Sara Reads, No. 21

The Stakes of Escapism
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the struggle between escapism and realism in pop culture. Last month, I made a post about Marvel’s summer event Secret Empire, in which I expressed a lack of desire to read it given the way its thematic content (Captain America has secretly been a Nazi all this time) intersects with the sheer unpleasantness of the present-day world (the US presidential administration is made up of actual Neo-Nazis). And I wasn’t the only person to make such a statement. In a sea of highly critical (and deservedly so) responses to the summer crossover, I would have thought opting out on the grounds of simply not being emotionally up to it was pretty innocuous, but the response nevertheless drew the ire of Secret Empire scribe Nick Spencer, who asserted that it was an “irresponsible, cowardly” argument.

Spencer’s comments sat with me a long time, and I found myself coming back to them at odd moments. One of the core components of the “not now” argument is that it’s not a value judgment on the work in question. In fact, it goes so far as to suggest the work has merit—just merit that you’re currently unable to assess because it’s not what you’re into right now. It’s about as impersonal a response as you can get, and yet it was taken very personally. Understanding Spencer’s backlash in the context of the escapism-realism tug-of-war sheds light on the stringency of his reaction. There’s a certain creative demographic for whom storytelling is all about stakes. Everything has to have real stakes, real consequences, real tragedy in order to have meaning. People who reject the necessity-of-stakes argument by pointing out that an obsession with stakes can actually hurt one’s craft, or who are simply emotionally tuckered out from the ceaseless onslaught of stakes, are often implied to have a less authentic (or dare we even say less intelligent) relationship with the creative world and its output.

Author Joe Hill, relating the phenomenon to his personal experience of writing, identifies stakes-free storytelling as a trope that he calls “the dog lives.”  In his deconstruction of this trope, Hill notes that there’s a market for a happier brand of fantasy escapism but states categorically that it’s not what he’s selling. Which, by the way, is totally fine. We, all of us, must write what we have in us to write, and every creator has the right to set the terms of what they are selling. The flip side of that, though, is that the audience has the right to declare what they are, and are not, buying, and it’s that flip side that content creators often seem unclear on. In fairness to Hill, his concerns with whether or not “the dog lives” have mainly to do with artificially uplifting endings that fly in the face of authentic storytelling. In equating stakes with quality, however, he fails to address the very real problem of the boring similitude that comes from ceaseless stakes and stakes-raising narratives. As author Kit Walker has noted, many writers fail to understand that tragedy’s narrative power comes from its ability to disrupt the norm of everyday life. Consequently, when a story is nothing but unending tragedy, that ability to disrupt is compromised and the tale loses its affective power.

Solemnity vs Seriousness
John Cleese has a wonderful talk on creativity, during which he comments on the dangers of mistaking solemnity for seriousness—an issue that has (at one time or another) plagued most, if not all, of human endeavors…

As Cleese points out: solemnity, which is all-too-often read as a sign of seriousness, is a relatively pointless attitude that “serves pomposity” and protects the self-important from having their egotism punctured. Humor, on the other hand, is “an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems no matter how serious they may be.”

Now, more than ever, I think we need to remember that.

Final Thought: Anne of Grimdark Gables
Anne with an E, the new Netflix series that adapts L.M. Montgomery’s beloved tale for a newer, more serious, more stakes-obsessed era, was released last week to almost diametrically opposed reviews. About half of the critics love prestige-tv veteran Moire Walley-Beckett’s updated take on Anne, which takes the subtle allusions to her abusive childhood and makes them grimly explicit. The other half feel that Walley-Beckett has ruined Montgomery’s vision of an Anne able to find joy in her new life by over-emphasizing on the unrelenting tragedy of her past.

So I guess I know what I’m watching this weekend.

Pacing as Psychological Effect in ‘American Gods’

Episode two of American Gods proved to be a very similar viewing experience to episode one.

