The American Dream is DEAD…Wrapped in Paper-The Founder: A White Tower Review

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The Founder isn’t Supersize Me or Fast Food Nation because by the end of the film my heart went out to McDonalds, or really the two men who founded McDonalds and lost everything to one man’s greed and personal failings.  This didn’t stop me however from going out to McDonalds the very next day to buy myself a big mac so I guess in a way the film succeeded and failed simultaneously.

Then again it’s hard to say no to a man like Ray Kroc who opens the film with a pitch, one the viewer is expected to hear again before the end of the film:

[first linesTF_D01_TR_00075.ARW

Ray Kroc: I know what you’re thinkin’… What the heck do I need a 5-spindle for… when I barely sell enough milkshakes to justify my single-spindle. Right? Wrong. Are you familiar with the notion of the chicken or the egg Mr. Griffith, I mentioned… that there’d be costs. Well, I think it applies here. Do you not need the multimixer because, well heck, you’re not selling enough milkshakes. Or are you not selling enough milkshakes because you don’t have a multimixer? I firmly believe it’s the latter. Because your customer comes in here and he knows if he orders a shake from your establishment… that well, he’s in for a terrific wait. He’s done it before and he thinks to himself, well by golly, I’m not gonna make that mistake again. But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches…then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic?I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you sayF7

The answer to this long pitch is an immediate no, but hopefully the viewer, by the time Michael Keaton is done delivering this opening soliloquy, will say yes and then immediately ask themselves the same question I was asking throughout The Founder: Where the hell has Michael Keaton been for the last decade and why is he only just coming back?

I checked The Founder out more out of impulse than legitimate curiosity.  I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I work at a library, so much so that my regular reader has probably learned to skip these opening intros because they realize they’re usually now just I found DVD or Book X at the library.  But in all seriousness though the fun part of my job is the day to day discovery of a book or film that I didn’t know I had access to.  Now because it’s summer and families have more vacation time due to summer vacation I tend to have to leave my job at the desk and help the staff of circulation because their DVD rack gets filled at least three times a day.  That isn’t hyperbole it literally fills up with DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks every day at least three times a day and of course every tenth DVD is missing from the case.  While the Circ staff checks out patron’s items I’ll usually go over and check items in and one day a week or so back The Founder crossed F16my path.  I’d seen previews for it on YouTube, and maybe it was those original previews, or perhaps the dynamic cover of Michael Keaton standing between those golden arches, or maybe it was my desire to start watching more films, but whatever the case I placed a hold on the DVD and as soon as it came in I watched it and was left amazed and left with a real sense of injustice.

The Founder is a biopic about Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake-maker salesman who wants, to quote Belle from Beauty and the Beast, more than his provincial life.  Ray is looking for something that will lift him into something larger than himself.  While on his cross-country trip he discovers a restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers who have started up F10a burger joint using something called Speedee system in which people are able to purchase burgers, fries, and a milkshake and get it the moment they place an order.  Ray listens to the brothers tell their story, and after trying to return to his original life he decides he has to help the brother franchise their business.  They resist but ray persists until they draw up a contract with him and he begins establishing McDonalds’s across the United States until he eventually becomes the de facto CEO of the company.  The McDonalds brothers are eventually forced out of the company and Ray becomes the “founder” of the company running the brothers out of their business and leaving them little if any financial compensation.F14

The plot synopsis should hopefully explain why, at the end of the film, I was left with a real feeling of injustice.  Michael Keaton shines as Ray Kroc, and his performance as this character has already garnered some critical observations that, apart from being screwed out of an Oscar nomination, he has established the Ray Kroc character into an icon of corporate corruption.  Much like Gordon Gekko in WallStreet, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Ray Kroc is a man who rises to power not because he has any kind of special individual talent, but because he has more or less risen to power off of the sweat, labor, and inspiration of other people.

Ray isn’t even too proud to admit that’s more or less exactly what he did.  In one of the closing scenes between Ray and Dick McDonald (played by the beardless but ever stern and uber-masculine Nick Offerman) he offers Dick his observation of why he ultimately took the company from them.F17

Dick McDonald: I just have to ask you one thing. Something I’ve never understood.

Ray Kroc: Alright.

Dick McDonald: That day we met, when we gave you the tour…

Ray Kroc: Uh huh. What about it?

Dick McDonald: We showed you everything. The whole system, all of our secrets. We were an open book. So why didn’t you just…

Ray Kroc: Steal it? Just, grab your ideas and run off, start my own business… using all those ideas of yours. It would have failed.

Dick McDonald: How do you know?

Ray Kroc: Am I the only one who got the kitchen tour? You must have invited lots of people back there, huh?

Dick McDonald: And?

Ray Kroc: How many of them succeeded?F12

Dick McDonald: Lots of people started restaurants.

Ray Kroc: As big as McDonald’s?

Dick McDonald: Of course not.

Ray Kroc: No one ever has and no one ever will because they all lacked that one thing… that makes McDonald’s special.

Dick McDonald: Which is?

Ray Kroc: Even you don’t know what it is.

Dick McDonald: Enlighten me.

Ray Kroc: It’s not just the system, Dick. It’s the name. That glorious name, McDonald’s. It could be, anything you want it to be… it’s limitless, it’s wide open… it sounds, uh… it sounds like… it sounds like America. That’s compared to Kroc. What a crock. What a load of crock. Would you eat at a place named Kroc’s? Kroc’s has that blunt, Slavic sound. Kroc’s. But McDonald’s, oh boy. That’s a beauty. A guy named McDonald? He’s never gonna get pushed around in life.

Dick McDonald: That’s clearly not the case.

Ray Kroc: So, you don’t have a check for 1.35 million dollars in your pocket? Bye Dick.

Dick McDonald: So if you can’t beat’em, buy’em.F4

Ray Kroc: I remember the first time I saw that name stretched across your stand out there. It was love at first sight. I knew right then and there… I had to have it. And now I do.

Dick McDonald: You don’t have it.

Ray Kroc: You sure about that? Bye Dick.

I’ll admit freely that I was just about screaming at my television set during this scene.  I’m sure at this point in our marriage my wife is used to me talking during the movie, either my comments made towards characters or else just my examinations of the various shots and camera angles made by clever directors, still I should shut up more and just enjoy the movie.  Apart from my rage at the TF_D20_DM_06282015-7415.cr2character of Ray Kroc however was just a general sensation of being constantly amazed at all the excellent little details of the film.  The Founder is a gorgeous movie for the way it presents the time period, the characters, the costumes, the landscapes, and if it hasn’t been addressed already virtually every actor in The Founder manages to give a career-defining performance.  If it isn’t Keaton slinging his Midwest accent and giving us a man who’s constantly hungry for more it’s Nick Offerman winning every scene he’s in, and even John Carol Lynch who manages to be the most pitifully delightful human being in a movie since I can’t even remember.

But I want to return to an earlier point made which was that The Founder is yet another in a long line of American films which examines corporate greed and how ultimately kind people are screwed by the frenetic individuals who aren’t satisfied to break even.  Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc as a constantly moving man who isn’t satisfied to stand still in one place or space, he is constantly speaking about expansion and the possibility that is McDonalds.  During one passage of the film the reader is able to watch Ray give more-or-less the same speech to a room full of Shriners, jewish council members, board-room executives, and casual people in a school gym and Ray’s dedication to expansion is presented in his rhetoric.

