Monday, January 31, 2005

My Patriotism Can Beat Your Nationalism Into the Ground Any Day of the Week

Lauren told me I should write a manifesto about competition. Ha. As manifesti go, this is awfully short. Make it longer.

It needs to be clarified, first, that from kindergarten to twelfth grade I attended a school that gave no grades, and I think that's had tremendous influence on the way I perceive competition. While certain instances of nastiness cropped up--it was a small school, so surrounding high school admissions, SATs and so forth. But for the most part, since our accomplishments in relationship to one another were treated with the subjectivity that--to me--is obviously more honest than the pretended objectivity of grades, we didn't spend a lot of time measuring our work against one another's. As Mel articulates it, when a decently intelligent person is getting grades, she will figure out soon enough how much work an A+ requires. Since it's impossible to do better than an A+, it would be hard for said decently intelligent person to see why she should go further than the amount of work that takes, even if she's capable of doing that work and might be interested in it. We do depend on the acknowledgement of other people. But when you don't have grades, when your limit is not set out in advance, you will keep working until you feel satisfied with yourself. It requires you to figure out your own top.

Obviously, that doesn't work for absolutely everyone; you have to go in somewhat self-motivated. I did see several people fall through the cracks of Saint Ann's. However, I think the system would work for far more people than it's given credit for. I've taught enough in schools with rigid grading systems now to say that with confidence.

Competition's a human instinct. Heather's referred to it as "a dick thing," which I don't think is the truth; I think it applies to both and all genders and must have done so for a long time. Even competing against one another directly must be fairly natural. What I don't think is natural, or helpful, is measuring yourself solely in terms of what others do or don't do. If you're not satisfied with what you're doing, it becomes irrelevant whether it's better than anyone else's or not. But that's the way I think--there are many others that don't think that way, foremost among them our president.

This distinction is manifest in how Orwell defined the dichotomy of patriotism and nationalism. Before September 11, I deeply valued patriotism. I didn't think the US was perfect, especially after we placed the Monkey Overlord in office (wow, it's been a long time since I used that name--right before the 2000 election, a guy in my dorm created a Sunday night film series called "Monkey versus Robot," and thus the Monkey Overlord became a dorm name for Bush), but I used to take a great deal of pleasure, for example, in the Fourth of July, in wearing red, white and blue and in understanding myself as part of a community--I am united with these next-to-arbitrary people that surround me, we all belong to this place and therefore share some common denominator of experience (yes, there's a lot to be challenged in that statement, but there's also some truth), and that makes me feel more comfortable about being a social being, encased in this world. Nationalism, however, is purely a process of comparison, and mostly what Bush does. We can't be satisfied with having the incredible balloon raised in 1798 that's still floating, we can't be content with how well our system has operated, for the most part--yes, there are glaring exceptions, and I might not feel this way if I were of another race--for the last two hundred years, but we have to assert that not only does it work incredibly well for us, it's better than everyone else's and therefore we should compel as many people as possible to do it exactly as we do.

I don't think it works for government, and I don't really think it works for most people, and yet the process of comparison, I'll admit it here as anywhere, is inherent to me and, I think, to all of us. And if we do it, why shouldn't we be open about it? Because creating systems for running a group of people, from a play to a government to a world, are made of compromise. If we acknowledge that all of us are competitive and it's impossible to run a society with all of us winning, we should hypothetically be skilled enough at the art of compromise to be honestly patriotic, which would consist of making the community--nation, global city, gated community, university, whatever--as workable for everyone as possible.

Bloody utopian, don't you think? And of course, patriotism is better than nationalism. It's also good on its own, is patriotism, but it's better than nationalism, clearly.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Limits of Iconography

Bri and I went to see HOTEL RWANDA a little over a week ago. (Spoiler spoiler spoiler--not that you can do tremendous spoilers for a film that everyone already knows is about genocide and yet has a protagonist, but still, I do discuss a few details.) In a lot of ways it was an excellent movie, and in a lot of ways it was not a very good one. The acting is extremely good--Don Cheadle and Sophie Okenodo are deeply impressive, and even the people in the bit parts have a great deal of impressive stuff going on. I think the script is a bit subpar, but it does skilfully avoid forcing things on you by means of dialogue. And what I want to talk about is something I think I mentioned when I was talking about THREE KINGS, which is the difficulty that came with trying to watch it As A Movie.

