A Coffeeshop at the End of the Universe
18 March 2018
Art, Chip Zdarsky, comedy, Comics, glasses, graphic novel, Joshua Jammer Smith, Matt Fraction, science fiction, sex, Sex Criminals, Sex Criminals Vol1: One Weird Trick, Sexual Fantasy, Sexuality, tea, tea strainer, This book is about people who can freeze time by having sex I shit you not
Weird Tricks! I Get It!
28 January 2018
Academic Book, Beast, Comics, Dafne Keen, Hugh Jackman, Jane Tompkins, Jimmy Stewart, John Bernard Books, John Wayne, John Wayne Westerns, Kelsy Grammar was a GREAT Beast, Lauren Bacall, Logan, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Mutants, Patrick Stewart, Rio Bravo, Ron Howard, science fiction, The Shootist, violence, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns, Wolverine, X-Men, X-Men: The Last Stand
–Just Remember Fieval, One man’s Sunset is another man’s dawn
Wiley Burp, Fieval Goes West
John Wayne and Hugh Jackman don’t really seem to have much in common apart from the fact that both managed to end their characters in a blaze of bloody glory. The only difference between them, apart from the fact that John Wayne didn’t have adamantium claws, was that for whatever reason Jackman’s end made me cry far more than Wayne’s.
I’m a bad X-Men fan. I don’t have the names of every third mutant memorized. I haven’t watched Days of Future Past, First Class, or Apocalypse. I own at most maybe three X-men comic books and one of them I only own because it was the “first gay wedding” in a comic book. And, for the record, I actually like The Last Stand. That last admission officially makes me worst than Hitler and I will appear brutally memed on Reddit posts everywhere but Kelsey Grammar played Beast, my favorite X-men of all time, and he did a damn good job doing it so I’ll suffer the whips and arrows and scorn of the masses. But for all of my faults I do remember growing up Watching X-Men the animated series. At the time Gambit was my favorite, but over time I loved Beast because he was funny, intelligent, literate,and he looked bad-ass as hell while reading, all traits that I aspired to be one day.
He was also incredibly furry, something I aspired to be and actually managed to achieve.
But beneath all the Beast and Gambit fantasies I had I, like many young boys during the 90s, would on occasion stick three straws between my fingers, make the clinching metal sound, and growl hoping that my pre-pubescent vocal chords would resemble the man who wore the yellow tights.
Wolverine was the shit. He embodied what many young boys recognize as intense masculinity and, to quote Mr. Torgue from Borderlands 2, Badassitude. The only man that managed to have the same level of balls, at least in my world, was John Wayne. I’ve written before about how, growing up, I suffered from allergy problems that left me inside watching movies and playing video games rather than outside playing sports. As such I had to find a way to compensate for my lack of masculinity and the way I managed to do that was watching, and wanting to be, John Wayne. Mom and Dad had a great VHS collection (yes I’m that old, shut up) of films that ranged from Hatari, The Quiet Man, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, Rio Bravo, and Big Jake. Watching those movies John Wayne became a hero to me because, like Wolverine, nobody ever fucked with John Wayne. Or if they did, they tended not to live terribly long.
I suppose that’s why, when I checked out Logan from the library, and spent the last half hour of the film simultaneously crying and pounding my chest, I thought of John Wayne again as I watched a character I had grown up with die. Logan ends with the death of Wolverine much the way The Shootist, the last film John Wayne ever starred in before his death, ends with the death of John Wayne. The reader may wonder what my nostalgia has to do with either of these wonderful movies, but I promise that it’s only ever my long introduction to my actual observation which is that Logan manages to become of the greatest Non-Western Westerns in recent memory following the tradition of The Shootist.
