.  And what made it all the worse, as the various controversies that erupted around Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll from the 2012 through 2014 period showed (and which we've documented at some length as others have waded into these topics, too), is that when things came to light about Result Source and On Mission, LLC and other things, it began to look like Mark had spent the last half decade exempting himself from the kinds of standards of godly pastoral behavior he had been preaching and teaching from the pulpit. 

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones taught in his Studies in the Sermon on the Mount that one of many reasons we should not be in a rush to judge is because as we judge others in like manner will we be judged. 

Matthew 7: 1-5 NAS
1 Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

In the way you judge, you will be judged, and by the standard which you measure you will be measured.  In this sense someone like Mark Driscoll who could ever be described as subjected to "accusatory and unkind" words might have to step back and consider whether he has himself taken an accusatory and unkind approach as a default.  Could the creator of the pen name William Wallace II and the author of "Pussified Nation" have found that it wasn't so good to be measured and found wanting by the measures through which he had found others wanting and said so for posterity? 

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his sermon on The Sermon on the Mount said of the above passage that if you claim to have insight then you will have to be ready to be measured by that claim to insight; if you claim to be able to sit in authority to judge someone by a standard you have no right to be upset if it is by precisely that standard of judgment you, too, are judged and capable of being found wanting.  Whatever you say is your gift, that gift becomes a measure of judgment against you. 

He also said that there's an old joke that there is, in fact, something worse than the blind leading the blind, the blind oculist. No one would want to get a prescription for glasses from a blind oculist.  If you are blind to your own sins how on earth can you expect to help someone turn from theirs?

When the tables were turned and Mark had a chance to be asked "how dare you?", but implicitly rather than explicitly in the late 2013 confrontation, we got to see what his response was--he said someone was being "accusatory and unkind".  It turned out, it seems, that the man who was willing to invoke guilt and shame in others was reluctant to take it on for himself.  Appealing to guilt and shame seemed to stop being legitimate gambits in the public sphere when the tables were turned. 

But the misuse of appellations to guilt and shame doesn't necessarily mean these are never appropriate emotions or appropriate emotions to invoke and evoke.  It's good to feel bad that you had some hand in harming someone.  It's good to feel ashamed that you said or did something really wrong.  Baumeister's proposal in is book was it is precisely these feelings that can emerge in advance of doing things that are often the reasons why people don't do things; guilt and shame are a kind of moral preventative immune response in people who are considering or tempted to antisocial behavior, what Christians have often traditionally called sin. Had some guys felt guilt and shame in advance of the stupid and unscrupulous and evil things they did they might not have done them.  But ...

and that may be the rub.  You have to cultivate this capacity in yourself (or your kids) at early enough of an age that this capacity for sympathy and empathy predicated guilt and shame can do its work.  There's a point at which things are done and trying to get people to feel guilt and shame after the fact for damage already caused "could" be valuable but depending on who you're dealing with, the milk is spilt.  Some people just won't feel bad about stuff. 

But, conversely, a guy like Driscoll invoking guilt and shame to get guys to behave presumes a fight or flight response.  Not every guy is going to choose "fight" of the Driscollian type.  In other words, when presented with "this is what real manly men are supposed to be like" not everyone is going to say "I will fight to be that kind of man", some will conclude "this working definition of manhood isn't practical, possible or desirable and I'm not cut out for it."  A guy like Driscoll has a history of concluding that those guys are worthless, and of saying so.  But in a post 2014 world in which Driscoll's own controversies can be consulted in connection to the history of his teaching and actions, the question of whether Driscoll himself has really lived up to the standards by which he judged others for the record, and for which he was ostentatiously willing to invoke guilt and shame, remains an open question.  Pertinent to Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermons about the Sermon on the Mount, if a man can't even live by the criteria with which he judges others his hypocrisy is made known.  If you're more stringent on others than yourself then the real pleasure you take is in judging others rather than pursuing righteousness and this is one of the warnings within Jesus' teaching that we should not judge so as not to be judged.  The measure you measure by is what you will be measured by. 