Ray Kroc: I’m looking for a few good men… and women. Who aren’t afraid of hard work. Aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves. I’m looking for scrappers, hustlers, guys that are willing to roll up their sleeves. They’re livin’ on F13drive, they got a little fire in their belly. I stand right here before you today, I’m gonna offer you something as precious as gold. And you know what that is? Anybody? Anybody? Opportunity. It’s opportunity. Opportunity. Opportunity to advance, to move forward, to move up, to advance… To succeed. To win. To step up. The sky’s the limit. The sky is the limit. Grab the brass ring. To give yourself a shot at the American dream. Put your arms around the American dream. Opportunity. Cause I’ll tell ya somethin… At McDonald’s? It’s like this great nation of ours… Some of that elbow grease. I guarantee ya, if you got the guts… the gumption, the desire… I guarantee ya you can succeed. There’s gold to be had. At the end of… those Golden Arches… Golden Arches. F 11Golden Arches. Now who’s with me? Who wants to jump on that ladder to success? Be part of the McDonald’s “mishpokhe”. Now who’s with me? Come on, lemme see some hands.

One of the greatest criticisms of The Founder is that is tries to tell the same story that There Will be Blood or Wall Street did only with less character development.  Most of the reviews of this film have complained that Michael Keaton’s performance is one long series of fast-paced speeches, and the New York Times in their review more or less compared him to the Road-Runner.  Obviously I have nowhere near the ethos that the New York Times has in terms of film criticism, but I would like to think that I have an ethos when it comes to Loony Tunes and I didn’t see Michael Keaton go “beep-beep” once in this movie.  Keaton plays Kroc as a man who is never satisfied.  Kroc is always moving from one scheme to the next because he’s TF_D14_DM_06182015-5178.cr2always seeing or looking for something bigger than himself and so it makes sense why he eventually has philosophic differences with the McDonalds brothers.  It makes sense why he leaves his wife who is always wanting him to just settle down and be happy with what he has.  It’s easy to look at Keaton’s performance of Kroc and think that he’s playing him up as a kind of cartoony Gordon Gecko on speed, but if the reader really listens and pays attention to Kroc hopefully they’ll see that the reason there isn’t too much introspection of Kroc’s character is because the man isn’t the contemplative kind.  He isn’t deep and he isn’t truly original.

Ray Kroc is a persistent man.  That is his defining quality, and in this trait he is successful.

In one of the closing scenes Ray is preparing a speech for a dinner he’s going to have with then governor of California TF_D08_DM_03277.cr2Ronald Reagan, and speaking once again to the camera Keaton manages to once again win his viewer, not because he’s a decent man, but because his conviction is real.

Ray Kroc: Now, I know what you’re thinkin’. How the hell does a 52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman… build a fast-food empire with 16,000 restaurants, in 50 states, in 5 foreign countries… with an annual revenue of in the neighborhood of $700,000,000.00… One word… PERSISTENCE. Nothing in this world can take the place of good old persistence. Talent won’t. Nothing’s more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius A McDonald's Big Mac and French Fries arwon’t. Unrecognized genius is practically a cliché. Education won’t. Why the world is full of educated fools. Persistence and determination alone are all powerful.

The Founder as a film may be an opportunity to explore the downsides of capitalism and remind the viewer that there are always going to be sleazebags like Kroc who will steal someone else’s vision and manage to get away with it, but my final impression of the film is something entirely different.  Regardless of the man’s personal character, and regardless of the fact that I would always end the film calling Kroc a contemptable prick, McDonalds as an idea does speak to something of the American vision.  I wish I could find the quote specifically, but when Kroc sells his idea of the franchises to the McDonalds brother he compares the golden arches to the cross and the flag, the idea being that McDonalds can be a place where American people, break bread, find bodily sustenance, and share ideas.  This seems like a ridiculous notion, until I remember my own upbringing.

I was a spoiled child, and as a kid I would often complain about food made at home.  I complained because I wanted to go to McDonalds.  I loved the playground, I loved the cheeseburgers, I loved the fries, and I loved meeting other kids and playing with them and making new memories.  Kroc may F19have been a contemptable prick, but he was onto something when he realized that if you sell a company, not just as a burger joint, but as a space where people can find something, something like family, the American people would buy it and buy into it.

I went out and bought a big mac with fries the day after watching the movie, and in the store I saw a man writing on his laptop, a family eating and talking and laughing, and two friends eating cheeseburgers and laughing.  McDonalds is still an American icon, and still an idea that people are buying.

Unlike a movie like Wall Street, where corporate executives dressed in ties and suspenders read The Art of War and buy up abstract stocks, The Founder digs into the meat and bone of the American landscape and the desire of those living within to be successful, not just at a local level but something more.  The film is a chance to try and understand why Americans are so driven to push and drive into new territories and make something in that new space, or, at the very least, why they’re trying to make something new where you can buy a cheeseburger for under fifteen cents.

F9

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from The Founder were provided by IMBD.

 

**Writer’s Note**

While I ultimately disagree with their final summation of the film, I have included the New York Times review of The Founder here if the reader is interested in a second opinion.  Enjoy:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/movies/the-founder-review-michael-keaton-mcdonalds.html?referrer=google_kp

 

***Writer’s Note***

There are many, many opinions about McDonalds, some fair, some unfair, some that are about lizards who dance the polka and buy Weird Al albums, but perhaps the best opinion I’ve heard expressed is the one by Jim Gaffigan in his Mr. Universe Special.  It’s become something of a private joke between my friend Kevin and I, and I include it here in honor of our friendship.  Love you bro.

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19 August 2017

Satan’s Finest Hour, And Nowhere to be Found: Season of Mists, No. 44, and Personal Responsibility

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Antonius Block: They say you have consorted with the devil?

Witch: Why do you ask that?

Antonius Block: It’s not out of curiosity, but because of utterly personal reasons. I would also like to meet him.

Witch: Why?

Antonius Block: I want to ask him about God. He must know. He, if anyone.

–The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman

 

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Satan is my favorite fictional character.  This creates some obvious problems for me, because for the most part Satan is poorly represented in most fiction.  Many writers and artists who attempt to convey Satan in contemporary art usually devolve the character down into a handsome, charming man in a suit who can do magic tricks or else turn him into cheap, con-man who always loses.  The other alternative is actually sitting down and reading Milton’s Paradise Lost where the character not only plays a primary role but is the hero of the book.  Hopefully the reader observes a conflict here as well: reading Milton.  There are some pains that best expressed by characters in film, specifically Donald Sutherland’s character in Animal House:Jennings

Jennings: Don’t write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He’s a little bit long-winded, he doesn’t translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.

With one possible exception, apart from the one I’m dedicating this entire essay to, the only satisfying Satan I’ve ever seen in a film was the one played by Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.  His “Rock Masterpeice” which includes reference to buttfucking Kyle Gass, is still one of the best moments in all of Rock history and shall remain so until those guys remember the original song that Tribute was based on.pod06

My memorized history of heavy metal aside though, I’m not being cute or coy when I write that Satan is my favorite character in fiction.  I’m being honest.  The reason for this adoration isn’t my atheism, nor is loyalty or admiration to the church of Satanism (they lost me at the word church), it’s largely because of Dr. Karen Sloan.  While I was still attending UT Tyler and working on my masters I started talking more and more with my professor because my classes were online and I’m the kind of person who prefers to talk with someone face to face.  Each person is different, but for my own intellectual needs I have to talk with someone and hear my thoughts bounce off of theirs 8c5a946bb977d48a8f4ff89b1bb40238for something to actually happen.  Dr. Sloan was always happy to talk and one of our favorite topics was Mark Twain.  She had a TIME magazine tacked to her wall with Twain’s face on the cover (a copy that I actually now own thanks to her) and we’d often point back to Twain and talk about his writing, his life, or his odd eccentricities.  At some point during the talk the idea of Twain as an atheist came out and we both agreed Twain probably wasn’t one.