The truth is that if HOTEL RWANDA had been about something I see movies about all the time, like, you know, the threat of nuclear devastation in the United States of America or somesuch, I wouldn't dare, as an artist, to call it an excellent movie. It is, as Emily pointed out, deeply emotionally manipulative, the score is horrible, it's part of a fairly new and very annoying genre--the "one-man-does-all-he-can-in-the-face-of-horrific-adversity, look-at-him" genre--and, while this last is a criticism Bri strongly didn't agree with, I found it remarkably unbloody for a film that was about a really, really horrifically and rapidly bloody event, in a way that almost felt like it was trying to spare its international, mainstream audiences. There's a lot of impressive things about it in terms of artistry, as I mentioned above, and in terms of marketing--without any real star power (I'm sorry, Don Cheadle, because I do love you, but you totally don't count) and about a really horrific topic, it managed to get an incredibly mainstream distributor, and on the Saturday night when I saw it, the AMC River East stadium-seating theater was totally packed. And as Emily said, for *any* movie with a black cast not aimed at young people and with no white star drawing it out (Nick Nolte doesn't count either--Joaquin Phoenix might have, but I honestly didn't know he was in the movie until I saw it) that's pretty impressive, never mind for a movie about genocide. But the truth is I didn't think about *any* of that while I was watching it, except that I noticed there weren't as many horrific images as I felt there ought to be. (A movie where they wouldn't be gratuitous, rare enough in this country.)

What I was thinking about was holy-shit-that-actually-happened. I don't think I flatter myself in saying I know more about the Rwandan genocide than the average American, but that's only because I took one course about genocide my fourth year of college, and because I read (and just reread, in the last two days) Philip Gourevitch's astounding book WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES. (Which you should read, right now--it's disturbing, but it's supposed to be, it's incredibly well-written and completely accessible, and it teaches you more about the genocide and the recent political history of central Africa than an American ever gets the opportunity to know.) Within my circles of friends, though not within my family, I am the harshest and nastiest critic I know. (When Alex and Emily, my roommates, see a movie or theater, they have told me that the rule of thumb is, "It's not as bad as Gemma thinks it is, and it's not as good as Megan thinks it is.") I feel very strongly that form and content are inextricable, which is to say that the artistry of a movie should matter as much as the ideas of what the movie is about, be bound up with them and influenced by them. Which happened in THREE KINGS, but didn't happen in HOTEL RWANDA, and yet my reactions to both movies were comparably, well, formless.

It would be imprecise to say that either HOTEL RWANDA or THREE KINGS had A Message. Like I said in the first "Activists in America" post, I used to be abjectly anti-message. Having shifted a couple of times over the years, I think I'm now against having only one message. A single message I think is generally light enough for a pigeon to carry. For more messages than that, you're allowed to use art. THREE KINGS, like I said, had a slight cop-out/solution-y ending, but that didn't mean it had one message or one way things were supposed to be; it wasn't like the characters didn't make their own beds. HOTEL RWANDA . . . the trouble is, I think, that as a movie it had to carry a huge burden. Most Americans know just this side of bubkas about the 1994 genocide and its aftermath(s); for most people, all they will learn about Rwanda will come from this movie. Which on one level is an unfair burden to place on a movie. It is an intimate (its intimacy is extremely well-done) and limited piece of art, limited as every single piece of art in the universe is limited, and it's not history and it's not journalism and it's not a primary source. To expect that of it would be absurd. And yet, a movie made for wide release in America that's about Rwanda has the responsibility to *know* that about itself when it gets started, to understand that this is what most Americans will picture when they picture Rwanda. That Don Cheadle, an American actor, will become the symbol of the country. (To be fair, though, as soon as Cheadle heard he could possibly ever in the universe be offered the part--originally the studio wanted Will Smith, which I think is hilarious--he set out to meet Paul Rusesabagina, the man he was playing, and Rusesabagina was on the set every day of shooting and therefore must've had some influence over the script.) So what's the solution there? I'm not really clear. One of the most enlightening things I understood from WE WISH TO INFORM YOU . . ., however obvious this sounds, is that genocide isn't just over when it's over. One hundred-day period was The Genocide, but it ended because of a military conflict that was going on surrounding the racial conflict (Hutu v. Tutsi) that was the cause and center of the genocide, at refugee camps in Zaire and Uganda the genocidaires, who were all Hutu, dominated the social world and often manipulated the aid workers who knew nothing of the conflict, which escalated into further killings--The Genocide stopped, but it had resonant aftereffects. Gourevitch writes about the two years immediately following; I don't have a clue what's going on now either. So what can an artist who wants to make a movie, or a play, or whatever, about something no one has paid attention to do? My friend, for example, is doing a solo performance piece about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, about which I, and most Americans, know even less than I/we do about Rwanda. And all due respect to her--and there is a *ton* of respect due--her play can't take on the responsibility for being Sierra Leone to Americans. There needs to be specificity to storytelling, and we need to be able not to see that specificity as an error. An attempt at universality, an attempt at being The One Thing, will fail and offend the people who are part of that one thing.

