The numbers may be somewhat inflated by his penchant for silly action movies where he plays supporting roles, but Samuel L. Jackson’s movies have grossed more than any other star’s oeuvre, according that most redoubtable of resources, the Guinness Book of World Records. In any case, it’s another statistic to throw on the pile of evidence that black actors are not inherently box office poison. I remain vastly curious what the tipping point for Hollywood will be, when they realize that the elements around actors and the quality of their performances are probably more determinative than the race of the actors themselves. If you put self-aware black actors in big, glossy, funny action flicks, those movies will likely make money, and not be harmed by the fact that Samuel L. Jackson is showing up with a purple lightsaber or an eye patch. But I really would love to see an executive name the metric after which they’ll be comfortable with the idea that black actors are not box-office poison.
Spencer Ackerman is, of course, an ace defense reporter, but I really love it when he writes about culture. And I particularly appreciated this meditation on the New York punk club that was critically important to him growing up, because I think it reflects, to come back to a perpetual hobby-horse, the kind of norm-building it would be great to do in fan communities and at conventions:
Above my desk I keep a photograph that my wife bought for me of ABC No Rio. ABC No Rio is a punk club and (former?) squat on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan where every Saturday afternoon a motley assortment of bands perform. I think of it as the punk rock version of the Boys & Girls Club, because that was the role it played for me as a teenager…it was supposed to be a place where you would be made to feel unwelcome if you groped someone in the pit; if you made a homophobic or racist remark; or if you engaged in otherwise destructive behavior.
You could be drunk or high and have sex — you weren’t supposed to be, but no one was really going to stop you — but if that translated into behavior that threatened others, your ass would be kicked out. It was filled with contradictions — a scene that supposedly glorified nihilism and free expression being so rigid? — but they were resolved, intellectually speaking, according to the baseline principle that those were the basic social responsibilities needed for the world in which we wanted to live to exist, a haven from the aggravating bullshit around us.
Again, these principles were never fully realized. I know women who were abused at ABC No Rio. I am thinking in particular of one individual who got away with it, probably because of his scene cred. I cringe at the idea that this piece will come across as treacly or sanitized. These are the reflections of a straight white boy who came up in the mid-90s and who went on to do all manner of bad things in his life. Your mileage may vary.
But it was important that these were the basic values that you were expected to adopt if you wanted to be part of what ABC No Rio was.
When I wrote about my experience at New York Comic Con, I noted how level the crowd seemed, how there were no particular signifiers of coolness. It also didn’t feel, for me, at least, like an unsafe space. The female cosplayers I saw getting their pictures taken mostly seemed to be objects of admiration because their costumes were completely and utterly awesome, less because they were intensely sexual or revealing. And almost no vendors were employing booth babes, perhaps in a sign that strategy is played out, though we’ll see when I hit San Diego Comic Con next year.
But despite that generally neutral atmosphere, it would still be great if there was a way to sell en masse the idea the dominant culture at cons was inclusive and oriented against harassment. Some changes, like panelists making a conscious effort to treat questioners who raise issues of representation and inclusiveness in art with respect, even if the questions are tough, would be relatively easy. Others, like adopting sexual harassment policies and training staff to enforce them, would take slightly more effort. But none of this is impossible. And even if enforcement’s inconsistent, the effort is important.
This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 27 episode of Community.
As much fun as this episode and the previous one were, I remain somewhat concerned that Community is treading water. While these shows have given us some good insight into the way the characters see each other and feel about their patterns of interaction, they haven’t really done anything to move the ball forward. And the study group is halfway through college, at this point. It’s time for some momentum, and some bad-but-more-informed-than-freshman-year decision-making.
The thing that struck me most about tonight’s episode was the politics apparent in the way the characters think of each other. “I’m entitled to sex,” Britta imagines Jeff saying to her in her horror-movie version of their relationship, casting our one-time hero as a much less subtle meathead than he actually is. And Annie imagines Britta as the willing victim of a vampire, dragged out of the closet to satisfy Jeff’s lusts and to explain to Annie, “Do not judge me for my weakness…I’m fine with this.” Are we still stuck in a dynamic where Annie thinks Britta’s a slut, Britta thinks Annie is a tease, and stereotypes of ladies fighting and undermining each other go round and round? Because if so, I’m tired of it.