And if there's such a thing as a right way to "guilt trip your kids" everything hinges on what kind of guilt is being cultivated.  There's room for the cultivation of legitimate fear, shame and guilt.  A whole lot of what's going on in the post-Weinstein #metoo moment seems to involve finding out what a whole bunch of men and women felt no fear, guilt or shame about doing to other people.  As I've written elsewhere I don't think that the way to approach this moment is to say "we're all monsters" as if merely saying so ensures that everyone is a Sandunsky or a Nassar.  That's obviously ridiculous, though it's not beyond the purview of a kind of Anglo-American pop Lutheran approach that, being a  Calvinist who likes to read sermons by Richard Sibbes and (obviously) Martyn Lloyd-Jones I don't agree with.  :) 

I guess what I'm mulling over here in the year of a guy like Mark getting another book deal is that it seems there's a kind of "grace" that a noveau rich, untitled aristocracy can get that the rank and file don't get.  Someone like Mark can go through a plagiarism controversy and a Result Source controversy and have what he wrote as William Wallace II disclosed for the world as a fuller indication of what his legacy is and ... Christians should forgive.  Right ... but we're hardly obliged to just assume a man is still fit for Christian ministry and service after what has been brought to light about the man.  A man who made so much hay out of invocations of guilt and shame and saying people needed to fear God, it's hard to know precisely how there's fear of the Lord in a guy who said God released him to quit being at Mars Hill when a year earlier he'd preached from the pulpit that we should not just take at face value some guy's claim that 'God told me I get to do X."    If you don't like the measure you get but haven't changed the measure you give you have an opportunity to reconsider what your standard of measurement is. 

Not every standard for fear, guilt and shame is a good one, but just as clearly not every measure of fear, guilt and shame is bad, either.  There are things we should fear, things we should feel guilt about, and things we should feel shame about.  Liberating ourselves from any possibility of shame will not make us less like those men with power who have used and abused people, it will very likely make us more like them.  A capacity to feel genuine and legitimate guilt and shame, a capacity to feel legitimate fear that doing X or Y would be wrong and harm people plays a bigger role in the formation of a moral compass than I sometimes feel may be readily granted in contemporary Anglo-American discourse, at least online.  Sure, shame, fear and guilt are invoked aplenty when they're useful but it can seem that these are invoked by those who feel a bit too confident that they can't possibly fail to measure up by the standards they invoke.  But just as awkwardly, it seems that there's nothing gained by a kind of pseudo-Lutheran Law/Gospel divide that skips the Law and goes straight for a Gospel for neo-aristocrats because that, frankly, is kinda what I think went down in Puget Sound when someone who acted with the liberties of a neo-aristocrat decided he had the divine right of a prophet/king to just pull up stakes and leave because he aid God told him to. 

So I am ... let's say ... in process about stuff like this.  I don't feel like I have a lot of wisdom to impart on this stuff.  I was somewhere for about ten years and left because I felt the problems I had were not problems that could be fixed in a setting like that.  I guess I'm saying that Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermon on Matthew 7:1-3 comes to mind, you have to be willing and able to judge yourself as wanting by the standards you have in mind constantly before you even think of doing such a thing for/to someone else. 

But I've rambled enough on this topic for a weekend.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

some links for the weekend

some more eulogies for the recently passed Isao Takahata

Chris Spannos argues that the internet cannot really be saved and that the nature of the internet is so steeped in what some are now calling "surveillance capitalism" that alternatives to it should be sought out.

Grey power and surveillance capitalism nudge regulators to come down too often on the side of commercial and state interests against the public good. But it is the Internet’s own design features which ultimately give rise to new and unprecedented global monopolies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest. It enables the NSA and GCHQ to surveille the personal lives of people around the world. The Internet has become the largest global platform to amplify power and privilege since the end of the cold war; and it cannot be saved.

Of course some context for this sort of rumination has something to do with questions Zuckerberg has and has not answered about the nature of Facebook.

over at Slate, an observation about the "tech bro" idiom used to describe men like Zuckerberg downplays the significance of what men like him have done.