If the reader’s never heard of the film The Shootist premiered in 1976 and as I noted before it was the last film John Wayne ever starred in. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, the story relates the final days of a gunslinger named J.B. Books as he is beginning to die from cancer. He rents a room from a widow named Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall my teenage crush) and takes up with her son Gillom (played by a then young and pre-balding Ron Howard). Books finds a life with the Rogers’s, trying to recognize the end of his life, but figures from his past who want to kill him either out of revenge or notoriety force him to make one last final stand and prove his mettle as the great gunslinger. The film ends with a shootout in a saloon that sees Books overcome every one of his adversaries, and leave Gillom with a few lessons about being a man.
The film from afar has all the elements of a Western: the importance of talent with firearms, the lone figure who’s name manages to outshine his own ego and individuality, a female protagonist who is largely there to further the man’s character development, the young man eager to become a gunslinger, and of course Jimmy Stewart. But what’s different about The Shootist is the way all the laments of the Western are eventually forgotten because film is far more about the character of John Wayne dying than the end of the Western. In one notable scene Books is talking with a sheriff who is visibly terrified to be in the same room with him:
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: Now, I checked my bulletins before I come over and didn’t find nothing I can hold you for, but I want you out of town – directly, today.
John Bernard Books: Maybe I’m not so inclined.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: The, by God, I will incline you. I can badge as many men as I need. We’ll smoke you out or carry you out feet first, so you say which, Mr. Gunman. It’s your funeral.
John Bernard Books: Soon, yes.
John Bernard Books: I can’t go.
John Bernard Books: I’m going to die right here in this room.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: Heh! That’s too thin.
John Bernard Books: I wish you were right. Would you believe Doc Hostetler? That’s his verdict.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: You don’t say? You don’t sa – goddamn! Whoo! Whooee! I tell you the damn truth, when I come through that door, I was scared. ‘Cause I know what a man like you is capable of. I wondered who’d get my job, if the council would give my wife a pension and if it would snow the day they put me under. Whooee! Excuse me if I don’t pull a long face. I can’t.
Books as a man, or really as an idea, is synonymous with death and death follows Brooks throughout the film, starting with his first visit to the doctor. Stewart gives him his diagnosis and then offers some parting advice:
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: There – there’s one more thing I’d say. Both of us have had a lot to do with death. I’m not a brave man, but you must be. Now, now, now, this is not advice. It’s not even a suggestion. It’s just something for you to reflect on while your mind’s still clear.
John Bernard Books: What?
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: I would not die a death like I just described.
John Bernard Books: No?
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: Not if I had your courage.
As a film The Shootist is often plagued by this dual nature, for while there are plenty of elements about the eventual death of the character of J.B. Books, the viewer watching the film will be caught constantly by the fact that the movie is largely about the death of the character of John Wayne and so almost every dramatic scene becomes a kind of nostalgic farewell to Wayne himself. If the reader has no background with Wayne it’s likely that they’ll be able to separate themselves from this nostalgia and just appreciate the film as a film. But it is this nostalgia that I want to focus on because nostalgia is partly what fuels the counterpart of this essay, Logan. Both movies rely on the reader’s previous knowledge of the characters and the events which lead them to that place.
Watching Logan I was struck by how similar it was to The Shootist. The film takes place on the Mexican border, which by that nature already sets it up as a pseudo-western. When the viewer finds Logan they no longer observe a virile, leather-clad young man, but an old and slowly dying Wolverine. The adamantium in his body is killing him and his healing factor is doing nothing to stop it. At the same time he’s dying, Professor Charles Xavier is revealed to still be alive and suffering from a kind of Alzheimer’s disease which causes massive mental episodes defined by seizures which affect the people around him. It’s been revealed that such an event killed several dozens of the students at the school and the man is continually plagued by the guilt. Both men are watching their lives steadily fester away until a young woman appears in their life who appears to be the first mutant born in close to several decades. She’s a young girl named Laura who’s been part of a secret government program designed to create mutant soldiers. The story follows the three of them as they try to escape the soldiers and scientists trying to capture Laura before ending with a large gunfight.