Abed, by contrast, uses politics to inject logic into an inherently illogical horror movie situation. “I guess they shouldn’t have cut corners, though it is understandable given the economic downturn,” his imaginary love interest version of Britta tells him, clarifying why a local mental institution’s cut its security force. And Shirley whips out some more conservative — or at least more decisively conservative — views that we’ve seen from her before, imagining a demonic version of the Dean chainsawing the study group’s sinners to death forever while cackling “Gay marriage!” at the top of his lungs. I suppose the anecdote as meant to illustrate that Shirley thinks her classmates see her in cheap and reductive terms that make assumptions about her Christianity, but given that the story had more the feeling of a revenge flick than an actual way of working through Shirley’s concerns, it felt a little disconcertingly judgmental. That said, Pierce’s vision of Troy as Coolio and Abed as Flava Flav was genuinely funny, showing that Pierce is both something of a racist and doesn’t know the cultural contexts for either figure, a well-crafted double joke on him.
But I felt like the final scene, showing us that Abed had the only normal psychology score (or perhaps the only wildly abnormal one) felt a little too on the nose to me. Wired’s profile of Dan Harmon explains that in the course of making the show, Harmon came to identify with Abed and to be diagnosed as lying somewhere on the same part of the autism spectrum that the character does. Which is great for him, but doesn’t mean that Community is a better show for making Abed — or any one character in particular — the hero. Given the caustic way a lot of the characters have behaved this season, we need reasons to like them again, rather than simply being told that we should.
In Time, a mediocre action movie in which Justin Timberlake plays a poor boy turned revolutionary and Amanda Seyfried plays Patty Hearst, or close enough to it, is not a great film. It’s awkwardly written, its worldbuilding is incomplete, and its action scenarios are mundane and the setups that lead to them are ridiculous. But all that aside, In Time is a fascinating illustration of what we — and Hollywood in particular — refuse to speak aloud about income inequality in mass-market entertainment. And especially at a moment when Americans are literally being beaten in the streets for raging against vast wealth disparities, In Time feels almost revolutionary in its insistence that redistribution is the only option — it’s the rare movie that outflanks me from the left. In Time is a fascinating, flawed movie, and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. (It should be noted that no plot twists in this movie that you couldn’t discern from trailers appear in this review.)
In Time follows Will (Timberlake) a factory worker literally working for the time he needs to survive the day, after he obtains a large and unexpected amount of time and uses it first to gain access to upper-crust society, then to return to his own world with an heiress, Sylvia (Seyfriend) in tow. At first, she’s a hostage, but as her experience living in poverty and in constant risk of running out of time changes her, she becomes Will’s partner in a revolutionary crime spree, stealing and redistributing time from her father’s own company. Too anxious, perhaps, about the risk of being mistaken for a talky movie of ideas, In Time relies heavily on action sequences that work best when they comment on themselves and stall when played straight. “It went off! I was trying to help!” yelps Sylvia after she shoots a cop, in a nice little parody of mysteriously competent female action heroines. “Unfuckingbelievable,” Will mutters crankily after a ridiculous number of rounds have failed to dislodge that same cop from an interminable rooftop chase. But when the movie wants us to accept various transparently ridiculous ploys Will and Sylvia pull off — and when it expects us to buy that after a series of highly successful heists, Sylvia hasn’t bothered to pick up a decent pair of running shoes — it becomes just as silly as the tropes it’s riffing off. In one sequence, where the camera lovingly follows Will and Sylvia wrecking a gorgeous car in slow-motion, my screening companion leaned over and whispered “movie over” in my ear. I was hard-pressed to disagree. There’s a lot of showing rather than telling and general movie silliness about Seyfried’s outfits, though the movie’s depiction of eternal youth raises queasy implications of sexual confusion.
But for all the sound and fury the movie subjects us to, In Time has a vastly better claim than any movie I’ve seen in ages to using loud, attractive nonsense to deliver a message that otherwise would be confined to art house theaters. Avatar may have given us heartwarming visions of environmental interconnectedness, and Wall-E offered a disconcerting commentary on a world where we’ve destroyed ourselves and our planet through consumerism. But both of those movies displace their messages to the distant future and offer salvation through empathy. In Time may be in the future, but it’s a close one, in a world that looks disconcertingly like our own. And brutal confrontations with reality and revolution are what writer and director Andrew Niccol has on offer as solutions.
The bridge is yours.
-We might get a sequel to The Incredibles. Which I sort of hope would focus on Frozone.
-Has NBC’s self-mythologizing created some of its problems?
-Has the economic downturn helped push producers out the door?
-AFTRA and SAG are asking IMDb to pull birthdates.
-Happy Friday! Have a documentary about The Phantom Tollbooth!
This post contains spoilers through “Day 7″ of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. If you want to spoil beyond that in comments, feel free, but please label your comment as such. And for next week, let’s read through “Day 17.”
