Saturday, July 18, 2015

Made Of Stories

I am made of stories.

Most of them are my own stories, in the form of memories, ideas about the world and how it should be navigated, or my beliefs about who I am.

Im not going to talk about those right now.

But I am also built from other peoples stories or at least the way those stories shape me and my perceptions.

Im talking about comic books. Im talking about video games. Im talking about movies and sports columns and television shows.

Im dont mean this symbolically. I have the Decepticon logo from Transformers tattooed on the inside of my right forearm. I am wearing a fake concert t-shirt featuring the Max Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi. These stories are a literal, physical part of the self I present to the world.

A t-shirt and a tattoo. Something I can put on and take off and something thats a part of me. Shirts and skins.

My stories are like that too.

Lets talk about shirts first.

*  *  *

Ive never known a world without the original Star Wars trilogy.

It was so much a part of my life growing up, I have no idea if its I actually like it. I know the characters, the lines, but I dont have an OPINION on it per se. That would be like having an opinion on gravity or weather.

Then again, whether Star Wars is good or not or how much I like it is beside the point.

To me, Star Wars is a community story, which is to say the story itself isnt as important as its role as a marker of my cultural identity.

The interesting thing about stories in this role is not only is liking them or not beside the point, but also that stories dont even need to be seen or experienced to engage with them on this level.

For example, a few weeks ago, an episode of the TV show Game of Thrones, one that ends with one of the shows major characters being sexually assaulted, is dominating the internet conversation.
The conversation is about the use of rape as a plot device.

I feel like I have to have a public opinion on this Game of Thrones episode even though I havent actually seen it (*), and I also feel this opinion says something about the kind of person I am.

In other words, we arent talking about the stories. We are using them as jumping off point to publicly identify where we stand on social issues, our cultural identity, or our belief systems.

Its a way of saying who you are and which tribe you belong to. The stories themselves are beside the point. My opinion tells other people what kind of person I am.

Star Wars shirts are like that. Over the last few years, I have watched much MUCH more UFC than I have Star Wars. But I would never wear a UFC t-shirt. Its not because Im ashamed of watching UFC, but because mixed martial arts does not feel like part of my public identity. Its not the first thing I want people to know about me.

I dont wear Star Wars t-shirts because I feel a connection with Han Solo. I wear it so other people know I know Star Wars and we can quote Han Solo line at one another.

But Star Wars is not a part of me. Like the shirt, its something I can take off.

Not every story is like that.

*  *  *

Theres another way I engage with stories. Its more primal, more direct, and harder to explain because as soon as I try to put it into words, I feel as though Ive put something between me and my experience.

No explanation is required. It hits you or it doesnt.

In some ways, music is a great example of this. I can write about Queensryche or Vinnie Vincent Invasion all I like. None of those words will ever be able to make you feel what I feel when I listen to them. I can write about how these songs mattered to me, but can never make you feel what I felt when they first touched my life.

Sometimes the personal becomes part of our identity. Skid Row was a big part of my life during the late eighties early nineties. It was personal to me. Nownot so much.  So I consider myself a Skid Row fan even though years pass without me listening to their music and when I do my only connection with the music is sentimental--hey, I remember that song. And these lyrics coming up are ones I used to really like (**).

Sometimes the community prevents me from wanting to make a personal connection with the material. I remember the hype around The Phantom Menace when it came out. I distinctly recall walking into a department store and seeing row and row of Phantom Menace projects--coloring books, action figures, puzzles, posters as far as the eye could see.

And I thought, Nope. I dont need to see this movie.

I still havent.

Sometimes, the fact that there is no community or cultural narrative built up around a show leaves me more space to engage with the material. I can quietly watch it and process it in my own way and not feel any need to Have an Opinion on it.

The Americans is great for this. The show is well-acted, well-written, and non-judgemental, and far from the public consciousness. It shows me the choices the characters make, the consequences of those choices, and how they feel about it all, but it rarely asks me to feel any particular way about it or invite me to draw any conclusions about What it All Means.

In some ways The Americans goes beyond shirts OR skins. Its neither a part of my community, nor a part of my identity, and thus it manages to transcend both. I relate to it on its terms instead of trying to fit it into my own.

I might be made of stories, but there are other stories out their besides my own.

Its a joy to be able to see them.

(*) Oddly, in some cases not seeing the source material HELPS. For example, I learned a lot from the Game of Thrones debate. I got a clearer picture about what the people who objected to the scene found objectionable and understood better what the scenes defenders were defending.  And I found it significantly easier to see to what others were saying about the show when I wasnt blinded by my own opinions on the scene.