But, somewhere in the conversation Dr. Sloan made a statement that stuck with me.  It went along the lines that Satan was Twain’s favorite character because there was a man who had had his story written for him before he could write his own.  Because god is omnipotent he had written Satan’s narrative before Satan could decide his own fate.  Satan is in fact a tragic character because the man never got a chance to make his own fate.a94afa181fb0495eaa62abb205690cbab00109ad_hq

This idea fascinated me, partly because I grew up in the Christian church and therefore had received a pre-established figure of Satan.  Satan was the boogeyman, Satan was Charles Mansion, Satan was often Democrats for some reason, Satan was the urge to masturbate, Satan was the urge to drink and gamble, Satan was the reason men beat their wives or women drowned their children, Satan was the reason women cheated on their husbands, Satan was the voice in your head that brought you to doom, Satan was the reason you hated yourself, Satan was sin, Satan was just, overall, a bad dude.  And looking at this portrait I began to reflect more 51XsdLa6ZlL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_and more on a graphic novel I had read about that time which included, of all things, a sympathetic figure of Satan.

Season of Mist is the fourth volume in The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and is, I would argue, the finest book in the entire series.  The story involves the protagonist Dream being summoned to a family meeting by his Brother Destiny.  The Endless, as they are called, are physical manifestions of the ideas and feelings which govern human reality: death, dream, destiny, desire, despair, destruction, and delirium (formerly delight).  Dream during the meeting reflects on a woman he fell in love with and then damned to hell when she didn’t reflect her love back.  Dream decides to go to Hell only to find it empty.  There Dream encounters Satan who has emptied Hell because, as he says, he’s grown tired of running the place as he has also grown tired of being an excuse for the weaknesses of mankind.

During one exchange the man reflects on the way human beings think of him and his argument may strike a familiar ear:

Why do they blame me for all their failings?  They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive.

“The devil made me do it.”  I have never made any of them do anything.  Never.  They live their own lives.  I do not live their lives for them.  And then they die, and they come here(having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fufill their desire for pain and retribution.  I don’t make them come here.f9cbbf461a8a815d52d5147134a38f46

They talk of me going around and buying souls, like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why.  I need no souls.  And how can anyone own a soul?

No.  They belong to themselves…they just hate to have to face up to it.

Yes I rebelled.  It was a long time ago.  How long was I meant to pay for action? 

This passage struck me not just for the visual of Watching Satan walking through the various rooms and valleys of Hell with dream and locking the gates, tumblr_m745jpQLuJ1r9wm7dbut because it was the kind of passage one reads and then immediately feels a kind of reawakening.  I’m not trying to be dramatic as I write that out, this passage really stunned me because it was like seeing someone completely new for the first time while also recognizing that what they were saying is completely true.  Humanity has, since the infancy of the species, looked for a way to outsource responsibility for errors and sins while at the same time looking constantly inward for signs of weakness.  In ancient times it was customary for villages to send goats out into the wildness after performing a ceremony that would contain the “sins and offenses against the gods” into the animal before sending it out into the wild.  This, for the record, is how the term “scape-goat” came enter the lexicon, and it also eventually explains the character of Satan.

As a figure Satan is a trickster, a figure of mischief, and an agent of chaos who relishes in corrupting human beings and causing them to destroy and distrust one another.  Just about every religion, theology, and mythos has such a figure the most prominent being Loki from the Norse Mythology.  Before Tom Hiddleston made the marvel incarnation a household name, and the bane of parents who couldn’t find the costume for their child and didn’t feel like making their own, Loki managed to be often associated 2712995-5with Satan allowing early church fathers the appropriation of the god for their own purposes.  Reflecting on this connection, and re-reading Season of Mists I thought back to Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and looked up the brief character intro:

Loki is very handsome.  He is plausible, convincing, likeable, and far and away the most wily, subtle, and shrewed of all the inhabitants of Asgard.  It is a pity, then, that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust.  (24).

Anger, envy, and lust are all qualities that were assigned to the devil-horned costume character that was the devil.  Yet looking at these qualities it’s become more and more obvious as I’ve aged that the people pasting these qualities _84584050_3494754156_9273aff2f3_bonto Satan himself really ought to look in a mirror.  What missing, or most troubling, about the image of Satan is the fact that the man is having his story told by others, rather than having his own opportunity to speak, and this cartoonization, this caricature reveals the larger issue which is that human beings need someone else to be held accountable for their actions.  Rather assume personal responsibility for fucking up, human beings created this supernatural being which would explain horrors and atrocities.  Why would a man gamble away his money and then beat his wife half to death?  It could be that he suffers from some inner self-loathing due to an addiction and so he strikes his wife, or it could be a demon who wears red suits and tricks him into gambling.  Why would anyone follow a dictator who eventually leads a massive genocide against a denomination of a reigion.  It could bep4_73 copy simple fear, or desire for there to be stability in government so they can return to real life, or else it could be a demon with long horns.  Why would a woman cheat on her husband with multiple men rather than remaining faithful to him?  It could be that she’s looking for something sexually that he is unable or unwilling to provide her, or perhaps she’s looking for some kind of emotional comfort that she’s not getting at home.  Or, it could be a strange imp that plays fiddle against subpar country music singers.

My reader may object at this point and argue that I’m sugarcoating this issue.  Satan is not a nice person, he’s not a lovely character, he’s a selfish prick who tried to become god and failed miserably and now his punishment is to rule hell for eternity.  What’s redeemable in that?

This is a fair objection, but I note that my reader has made the same mistaker as previous storytellers.  They’re relying on the religious imagery of Satan, the same cartoon character that belays any kind of real analysis of the character.  Again, the problem with this I that it distracts the reader from digging into other versions and other narratives where Satan is not the cartoon villain bent on destroying humanity, he’s simply a man who’s been consigned to a role that he doesn’t identify with.ea3607c17ef68cef3f293f536a996cf7--medieval-life-medieval-art

Looking at the best analysis of everything I’ve said so far I think back to Scarface when Tony Montana is high and drunk and yelling at the patrons of the resturaunt:

Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!Sandman 23-13

The need for a villain is timeless, but in the rush to create such a villain it comes at the expense of the story.  The reason why characters like Hannibal Lecter and Loki and Joker are the successful villains that they are is because their characters are complex.  They have backgrounds and causes which led them on the path to being the repulsive people that they are.  This complexity doesn’t redeem them, but it reminds the reader that the real monsters in society aren’t cartoon characters, they’re real people who fucked up or were fucked up by others.  It’s easy to dismiss a figure like Satan as having any kind of redeemable qualities, but that impulse is dangerous because it creates a mindset where one doesn’t have to assume responsibility for one’s actions.  It becomes somebody else’s fault.

Part of growing up is learning how to assume responsibility for one’s actions, and it’s the sign of an immature person who tries to hide behind excuses or outside influence.

Satan continues to interest me as a character because the man has, for too long, been a figure wrapped up in his caricature and given little opportunity to find out who he is, what he wants, and what his true character shall be.  Though if I can offer one last image, there is hope for this character.  In graduate school I had to take a Research & Methods course; it was a class designed to teach graduate students how to research material for papers that they would write as graduate students and how to find real, relevant information.  The class was taught by Dr. Sloan, which was the reasons we began having discussions,  and centered around one novel: No. 44, The Mysterious MTLibraryMS-2011Stranger.

I could get into the textual conflict of this novel and it’s fascinating backstory, but I’m sure my reader is getting sick of me so I’ll cut to the chase.  The novel tells the story of a young man named August who is a printer in Medieval Austria and when the book was originally published August met a strange man named Satan who, in this later edition, is named No. 44 and can perform all manner of tricks.  No.44 is an agent of chaos who enjoys making fools of everyone but who forms a close bond with August.  At the very end of the novel however No. 44 lifts the veil of reality and August is able to see that the world isn’t what it is, and alone in an empty space with No. 44 he discovers the truth, no-one is real but him, and 44 offers him a final counsel:

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, ho heaven, no hell.  It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream.  Nothing exists but You.  And You are but a Thought—a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”Gustave-Dore-illustration-of-Miltons-Satan-falling

He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.  (187).