Peter Pan mythology is rampant in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley, where adult men get free laundry, food, and access to “toys” bearing the ability to change the very fabric of our democracy. These ostensibly eternal children are encouraged to move fast and break things, never looking back at the things that they broke. Even the term “tech bro” evokes youthful collegial stupidity, the anti-frat star armed with hoodies and flash drives rather than Solo cups and Vineyard Vines. And a fair amount of the older journalists covering these “boy kings” play right into this mythos, covering Silicon Valley with a kind of bemused avuncular air, attributing missteps to guilelessness and the apparently inherent childishness of social media and tech toys.
When Uber CEO Travis Kalanick berated an Uber driver for “blaming everything in [his] life on somebody else” rather than taking responsibility, the apology he issued said he had some growing up to do. Kalanick was 40 at the time. And yet eternal youth isn’t available to everyone in Silicon Valley: Despite the fact that Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is only a few months older than Zuckerberg, her well-deserved fall from grace wasn’t covered with the soft language of immaturity. She was treated like the adult that she and Zuckerberg both are because—surprise!—she’s a woman. As soon as girls hit puberty, they’re subjected to the old adage that women mature faster than men; we face up to the consequences of our actions while simultaneously being treated as ignorant children in any other context. Black girls in particular are never allowed the innocence of childhood: From the age of 5 we’re perceived as needing less protection and nurturing. And lives that are multiple decades long, let alone extended growing up periods, aren’t afforded to actual children like Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, who were perceived as adults before puberty even ended.
Yet with Zuckerberg, we’re supposed to believe that at 33, with children of his own, this “boy-billionaire” is just now coming to terms with his own age. Maybe he’s actually bought into this narrative—it would explain why he’s been issuing the same mea culpa for 10 years. Children are selfish, and they rarely learn from their own mistakes if they aren’t held to any consequences. And that’s one of the many lessons here: If we don’t treat people like an adult the minute they become one, and not a moment earlier or later, they’ll never learn how to act like one
The likelihood that Mark Zuckerberg will get to do a "I was an immature young buck but I'm better now" not altogether unlike some other Mark we've discussed here at considerably more length. 

Over at First Things Paul Griffiths has a letter to an aspiring intellectual.

It's about as long on the long side as to be expected.  One of the observations made along the way is that there are people who would fancy themselves aiming to be intellectuals who are dilletantes (though these categories can and do overlap), people for whom the aura of mystique of being intellectual is the real objective and not the actual life of the mind. 

Which gets me thinking about some blogs at which the question of why there aren't more Christian intellectuals or where they are if they exist.  It has seemed that what those sorts of for-the-public-record musings end up being is the desire for the posture or the pose, for the aura of intellectual this or that rather than actual thought. 

There's stuff about interlocutors and how you might not have them as living contemporaries or you might have them but they might not be in universities.  The distinction between an intellectual and an academic can seem like hairsplitting but I'm going to just run with the distinction as given since it seems that many an academic is not an intellectual at all.  Academia as a credentialing mill is not the same as cultivating a life of the mind. 

Wes Anderson films as iterations of "boys not growing up" over at The New Republic--a few thoughts on Generation X growing up with the puzzle of how to play with the trademarked toys our parents bought for us

As fusillades indicting a class of white males for not growing up go, it would be remiss to assume that the only people who go on such rants are men such as Mark Driscoll or Jordan Peterson or people ostensibly or observably associated with the "right".  There's room at places like The New Republic for bromides about how certain types of art and entertainment somehow depict or catalyze a stratum of males "not growing up."

The new Wes Anderson film Isle of Dogs can be taken as a case in point. Now I've seen, I think, exactly one Wes Anderson film but rather than get to that I'll proceed to large swaths of this review.
From the start, Anderson’s characters have been cursed with a delusional nostalgia. It’s easy to look at Bottle Rocket and see just another 1990s comedy about slackers. Until the gang of amateur thieves put on yellow jumpsuits to rob a warehouse, they dress like typical overgrown suburban preppies without fashion sense. But there’s a reason Martin Scorsese cited the film when he told Esquire in 2000 that Anderson was the next Scorsese. Dignan, the twentysomething fuck-up played by Owen Wilson who leads his friends into this folly, fancies himself a gangster out of a ’70s heist flick. It’s a parody Scorsese movie—complete with a classic rock soundtrack, which for two decades would be an Anderson hallmark—about men who never had the chance to become gangsters.
Nostalgic delusion would afflict Max Fischer, who longs to embody the fading traditions of the prep school that expels him. The Tenenbaum children are haunted by the glories of their lost days as child geniuses. Everybody in The Life Aquatic wants to return to a state of being eleven and a half, what Zissou calls “my favorite age.” The Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited fetishize the luggage they inherited from their dead father. Mr. Fox, having gone straight and become a newspaper columnist, wants to return to a life of stealing food from farms. The narrative of The Grand Budapest Hotel is presented through the frame of a memoir by a dead author who, decades earlier at a dilapidated resort, encountered an aging former lobby boy who told him the story of its glory days. It can’t be said that Zero the lobby boy is deluded; he’s filled with sadness because he lost everyone he loved after the arrival of shock troops who look a lot like the Nazis.
Bottle Rocket introduced another recurring character type: the flawed, or malignant, middle-aged mentor, James Caan’s Mr. Henry. As the bad father figure, who double-crosses Dignan, Caan says his lines as if his character from The Godfather, Sonny Corleone, hadn’t been shot up by the Tattaglias but had moved to Dallas to become a landscaper and small-time crook. Rushmore would cast Bill Murray as Herman Blume, who sees something of himself in Max Fischer, because it’s the nature of a midlife crisis to turn a man back into a boy. As Blume, Murray embodied a louche, fiftysomething wreck in need of redemption. The quest of saving the aging man falls to the boy, who surrenders his crush on the schoolteacher, Miss Cross, and instead plays matchmaker between the two adults.
Though Murray has made a second career of it, a cigarette or two dangling from his mouth, it was Gene Hackman who perfected this persona for Anderson as Royal Tenenbaum. He’s a failed parent, a cheating husband, a bankrupted rich man, a casual racist, a liar: a decadent portrait of the charismatic, urbane, and decadent white American male born in the 1930s. He’s redeemed by having his fraud exposed (he’s been faking cancer to get his wife and adult children to let him live with them), being stabbed by his servant, taking a day job as an elevator operator, accepting that a black man will marry his ex-wife and most likely prove to be a more loving husband than he was, and dying of a heart attack.
We'll interrupt the review at this point.  I saw The Royal Tenenbaums.  One of the punchlines, of course, is in the title. These people aren't royalty.  If they're not titled aristocrats in the explicit sense deployed in lines from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (who has been explicitly making films about American aristocracy pretty much his whole career) they could be construed as non-titled aristocrats.  Each of his children is some child prodigy who fails to live up to cultural and familial expectations of greatness.  To use one of the phrases cycling through internet discourse, each of these children (Margot included) could be christened a "failson".  there's a type of character enervation that spans generations in this film.  Royal isn't so much redeemed as he confesses. 