It’d be easy to go through and demonstrate point-by-point how Logan mirrors The Shootist, the most obvious being that Logan’s claws are essentially Wayne’s six shooter, but really the unifying element of these movies is the death of these characters and the relationships they form with the children in the film who become symbolic or actual children. It’s this dynamic that’s perhaps so powerful about both films because they manage to tell a story about the end of the “old guards” in a way that doesn’t feel obvious or fake.
J.B. Books and Gillom establish a pseudo father-son relationship and in the film Books has plenty of opportunities to show the young man what masculinity is and how one can attain it. In one scene Books has offered Gillom a shooting lesson and afterwards he offers some wisdom about integrity:
Gillom Rogers: [Books has just given Gillom a shooting lesson] But how could you get into so many fights and always come out on top? I nearly tied you shooting.
John Bernard Books: Friend, there’s nobody up there shooting back at you. It isn’t always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won’t.
Likewise Logan and Laura have similar exchange:
Laura: You had a nightmare.
Logan: Do you have nightmares?
Laura: Si. People hurt me.
Logan: Mine are different.
Laura: Por que?
Logan: I hurt people.
Laura: [holds up the adamantium bullet] Que es esto?
Logan: You know what it is. It’s made out of adamantium. That’s what they put inside of us. That’s why it can kill us. Probably what’s killing me now. That was a long time ago. I kept it as a reminder of what I am. Now I keep it to, uh… actually I, uh… I was thinking of shooting myself with it. Like Charles said.
Laura: I’ve hurt people too.
Logan: You’re gonna have to learn how to live with that.
Laura: They were bad people.
Logan: All the same…
Logan and the Shootist are both films about violent men, men who have made a life by surviving through regular violent acts and it’s important to note that both films address this matter and in their own way they manage to demonstrate the complicated nature of said violence. Specifically both films address the issue that violence will only ever spawn more violence.
When you’re a little boy, or a teenager dealing with the bullshit of puberty and hormones, you don’t think so much about the death that takes place because of your heroes. You don’t, or at least I didn’t, recognize the death of the endless series of cowboys and government agents, as tragedies. tHey weren’t even really people. They were nameless, soulless figures trying to stop my power icons from succeeding and taking care of “the good people,” which were usually family and friends of the hero. Boys tend, to borrow a memorable line from a friend of mine, gravitate to power icons, and the Western as a genre only further demonstrates that this tradition is timeless.
West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns by Jane Tompkins is a book that I have returned to over and over again because it consistently offers up a great insight into films and books that I have read and enjoyed. It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike most academic books I’ve read, Tompkins book is not readable, it’s actually fun to read. When I had finished Logan, and thought back to The Shootist, I thought of West of Everything, because a few of Tompkin’s quotes and pressed indelibly into my memory. The most obvious ones being about death.
Tompkins book is an examination of Westerns as a result of Sentimental novels which tended to be written by women. Arguing that men began writing Westerns as a reaction to women, she’s able to point out an important feature which is that Westerns tend to be, above all things, death.
In Westerns, facing death and doing something with your life become one and the same thing. For once you no longer believe you are eternal spirit, risking your life becomes the supreme form of heroism, the bravest thing a person can do. (31).
There was never any threat of Wolverine or John Wayne dying. Even when it seemed impossible that they would beat whoever the bad guy was, they always managed to overcome the villain and, using their phallic weapons (let’s be real here) destroy everyone in sight. That’s largely why The Shootist and Logan feel like real Westerns to me because by the end of the film their death is almost certain. Even if they hadn’t died their name or spirit would and the hero they had become would diminish significantly.
But Tompkins gets to the core of this idea in an earlier passage when she notes the real severity of death in Westerns:
Death brings dignity and meaning as well as horror, and its terrifying presence in the long runs comforts and reassures. For death is the great escape, as well as that from which one longs to be delivered. (27).
And just a page after Tompkins offers the ultimate summation:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of Male Violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted. (28).