Given the time that Stephenson’s spent explicating his manly ideals, and showing us various people doing crazy things like stealing credit card numbers and shooting terrorists on Chinese docks in the name of love, it was inevitable that we’d get to sex eventually. And to sexual assault. Wartime can produce some hot temporary romances, like the one between Olivia and Sokolov. But it also provides a space in which people like Khalid can justify sexual violence.
One of the things that’s interesting about the way Stephenson frames Khalid’s attack against Zula is that it sets up a sympathy between us and Richard. Before he breaks into his niece’s apartment, Richard pauses for a moment to steel himself against what he might find: “Growing up on a farm had exposed him to a few sudden and unpleasant sights that he had never been able to clear from his memory. But Zula stabbed or strangled on the floor of her apartment would, he knew, be the last thing that came into his mind’s eye at the moment of his death; and between now and then it would come to him unbidden at unforeseeable moments.” He can’t bear the idea of witnessing violence against Zula, but he must. And as we get more attached to her, the prospect of seeing something bad happens to her becomes increasingly uncomfortable — though we see more than he does, though less than everything, because we’re seeing through Zula’s eyes, and at some point, so closes them.
I’m trying to decide how I feel about Stephenson’s decision to describe Khalid’s assault on Zula and Zula’s self-defense in as much detail as he does. It’s not as if the step-by-step narration of the event is out of keeping with the rest of the novel — Stephenson spends a lot of time on all sorts of details here — and they’re not notably prurient. We’re told that Zula’s vulva is exposed, but Stephenson doesn’t get descriptive, and even his lingering on Khalid’s penis for a sentence is a logistical meditation, not a sexual one, though it does serve to establish Zula’s level of sexual experience in a way that seems like it’s supposed to make Khalid’s assault more heinous: “Zula was not a huge penis expert, but she knew it took at least a little bit of time for one of them to get that hard, which made her realize that Khalid must have been standing outside the door for a while, getting himself ready for this.”
In my quest to read all of David Liss’s novels, I finally finished The Coffee Trader, a companion novel of sorts or prequel to his Benjamin Weaver novels that explain how Benjamin’s uncle, Miguel Lienzo, became the man of consequence he is. Like all of Liss’ novels, it’s a useful explanation of some part of the financial system — in this case, commodity markets — and why it should be regulated in general (though not in this case, because that would prevent our hero from triumphing over an unworthy enemy). But it’s also a great meditation on the rise of personal productivity.
After drinking coffee for the first time, Miguel reflects:
How many times, after conducting business in taverns, had Miguel’s wits suffered with each tankard of beer? How many times had he wished he had the concentration for another hour’s clarity with the week’s pricing sheets?…The coffee’s scent began to make him light-headed with something like desire. No, not desire. Greed. Geertruid had stumbled upon something, and Miguel felt her infectious eagerness swelling in his chest. It was like panic or jubilance or something else, but he wanted to leap from his seat.
Similarly, coffee for Hannah unleashes a sense of potential, the idea that she should be able to learn more about Jewish law, that she should be able to read. The berries and the drink give both of them the sense that they’re not bounded by fate and the limitations of the body; that they can, if not entirely conquer tiredness, push it back for a time; that they can reach for greater clarity than that normally available to them. Their success in personal and private life is incumbent on them, not on God’s favor, and if they are clever enough, not the approval of their community or their adherence to artificially imposed norms.
As we know from discussions of the current recession, productivity is not a cure-all if we don’t have the resources to consume. If the workforce as a whole is much more productive, tapping into your full productivity doesn’t actually give you the sort of advantage that Miguel Lienzo got from drinking coffee (and, of course, from working as an independent operator rather than for a firm). So there’s something sort of wistful about a look back to a time when the new standards seemed full of nigh-magical promise and opportunity.
This post contains spoilers through the Oct. 26 episode of Parks and Recreation.
In a way, I’m glad we discussed whether Leslie Knope was corrupt or not, because last night’s episode was all about what happens when politicians and business get too cozy. The answer? Disaster, and Tom Haverford bribing the Chamber of Commerce with hair clippers to give Leslie a second chance.
But before we get to that image, it’s important to take a moment to discuss what I think is a core upcoming challenge for Parks and Recreation. The show found its stride when it stumbled upon a balance where people kept underestimating Leslie, who responded by continuing to prove herself almost freakishly competent. It became trenchant commentary on expectations for women in politics, even when the things Leslie was proving herself ninja-like at were throwing Harvest Festivals or moderating horse funerals. But what happens when people are broadly asked to buy into the legend of Leslie Knope? Will she still be bearable? If Leslie’s the kind of person who, when presented with a hagiography, declares “I’m going to watch it ever day for the rest of my life, and when I die, I’m going to project it on my tombstone,” will she be bearable anymore? I’d hate to lose my bureaucratic heroine to typical politician-like self-regard.