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Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon
American Gods, episode 2

I was riveted, though not entirely (or even vaguely) comfortable, but also? I was frankly surprised when the show ended, as I had been expecting ten or so more minutes of exposition. The ending points of the episodes are undoubtedly calculated to effect exactly such a response. In both cases, there’s a cliffhanger aspect to the pause points—momentary hiatuses in the midst of things that are deeply unsettling and uncomfortable. The intermissions are more than mere cliffhangers, however, for the issue is not merely a lack of resolution, but of naturalness as well. The places where the episodes stop are narratively unsound and therefore deeply unnatural, like everything else in the world of the show. It’s an incredibly effective use of pacing, designed to create in the viewer a psychological feeling of being plunged into the world itself and then yanked violently out of it. When an episode ends, you are left with a feeling of strangeness, as if waking prematurely from a dream and not knowing what to make—either of the experience or its termination. It’s not about instilling in the viewer a desire to know what comes next, although that is a valuable side effect, but about making them feel disconnected from their world in a manner similar to the way Shadow Moon, the show’s “everyman” protagonist, feels. We are seeing this strange world through Shadow’s eyes, and like him, we are being jostled about in disturbing and unexpected ways. The result is a palpably emotional viewing experience that is quite brilliant—the creation of a mood not just with acting or directing or setting or music alone, but via the show’s unique approach to narrative pacing.

One thing I can’t help wondering, however, is whether viewers who have not read the book experience the show in a similar way. Put another way, I wonder if my knowledge of the book’s plot intensifies this particular effect. Thus far, with the show adhering relatively closely to the source material, I have a good sense of what comes next—a memory of the more “natural” stopping points constructed by Neil Gaiman via sections and chapters and parts. My perspective on the series is intrinsically tied to my knowledge of the book. Without that knowledge, would the program have the same effect? Or an entirely different one?

‘American Gods’ and the Beauty of Baseness

ag posterOnce upon a time, in the summer before I graduated from college, I embarked upon an “Art Across America” cross-country road trip. I went with my mother, sharing driving, navigating, and DJ’ing responsibilities as we traveled up to Niagara Falls before making our way across Ontario to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and points west. We stopped at the Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, we traveled down the Enchanted Highway outside of Gladstone, we stopped at every “World’s Largest” exhibit and Paul Bunyan statue that we could find. And of course—of course—we went to the House on the Rock.

Fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods will be familiar with the House on the Rock. (Fans of the television show will no doubt come to be acquainted with it.) And for those fans, our reasons for including it on the tour will probably seem obvious. It’s a prominent location in a beloved book. Obviously we had to see it.

What struck me most when I visited was the appropriateness of the place to Gaiman’s novel. As we wandered through the expansive tourist attraction, becoming ever more disconcerted and overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stuff on display (antiques and faux antiques, dollhouses and dolls, replica weapons, calliope machines, Burma-Shave adverts, and carousel figures… so many carousel figures), it dawned on me that we were standing in the single most American place in all of America. A deathless shrine to consumption, and excess, and the flat refusal to understand when too much is enough.

Of course the gods of Gaiman’s novel, being American gods, went to the House on the Rock. Where else would an American god go?

Watching “The Bone Orchard,” the first episode of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s Starz adaptation, I felt the same sense of rightness, vis-à-vis tone and theme, that I felt standing in the House on the Rock. There’s simply no way around it, Fuller and Green’s American Gods has perfectly nailed the heart, soul, and concomitant aesthetic of the book.

A good friend of mine summed it up well, noting that the tone of the show is somewhat tawdry. But while she isn’t yet convinced of the appropriateness of that tone, I am 100% sold.

Tawdry: showy but cheap; gaudy; low, or mean, or base.

That’s pretty much the point, yes? That’s the whole thing.

In a story that is, fundamentally, about the heart and soul of America, you’re going to have to strike the odd tawdry note here and there. Because the heart and soul of America is fundamentally tawdry.