It’s a depressing thought that violence is what attracts you boys and young developing men to characters like Wolverine and maybe John Wayne, but growing up there is often a sensation of powerlessness. Growing up I had little real agency: my parents picked my clothes, what school I went to, what my bed-time was, and teachers and administrators controlled every second of everyday of my life for twelve years. Characters like Wolverine and John Wayne were controlled by no-one and if anyone tried to tell them how to live their life they would be either sliced or shot. There was something appealing then in gravitating towards that character, or mimicking some aspects of their behavior.
What’s fascinating about growing up is that, while I haven’t completely dropped my love for these characters, I’m now able to appreciate the nuances of their characters. The violence isn’t what’s appealing anymore. What’s appealing is how real a character’s presentation is. What are their faults and how do they account for them. And do they try, as I do on a regular basis, try to understand their mortality.
Nostalgia is what will probably win so many over to films like The Shootist and Logan, and while there’s nothing wrong with this the reader should take the time to consider their appreciation for these films. While on the one hand Logan is a beautiful tribute to the Logan character that Hugh Jackman has spent over a decade playing, watching the film as an examination of male violence adds another dimension to the film. The character achieves a kind of catharsis for all of the violence he has committed over the course of his life. Likewise in The Shootist, Books/Wayne is able to have one last hurrah in a bloody gun fight that, while on the one hand is a goodbye to the Wayne character, is also a final goodbye to a life that was defined by its violence.
Violence will only ever beget more violence, and while these men offered me a power totem that I relished in my youth, I’ve gotten older and the concept of violence has become more and more repulsive. These characters still mean something to me, but rather than simply try for one last gun-fight for the sake of a gun-fight, Logan at least, far more than The Shootist I would argue, offers the reader something far more important: a chance for a man to do right by his daughter.
Part of growing up is not forgetting who you were, but improving from what you were. I still love watching John Wayne movies, and I do still, on occasion, grab three chop sticks and tuck them between my fingers to make the metallic click sound. And, I’ll be honest here, I can’t wait to show my kids the X-Men cartoons and Rio Bravo. But looking at both of these films, what most beautiful to me is that, rather than simply use nostalgia to make a few bucks, both films offer two characters who have meant a great deal to me reach the end of their paths in a way that honors the characters I spent so much time idolizing, while offering them a depth of the character that isn’t shallow.
The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, but a new dawn promises the next generation a hero that will be entirely their own.
All quotes taken from Logan and The Shootist were provided care of IMDb. All quotes from West of Everything: The Inner life of Westerns were taken from the Hardback Oxford edition.
I’ve provided a link below to another blogger who offers an interesting interpretation about the film Logan, noting specifically how the elements of race and feminist masculinity are largely unexplored within the film. Even if you don’t agree with the interpretation, it’s still a pretty solid argument. Enjoy:
Art, Brian K. Vaughn, Comics, fantasy, Fiona Staples, glasses, graphic novel, Joshua Jammer Smith, Lemon & Ginger, Literature, Love Story, Saga, Saga Volume 1, science fiction, still life, tea, Twinning's Tea
Alien Covenant, Bee Hives, Bees, Benjamin Walfisch, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, Blade Runner Threeway, climate, Denis Villeneuve, dystopia, Eraserhead, failed environment, Film, film review, Hans Zimmer, Harrisson Ford, Hitchcock-Truffault, Jared Leto, Language of Cinema, Literature, memory, Place, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Robert Osbourne, Robots, Ryan Gosling, science fiction, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Space, TCM
Is Blade Runner a silent movie? I’m seriously asking.
I recently, well not recently, I usually write these essays and then sit on them for a month and then upload them to WordPress and then sit on them again while I publish other essays, and so what was once “Recent” at the time of writing was actually months ago. My “process” aside, if you can call it that, I did take the time to watch the film Blade Runner this year with a group of friends. I’m a hermit by nature who tends to enjoy his isolation because it gives me time to read what I want and watch the movies that I want without having to worry about what’s new with the people I spend my time with. But, I still recognize that part of self-preservation is having some kind of social contact with people who aren’t my cats and dogs and immediate family members. That and the demon who lives on my bookshelves voted for Trump and won’t let me forget about it.
