Monthly Archives: July 2012

July 23, 2012

Comment policy

Dear readers. As you may be aware, the presence of spam comments has been gradually rising on this site and has reached a point, I would say, of unmanageablity.

This is a problem in no small part because this site is running on very old software that hasn’t been upgraded since 2004 and that nobody uses anymore. I am accordingly looking into the possibility of upgrading it or transferring the site to other software.

But that all sounds like a pain in the neck, so for the time being I am doing the simplest thing, which is to make all comments subject to my approval. Where you used to get to see your comment appear immediately — except when for some reason the browser screwed up — now you will probably see something like “your comment is being reviewed” or whatever.

Know that it is being reviewed solely in the sense that if it is SPAM it will not go up, and if it is not, it will. I do not have editorial principles beyond that. As should be clear.

Sorry to do this; I know from my own experience that the instant gratification of the comment immediately appearing is important to making commenting seem worthwhile. Please do it exactly as much or as little as you did before. Knowing me, the “review” and approval will probably happen almost immediately since I seem to check my email once every 15 seconds or so.

I’ll post something if a bigger and better backend change comes to pass.

July 20, 2012

Disney Canon #39: Dinosaur (2000)


ADAM Wow. They sort of head-faked us into thinking this was gonna be another Jungle Book, but it was actually like The Poseidon Adventure.

BROOM I don’t know what it was. It was like The Road, some kind of post-apocalyptic movie. Except then it wasn’t.

BETH But for most of it, it was. For seventy-five percent of it, it was really dark.

ADAM You were surprisingly gripped.

BETH I was. By the time they were in the cave, I was responding to it. I was talking back.

ADAM I’m not so sure that this was a failure, the way it seemed like it was going to be at the beginning, when it was all that swoopy CGI and that Kevin Costner music.

BETH There was no character development early on — or I was not paying attention —

BROOM So you felt like the “character development” — and I’m going to put that in quotes when I type it up — that existed later in the movie was… meaningful?

BETH No. Well, I don’t know.

BROOM You guys understand that the backgrounds were real film, and the credits just now listed all the places they went to shoot them?

ADAM That was cool. There were like eight different places that they filmed it.

BETH I felt like it had to be live, because the water looked way too good.

ADAM There wasn’t character development, but there was strong characterization.

BETH Yes, but I felt like I didn’t really see it until the middle of the movie. Early on — maybe it’s just because I was so turned off by the beginning — no one seemed appealing to me or worth caring about.

BROOM Tell me more about what you were turned off by at the beginning, because I, like I said, was surprised by how early and with what conviction you guys were groaning. It seemed like all we’d seen was sort of —

BETH Incredibly slow —

BROOM — sweeping, beginning-of-a-movie scenery.

ADAM It was the hackneyed sort of establishing shots, and then it was that sort of Rube Goldberg routine with the egg, which was kind of a turn-off, and then the “Mom, can we keep it?” routine, which we’ve seen literally like four times. And I was just, like, “oh, god. This is just gonna be CGI, and they have not thought at all about the story. It’s just gonna be the worst bits of every Disney story just mashed together as an excuse for this rickety CGI.”

BROOM And somehow we think it wasn’t that? I don’t think the movie really changed course.

ADAM No, then it turned into, like, Schindler’s List.

BETH It was just that it subverted expectations.

BROOM By having the apocalypse in it?

BETH Yeah.

ADAM By having the half-hour of just death.

BROOM It was grim.

BETH Survival.

ADAM The trail of tears.

BROOM Which exactly appeared in Fantasia already. The dinosaurs trudging across the desert.

ADAM So yeah, let’s talk about that music.

BROOM The “Africa” music?

ADAM The whole thing. I called it “Kevin Costner music” because it sounds to me like the music in Dances With Wolves and in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It felt maybe a little antiquated for 2000.

BROOM Sweep. Spectacle. I found the atmosphere of the movie strange, and I didn’t know if the music was trying to compensate for that, or trying to be a part of that. I think the music ended up contributing to my sense of a strange atmosphere. It felt unearthly. I’m surprised you say that the “character development” was something that gripped you, because I felt like the characters were kind of at arm’s length, compared to most Disney movies. I mean, I recognized them, but it was like through a window.

ADAM She was just like Meg from Hercules. Cynical, allied with evil because she has no energy to fight back.