Satan’s name is technically Lucifer which roughly translates to “bearer or light” or “morning star” this last of which is sometimes attached as a kind of last name.  Because of this Satan’s ultimate crime against humanity has been his revealing of knowledge to mankind.  No. 44 reveals to August the knowledge of his own existence, and once he has become aware he is disgusted to find it’s absolutely true.

So looking back to Season of Mists, and it’s presentation of Satan as a man who has absolutely nothing to do with the sins of humanity, I’m sure there were many like me who were left appalled because what he had said was true.  Though I wonder how many have actually taken it to heart.

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*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger were taken from the University of California Press authoritative edition care of the Mark Twain Library.  All quotes from Season of Mist were taken from the VERTIGO paperback edition.  All quotes taken from Animal House and Scarface were provided care of IMBD.

Surface Matters: Lolita Part 1

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Despite the now gargantuan pile of books that is building up around me everyday, I keep looking back to the books on my shelves and thinking to myself, “I need to read that one again.”  Part of it is the fact that I always find something new in the books that I’ve read before; it’s either a sentence that excels in aesthetic merit, or else a passage that seems to capture where I am intellectually or emotionally at that time.  The other reason is because of Goodreads.  I observed after a while that my friend Aleya would make regular posts on Facebook that were made through Goodreads.  They were 1329354351-1329354351_goodreads_4always the cover of a book and said either, “Aleya has begun [TITLE X]” or else “Aleya has finished [TITLE X].”  This intrigued me and when I asked her about it she mentioned that you could link your Goodreads account to your Facebook page.  I set up my account, and after only a month I discovered that you could see a years’ worth of books that you read as one large picture.  The image of all the different titles was illuminating because each book was a different experience, a different memory, and showed me exactly what I was doing, reading, and thinking about at the time.  Because of this I’ve been looking back over the books I’ve read and been thinking, “that really needs to be in the log.”  As such my copy of Lolita (distinct with its picture of a little girl’s pink lips) made its way into my path again, and I saw an opportunity to add another book to the log.

I really wish I could remember when I first read Lolita.  My earliest memory of actually reading the book was one summer during a binge of the Harry Potter series.  I’d just finished The Goblet of Fire and was about to move onto the Order of the Phoenix when a strange thought entered my head: “I should read Lolita.”  The context of a pedophile controlling and raping a fourteen-year-old girl in between the magical adventures of Harry and his friends in the castle of Hogwarts probably would be enough to kill most people’s so-called “innocence,” but the book was illuminating.vladimir-nabokov

Childhood that was being poisoned by corrupt adults seemed to make sense in its context for the arrival of Voldemort seemed a perfect segway into the whiny gasbag that is Humbert Humbert.

Reading the book again I’ve had time to read other Nabokov works such as Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and several of his short stories and so the most beautiful part of reading Lolita is the prose.  I often compliment Nabokov for his writing, and this isn’t just literary kiss-assing on my part.  Nabokov truly is one of the greatest, Federico Infante Tutt'Art@if not the greatest, proseists of the twenty-first century.  Every sentence is a careful construction and the man has a linguistic skill that many writers could only aspire to.  Part of it is a careful attention to puns that litter throughout the work, but more than anything is Nabokov’s ability to seduce with linguistics.

The opening lines of Lolita remain the most beautiful opening passage of any novel I have read, so much so that I’ve stored it in memory and can recite it at will:

Lolita.  Light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee.  Ta.

It’s impossible to read this out loud and not feel uplifted and simultaneously repulsed, and if that isn’t a demonstration of Nabokov’s ability nothing is.  The content of this opening is enough to make one squirm but the constant use of “l’s” and “t’s” creates an auditory balm that just settles over the reader wooing them to Humbert Humbert who continues his “invitation” to the reader with a veiled order:

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.  She was Lola in slacks.  She was Dolly at school.  She was Delores on the dotted line.  But in my arms she was always Lolita.Lolita Gif

Did she have a precursor.?  She did, indeed she did.  In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.  In a princedom by the sea.  Oh when?  About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.  You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied.  Look at this tangle of thorns.  (9).

This opening remains troublesome because if the reader was paying attention it’s clear that what is taking place is not a seduction, but a veiled order to listen to his story and so from the start the tone of Lolita is clear. Humbert Humbert is not interested in defending himself, he’s interested in seducing his reader so that he can exert his will over them and, more importantly, his interpretation of the events of Lolita.13fed63a399123d67cc77f094a1833f7--romantic-paintings-modern-art

Numerous critics and readers have observed the conflict of Lolita for Nabokov’s prose is beautiful, so much so that my creative writing teacher could recite this opening at will and just pause and reflect on the beauty of it.  Humbert Humbert is a man gifted with a “fancy prose style” and because of this he’s able to try and sway the reader who should really be far more concerned with the fact that he’s regularly raping a twelve-year-old girl, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

If the reader has never read Lolita before, some background of the plot is necessary.  Humbert Humbert is a man who, when he was young, had a failed sexual liaison with a family Friend’s daughter on the beach.  Because of this failure his sexuality become stunted and he begins a lifelong pursuit of “Nymphets” his term for young girls about the age of twelve.  He has a failed marriage and then hops place to place in Europe before coming to America where, in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze, he meets a young woman named Delores Haze who becomes the center of his erotic and psychological being.  He marries Charlotte, who dies not long after the marriage starts, and this gives Humbert the chance to abscond with Lolita across the territory of the United States.  Humbert spends the next two years traveling with Lolita and raping her while keeping her locked tight within his grasp.  Eventually Delores escapes with the help of a writer named Quilty who Humbert Murders at the end of the novel.007_lta

The duplicitous nature of Humbert is established early in the novel, for while Humbert is presented as a kind young man who had an unfulfilled erotic experience with a girl his own age, over time he becomes a crafty pervert whose chief talent is duplicity.  Later in the novel after he has suffered a failed marriage he enters a sanitarium where his favorite hobby is tricking the doctors on staff.  Humbert describes this activity gaily:

I discovered there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style […] teasing them with fake “primal scenes”; and never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one’s real sexual prediction.  (34).

It’s this quality of Humbert, his need to constantly reveal and conceal his true self, that can make reading Lolita somewhat exasperating.  In fact, I’ll be completely honest, there isn’t a page in this novel where I didn’t want to slap Humbert just for being a self-righteous and duplicitous jackass.

There’s nothing so obnoxious as someone who is constantly the victim of some past or ever occurring offense, but when one is the agent of one’s own destruction it makes it doubly annoying.  Humbert is constantly calling himself the victim of a real affliction, and the later passages of the novel reveal him writing at length about how he is the subject of Lolita’s cruelty because she doesn’t return his amorous feelings.  And perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the novel is that there are times when his prose is so thick with ornate arrangements of words that the reader is almost compelled to believe him.

If the reader is careful however, and remains diligent, Humbert often reveals himself in small instances.  During one passage in which he’s recalling a diary he kept while living with Delores and Charlotte he describes his true nature:lolita4-folio

My white pajamas have a lilac design on the back.  I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens.  Sitting in the middle of a luminous web and giving little jerks to this or that strand.  My web is spread all over the house as I listen from my chair where I sit like a wily wizard.  Is Lo in her room?  Gently I tug on the silk.  She is not.  (49).

Later in the novel when he contemplates killing Lolita’s mother Charlotte he elaborates a long, thought-out plan and reveals himself once again:

Simple, was it not?  But what d’ye know, folks—I just could not make myself do it!  (87).

Though perhaps the most revealing is a passage that occurs not just but a few paragraphs later:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them.  image_4We are not sex fiends!  We do not rape as good soldiers do.  We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet.  Empirically, no killers are we.  Poets never kill.  (87-8).