If there's a problem rampant in American story-telling indicated by all this complaint at TNR about "redemption" it may just be that in American parlance, and here it's far more potent in the indie/arthouse realm than in blockbusters, confession is often conflated with repentance and conflated with redemption.  Now in lowbrow blockbuster fare "redemption" generally looks like a person confesses he/she has been on the wrong side, repents of being on that side, joins a different team and because the messiah for that team.  That's what we see in James Cameron's Avatar, for instance. While the indie/arthouse form of "redemption" is more psychologically plausible only in the sense that people confess before they become a hero/soldier for a new team, and in the sense that repentance may precede confession or follow it in non-soteriological terms, this kind of cinematic "redemption" is no more "real" in the highbrow or middlebrow than it is in the lowbrow.  The basic arc of "redemption/savior" is the same in Spielberg's The Post as it is in Cameron's Avatar or even Favreau's Iron Man.  Now, let's get to Royal's kids.

The redemption of his children, who have to go on living, is a trickier matter. They are a set of three failed prodigies whose early brilliance in business, sport, and theater has been betrayed by their parents’ divorce. We meet them as depressed adults. There’s a grizzly suicide attempt at the film’s climax by the former tennis star, Richie Tenenbaum, when he perceives that his love for his adopted sister, Margot, is doomed. The episode is a preposterous black hole in the middle of the comedy, a grasping at gravitas. Anderson modeled the Tenenbaums on J.D. Salinger’s Glass family—who appeared in a series of his short stories—but the incest plot doesn’t match the war trauma that haunts Salinger’s fiction. The film tips into the maudlin and quickly scoots back to the twee. Similar moves would mar Anderson’s next films—such as the accidental deaths of Zissou’s son in a helicopter crash in The Life Aquatic and of an Indian boy drowned in a river in The Darjeeling Limited.
... on the order of "it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell?"

The Royal Tenenbaums was a commercial success and aligned with the late–Gen X zeitgeist that went by the name hipster. [last I checked the majority of Gen X hasn't died off yet] For the rest of the decade, it was impossible to go out in Brooklyn on Halloween without seeing a couple dressed as Margot and Richie Tenenbaum. The thrift-store aesthetic of the costume design, the shabby-chic gestalt, and the theme of dissipated childhood promise connected with the back end of a generation whose achievements did not match its sense of entitlement and so compensated with nostalgia and an aesthetic of reclamation. But Anderson had reached the culmination of his youthful phase. It would be some time before he would again link his eccentricity and cinephilia so neatly to a popular American myth.
It is here that I would interject that this seems substantially the same as a Mark Driscoll lament about a "Pussified Nation".  He spent years complaining about how lazy and entitled a generation of men was.  At least now we know that a Gen X indictment of this kind can be construed as able to emerge from either a left or right origin point, or perhaps we could deploy the term neoliberalism.  The failure of Generation X is construed in terms of entitlement, failed promise and nostalgia. 