The American Gods series incorporates a number of things that I consider mainstays of the Bryan Fuller aesthetic (or of his Hannibal aesthetic at the very least). Elegiac violence. Artistic gore. Sexual text and subtext galore.  An almost overpowering collage of glittery, glossy trash.  But while those attributes didn’t always work for me in Hannibal—most notably in the first season where I felt they overwhelmed a text sometimes lacking in substance—here they seem perfectly in sync with the very substance of the text itself. The gods of America are arrogant, self-centered, and self-serving (they have to be). They are junkies, and grifters, and thieves. And at the head of the table, sitting in the big-boy chair, making the big-boy decisions, is an aging con-man in a ridiculous hat.

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God bless Orlando Jones.

And what, pray tell, is more American than that?

We, as a nation, are tawdry. We are showy, and gaudy, and cheap. We care only for our own desires, our own goals, our own fixes. That’s who we are. That’s our national motto.

America first, last, and always.

A show about America is going to exhibit those characteristics, and indeed, must—of necessity—revel in them. Because America is nothing if not bigger, better, faster, more.

And I’m sure that somewhere in there lies a supremely profound story about a human spirit that can withstand even the most toxic manifestation of the American dream. There certainly was one in the book. But that story of the human spirit is, and perhaps always will be, in opposition to the myth of America, to the myth of American exceptionalism, to the myth of American individualism. And we’ve got a lot of adversity to claw our way through before we’re going to see success.

This is not a story that glorifies America. This is a story about the brutality, the profligacy, the depravity of a nation. American Gods is about usurpation, and about the usurpation of usurpers—arguably white America’s greatest modern-day fear. It’s about winning by any means necessary. It’s about the cost of doing business. It’s about the essential moral and ethical bankruptcy of living that way. And it’s about the moral and ethical bankruptcy of a system that demands such sacrifices to survive. It’s meant to have a gloss of cheapness to it.

Without that gloss, it wouldn’t be a story about America.

And let me tell you, I am all in on Fuller and co. having the guts to completely fucking go there. American Gods episode one was beautiful and brilliant and base. And I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

From the Mailbag: “Do you know which comic everyone is talking about?” (Secret Empire Spoilers)

Anonymous asked:

yo, do you know which comic is that one that everyone is talking about???? where they recently killed bucky??? i’ve looking everywhere, thank you!

Hi Nonny!

Thanks for your question! I wasn’t aware that everyone was talking about this, but for what it’s worth I’m pretty sure that Bucky isn’t actually dead.

I think my response could get a bit long, so first things first:

TL;DR – the comic you’re looking for is Captain America: Steve Rogers no. 16, although to get the fullest sense of what’s going on with Bucky, I recommend reading Thunderbolts no. 12, followed by CA:SR 16. (Weirdly, Secret Empire 0, which features a Bucky and Kobik variant cover, has no Bucky content at all…)

And now onto the spoilers and speculation!

Two important Bucky-related things happen in CA:SR 16: 1) Baron Zemo, Bucky’s arch-nemesis, tries to find and reassemble the fragments of Kobik, who self-destructed at the end of Thunderbolts when Bucky refused to join HYDRA; and 2) Zemo straps Bucky to a missile and fires him off over the ocean in retribution for Bucky’s “crimes” in an alternate reality. The outcomes of these two situations are interesting, and I think—perhaps—related.

We see the missile Bucky is strapped to explode at the end of CA:SR 16:

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Captain America: Steve Rogers no. 16 (2017)
Spencer, Libranda, Cinar, Malin, Rosenberg

Reassembling Kobik is less successful. Dr. Erik Selvig (who has come to really love Kobik) scatters her remaining fragments when he discovers that Zemo plans to reconstitute her as a cosmic cube and deprive her of her autonomy:

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Captain America: Steve Rogers no. 16 (2017)
Spencer, Libranda, Cinar, Malin, Rosenberg

Selvig does this before Bucky’s missile explodes. Thus, I think there’s a good chance that Bucky will be saved by her, one way or another, sooner or later.