If the reader is absolutely repulsed by this passage they shouldn’t feel bad at all for that is my exact reaction.  Humbert is often defending his desire for “nymphets,” a term that was introduced into the general lexicon after the novel was published, and reading this passage which can border on the erotic is disturbing.  It’s a sane reaction to be bothered or repulsed by Lolita, but it’s when the reader turns away and decides to stop listening out of disgust that a real problem occurs.001gwaBAzy732SOL3q343&690

The surface matters.  It matters because it’s a topic many would prefer not to talk about.

Within the last decade, I’ve become more and more aware of the reality of rape-culture, at least as far as the culture of the United States is concerned (I can only ever speak for my own culture), and while this has temporarily hurt some of my comfort, the knowledge is worth more than my ease.  One particular story stands out.  My wife would often, while we were just dating, read me stories about women who were victims of rape and ignored or else victim-blamed.  The most pernicious story was one of a twelve-year-old girl in the Houston area who was gang-raped by a group of teen-age boys.  None of them served any jail-time because the defense argued she had “dressed provocatively.”

Now my first reaction wasn’t to cry, but to often scream at the top of my lungs, “How the fuckity fuck does a twelve-year-old “dress provocatively?”

Yet this the world and society I’m living in.  The victim being denied a voice isn’t a new development, for in fact Nabokov uses this as a strategy of writing Lolita.  The reader should note that the little girl who is the center of Humbert’s desire isn’t actually named Lolita, that’s his name for her when he speaks about his desire.  In fact her name is Delores Haze, yet the reader might completely miss this during their reading because they are always being narrated to by Humbert.  The victim’s story is silenced because Humbert presents himself often as the victim, the victim of a form of rational love.  There’s no possible way he could possibly be a murderer or rapist because his feelings for Lolita are pure.lolita3-folio

I’ve thrown quite a lot at my reader who may be wondering at this point where to begin with their criticism.  Why should they bother reading a book about pedophilia in the first place?  It’s revolting and by the sounds of it Nabokov was just a pervert who was hiding behind his character to express gross feelings and sentiments?  Why should I pick up a book that, by the sounds of it, is just going to repulse me and make me sick?

My reader has more or less summed up the standing argument against Lolita, and the various criticisms laid against it.  A few years back one of my friends in graduate school was teaching an American Literature course and he had the fortune (or misfortune) to teach the novel Lolita and the general charge against the novel was exactly the points made before.  Most students shut down and refused to listen to the analysis or look past the rape to see the deeper literary and rhetorical goals of the novel.  All they could see was the rape of Delores Haze.008_lta

This isn’t my place to hop up and say they were wrong to do so.  Reading the novel again I’m finding it easier and easier to cut through Humbert’s fluff and observe every level of his sexual corruption and manipulations.  This doesn’t always lead to a comfortable read, in fact often reading the book I feel repulsed.  My reader may object then that I have proven them right, but in point of fact I’ve proven them wrong.  It’s for the very reason I feel repulsed that this book matters.

Rape is an act of violence that has been allowed to have more and more exposure in contemporary media.  Whether it was the fifth season of Game of Thrones which seemed to have a rape in every other episode, to the fact that Law & Order SVU has somehow managed to outlast the original series, to the fact that Bill Cosby has now become a national headline.  These are just some examples, and not even the most potent illustrations of how rape-culture is infecting the society.  But they do serve as a reminder that most people are aware of the crime of rape and the damage it has upon people who have to live and try to exist after becoming a victim of rape.Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 17.39.02

Lolita as a novel is more relevant than ever because the culture, as it exists now, is open to discussing the contents of the novel and reminding people that sexual assault isn’t just an abstract idea, it’s a concrete reality that affects people in the real world.

But I’ll end this first discussion of the book with an important observation.  Humbert Humbert was a stranger who entered the home of Charlotte Haze and eventually managed to capture her daughter, but the idea of someone within the home as the attacker is perhaps the strongest argument for the reading of Lolita because most instances of pedophilia are not random strangers, but instead family friends or members who rape their children or siblings.  It’s this last fact that perhaps makes most people so uncomfortable because many would prefer not to think about that.  The idea of the home is that it is a safe space from the chaotic mess of the outside world.  The corruption of rape isn’t supposed to exist, or at least nor originate from this safe space and many would prefer to hold onto that surface reality rather than acknowledge that the home isn’t always safe.  Sometimes people get hurt by the ones who are supposed to love them.

I intend to write more about Lolita in a few more essays, but in this first approach I just wanted to address this surface issue because it’s the element that creates the most controversy around the novel.  But where most readers focus on the element of Humbert’s sexual manipulations, the far more important element is that Nabokov succeeded in demonstrating that parents worrying about their children being prey to sexual deviants didn’t need to look outside their living rooms, because unfortunately the spider had already set up shop and might have been sitting next to them on the couch.

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*Writer’s Note*

I probably need to give my reader more credit.  If you weren’t reading my essay then I wouldn’t be speaking with them directly.

 

 

**Writer’s Note**

If the reader is at all interested, I’ve found a few website which have compiled some statistics about the rate of sexual assault, what are the ages of attackers, and their types of relationships with the victims.

https://www.rainn.org/statistics/perpetrators-sexual-violence

https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem

https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics

https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/rape-sexual-violence/Pages/rape-notification.aspx

 

***Writer’s Note***

While researching this essay, I managed to find a link to an article published on Slate.  I’ve provided it here below:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2005/12/lolita_at_50.html

 

****Writer’s Note****

I apologize to the reader who brought up the idea that Nabokov might be expressing personal desires through Lolita; I never got around to debunking this idea.  This is a common charge against Nabokov’s Lolita, but unfortunately it is the most misinformed criticism and therefore the easiest to combat.  Just because an author writes about a topic does not means that he or she validates or believes in such a moral system.  Edgar Allen Poe often wrote in first person personas that were often mad lunatics or sexual deviants but that does not mean Poe supported premature burials or animal abuse.  There is a divide between the writer, the author, and the creative persona.  tHe writer is merely the person who writes the text, the author is the original manager of the inspiration, and the creative persona is the person what is being written by the author.  This system exists to give the writer distance from his or her creation, allowing a freedom to express and explore ideas that they may find repulsive, frightening, or else simply evil.  Nabokov was not a pedophile, he was merely a writer who wrote a character who was.  If readers intend to hold authors responsible for the actions of their characters, or worse, assume that their characters are the extensions of their creator’s personality then artists will not be free to tackle difficult subjects like rape, murder, pedophilia, and torture in which case life will be nothing but Family Circus Cartoons and I will not live in that world.

Unless it’s Nietzsche’s Family Circus, that shit’s hilarious.

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*****Writer’s Note*****

Several of the watercolor images in this article are from an illustrated copy of Lolita.  The artist’s name is Frederico Infante and if the reader is curious about how he handled, what would be for many potential career suicide, they can read about it in an article published on The independent by following the link below:

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/lolita-folio-society-edition-of-vladimir-nabokovs-famous-novel-features-illustrations-by-federico-a6701671.html

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Milk: A White Tower Review

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Hope is hard to come by, especially in the queer community sometimes.  I haven’t lost any friends to suicide, yet, and the necessary inclusion of that word is part of what keeps me going.

I realize it’s a ridiculous position to take, but part of what keeps me writing is the hope that some young queer kid will find my work, see my life, and be inspired enough to at least keep going and not kill themselves.  At the very least I hope they think to WIN_20170202_14_32_41_Prothemselves “I can write better than this asshole” and start writing essays and novels that will keep me in obscurity.  I’m assuming a lot given the fact, as I’ve recognized before, I’m just some dude with a blog, but there is a conviction behind all of this that goes back to one scene in a film that, when I watched, absolutely broke me for reasons that have changed.