But I can't really say the solution is just Make More Art About Rwanda. (Sorry, there is an excessive use of capital letters in this post.) Or maybe I can--it's not like I haven't seen enough "art" about the possibility of nuclear devastation in the United States. But what does that do for a movie like HOTEL RWANDA in the meantime? Any thoughts?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Thank You All, Now It's Back to the Showers

Today's spoiler warnings include SEX AND THE CITY (I just watched the last four episodes), AGAINST LOVE by Laura Kipnis (okay, you can't really have spoilers for nonfiction) and COMPANY. So if you care, don't read.

Also n.b., I wrote this whole post saving the draft only once, and then due to my minimal knowledge of Blogger managed to delete it yesterday morning. So this is a rewrite, and I think the first one was a little better. Be nice.

I am thinking about marriage, straight, gay and everything in between. By the end of SEX AND THE CITY, everyone, at least our four beloved women whose sexual exploits have been so vividly chronicled, for better and very much for worse, these six years, is paired in a manner we are to presume is both monogamous and permanent. Even Samantha, for fuck's sake (that's the only relationship by which I'm really artistically offended, though it is true that allow the character to get much older than that and she would have been really depressing--but *why* is that?). I'm intrigued. Basically, the show that ushered in a new era of wealthy white female sexual liberation has opted to view said liberation as a phase, rather than a lifestyle. The reason these ladies fuck so much is in search of the person they like to fuck (okay, to be fair, and be intimate with) the best, and once there why go further ever?

Is there any validity to that? I ask this in the face of many marriages in my circle of friends, particularly the Mathews House crowd (though my childhood downstairs neighbor, many years my friend and five years my senior, also just got engaged), of learning that my lesbian cousin and her longtime girlfriend recently married yay for Massachusetts, and, yes, fine, of having just had a visit with extended family to learn that I have reached the age (post-college graduation) where the first question is whether I'm seeing anyone and the first reassurance is that I *will* find someone, of course. To which my instinctive and defensive reaction is shut the fuck up, but that doesn't serve anybody. The real question, then, is how and why we look at monogamy, divorce, long-term coupledom etcetera, socially.

Yes, obviously it's religious. I am not thorough enough in my interactions with the Bible to be able to cite this at all, so maybe someone can help me out (Matt? Connor?), but I imagine it's Judeo- as well as -Christian and has roots in Testaments both New and Old. But so are most things connected to modern morality, so that only takes us so far. And some of it is scientific, as well--myriad animals mate for life (African penguins, for example, which are after all some of the coolest animals in the world), but on the other hand myriad human groups do not. Cate has hypothesized that the reason the divorce rates are so much higher these days--now, when divorce has been around since the advent of the Anglican Church--is because our life spans are simply that much longer. And yet there's no question that America, in its politics, its day-to-day social life, its arts, is deeply focused around marriage.