I hope this answer was helpful to you!

Originally posted (in a slightly modified form) here.
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Secret Empire 0
variant cover by Elizabeth Torque

Basically, this right here is the only thing in Secret Empire that is of any interest to me. I look forward to finding out what happens to Bucky and Kobik. Everything else is just scenery.

(And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about this crossover event. For now.)

Originally posted here.

So I went ahead and read the opening salvo for the “Secret Empire” crossover. And I pretty much hated it. Yes, Marvel’s latest event is off and running, and I already want it to be over. I simply find the entire thing (from concept to execution) exhausting. So exhausting, in fact, that I struggled to find focus throughout reading.

The opening of an event of this nature is designed to make things as dark as possible as quickly as possible, and in that respect it does succeed. All the heroes have nice deep holes dug for them to claw their way out of for the next 3-4 months. If the real-life forces for good in this world weren’t currently stuck in deep, dark holes that their “brethren” had dug for them, I might find such a story line diverting. (Emphasis on “might.”) As it is, I only have so much energy to expend on misery. And make no mistake, “Secret Empire” is miserable.

It’s not interesting; it’s just… sad.

And now excuse me, I’ve got to go scrub the grimdark off and get down to things that are actually worth my time.

Originally posted here.

Who Run the World (Into the Ground)? White Men, Says James Mangold’s “Logan”

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Logan poster art by Dave Rapoza

In the year 2029, James “Logan” Howlett is a tired and broken down man. He lives day to day, working for peanuts as a limo driver, clinging to the hope that he will one day manage to save enough money to buy a sailboat and retire to the sea with the only other surviving member of the X-Men: Charles Xavier. Xavier, once the most powerful mind on the planet, now suffers from a degenerative brain disease. He lives under Logan’s care and off the grid in Mexico, where he is forced to stay in hiding lest the authorities (who have, in the wake of a mysterious and long-past “Westchester Incident,” classified him as a weapon of mass destruction) should capture and kill him. Into their dire straits, comes Laura—the genetically-engineered mutant daughter of Logan, who is on the run from the men who made her. Against his will, Logan is drawn into a desperate race against time and enemies, as he and Xavier try to save the mutant race one last time.

Logan is a worthy film in many respects, but it is perhaps most interesting in the way it deploys economy in its storytelling—using the roughest sketches to create a vivid narrative landscape that is both highly imaginative and frighteningly familiar. The world has become a bleak and desperate place in the near-future of the film. The reason behind this is never really specified. It’s not a catastrophe, per se, although past catastrophes are hinted it, but it is a significant, and lasting, social change. Mutants, with a few exceptions, are gone, and humans are generally happy with that state of affairs. The wealthy live blissfully, the white without much thought or consequence. Everyone else gets by, or not, as they can (or can’t). Whatever happened has left the world bereft but soldiering on, and that’s all we really know. But while the film remains vague on the what, when, and where, it is very clear on the who and the why.

We don’t know what happened to the world, but we know it happened because of white men. Because of their entitlement and their brutality in service of the status quo that privileges them. White men made the world of Logan, and only white men (or those who can pass for them) really benefit from its structures. Everyone else is under the gun. The disabled tracker Caliban who provides physical and emotional support to Logan and Xavier, the family of black farmers that Logan, Xavier, and Laura encounter on their cross-country flight to safety, the Mexican nurses who try to help enslaved mutant children where no one else can or will. They are all under the gun, and they all come to bad ends. And none of that is by narrative accident.