It’s hard to find people that I actually like, mostly because of the territory I live in. When you’re a bisexual atheist in a town with more churches than restaurants you pick your friends carefully. I have a great circle of friends who tend to be open-minded and, even better, have great taste in movies. As such I joined their movie-group and on the week that it was “science fiction classics” I picked Blade Runner, as did my friend Annie who’d never seen it before, and fortunately enough, our movie got picked.
Surrounded by the endless xenomorph collectibles in Michael and Victoria’s apartment I watched a film I’d already seen somewhere around twenty or thirty times reciting the iconic lines of the Final Cut, while TJ and Michael spoke them aloud with me.
It wasn’t this viewing that led me to my question however, because not long after watching the original film, I took my wife to see the sequel film Blade Runner 2049. I can honestly say that I’ve never been so terrified to see a movie. Blade Runner is an important film to me, and I’ve seen lately how Ridley Scott has attempted to expand some of his previous films with sequels and prequels, successfully with Prometheus, and tragically with Alien Covenant. I was waiting for Ridley Scott and the director Denis Villeneuve to turn the Blade Runner universe into something akin to a Marvel movie where characters are nothing but action figures and product endorsement.
The movie started. The music rolled. And two and half hours later I was crying because I hadn’t seen a film that sublime since Eraserhead.
Part of me was tempted to write out a full review of the latest film because I’m not being facetious when I tell my reader that I was floored by the movie. I haven’t seen anything like Blade Runner 2049 in my life, but what stopped me immediately is that I rely on quotes provided by IMDb to support my reviews and essays, and as of this writing there are barely any quotes on IMDb. This is frustrating initially, but as I reflected on the film
again something struck me. Unlike the first Blade Runner, which managed to have a few long stretches of dialogue here and there, Blade Runner 2049 did not. It’s a common occurrence during the film for there to be long moments in which nothing is actually spoken and the reader is left viewing the world which is often presented in wide shots that demonstrate the care and attention made to architecture, color, light, and sound. During one shot in which K and Deckard are fighting in a ballroom in the ruins of Las Vegas, the hologram projections of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and show-girls flicker in and out of existence providing only snippets of sound. It’s not that there isn’t any speaking, talking, or music during Blade Runner 2049, it’s just that after a while the reader becomes aware that the world and the design of the world, coupled with electronic music that honors the original film tend to be far more important than any of the dialogue.
In fact, much like a David Lynch movie, the dialogue is just another sound in this universe. And so looking back to the original Blade Runner my question feels terribly important: Are the two films actually just silent movies?
I anticipate my reader’s response: No, they aren’t. The films are filled with music and sounds and silent films are, by their nature, devoid of sound. So how could it possibly be a silent movie?
This is a fair argument, but at the same time it is plagued by the actual histories of Silent Films. While it is true that Silent films got their accurate title by the lack of sound in their final composition, Silent Films over time were usually accompanied by some sort of music. It was common for movie houses to hire musicians, usually paint players, to play tunes that matched the emotional language of the film and this have evolved since their apparent irrelevance. Silent films that are released on Dvd and Blue-Ray, or else played on TCM (We miss you Robert Osborne) are always accompanied by some kind of musical score. My little sister’s copy of Nosferatu includes two different scores, one of which is a horrifying as fucking-fuck organ. And recently when I checked out a Blue-ray of Metropolis I discovered it was a remastered cut in which the producers had sampled hit songs from Eighties pop bands to play over the film. This is all just a way of saying that Blade Runner 2049 and Blade Runner, despite the sound in their films, could be construed as Silent Films.
While watching these films I am able to follow the characters and their emotional journeys, however watching the films I am usually far more concerned with listening to the almost New Wave music that plays throughout the film. Vangelis, who produced the music for the original Blade Runner, manages to create a world that, while it isn’t dying, is more electronic than it is real. Along with his score, which manages to balance sound and silence brilliantly, are the various sounds which make up the world. When Deckard is studying the details of a photograph the clicking of the computer and the various switches broken by his drunken “enhance” let the reader disappear into the film. Watching the original Blade Runner, at least to a contemporary audience, is like listening to the sounds and world of a video game.