It feels like most work that I know that sets out to challenge marriage totally loses. SEX AND THE CITY, which for a period genuinely seemed to be marketing being a single, wild woman as a long-term lifestyle choice, turned out to simply be waiting for "the one." COMPANY, while its faults, including deep-set misogynism, are myriad, has something going for it on this particular front until "Being Alive." I mean, there's a lot of history behind it--well, some of you may not have seen it, so basically it's about this middle-aged man Bobby, all of whose friends are married couples, and the women he goes through, including occasional efforts to get with his friends' wives (they don't really qualify as his friends themselves). In the end of the show, after his older friend Joanne has propositioned him by saying, "I"ll take care of you," he responds, "But who would I take care of?" and begins the show's major number, "Being Alive." A choice lyric from that song: "But alone is alone, not alive." Seriously. That's in there. The history (which I read in the published and shiny script of COMPANY, because I know you were wondering) is that originally Sondheim, who is gay, had a closing number in which Bobby decided he preferred to be alone. Hal Prince, the director, a man of substance on Broadway, wouldn't allow it. He was confident, and probably appropriately so, that audiences would not stand for it. Going from one extreme to the other, Sondheim replaced the number (I forget what it was called) with "Being Alive."

I've got a lot of friends who hate COMPANY; I don't. Misogynistic, like I said. My mother claims Sondheim is generally misogynistic, which point is debatable, but whether COMPANY is misogynistic is not debatable. It is. But I think that it also has really lovely music and a lot of really incredible things to say about love, romance and entanglement. My favorite songs are "Sorry-Grateful" and "Barcelona," one of which is about the ambivalence of spousal relationships and the other of which is about a one-night stand gone slightly awry. But I digress, slightly. No, actually, I don't. What I don't like about COMPANY, though, is its all-or-nothing attitude. While Sondheim himself apparently still feels ambivalent about the show's pro-marriage stance, it's still the show he put into the world, allowed to be put into the world. Even the unmarried couple, who have been living together for years, finally manage to get married in spite of Amy's panic attack (see the title) because Bobby proposes to Amy and she of course realizes how important it *actually* is for her to marry Paul.

Even AGAINST LOVE can't escape it. AGAINST LOVE is a book we read for my book group a couple of months ago. It's a polemic, which basically means the author can make outrageous statements without having to back them up. Not easy to read, though I didn't find it nearly as abrasive as Emily did, but an interesting concept. Or so it would have been had it actually managed to be against love. But it weren't. No, what it was against was the long-term monogamous coupling that requires "work." She (Kipnis) actually did a lot of interesting analysis looking at the "work" that goes into marriage through the lens of Marxist views on the alienation of labor, but I think she fucked herself over by accepting the notion that love is equivalent to long-term monogamous coupling. Instead of challenging love, the emotion, which her title implied she would do and the inclusion of which I think would lead to a more interesting discussion, she works with the standard convention that the most commonly accepted results of love are the same as love itself. Which seems both silly and lazy to me.

Then again, how would I know? I'm not sure I've ever been in love, and I've certainly never been married or been interested in being married anytime soon. But I'm still going to try to analyze. Those who have been deeply and madly in love can feel free to challenge me. Those who have been deeply and madly in love and then ceased to be so can feel even freer.

Gay marriage is in a pretty fascinating situation regarding social convention and the lack thereof. Talia's roommate felt that the recent constitutional amendments in eleven states indicate that there's no hope for gay marriage; T and I think the opposite. As far as I'm concerned, if it's at the forefront of discussion enough that its enemies deem that measure necessary, it's pretty much arrived. Of course in the Jesus-centricity that is this nation I have my doubts, but it has always seemed to me that seeing stuff a lot is the first step to acknowledging its presence, and acknowledging the presence of something is the first step to learning to deal with it. Note that I'm not saying accepting it, because many never will. (My friend's roommate, who is a drag queen, was recently physically attacked in the middle of Chicago--*Chicago*, for fuck's sake--because of his sexual orientation, which definitely gave me a new way of thinking about all this. Call me naive, because I am, but I genuinely felt that only happened in places like Laramie, Wyoming. Not that that makes it better, but it does make it far from my own everyday life.) But nevertheless, legally it's coming. Many that I know, including members of my book group (which consists primarily of young radical feminists) feel that the battle for gay marriage is a sign of giving in to convention. According to them, at the "beginning" of the battle for gay rights (i.e. Stonewall) it was all about separatism, about carving a place in the mainstream for a drastically different lifestyle, and this is a sign that what was truly gay about gay rights is gone, as now they're simply trying to join the mainstream. While I'm no expert on the subject (can I say "in the subject"? that sounds better), I think that's silly. There have always been people who want both aspects, just as there are in any political movement (see "Activists in America" posts). I know, though, that I might not feel gay marriage had already arrived, that the battle was mostly won, if I were actually in a long-term monogamous relationship with a woman right now, someone I wanted to be with for my forseeable future. (Forseeable is about how I feel about marriage. You don't know what you're going to be like or what you're going to want for all the rest of your life, nor should you, and I don't think of marriage like that. But you make a commitment for all of the forseeable future, evaluate yourself for that, and know that you are committed for as long as you know yourself to be a similar person to who you were when you made the commitment.) In some ways marriage feels petty to me as a battle, but the fact that Britney Spears' 55-hour marriage has more legal street cred than the partnership of my "godparents" (there's not exactly a god or custodial agreement involved, but that's basically their position in my life), both women, who have been together since I was born, is really rather upsetting.