BROOM She wasn’t cynical. She didn’t really have a character. She was the sister to the tough guy, and she said “I don’t know what to think; things are so different now.” That was her whole character.

BETH I didn’t care about her.

BROOM There were the terrible one-liners that —

BETH — all Disney movies have.

BROOM Well, that the worst ones have. That a lot of movies now have. It’s the sound of a room of scriptwriters.

BETH “My blisters have blisters!”

BROOM Your blisters do have blisters. And then there were plot events that fit into this formula. And there wasn’t, for me, a sense of character in between. It sort of made the movie feel like it was happening in a strange other space.

ADAM There was the woman with the strong British accent and the woman with the strong African-American accent!

BROOM Yes. “Shame, shame on you!” She talked like an old lady, but she was in fact the strongest one of them. And that was sort of the revelation of that, the “hitting a rock until it breaks” scene.

ADAM I mean, this movie wasn’t good. It just wasn’t quite the nadir that I was anticipating.

BROOM Yeah, I agree. But this atmosphere; I’m trying to find the word for it. It had… like science fiction sometimes does, it hasn’t been fully realized and that’s part of what makes it unearthly or…

BETH Well, compelling, really. I think it’s part of what was gripping about it, that it had this otherworldly quality.

BROOM Yeah, exactly.

ADAM And pretend dinosaurs that did not have the characteristics of real dinosaurs.

BROOM Well, I think they actually were just lesser-known dinosaurs. They intentionally didn’t pick, like, Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

BETH Like, not popular dinosaurs.

BROOM Well, I’m not sure about “Carnotaur” — but the black lady was a Styracosaur, and their dog was an Ankylosaur.

ADAM I know that. And he was like an Apatosaur?

BROOM I’m not sure what he was. We can find out. [begins looking it up on Wikipedia] But you know that movie, The Dark Crystal? It’s a quest movie in a fantasy land, but the fantasy is so strange and otherworldly that your investment in the quest is sort of — you look at it in wonder and think “what am I looking at?” This seemed like it might be almost aiming at that.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM A better ending would have been if they all evolved into birds.

BROOM Well that little voice-over at the very end — I was saying cynical stuff the whole time about how they’re all going to die, and then the voice-over said, “Yes, I’m not sure what to tell you.”

BETH “Let’s just remember this moment.”

BROOM Here it is: Aladar is an Iguanodon. Neera, Kron, and Bruton are all Iguanodons as well.

ADAM Yeah, I got that.

BETH Bruton looked a different type of Iguanodon. I guess he was just harder-edged, weathered.

BROOM Baylene was a Brachiosaurus, and Eema was a Styracosaurus. And the pet Ankylosaur was named Url.

ADAM Did you know those off the top of your head? I would have known Ankylosaur as a kid, but not now.

BROOM I said it before I looked it up. And look: “Carnotaurus, meaning ‘meat-eating bull.’ Only one species has been described so far.” It lived in Patagonia. The article does not have a “Carnotaurus in popular culture” section. But we could add it.

ADAM The movie Ice Age plays on the whole mammals versus dinosaurs thing. But that didn’t really get played up here.

BROOM This is very much like The Land Before Time, if we remember that, from 1987 or so [ed: 1988]. A Don Bluth movie, very tacky 80s kind of thing. Oh look at this: “The film was originally supposed to have no dialogue at all, in part to differentiate the film from The Land Before Time, with which Dinosaur shares plot similarities.”

BETH Thank goodness it didn’t.

BROOM I’m surprised at you two for saying “thank goodness!”

BETH It would have been intolerable!

ADAM Because the first six minutes was the worst.

BROOM I’m so surprised! To me, it’s the wisecracking that’s embarrassing.

ADAM But at least it goes down easy.

BETH Yeah, it just makes the time pass more quickly. The CGI just wasn’t that good. It was very noticeable.

ADAM Yeah, the CGI at the beginning looked like a USA television network extravaganza.

BROOM I would say the CGI was inconsistent. Because sometimes it was very good, I thought.

BETH Yeah, sometimes it was good.

BROOM When he got wet, I thought that was really well done. And I thought the live-action-beautiful-backgrounds idea was occasionally effective. I agree that it looked like ten-years-ago CGI, and that we’ve gotten used to a slightly slicker standard. But it’s mostly just that CGI is itself kind of distancing. You don’t really feel like you’re there.

BETH So you would have been okay with a ninety-minute silent dinosaur movie?