The film Milk came out in 2008, the same year I graduated High School, and I had entered into a period of personal darkness as I recovered from the experience.  High School sucks for everybody, but something about the experience left me head-fucked for two years but that at least gave me time to read a lot of books, write a couple of books, and see some films which left their mark on my consciousness.  milk-bgI had seen commercials for the film Milk, and while I wasn’t homophobic at the time, I was still in that early phase when same-sex intimacy between men was something that left me queasy.  In hindsight I realize it left me that way for an reasons that had yet to bubble up to the surface.  The movie Milk was, as Allison Bechdel puts it so beautifully in her graphic novel Fun Home, a Siren calling me on to a new discovery.  I checked out the film from Hastings (#RestinPeace) and watched it alone after my family had gone to bed.

The film was beautiful and opened my eyes to the struggles gay people suffered in the 1970s, but at one point I had to pause the film and cry.  Harvey Milk is trying to stop a riot in Castro street when he receives a phone call from a young man in the Midwest:

Harvey Milk: [answering the phone] Scotty?

Paul: I’m sorry, sir. I read about you in the paper.

Harvey Milk: I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now.

Paul: Sir, I think I’m gonna kill myself.

Harvey Milk: No, you don’t want to do that. Where are you calling from?

Paul: Minnesota. You Are Not Sick

Harvey Milk: You saw my picture in the paper in Minnesota? How did I look?

Paul: My folks are gonna take me to this place tomorrow. A hospital. To fix me.

Harvey Milk: There’s nothing wrong with you – listen to me: You just get on a bus, to the nearest big city, to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, it doesn’t matter, you just leave. You are not sick, and you are not wrong and God does not hate you. Just leave.

Paul: [crying] I can’t. I can’t walk sir.

The camera pans out and the viewer is able to see that Paul is in a wheelchair.  I can’t describe the emotion this scene still manages to leave in me; the only word that feels accurate is destroyed.  Paul was enough for my eighteen-year-old self to realize gay people weren’t monsters, they weren’t sick, they were just human beings.  And in my young mind I crafted a fantasy where I could run and save Paul.  I wanted to be the ally that would help people like Paul.  It’s embarrassing this old hero fantasy, but I had it nonetheless.  What I didn’t recognize at the time, was there was another part in me, that wanted to hug Paul and kiss him and hold him close not just because I wanted to keep him safe, but because I was actually attracted to him.couple-hug-x750_1

Paul jumpstarted whatever queer longings I had in my heart, it just took my head a while to catch up.

Since coming out I’ve watched Milk again and this time it left me far more impacted because I’ve come out as queer and I’ve watched the progress the queer community has gained and the struggles it continues to face.  The atmosphere has sickened and recent events have reminded me, rather painfully, that my existence and the existence of many of my friends, is one that some people would prefer didn’t exist.  In such moments, it’s easy to cry, and it’s easy to lose hope and consider crawling back into the closet.  But in fact at such moments I find more inspiration in people like Harvey Milk who, even when they felt most terrified, continued to fight.

The closing lines of the film echoes just this very sentiment:

Harvey Milk: [Voice Over, Last lines] I ask this… If there should be an assassination, I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out – – If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door… And that’s all. harvey-milkI ask for the movement to continue. Because it’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power… it’s about the “us’s” out there. Not only gays, but the Blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s. Without hope, the us’s give up – I know you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. So you, and you, and you… You gotta give em’ hope… you gotta give em’ hope.

I recognize that my reader may be getting sick of my maudlin and wants me to get to the actual film, but please indulge me this moment of reflection because my queer sense of self has received a few beatings lately because of assholes and I want to just warm myself near the fire of these great queer icons that came before me.  And, in fact, the reason Milk remains so powerful to me as a film is because of my sense of failure as a queer man lately.milk02

The film Milk covers the later life of Harvey Milk the man who was one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States to win public office.  He wasn’t in fact the first openly gay politician, Elaine Noble who was elected to the Masssechusettes State Legislature in 1974 was in fact the first, but Harvey has managed somehow over time to become a figurehead of queer politics I suspect largely because his time was so short, he was a charming and approachable man, and the fact that he was assassinated.  Milk follows Harvey when he meets his lover Scott Smith in a subway station on his birthday, and after they’ve had sex Harvey reflect on his life and realizes he hasn’t done anything he’s proud of.  Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco where Milk10they’re greeted with homophobia and Harvey decides to rally the neighborhood, which is mostly gay, and from this start Harvey realizes he has a gift for politics.  The film then follows his many unsuccessful campaigns for the Board of Supervisors before his eventual victory, his push for legislation for homosexual rights, and then his eventual assassination by fellow board member Dan White.

There’s many things for lovers of cinema to appreciate about the movie Milk, whether it’s the historically accurate costumes, the lighting, the cinematography, or the amazing performances by people like Sean Penn (who won best actor for his portrayal) to Allison Pill playing Anne Kronenburg or Emile Hirsch playing Cleve Jones.  Milk2As a film Milk succeeds as a biopic which, as a genre, is usually just Oscar fodder for actors looking to nail their first win.  For my own part Milk as a film is more important for the way it helps foster new opportunities for queer roles in film.

When it was released Milk had every charge of a “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Use to it!” chant.  It was released in 2008 when the united states had been through the Bush Administration which had tried to push a constitutional amendment for heterosexual marriage only and so the queer community at large was fighting the same old fights they had been up to that point, and it echoes in the film.  In one scene Harvey discovers two men who’ve been the victim of queer bashing:

San Francisco Cop: [identifying a body] The fruit was walking home with his trick when they were jumped. Name’s Robert Hillsborough. Did you know him?

Harvey Milk: He used to come into my shop. Are there any witnesses? 008MLK_Alison_Pill_005

San Francisco Cop: Just the trick. Jerry Taylor.

Harvey Milk: Jerry wasn’t a trick. They were lovers.

San Francisco Cop: Call it what you will. He’s our only witness and he says he can’t identify the attackers.

Harvey Milk: There’d be a dozen witnesses if they thought you boys had any real interest in protecting them.

It had been about ten years since Matthew Shepard’s murder at this point, and queer bashing was still an issue.  Though to be fair it’s still a significant issue and part of the reason why I began this article with the word “yet.”  183.x600.Feat.gayThe issue of police defending or protecting the queer community is a nuanced one and not one I’m ready to write about yet, but at the time the film was produced the community was struggling with the idea that nobody really seemed willing to step forward and offer up serious commitment of security.  The film also addressed the issue of conservative pundits and commentators becoming cult of personalities by making anti-queer civic rights they’re defining political message.  As such queer commentators and political rights organizations had to establish a new rhetoric:

Harvey Milk: If we had someone in the government who saw things the way we see them, the way the black community has black leaders who look out for their interests… MILK_1000x563_31

Scott Smith: You’re gonna run for Supervisor, is that the idea?

Harvey Milk: I could go right for mayor, but I think I should work my way up to it… You’ll be my campaign manager.

Scott Smith: Because I have so much experience in politics.

Harvey Milk: Politics is theater. It doesn’t matter if you win. You make a statement. You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.’

My readers who live in major, urban cities may roll their eyes at this or else yawn comfortably at this quote, but that’s largely because major cities have become fostering grounds milk-sean-pennfor queer people.  For those of us that live in rural areas, or else the periphery of such hubs the struggle just to express your very existence can be a trial.  It’s not always an issue of violence being performed against you, but rather lone voices expressing dissent that queer people should even be recognized.  It may not seem terribly dramatic to have displays or parades or books or movies shown in public taken down, but when it’s the closest thing a person has to validating that their existence is real, that their identity is real, such actions leave their mark.

When the world tells you that they’d be more comfortable if you didn’t exist it’s hard not to internalize that and be left feeling hopeless.  Recent events that have to remain anonymous have proven that to me, and that’s why more and more lately I go back to Milk and the idea of hope.