But what is that nostalgia for, exactly?  Are we entirely sure that the depiction of Royal doesn't shift that narrative in a direction that the nostalgia in question is a kind of class nostalgia for which Royal's children are given a chance to see that the class role as exemplified by their father was a nasty racist fraud?  "Redemption" in a twee/maudlin cinematic sense for the children of Royal is that they are given to understand that they don't have to live up to Royal's fraud.  It's still kind of mean as "redemption" goes, they get to find out they're better people than their old man but what generation of Americans hasn't thought that over the last, well, century?

Wes Anderson can be thought of as a kind of funhouse mirror variation of Whit Stillman.  Stillman is more conservative and direct in proposing that the American aristocratic classes are losing and have lost their role in society.  They are starting to face downward economic and class mobility whether they recognize it or not.  But by making his films more explicitly about class up front Stillman's films hold up better, at least as a Generation X sort who has seen a couple of Stillman films and Anderson films.  Stillman's films, as I understand them, riff on the idea that the bourgeois is doomed but it also deserves its fate.  We can eel some pity for them because they fail to recognize their own moral failures and ignorance while not feeling bad for them out of any sense that they are materially deprived.  To put things more in the idiom of current internet discourse, Stillman characters may not recognize their privilege but Stillman does, whereas in Anderson's films the characters may not recognize their privilege and it's not always clear from an Anderson film that Anderson is entirely clear that he's making films about a kind of American aristocracy, if of a non-titled kind.

As for Andersonian nostalgia ...

Like Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a stop-motion animation feature that built to a finale of military violence between talking animals (with American accents) and humans (with British accents). The daddy issues—Mr. Fox’s son Ash wants to get his father’s attention and a role as his accomplice—are explored within a functional nuclear family, albeit one that’s being hunted. There’s an emotionally superfluous mid-film funeral for a rat, and the classic rock soundtrack tilts away from the Kinks and David Bowie toward the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. It was proof that there wasn’t much distance between a Wes Anderson movie and a commercially viable children’s movie. Eliminate the swearing and the sexual innuendo, and you’re mostly there.

At this point I'd say there's more to be said in favor of children's entertainment than a lot of what passes for grown-up now. If there's an implication that kid stories are less grown up than "adult" entertainment and that those who make films primarily for children that's a bias I have seen recurring in Anglo-American film criticism.  I don't get the sense that Hayao Miyazaki's films, nearly all made with children as the intended audience, are signs that Miyazaki has not grown up.  I don't think Wes Anderson has it in him to make a film like The Wind Rises on the one hand or like My Neighbor Totoro on the other.

We might have to back up a bit and establish what we mean by Generation X.  If all it means is that someone was born after the Baby Boom generation but before the Millenials then how do we define that date range?  We could try to say that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan could be construed as Generation X.  Whit Stillman was born in the 1950s so he may be Baby Boom as long as the Baby Boom ran for a decade after the end of the war.

If there's a cinematic generation primed to have an anxiety of influence in Anglo-American cinema Generation X might be that generation.  We've grown up with all of classic Hollywood from the studio era up through the 1970s auteur and blockbuster stuff.  The entire idiom of film and all its genres have been laid out before us.  There's nothing to innovate. We can refine and consolidate but innovation in the medium is harder to achieve.  James Cameron may really believe his own hype but he can't revolutionize film. 

But let me get back to Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon because I propose there's a point of commonality with these two.  They're arch, they're self-aware, they're steeped in cinema as an art form in a way that suggests multigenerational engagement and debt (Whedon's a third generation of a family that has been in the entertainment industry for some time).  What some regard as a Gen X refusal to grow up can be interpreted, from within the context of Generation X itself (hint) as an anxiety about American culture and class.  We of Generation X seem like the first generation since the Baby Boom who will have less than what the Baby Boom generation had.  Perhaps no show explicitly explores this sense of failure than a show like The Venture Bros.  Rusty Venture is a terrible, self-absorbed man who can't live up to the greatness of his super-scientist father.  He's a failure as a "hero" but in a moment when given a chance to realize his full potential (as a supervillain) he can't bring himself to be that, either.  His self-designated archnemesis The Monarch is a trust fund kid with delusions of grandeur who jokes that how he gets anything cool done is by squandering his inheritance that he got from his dad.  Generation X exists within a self-aware moment in American culture and global culture in which it's clear that "we" can't solve the problems bequeathed to us by the Baby Boom generation or The Greatest Generation and that "we" can't live up to the potential of the generations before us ... but as more history is unfolded it may be that the kinds of great men who make history are such self-aggrandizing assholes settling for a lesser "legacy" may be the better trade-off than trying to equal or exceed the glories of earlier generations as recounted to us through popular culture and history.