BROOM Well, they’d have had to construct it differently, obviously. All the more otherworldly, I would have thought.

BETH Yeah, okay.

ADAM What was the cartoon short we saw about how the seal leads the other seals into the protected cove? It was from one of the forties shorts, I think. There’s one where the seals go through this magical passageway under an island, and they end up in this cove inside an island, where they’re free from predators and it’s very beautiful.

BROOM Really? Are you sure that didn’t happen to the Smurfs?

ADAM Come on, guys.

[Google efforts along the lines of (“seals” “Disney” “island”) turn up nothing]

ADAM I don’t want to get distracted here, but this really happened.

BROOM You’re going to have to dig into it, because I don’t believe you.

ADAM Okay.

BROOM So… this is just like that? Is that what you’re going to say?

ADAM Yeah.

BETH Find the review; I think we’re done.

ADAM Yeah, I don’t have a lot more to say about this other than, you know, if you’re composing the list of the five DIsney movies you absolutely never want to see, this is probably not one of them.

BROOM Really?! Compose it. Which are the five worst?

ADAM I don’t know. It’s too early to say.

BROOM Yeah, I think several of them are yet to come.

[we begin reading the New York Times review, but are interrupted:]

BROOM Okay, it’s been discovered that The White Seal, 1973, by Chuck Jones, is the film Adam had in mind. Good call; the ending is exactly the same.

ADAM That’s what it reminds me of.

[we finish the review]

ADAM That was a weirdly superficial review from A. O. Scott.

BROOM I don’t know, I think he took the time to give it what it deserved, and I’m not sure it deserved different from that.

ADAM I don’t know. “It had so many credits!”

BROOM I think that the over-emphasis on the credits in his review sort of matches the nature of the movie; it’s like, “technically something was done here, but I’m not sure what was done movie-wise.” Do we feel that this is really a Disney feature, that this follows in the footsteps of the tradition in any way?

ADAM Well, I’m glad that it was strange. It was a strangeness that was more interesting than — what was the worst one, The Fox and the Hound?

BROOM That was my least favorite. But, I mean, Mulan was pretty bad. What was the other one there? Oh, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but, no, that was better than this.

ADAM Also redeemingly strange.

BROOM That had a lot more spirit and eccentricity. I would pick that any day to watch over this. My recollection of this was that it was totally run-of-the-mill forgettable, and it turned out to be not, quite, it was a little more than that. But I think it will disappear very quickly, because the strangeness we’re talking about is in subtle tonal things, but what’s really going on is very run-of-the-mill, standard stuff, with stupid jokes. It’s kind of an insult to us. Right?

ADAM In the grand scheme of things, yes.

BROOM Would you show it to children that you cared for?


ADAM I might. It depends what else was on.

BROOM I wouldn’t really care. But I would be disappointed in them if they came to love it. I really made an attempt to watch it as a child would. I tried to be open to —

BETH — emotions that you would feel?

BROOM To the feeling of the space, which seemed to be its main thing. “Now they’re in the white-feeling desert, and now they’re in the blue nighttime.”

BETH Like how you watched Star Wars.

BROOM That’s right. And… I don’t think there was enough there that I would have liked the movie, as a kid. But there was something going for it on that level.

ADAM Do you think this captures the innocence of the pre-9/11 world, or eerily presages the destruction of the post-9/11 world?

BROOM I think the destruction in the movie was more disturbing to us because we are watching it in the post-9/11 world.

ADAM Oh, I’m sorry, I was thinking this movie came out in 2001, because all the DVD previews were from 2001. I was going to say it would be weird if The Emperor’s New Groove was the first post-9/11 one.

BROOM The first post-9/11 movie is Lilo and Stitch.

ADAM Which actually does make sense.

BROOM It was clearly in production before that. But yes, it’s sort of suitably humanist.

ADAM Earnest.


July 19, 2012

“Fences” (1983)

August Wilson (1945–2005)
“Fences” (1983)

Random number 2465, extremely high (the range is 1–2535), which means a very recent work (recent for Harold Bloom, anyway).

Oddly enough, the copy above had been gifted to Beth for her birthday just before this selection came up. Of all things. (Yeah, it happens to be a charmless rental-style printing and not the more normal-looking trade edition).

I read this a good many months ago, and as I’ve said before, plays are the lowest-impact of reading experiences, so my specific engagement has gotten pretty low by this point and I’m going to have to take a big-picture tack here. This may get ugly.