In the film a noted anti-gay activist Anita Bryant scores a major victory for gay-opposition politics with a civil housing bill in Florida and Harvey makes a speech:giphy

Harvey Milk: I am here tonight to say that we will no longer sit quietly in the closet. We must fight. And not only in the Castro, not only in San Francisco, but everywhere the Anitas go. Anita Bryant did not win tonight, Anita Bryant brought us together! She is going to create a national gay force! And the young people in Jackson Mississippi, in Minnesota, in the Richmond, in Woodmere New York, who are hearing her on television, hearing Anita Bryant telling them on television that they are sick, they are wrong, there is no place in this great country for them, no place in this world, they are looking to us for something tonight, and I say, we have got to give them hope!

Hope is hard to come by.  That’s a platitude but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold any relevance.  Looking over my life, and where the Queer community has come since Harvey does leave me with hope, but that doesn’t mean the challenges have stopped.  Queer people are still a target, and we’re still being killed for just being who we are, and it fucking terrifies me.  I don’t want to lose any friends, and I don’t lose any ground.movie-milk-thumb4

I’ve watched friends cry as they tell me it feels like they’re being pushed back into the closet, and I’ve watched my own sense of self being pushed back.  It’s in these moments that hope breaks, or twists in the wind before it cracks.  But at these moments I think of Harvey, and I think of Paul who eventually made it.

Harvey Milk: Not a good time, Don.

Paul: This is Paul. Don just gave me the phone.

Harvey Milk: Paul who?

Paul: You spoke to me on the phone, a year or so ago. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m from Minnesota.

Harvey Milk: I thought you were a goner Paul.

Paul: When I saw that you won the supervisor seat, I got a friend to put me on a bus to LA.

Harvey Milk: Who do you know in Los Angeles? 

Paul: Nobody. I just didn’t want to die anymore. I met your friend Don down here. And I turned 18, large-screenshot2
and I voted today against prop 6. I don’t think I’d be alive right now if it weren’t for you.

It’s tempting to say that this scene is sentimental, were it not for the fact this happens.  Queer youth are the most likely people to commit suicide largely because they feel like they have no hope.  They tend to be isolated or exiled from their families, and rather than have someone like Harvey who tells them that they are loved and that their existence is not something repulsive they often destroy themselves before they have a chance to realize they’re not alone.

It is ridiculous to think this, but I’m a ridiculous, emotional man anyway, so I might as well be honest with myself.  I keep writing because I hope some young queer kid finds these words I’ve thrown out into the sea and realizes they’re not alone, and they’re not ugly, and they’re not sick.  They’re exactly who they should be and want to be which is sexy as fucking fuck.  The fight is ongoing and will leave many defeated but I would hope that they keep going.

Hope is hard to come by, and even more hard to hold onto, but that hope lingers on and keeps people alive.

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*Writer’s Note*

If the reader is at all interested about the life of Harvey Milk I would recommend Cleve Jones’s memoir When We Rise, as well as the book The Mayor of Castro Street.  I own the latter and have yet to read it largely because I keep checking books out from the library rather than read the books I own or buy online.  Ah, but that is, after all, the age old struggle of the Bibliophile

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve included here a link to the “Hope Speech” by Harvey Milk.  The first link is a version in which Sir Ian Mckellen performs Harvey’s words as only he can, which means this delivery is beautiful

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAOjMQcCu2o

I’ve also included a link to a video of Harvey delivering a similar speech himself.  Mr. McKellen is beautiful in every sense of the word, but sometimes you need to hear the original voice.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9vol-8HYEc

“He Wishes to Think!”…and Maybe Dance with Mr. Kelly: Inherit the Wind A White Tower Review

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Honestly the most disappointing part of the film is the fact that Gene Kelly doesn’t tap dance.  The man shines as a wisecracking journalist who always has something clever or witty to say, but after a while I kept wondering what was keeping the man from dancing right in the middle of the courtroom.  I recognize that Inherit the Wind is based on an actual play and that drama typically avoids frivolities like dancing, singing, and general merriment, but I mean, it’s Gene Kelly.

One of the greatest pains about living with the cable package that I do is that I don’t get Turner Classic Movies.  Though I get plenty of other channels I usually wind up watching only PBS or Cartoon Network for Adult Swim, although I will admit without shame that Steven Universe and Adventure Time are also some of my favorites.  hqdefaultBut I miss TCM because so much of my childhood was my parents turning the station on and then taking care of chores or other household tasks leaving me alone with Robert Osbourne who would introduce film after film with his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history.  On one side note when Robert Osbourne passed away earlier this year it the first celebrity death which really made me cry because so much of my childhood was tied with that man.  TCM always promised wonderful movies, and it’s because of that channel that I eventually discovered films like Annie Hall, Spirited Away, The Seventh Seal, the original Scarface, The Great Dictator, and eventually Inherit the Wind.

Growing up in a private Christian school it’s nothing short of a miracle (though I despise using that poor word) that I ever came away knowing what evolution was, let alone what it argued.  Fortunately, I had a biology teacher who was a scientist as much as he was a Christian and so he Scopes-Trial-Cartoontaught us the scientific theory without remorse or shame.  When I got to college I eventually wound up tutoring biology and more or less teaching it for four years to freshmen and so in that time I managed to learn a great deal about the scientific principle, being able to argue against anyone who argued that it was “just a theory.”  During that time I met my wife, who herself is a biologist, and so recently when I discovered that the library had a copy of Inherit the Wind on DVD, I checked it out and showed it to her.

To be honest, she didn’t really respond much to it, and this is probably because I forgot that Inherit the Wind is more of a film about lawyers and philosophy than it is about the principle of evolution.

Based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (no not the Civil War Era general, unless that man had a secret past historians typical-news-coverage
don’t know about) Inherit the Wind is based upon the Scopes Trial, sometimes referred to as the “Monkey Trial,” which took place in the early 1920s.  The case in question centered around a man named John Thomas Scopes who dared to teach his high school students about the theory of evolution despite there being a state law which prohibited the practice.  Inherit the Wind rewrites the case but insofar as it changes the names of the characters involves and loads the court proceedings with grand speeches about individual will and human initiative.

Most of these come from Henry Drummond the Clarence Darrow substitute played by Tracey in one of his most iconic roles.  Tracey shines continually during the film offering one beautiful statement after the other about the human race.  During one exchange he speaks with Matthew Harrison Brady whom he has called to the witness stand, and during his interrogation he offers this gem:inherit-the-wind

[challenged to say if he considers anything holy]

Henry Drummond: Yes. The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “amens” and “holy holies” and “hosannas.” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters.

I regularly read the early essays that I wrote for White Tower Musings, and with some embarrassment, but not much, I recognize this exact sentiment dominates most of my writing.  I was reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens at the time and so the humanism just infected my prose.  But even after the embarrassing grammar errors have been corrected and I’m left with that rough early material I still find in my early arguments this exact position to be true in my heart.  I’ve written regularly about atheism, but never outright about my humanism.0x0-1464380304175

I’ve developed into my own self and am now comfortable with who I am and what I believe.  My life is a godless one, and while there are some that would pity me for that I stand firm by the conviction that ideas are a far greater testament to humanity than any church or sermons preached therein.  The ideas of Marx, Freud, Hobbes, Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Voltaire, Steinem, Trotsky, Bradbury, McCloud, Nietzsche, and yes even Darwin constitute a greater monument to the capacities of human beings.  These ideas inspire and drive more personal ambition, innovation, discovery, and insight than any god could possibly do.  Ideas offer up new visions of reality, and this to me has always been far more interesting than any Psalm or Prophet.InheritWind_075Pyxurz

The ultimate conflict with religion, and this comes from having grown up in it and reflecting upon the experience, is that it offers only one vision of reality: god is the source of everything.  Once one has accepted this worldview the achievements or discoveries of mankind becomes secondary.  What is the origin of life, god.  How did DNA develop, god.  Why should man be benevolent to his fellow creatures, god.  I could go on with this but I’m supposed to be writing about a film.  I’ll settle on the fact that religion as an ideology is constricting because it limits the ultimate potential of man into one single reality rather than leaving him open to new ideas, and when Christianity festers into the realm of politics it has a limiting effect on free will or free thought.