(**) Who am I kidding? I still enjoy Skid Rows lyrics, especially the ones off the Slave to the Grind album. Check them out--theyre more evocative than you might think.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road has been praised on a number of levels. Much of the conversation has been centered around its use practical special effects and its treatment of gender. Those are worthy elements, but I want to talk about other things.

First of all, theres the movies unique rhythm. Many action movies--even well-made ones like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier suffer from a samey-ness, not because the characters or stories are anything alike, but because the movies themselves are structured similarly. There are no wasted moments . Everything important is there and everything unimportant is left out. But rhythmically, this strength can become a weakness. Because they are paced similarly It means the movies FEEL the same on a physical level even if the stories themselves are very different.

Fury Road is different.

Fury Road opens with a flurry of character introduction, plot, and world-building that would take up the first third- to one-half of most movies. Max is chased, captured, escapes, and is recaptured again with such whiplash speed, I wondered what was the point of having him escape at all.

After this initial whirlwind tour, the movie hits us with a car chase through the desert that stttreeettttches on and on. Furiosa escapes the Citadel is a single-beat of action on par with Nick Fury is attacked in Winter Soldier or the prison break scene in Guardians of the Galaxy. Yet where these beats last only moments in the latter to movies, in Fury Road, Furiosas escape provide the spine of the film.  In Fury Road the character moments dont  happen around the action scenes, they happen inside of them.

Later it does the opposite, taking a sequence that other movies would build into a set piece--the night fight with the Bullet Farmer--and has the majority of the sequence happen completely off screen.


And then theres the climax. Theoretically, this should be the moment where things get bigger and better, where we build to the ultimate moment--is just a repetition of what weve seen beforea car chase through the same desert they just passed through back the way they came.

Structurally and literally, the movie is going backwards.

On paper, pacing-wise, this story is an abomination.

On screen, it works beautifully because the rhythms are so different from what were used to seeing, we cant predict where the next beat will land and thus we remain totally engaged.

Great stuff.

Secondly, I like how quietly examined the different ways we use religious ritual in our lives. Immmortan Joe, the War Boys, the Vulvalini, and the Wives all used ritual movements or gesture. In other words, those rituals werent just things they believed with their minds or said with their lips, it was something they enacted with their bodies.

I think many times, when it comes to religion, we want to equate it with the mind, with what we believe. Something that we can support or disprove with reasons and rationality.

But religion and religious rituals operate on a level more primal level. Sometimes they control us, sometimes they inspire us, sometimes they are part of our community--helping us celebrate or as a way of telling insiders from outsidersand sometimes they bring us comfort even if we dont completely understand, remember, or believe in them.

A third  thing, I liked about the movie was its approach to death. The film might make a statement about gender and politics, but the violence is apolitical--hero and villain alike are stabbed, shot, or thrown under wheels.

And while certainly some deaths are bigger, sadder, or more satisfying than others because of our connection with the characters, no life is treated as inherently more important or valuable than another. Its  a rare thing in action movies

In Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, Groots death is treated as heroic and tragic and valorous; the death of the dozen or so faceless goons he skewered several minutes earlier is treated as a fuck yeah/comedy moment.

Yes, Nux sacrifices himself to save his friends in Fury Road just as Groot does in Guardians of the Galaxy, the deaths feel different. Nuxs death is about Nux--in a sense it is a victory for him as a good death is something he has been working towards the whole movie. Whereas Groots death doesnt seem to be about Groot or even about death. It seems to be about getting an emotional reaction from the audience.

Fury Road treats death with respect, neither glamorizing nor trivializing it. In Fury Road, death is simply death. What matters is our attitudes towards it or our reactions in the fact of it.

The last thing that struck me about Mad Max Fury Road is the thing that struck me the hardest, even though its also the thing about which I have the least to say.

Its the moment where the villainous henchman shouts with a mixture of pride and grief: I had a little baby brother! And he was perfect! Perfect In Every Way!

Its not because of what the line reveals about Rictus Erectus character. Its not because of how the scene speaks to the objectification of mothers as breeders and children as success objects or the role of body perfection and gender and their relationship to power in Immortan Joes--and by extension our own--society. Its not because Rictus was played by Nathan Jones and I like seeing ex-pro wrestlers--even obscure and unsuccessful ones--in movies.

Its because I once had a little brother too.