“Fences” is a black “Death of a Salesman.” You might ask: why did we need a black “Death of a Salesman”? Couldn’t “Death of a Salesman” be the black “Death of a Salesman”?

August Wilson answers you: “To mount an all-black production of a ‘Death of a Salesman’ or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, and our difficult but honorable history in America; and it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.” (1996)

(I should point out that the original context for this quote makes no actual mention of “Fences” — Wilson was just denouncing race-blind casting and used “Death of a Salesman” as his example. But it seems fair to assume that after 13 years of being told that “Fences” is just like “Death of a Salesman,” his choice of example was not arbitrary.)

Though I take issue with the victimized rhetoric — how can a play “deny us our own humanity”? It’s just a play, and there will be other plays. (Does “Stomp” deny me my humanity? Does “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”?) — his basic point makes some sense to me. A play dependent on “the specifics of white culture” (or any other culture) cannot be directly interpreted as applying to non-participants in that culture.

But he also says that such a play is essentially “an investigation of the human condition” through a specific culture, rather than an investigation of that culture. Which opens the door to the idea that perhaps a cultural translation can be achieved. Which is how “Fences” reads. This existentially frustrated patriarch might not be existentially frustrated in exactly the same way or for exactly the same reason as Willy Loman, but as far as the human condition goes (not to mention sheer dramaturgy), we’re on familiar ground.

In this interview with Believer Magazine, as elsewhere, Wilson begins by brushing aside any possibility of having been influenced by Arthur Miller: “I’m not sure what they say about Fences as it relates to Death of a Salesman. At the time I wrote Fences, I had not read Death of a Salesman, had not seen Death of a Salesman, did not know anything about Death of a Salesman.

For various reasons, this claim of complete innocence is very hard to believe, and in its own way tends to trivialize his work. His protest-too-much fills me with empathetic discomfort; whatever the real story, it’s something touchy and defensive. Even if this is in fact the truth, it’s a touchy and defensive truth.

Later in the same interview, clearly feeling that he’s in some kind of guru groove, he comfortably says some questionable things:

BLVR: What’s your opinion, if any, of Eminem? Do you think he’s capable of mastering the black aesthetic of hiphop?

AW: Yeah. He’s imitatin, he ain’t creatin. There’s a very big distinction. He’s not an innovator. He can’t create in that style so everything he do is just imitatin. Anybody can imitate anybody.

BLVR: I’ve read someone say, “Sure, whites can box like Muhammad Ali, once they see him do it.”

AW: The same thing with jazz. Benny Goodman could play jazz, but they ain’t creatin no music, they not innovators. So the music, it’s gotta be there for you to step into it. I wanna see you create it; it would be something different. Different aesthetics at work. But you can be influenced by, you can imitate anything. Got some Japanese guys that play some great jazz. Man, they really good, too! It’s already been done, man.

I for my part find this kind of talk completely unsympathetic. But what’s important is that August Wilson really believes what he’s saying. This is the inalienably racialized perspective in Wilson’s own heart, the one he believes he must contend with in writing his plays. To compete with white playwrights on their own turf, he would seem to believe, is impossible, because it is their turf, and turf is racial. So his work can only be legitimately his own insofar as it is not actually a member of the same genus as a white play like “Death of a Salesman.” In his mind, the correct name of the art form to which that play belongs is “white theater.” Were he to write “white theater,” he would be merely imitatin, not creatin, something he clearly disdains. Hell, that’s like something some Japanese guys might do!

But this is an unliftable burden, since “white theater” unfortunately encompasses all aspects of theater; they got there first. The only thing he’s got that whites didn’t get to first is “black experience.” Definitionally. And so August Wilson needs to believe that “black experience,” both in content and in form, is not just a re-skin but an actual different species; that by writing “black theater” he has utterly broken away from “white theater,” which can never be his.

This seems to me quite obviously wrong-headed from an objective cultural standpoint. It’s the outgrowth of the psychology of second-class-dom, and it is self-destructive. In needing so desperately to keep Benny Goodman and his grubby mitts out of the club — because goddammit, jazz is ours, and you never shared anything with us so why should we? — he creates a notion of cultural property that effectively cedes ownership of everything else to the oppressor, and recognizes that ownership as legitimate. So someone like August Wilson, who wants to do something like playwrighting, which was part of the great cultural cession, now needs to demonstrate to himself (and his peers who think like him) that what he is doing is actually different territory, new territory, fundamentally BLACK territory.