Drummond’s regular speeches note this when he further questions Brady about Cates and faith:

Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!

Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think? fe7c7-inherit252bthe252bwind252b3

Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!

Henry Drummond: But do you think a sponge thinks?

Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!

Henry Drummond: Do you think a man should have the same privilege as a sponge?

Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!

Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant, Bertram Cates] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!

This line alone has become its own sort of icon in terms of the legacy of the film.  Most of the “commercials” that saw on TCM would always have this one line, with Spencer Tracey making his grand and dramatic gestures.  And the word “grand” seems the most fitting in describing much of the approach of Inherit the Wind because so often the film feels like one speech after the other.  This can sometimes come at the expense of the narrative, but at the same time this doesn’t kill the film.in-one

Ultimately Inherit the Wind is a courtroom narrative, and such stories tend to be limiting in terms of what a director can do in terms of narrative.  Within such narratives the viewer is given a lawyer, maybe two if the director wants to develop both sides of the case, and so the viewer is usually left becoming a member of the jury as they try to decide who’s side is right.  The exception to this would be To Kill a Mockingbird where the viewer is given no chance to see the opposing lawyer’s arguments because they know already that Atticus Finch is the “right” lawyer.  But the courtroom narrative is classic in that its origin are in antiquity.  The ancient Greeks are attributed with establishing most of the traditions  and foundations of Western civilization, and the use of the courts and rhetoric is perhaps one of the most crucial developments of their culture.  Though each city state was different in their application of the law, a policy existed in ancient Greece where, if a man found himself compelled to go to trial, he would be forced to act in his own defense or else serve as the prosecution.  As such a study of rhetoric wasn’t just something for leisure, it was of paramount importance to the individual citizen.  A man (because it was ancient Greece, don’t forget that) had to know how to arrange words so that he could defend himself.  The setting of the courtroom is one as old as marchrecognizable civilization, and so while Inherit the Wind can feel like one long series of speeches, in the film’s defense, that’s exactly what a courtroom is.

Stanley Kramer who directs the film would only a year later direct the movie Judgement at Nuremberg which also starred Spencer Tracey and as in both films he manages to construct real characters outside of the courtroom so that the viewer isn’t left simply listening to speech after speech that are devoid of personal character.  The strength of Inherit the Wind isn’t just that it constantly sings the praises of humanism in defense of Darwinism, it is instead a film about a strained friendship that climaxes in a courtroom.

Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady are two old friends who have had a falling out because of their difference of opinion about religion.  In one scene the pair of them are rocking on the front porch of their hotel and discussing the nature of faith when Brady asks his friend a question:THE "MONKEY TRIAL"

Matthew Harrison Brady: Why is it, my old friend, that you’ve moved so far away from me?

Henry Drummond: All motion is relative, Matt. Maybe it’s you who’ve moved away by standing still.

The success of this scene is largely on Tracey, but then again, I’m biased in this capacity.  Tracey as an actor manages to convey a down-to-earth man who has ingested and processed the humanities and knowledge of mankind but not gone so far up his own ass that he’s lost the ability to shoot straight or be humble.  Inherit the Wind as a film is often a film about Henry Drummond and his attempt to level the people around him who have gotten so concerned with the religious abstract and one quote in particular seems the best demonstration of this.

Matthew Harrison Brady: [to Henry Drummond] They’re looking for something that’s more perfect than what they already have. Why do you want to take that away from them when it’s all they have?

Henry Drummond: As long as the prerequisite for that shining paradise is ignorance, bigotry and hate, I say the hell with it.11124_4

I’ve written, some would say too much, about my upbringing in East Texas and my observation of religious people so I won’t go back over stories that are beginning to become adages rather than accurate memory, but I will defend this line because I’ve heard this argument before.  “Even if god doesn’t exist it gives people hope,” is a line that reeks of false conviction and is in fact one of the most pathetic arguments I have ever heard.  If I can stay on topic, the film Inherit the Wind portrays Christianity often as an antithesis to reason and moral virtue and so the reader who believes in god may shout harrumph and not bother seeing the film.

I would hope they would consider the opposite.

Rather than being a film that does nothing but damn Christianity, the film in fact is a call for sanity.  I’ve seen by the example of a small handful, what can happen when those who are religiously inclined, open their minds and hearts to new ideas and allow their faith to deepen because of the challenges of science, technology, and discovery, and while I will continue to debate them about the foundation of their inheritthewind-1600x900-c-defaultreality I will always respect their level head.  Inherit the Wind is not a film that damns Christianity, it only damns those who would prostitute religion for political gain.

The Christianity that is on display in the film is not a sane ideology, it is a bullying, stunted cancer that eats away at the people of Tennessee by leaving them terrified and in a place where progress is associated with the devil.

Drummond answers this in what is quite possible the most beautiful lines of the film:

Henry Drummond: Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” INHERIT-THE-WIND 2

There’s a great number of reasons for watching a film like Inherit the Wind, the largest being that it’s a film that helped establish the courtroom drama as a narrative structure.  But for my opinion Inherit the Wind is a beautiful film about humanism overcoming bigotry and the importance of individual integrity.  Even if the reader disagrees with the theory of Evolution and what it argues about the origin of human life, they would hopefully agree that an individual person has the right to believe what they want to believe and think what they want to think.  I believe that flat-earthers are idiots, but if they believe that the earth is flat and they have come to that decision on their own that I have no business telling them how to think.IHTW_31

It is when one uses violence or intimidation to justify their world view that action is necessary.  Hiring lawyers and going to court will not provide the satisfaction that might come from punching somebody right back in the nose, but it will keep more violence and bigotry from occurring.  The courtroom is a space where philosophy can be argued and defended against the cruel and fanatics.  It is a space where the ideas and progress of humanity can be argued and defended and where a man can stand up and say firmly, “I think.”

This year will mark 92 years since the original Scopes “Monkey” Trial, and a film like Inherit the Wind is wonderful reminder that even close to a century later we’re still having the discussion of evolution, and whether or not teachers should be allowed to teach it.  The clouds smell a little more like Gasoline, but there are far more people willing to stand up and say without shame or fear, that “I think.”

There’s also people like me who are still waiting for Gene Kelly to start tapdancing.  But you can’t always get what you want.

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*Writer’s Note*

Having more or less taught biology for four years it’s important to make sure the reader knows this: Evolution is not JUST a Theory.  This unfortunate, bullshit line has been crafted by critics of evolution, however it demonstrates their ignorance of what a scientific theory actually is.  In the humanities a “theory” is just an idea about reality than can be easily accepted or rejected.  The reason for this is that in the humanities you are dealing with subjectivity of human experience.  What I see and believe is different from what the reader sees and believes and so we could look at the same painting by Rembrandt and come to different conclusions about what it means or what its origins were.

The humanities are SUBJECTIVE, while science and mathematics are OBJECTIVE.

If something is a Scientific Theory that means it has been tested literally millions of times by scientists all over the world who are trying to refute the conclusions of the original hypothesis.  This constant testing is not just an effort to disprove other people, it’s an effort to make sure that the facts that are being expressed by science are accurate.  Human beings can observe evolution in lab settings as well as the wild, and the mountains of evidence in the fossil record only further demonstrate the fact of evolution.  If something is a “theory” in science it is because scientists are firm in their conviction that it is a fact.  There is a “chance” that it could be refuted by new evidence, but it is a “chance” the way there’s a “chance” that I could go out on a date with Matthew Shepard.  It’s not that it isn’t possible, it’s just probably probably probably not going to happen, but, I can dream.

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If the reader would like a more nuanced explanation of the difference between a scientific Law and Theory they can follow the link below to an article my wife found for me when I asked her about the difference:

https://www.livescience.com/21457-what-is-a-law-in-science-definition-of-scientific-law.html