White male privilege presents its face most explicitly in the characters of Zandar Rice and Donald Pierce. Rice—erudite, educated, and a eugenicist—represents power of the highest level. He runs Transigen, an anti-mutant research organization, whose authority is absolute, and whether his power stems from political or corporate sovereignty is unclear, another economical narrative choice with obviously implications. Rice believes himself to be one of the good guys; he believes himself to be creating a better world on behalf of those who cannot or will not create it for themselves. Pierce—by contrast—is almost a nothing character. He commands the Reavers, Transigen’s personal squad of mercenaries, and operates without oversight over an unlimited jurisdiction. But there is nothing special about him. He’s not particularly qualified for his job, and he brings no discernible skill set to the position. He’s personally repellent but largely unintimidating, and one senses that he’d be nothing without the hierarchical apparatus that supports him—that he likely got his job by doing nothing more than kissing the right ass on the way up the corporate ladder. Again, this is not an accident.

These men, along with Xavier and Logan, function as well-known stereotypes: paternalistic puppet master, mediocre beneficiary of entrenched social hierarchies, self-identified ally, bystander. Zander Rice pulls the strings that maintain the world to his bigoted specifications; Donald Pierce attains an undeserved position of authority through nothing more than genetic good luck; Charles Xavier does more harm than good for all his vaunted intentions; Logan sees the ugliness of world and, exhausted by it, turns a blind eye. These are the men who built, and who maintain, the world. They—and their world—resonate because they—and it—are all-too-recognizable. Rich, powerful, old, white men who think they know the best course for their younger, non-white, non-male, non-straight compatriots are a dime-a-dozen on the daily cable news circuit, and we all know that one guy who has nothing going for him but his one-of-the-boys charm and a society willing to give him a pass on his every other failing. Equally well do we know the male ally who never stops talking about how much (and how well) he supports your cause long enough to hear what you actually need or want.

We know these character archetypes and we know their real-world analogues, and in Logan we see the world that they make—a world in which unimaginative, simple-minded hate-mongers drain life of its beauty and purpose—but we also see the world we make through our silence and fear. As strongly as the film positions men like Zander Rice and Donald Pierce as perpetrators of an ugly world order, it also frames well-meaning and indifferent men (Xavier and Logan) as complicit in that world order. Through them, and through knowledge of their real-world analogues, the audience is enabled to reflect on their own role in society. For just as we know the patriarch, the average guy, and the fair-weather friend, we know the person in hiding, the person afraid to rock the boat, the person who just wants their own slice of peace and quiet. Indeed, some of us are that person. And Logan shows us the kind of world that is likely to grow from our cowardice.

Of course, this metaphor—while powerful—is fundamentally flawed. To the extent that this film functions allegorically to explore predominantly white power structures, it effectively sets aside both Xavier’s and Logan’s mutation. They are framed as complicit in the system in a manner that largely fails to take the reality of social attitudes to so-called aberration (in both the fictional world of the X-Men and the real world of 2017) into account. It’s a dangerous move to make with marginalized characters—even, and perhaps especially, with those who can pass for the non-marginalized—but one that inevitably arises when you portray such characters as cis-straight white men in a movie that, if not specifically about marginalization and privilege, at the very least deliberately contrasts them. If I have a major thematic criticism to make it is that the film presents its marginalized characters as complicit without really interrogating the reasons why some find it necessary, for their mental and/or physical safety, to leave the status quo unchallenged. Logan’s anguish is subsumed into more culturally comfortable tropes of manpain and white man’s burden rather than presented as an exploration of the harrowing compromises that many at-risk minorities must make to survive—an oversight that cannot help but weaken the film’s otherwise powerful impact and thought-provoking message.

Speculative fiction trappings aside, it’s easy to read Logan as a cautionary tale. With just twelve years between us and the near-future setting of the film—with political polarization at an all-time high—it’s a simple matter to sketch a trajectory that leads straight from Trump’s America to Logan’s tomorrow. Through its unflinching depiction of a world run into the ground by the unchecked privilege, bigotry, and greed of the ruling class, Logan offers lessons—about how we might meet such a fate ourselves and about how we could avert it.