The quote about “Death of a Salesman” really says: “That’s yours, NOT ours. It’s painfully humiliating for you to say that it’s ours too, because it’s not. Almost everything is yours. I insist on it.”

Much more constructive would be to say “Actually, racial ownership of ideas doesn’t exist. As it turns out, nothing is any more yours then ours, so excuse me while we do whatever we like.” But this idea isn’t psychologically available, because separating the impression of culture from the impression of an authoritative voice is nearly impossible. Just turning on the television I feel like I am contending with the will of some strange meta-being, who has particular ideas about me and my place in the world, none of them particularly kind or understanding. Certainly when I, a non-fan, see baseball or football broadcast on TV I have a strong sense that someone or something is telling me “this is ours, not yours.”

I gather that being black in America for many people means growing up with the sense that nearly everything is murmuring this. Realizing that there actually isn’t any meta-being whose voice the culture is, no actual unified will of the oppressor, is the ticket out, but it also feels like selling out one’s own authentic self, the one who felt it. Which isn’t really an option, especially when one is a professional artist or a thinker and has entered into a long-term contract with “the authentic self.”

Navigating the emotions of being a black intellectual in America is obviously very complicated and difficult. Understatement, I know. I can only imagine how incredibly tired and lonely someone like Cornel West is. I get that impression from August Wilson, too. The albatross of identity must be dragged through every action, through every day, without end; it cannot be distinguished from life itself. I can hardly stand to think about my “identity” for even a minute; to me real life only takes place when I’m freed from that kind of self-awareness. I really don’t know how they can bear it.

This is all a roundabout way of saying this play wasn’t really for me.

I have found it subtly unpleasant to write this, just as I found it subtly unpleasant to read the play, because I feel that I am up against an artistic impulse that is inextricably linked to a congealed bitterness, a kind of angst of deprivation. Is that racism on my part? Whenever a piece of work with an overt “identity agenda” bothers me, it’s usually for this reason; people don’t have identity agendas unless they feel misused by the world at large, and people who feel misused by the world at large are not the people I would hire to be my singers and storytellers. And as a consumer of culture is this not what I’m doing?

I don’t remember “Juno and the Paycock” so well at this point (good lord, five years!), but I think my feeling there, in what was ultimately a very similar work, was that the ethnography of it was more dispassionate if equally prominent. But maybe that’s just Sean O’Casey getting the benefit of the doubt that time (and my ignorance) brings. The grudges of generations past always eventually wilt away, no matter how bitter they may once have been. Perhaps in a hundred years the politics of today will have washed away from August Wilson and only the solid rock of the work itself will remain, a durable fossil.

But that’s where I came in. That really is how I read “Fences”: innocently. I’m just saying the rock is an old and familiar rock.

The better justification for such a work, I think, setting race etc. aside, is simply that there’s no reason for lots of people not to keep writing “Death of a Salesman” over and over, just like they make a zillion westerns, mysteries, etc. Why not Death of a Salesmans? It’s a resonant and rich scenario. We could stand to go back there. And we do, and lots of writers continue to retread this same ground over and over, and more power to them.

As Death of a Salesmans go this is, in fact, quite a fine one. What it says it says with vigor.

I will now call your attention to this depressing video. The first half is the play I read — “theatrical” in ways both good and bad, but confident and clear. The second half is something else. Does this hateful laughter need psychoanalysis? The burned-out hole where love should be is no longer recognizable in the character on stage because it now encompasses the entire audience. It is a pit into which we are all eagerly leaping.


Now to quickly post something else so as to bury this one as fast as possible.

Inevitably in writing such a thing as this I feel wary of all the angry angry people out there who might appear at any moment, like avenging ghosts, to tell me I’ve done some kind of wrong here. Or more likely, that I AM some kind of wrong. I don’t know what good they think they’re doing. All I can say to appease those gods is that I am, as always, open to reason, persuasion, and education. Racism is a dogma, and I am not being dogmatic.

Facebook is depressing, among other reasons, because it reveals that many of one’s friends and acquaintances want to present themselves as avenging ghosts. This is our venue for social self-reinvention, and THIS is how people want to re-invent themselves, as self-righteous crusaders? Why would they want that? I truly don’t understand.