My book group members, and other people I know, have proposed alternatives to the legalization of gay marriage, which in my mind are more idealistically sound but much less practicable. One is revoking all the legal priveleges that come along with marriage, for any combination of genders. Why should it be, anyway? It's not like being fruitful and multiplying is really an important social requirement when there are 6.9 billion people in the world, and other than that, being married isn't really doing anything worthy of full-out societal privelege or praise. Praise amongst your friends and personal social circle, perhaps (after years of resisting the concept and a lot of interesting conversations with my friends and my father, I've become willing to concede that), but it doesn't serve a greater social good one way or the other. Or, coming out of that idea, it could be that the state should lose the ability to perform marriages altogether. Government officials could be only allowed to perform civil unions, leaving marriage as a purely religious ceremony that each denomination or religion has to fight out on its own. At that point, on a government level, civil unions would be an equal-protection issue, and whatever accompanying priveleges came with them would exist no matter what gender combination makes up the marriage.

It is kind of sad to me that neither of the above things is going to happen, because I think they make more sense on both a legal and emotional level than the much less specific and therefore much easier to fight against concept of "gay marriage." Unfortunately, they are harder to advocate for, because in the short run they're more complicated. And I'd far sooner gay marriage than the icky discrimination of the current situation.

In SEX AND THE CITY, it was really Samantha's ending that I found most dismaying. Charlotte always wanted to get married, and her previous divorce gives us the feeling that she's come out a little bit wiser at the other end, and she ended the show involved in a complex situation also common to many women in their thirties. Miranda's I could accept because her journey was interesting too, in that she had to return from a certain distance from the world to admit that she loved a slightly annoying human being with foibles, who also happens to be the coolest character on the entire show. Since Miranda is my favorite of the women (in fact, she's the only one I like), I was down with that. Carrie and Big are a stretch--I mean, I'm sorry SATC writers, but you've already had the line "you're the one" used by a man on the show once in the same damn season, and that simply has to stop. Not to mention the obnoxiously coy revelation at the end of Big's (boring) first name. You could make an argument, though, that they've been through enough up-and-downness that this doesn't necessarily mean they are "forever," and either way they're both assholes so it could work. It is true that Samantha, had we allowed her to continue the exact same lifestyle for a few more years, would have been sad, but why should it be the case that we deny women of a certain age the right to a libido still? I guess the point would be that we would not have seen her experience honest intimacy, a relationship of value. And probably the show's writers left it open, didn't have Samantha make any commitment to Smith besides "I love you" and the fact that she's been with him for more than two seasons, but I do wish that as a show it had made more effort to emphasize that a relationship need not be officiated as Forever to be of value. As did, say, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Which rapidly turned into one of my favorite movies ever in the universe ever.

I recognize I haven't yet really answered the question of why we end up so centered around marriage as a society. I think child-rearing also plays a role, and the fact that people officially stay their parents' children for a much longer time in Western society these days. But that, too, has to do with the children getting married in a lot of social worlds, so what what what?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Third Rail Theme, by Walt Kelly, copyright 1952, reproduced in its entirety 'cause it's funny.

The Party of the first Part
and the party of the next
Are partly participled
In a parsley-covered text--

Were you partial to a Party
That has parceled out its parts
With the Party that was second
In your polly-tickle heart?

*Then* parlay all your losings
On a horse that's running dark--
With lights-out you may triple
In a homer in the park.

I'm not even going to attempt to deconstruct this right now, a) because I don't think it makes any thorough, deliberate sense and b) because I think the occasions will present themselves as I keep writing. But it matters--hell, look at the second verse. (It is a verse; this is a song; there's actually music.)