Benjamin Walfisch, Hans Zimmer, the composer’s of Blade Runner 2049 push the reader into a different direction, because in the world Denis Villeneuve creates, the world is dying, but it’s lingering. The music tends to envelop the reader as they watch the film to the point that one feels constantly that the sound is entering them. This world that exists, which is only thirty years older than the time of the original story, seems to be entirely made of sound.
And this idea of sound leads me next to design because watching Blade Runner 2049 I was struck by Villeneuve’s concern of place. Having watched a few Silent movies, and I do mean few, I’m usually struck by the concern for visual detail. Part of this might have been fortunate accident on the part of these filmmakers, however it is important to remember that many of the great masters of the early genre of film created wonders the likes of which have only been dreamed of by many current film makers. A film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, yet another brilliant horror film from the early days of film which still manages to be actually terrifying, pays attention to the “place” of the story, allowing that “place” to become it’s own language.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a world that looks nothing like the “real” world, with it’s harsh geometric landscape and the pointed edges of the world, the reader is left constantly feeling like the world isn’t real, and yet, at the same time, they are entirely convinced by the vision. Blade Runner 2049, and the original Blade Runner manage this same trick.
Watching Blade Runner 2049 is watching color and shapes and often, sex. Unlike the original Blade Runner, which always alluded to sexuality (what exactly is a “pleasure model” I ask you) without coming outright and showing it. Sex was something that was implied, whereas in 2049 there is sex out in the open and the reader is often reminded of it. Whether its the holographic “Joi companion,” the prostitutes servicing men behind thinly veiled screens, the outright sex scene where Joe “becomes” the prostitute, or else the constant concern with the idea of procreation sex is constantly part of the landscape of Blade Runner 2049 culminating with K’s initial walk through the ruins of Vegas.
But along with sex the reader will constantly be bombarded with color and design and Villeneuve succeeds in making an entirely new world. Los Angeles is a world of color and advertisements and sounds, but it’s always in the Wallace corporation headquarters that the viewer is left naked on the shores of a new world. The offices, which tend to look more like the inside of Egyptian pyramids, are designed almost completely with stone and water, one room being nothing but a small island in a room filled with water which shines reverberating light across the walls. Even if language is spoken in these rooms, it’s obvious over the course of time that the words are immaterial.
The rooms do all the speaking.
The original Blade Runner followed this pattern, though often not to the same extremes. Color tended to be the stronger language and whether it was the freezer where Chew made the eyes, Tyrell’s private room decorated with gold and columns, or else if it was the Doll Room of Sebastian’s home colors created their own language. The designs of these rooms, and the details packed into them often allowed for the dialogue to be rather secondary if not irrelevant. Even if you heard batty asking Sebastian to help him into Tyrell’s office, the reader was probably more concerned with Prius’s make-up or else the way Sebastian’s home was a menagerie of toys, robots, and rotting walls. When Deckard is walking through the streets of Los Angeles the color of the light-up umbrellas, or the asian script made up of neon lights manage to tell the viewer more about the world than any of the later exposition. If nothing else about the “place” manages to capture the reader, then surely the ever-present rain should be enough to create the feeling of the world and what it is about.
Both of the Blade Runner films try to create a “place” before they create the characters that interact in this space because it’s the world that’s the important character. Part of
this is surely because it’s a science fiction movie and so the environment needs to be established so that the reader can feel like they are entering a new world. Watching the movies though I am struck more by the concern for creating a world because, at the end of the day, this speaks more to the “language” of cinema.