That's kind of an aside, what I was meaning to get to about guys like Anderson and Whedon is that they are so arch and so self-aware, so depending on witty patter (if that's what we have to call it, all the time) that the quips come so fast and furious that when the time comes for an Anderson or a Whedon to go for what's supposed to be a heart-rending moment the whole thing fails.  Anderson and Whedon can have moments where they want to go for what's colloquially known as "the feels" but they don't have it in them. 

A friend of mine who likes Whedon's work but has granted that in the end he is, as I've been saying, a one trick pony, told me that he's noticed Whedon has a preferred trick.  When it works it works really well but when it fails it fails completely--something terrible happens at the start of an episode and after that emotional moment has its beat we're jumping to "18 hours earlier".  There's an eagerness to build up to some moment of expectation and then pull the rug out from under the viewer or, to borrow a gruesome phrase a friend of mine from college had about soprano repertoire, "This is one of those `rip your heart out and stomp on it' songs." Whedon's quippiness and archness gets in the way of his capacity for emotional viability. Anderson, I would suggest, can have a similar problem.  In someone whose whole career has been slapstick and horror, like Rumiko Takahashi, an insistence on jokes defusing emotionally vulnerable moments between characters is expected.  But Anderson and Whedon are not making slapstick or horror even if Whedon ostentatiously traffics in genre trappings. 

Generation X may have spent so much time using wit and arch genre awareness to emotionally insulate itself from the reality that we can't possibly live up to the American Dream as handed down to us by the Baby Boomers (who changed everything!) and the Greatest Generation (who saved the world!) that our jaded consideration of how both of those narratives turned out to be grand lies (if, at the time, seemingly necessary ones, and on this score I'd suggest that among blockbuster film-makers Nolan is one of the directors of Generation X.  His stories are about men who deceive themselves (sometimes knowingly and more often not) into believing that what they're doing is the right thing when it may not be; his characters tell lies or believe lies that are considered necessary for "society" to continue or to change it.  But Nolan's men deceive themselves so well they don't understand what they have done (the exception to this pattern, by necessity, was Batman).  The way the death of a child in Dunkirk is transformed into "heroic sacrifice" when the boy was really killed by a shell-shocked soldier is easy to skip over but it's one of the central motifs in Nolan's film-making.  We tell ourselves we're heroes because if we just admit we're in a panicked, desperate effort to survive and that in order to survive we do horrifying things to other people, well, we can't have a heroic narrative based on that! 
Dogs on movie screens either bite or they’re adorable. Anderson’s dogs are the latter, and there’s something inherently corny about them. There’s also something stunted about Anderson’s eternal regress to age twelve. If blockbuster American cinema, now bleeding into the prestige category, weren’t already so dominated by superhero movies, it might be easier to stomach an art-house auteur bent on concocting ever more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up.

Yes, well, Mark Driscoll can still talk about how so many people are finding more sophisticated and exotic ways not to grow up, too.  There's a point at which, freely admitting to being someone within Generation X, there's little inspiration to buy into the mythologies of the Baby Boomer generation or the Greatest Generation on the one hand and even less reason to buy into Millenial optimism.  Generation X has had moments in which people felt inspired to make the world a better place, after all.  It's not like nobody thought to move fast and break things in order to innovate.  Some of us were even part of something that was billed as not selling out to the American Dream and not making the same mistakes as earlier generations did.  What was that around here in Puget Sound?  Ah, right ... Mars Hill ...  it was in the July 1998 issue of Mother Jones ...

So what on earth can you do if you reach the point where you can't sign on for the mythologies of your ancestors because of the legacy of destruction and self-regard they produced, yet you also have become cautious about monomythic tendencies in popular culture and are skeptical about the possibility for real innovation or revolutionary change that doesn't devolve into cults of personality?  You're kind of stuck.  My skepticism about Millenials is not that they're lazy or entitled or whatever, it's that they want a new mythology in which righteous Americans save the world and I can't sign on for that because I don't believe that. 

Anderson's films are arch enough to be self-aware and quippy enough to seem witty but the problem isn't the "not growing up" stuff it's more like Anderson's nostalgia is a nostalgia for an unfulfilled promise, a promise of a generational capacity for greatness he may realize isn't capable of fulfillment in the real world but that he nevertheless can't bring himself to actually repudiate.  He doesn't have it in him to admit there are myths of greatness that are in some way necessary lies that are the foundation of any society, which is pretty much every Christopher Nolan movie.  If society is predicated on a lie why do we keep fighting to save a society or a narrative based on a lie? Because we can't say "no" to the lives of flesh and blood people.  Even Selina Kyle, cynical as she is, ultimately comes back to help Batman keep Gotham from being incinerated.  Love of neighbor does not have to be mythic or self-mythologizing all the time. 

Nolan's films may have choppy action sequences, stentorian moods and po-faced seriousness but so what?  Nolan's films, among those made by Generation X, may go over as well as they do because compared to other Generation X filmmakers on the big or small screen ranging from Joss Whedon to Michael Bay to Zack Snyder within the big franchise Nolan's moral seriousness may seem like absurd moralizing to the Richard Brodys of film criticism but he is not, along the way, defusing what emotional content his films have with a river of snark that only gives way long enough for "the feels" to show up when they're supposed to.  A comparision between Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson may be instructive here because what Nolan's films lack in "art" as tentpole productions in comparison to an Andersonian sense of set design they also lack in a realm that Anderson or Whedon have in abundance, snark.

 Snark may embody what people find wrong with Generation X, its snide and condescending know-it-all tone replete with an inability to demonstrate that for all our snarkiness we can do any better than the mythmaking of the Baby Boomers or the Greatest Generation.  All we can manage to do is either subvert those mythologies and optimisms in the idioms of Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Archer, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Ricky and Morty or The Simpsons or attempt to find some way to plausibly reinvent and recontextualize the existing mythologies in a way that is perhaps easiest to see in the superhero scene.  I've proposed that Generation X is the Mystery Science 3000 generation before.   In that context I was reflecting upon Mark Driscoll's previous shtick about how our generation wouldn't fall sway to the materialism of the American Dream and yet here we were in 2015 with Mark Driscoll as a Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors.  It seemed that Generation X had the ability to snarkily put down the efforts and dreams of previous generations without being able to come up with anything better themselves.  A snarky distance from earlier myths may be one of the defining traits of Generation X, however broadly we define it.

And yet ... obviously ... another strand of Generation X reinvents myths within contemporary contexts.  Superhero films from Christopher Nolan, Patty Jenkins, Brian Favreau and others won't appeal to those people who have decided in advance what "kid stuff" is and what by definition can't be art.  In a similar way Brad Bird and John Lasseter and the Pixar founding generation won't rise to the level of art for those who have already assumed animation is moralizing kiddy stuff.  For those who want to make what you embrace as an artist an indication  of whether or not you're really a "grown up" the class foundations of such a judgment might be worth escavating. 

Virtually no one I've read in arts criticism seems at all interested in considering the changes to trademark and copyright laws that happened during the period in which Generation X was born and we were all raised playing with the toys and hearing the stories our parents bought for us and gave to us.  Coming into an adulthood in which the glory days of indie and studio film were all in the past; and raised with pre-packaged mythologies from preceding generations but with a new expanded practical regime of intellectual property laws, what lazy film critics imputing adultescence to Generation X can forget is that our generation, Generation X, has shown a persistent pattern of ..

we've spent our lives trying to figure out what we can actually do with the toys our parents bought for us.  Some of us decided to make Archer and some of us decided to make Skyfall.  Some of us made Isle of Dogs but ever since Joseph Campbell branded the monomyth Generation X was raised with the teaching that there was nothing new we could actually invent.  We had no choice but to play with the toys we were given.  Is it altogether surprising that a generation raised with that "imaginary" might take solace in snark?  If you can't invent new toys and everything is the monomyth you either have to try to reinvent the game in a way that makes it fun to play or you resort to snark to show that you won't play with the toys in the way you're expected to based on the marketing on the boxes.

I won't call it anxiety of influence, I'll say that Generation X was force-fed nostalgic Camelot mythologies tethered to the JFK/LBJ and Reagan administrations; we grew up with the mythologies and playing with the toys that were given to us; we were also introduced to the possibility of artistic mythologies from Asian contexts (anime, obviously)   It's no surprise at all if Generation X remakes Star Trek and Star Wars and Robocop and keeps the Terminator franchise alive.  Nor is it a surprise if we keep retooling James Bond and Batman. 

If in our contemporary era of intellectual property, licensing and trademark you can hardly invent new toys, or new stories because Joseph Campbell distilled the entire human experience down to one American imperial monomyth the best you can hope for is that if you can't snarkily subvert things the rest of your life you find a way to refine the existing rules of play into something that you hope can work, even if you know there's a lot of dubious elements to the pre-packaged mythos.  That, arguably, is why sincere efforts by Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins to get Spiderman, Batman and Wonder Woman to come across on screen have worked.  Anime was a breath of fresh air for those of us on the Pacific coast who got exposure to it because whatever it was it was not some post-Campbell monomyth in the Star Wars variety.  It turned out that exposure to Asian folklore and ancient near eastern literature unmediated by an East Coast Anglo-American idiom revealed that the monomyth was a myth, and a particularly pernicious one. 

I'd say the artistic crisis Generation X has had to face down is not that there are no new ideas, it's that we've grown up in a trademarked and licensed era in which we were told implicitly and explicitly up front what the available options were and had to figure out how to make do with that.  We we're sold and given the range of options that were available.  We're a generation that was told there's a monomyth and that all our favorite stories and characters from our childhood are trademarked and licensed.  The central creative crisis Generation X has faced isn't whether or not to grow up but how to make something of the toys we were given in our childhood.  It's in that sense of trademark and copyright that a film like Toy Story can be thought of as a quintessential film for Generation X for those of us who saw the movie back in the mid-1990s.  It's also why for some of us in Generation X Batman: the animated series is a cultural touchstone, and the associated DCAU.  Whether it's a Christopher Nolan Batman film or a cartoon like Archer's riffs on the James Bond idiom Generation X has been given the toys and the toy box and our central creative challenge has been, "Okay, this is what we've got so what can we do with this?" 

Our ... cultural appropriation of borrowing toys from Japan isn't even new or something that should be imputed to Wes Anderson Vice style as though he's a bad person for it.  It's not so much a defense of Generation X as an observation to say that when we were given Transformers toys we were given cultural appropriation in the form of rebranded toys from Japan that were given American narratives..  Hasbro pulled that stunt of cultural reappropriation and invention back when Generation X was too young to even know what trademarking was. 

If Millenials and Baby Boomers on either side of this rather momentous legal divide can't appreciate the ways in which Generation X has attempted to figure out how to play with the toys in the toy box, having grown up without the resources or the legal permissions and market sympathies to really invent new ones or think of them, that's understandable.  But speaking from within Generation X I would suggest that people try to have some idea of the practical impact of intellectual property laws on a generation that was force-fed the idea of a monomyth on the one hand and given a pre-packaged set of utopian political narratives with DNC and GOP fables a la JFK and Reagan.  We could play with the toys as instructed on the toy boxes or we could do something snarky but the toys themselves were in every possible sense of the term, a given.  It's not surprising to me here in middle-age to look back on what Generation X has done and see that it has frequently bracketed into sincere or snarky engagement of the toys in the toy box our parents gave us. 

But as I get older I suspect that this at times desperate at times playful at times engaging struggle to make do with the toys we were given can be read by some cultural pundits on the putative left and right as a sign that the ways Generation X has figured out how to make do with that has been labeled "a refusal to grow up".  A similar ploy is apt to be made about Millenials, too. Not everyone rejected the nostalgia implicit in accepting some of the cultural mythologies and stories, to be sure, but reflecting on how we can't live up to a now discredited myth that had a lot of skeletons in its closet isn't quite the same as "not growing up". 

And just what, exactly, is growing up?  The cultural script of "growing up" mediated by Woody Allen films?  Or Bill Cosby's notion of growing up? As more tales of the lurid and predatory behavior of the men who made "grown up" film in the 1970s keeps emerging it's hard to take seriously the idea that people who have worked in artistic idioms known as "kid stuff" are necessarily less grown up. 


Gently recalibrating known, existing elements doesn't always turn out badly.  The Incredibles was pretty fun.  The Incredibles 2 could be fun. But the take-away for superhero films is that if any of the Fantastic Four films was even a fifth as fun as The Incredibles was the property wouldn't be a punchline in this day and age when, half a century ago, The Fantastic Four was considered a daring and innovative take on the superhero genre.  There are times when extracting the essential idea or core set of relational dynamics and dispensing with the rest is called for.  There are times when archly subverting the tropes to show that you know what the tropes are works, and at other times it can work out better to tweak the tropes a bit to show why the old tropes became tropes.

So, yeah, I like Brad Bird better than Wes Anderson. Longtime readers of the blog could have guessed that.