Better directors and cinema critics than I have explored this idea, and if the reader wants a great exploration of this they should read Hitchcock-Truffault. There is a language of cinema, often referred to as visual language. It’s a damn near impossible phenomena to describe in words but the idea is that the visual direction of films is a language unto itself and so the way a director arranges the Place and space, and then the way they move the camera through this world can communicate it’s own sort of message about humanity. This is not an alien concept I suspect for most people. If a camera zooms into a person’s face after they have heard news of their lover dying then most people would understand the message of the shot. Likewise if they see a director holding the camera still while two people eat in silence the scene will have it’s own meaning and context. This idea of film creating its own language is something which has existed since the early silent film era, and directors and artists have tried to build that language into something meaningful since the establishment of the medium.
Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 continue to discourse because both films, while they do have characters and story and dialogue which create a story, are films more rooted in the tradition of the language of cinema. The images and lights and colors are far more important because they communicate more about humanity than most of the dialogue.
I think that’s why, as I was watching Blade Runner, and then Blade Runner 2049, I was left so emotionally impacted by both films. Seeing these movies I felt like I was watching directors who understood that a film is not just about telling a story with words, because even though I am a writer I recognize that words can only go so far. Sometimes, if I can quote Seth McFarlane here, music is better than words. Colors and sounds and images can have more emotional impact upon an individual viewer, and they can also illicit strong emotions. Watching Blade Runner 2049 I wasn’t watching a sequel to a great science fiction movie, I was watching a film that was trying to do more with the language of film.
Blade Runner 2049 is a film about the human condition, about the ideas of power and procreation, about the loneliness of souls, about what a father can give to his children, about the injustice of slavery, about the death of the world, and about the future of humanity in a landscape where symbol becomes more powerful than the individual human being. These are powerful ideas, and watching the film I found far more message in the colors and geometric patterns of light than I did in most of the dialogue. I recognize that the reader may not share my sentiments, and that they may find the new Blade Runner film an overly long exploration of a universe, but hopefully they will still recognize that the composition of Blade Runner 2049 is unlike any other film produced in the last decade.
Film is a medium unlike any other because the images that are being passively received can have a spirit and language all their own. Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful reminder then that artists can, and should, take care to worry about the what the images in their films can mean for the sensation of the viewer.
The Silent Film may have reached a point where it no longer bears any real relevance to the mass audience, but the concern for the language of cinema is still an idea which has persisted and influenced movie makers for generations. It may not seem like it, but a man shoving his hand into a bee hive in the ruins of Las Vegas, or the same man staring up a giant hologram advertisement for a sexual hologram says more about the condition of humanity than most movies dare to.
This idea about the “Language of Cinema” is an important one, and so I’ve found a few great videos on YouTube which explore and explain it. I’ve posted them here because I like to offer my reader supplementary materials, but also because there are people in the world who are far, FAR better at explaining concepts and ideas than I am.
Along with this are several links to articles and YouTube Videos which explore facets and elements of the movie Blade Runner, just in case the reader was interested in digging deeper into the film.
I’ve also included a link to an interview hosted by NPR with science historian Howard Markel who explores the history and etymology of the word Robot
"replicants", Blade Runner, Cyber-Punk, Daryl Hannah, Deckard, degeneration, dystopia, Eye Imagery in Blade Runner, Eyes, Film, film review, glasses, Harrisson Ford, John Lennon Vs Harry Potter, mortality, Pickle Rick, reflection, Rick and Morty, Ridley Scott, Rutger Hauer, science fiction, self-repair, slavery, Tyrell Corporation
It’s been six years since I got my first pair of glasses. That would make me twenty-two at the time, and it’s a lovely realization that the loss of my virginity would coincide with my ability to see. It wasn’t long after getting my glasses that I decided to get a hair-cut (I looked something along the lines of Slash and Cousin It’s love child) and shortly thereafter my wife, who I had known because she sat behind in biology class, accepted a date that eventually became the most significant relationship in my life. The glasses that I bought not only served as my ability to see, they also managed to serve a secondary purpose: aging the individual who compliments them. I post a lot of photos of myself on this blog, and so my reader is able to see I wear thin wire frames in the shape of perfect circles. I’ve noticed that people really seem to like them and I’m used to people offering compliment in the vein of “I love your glasses.” However they don’t just say this. As I said before my glasses “date” the person offering the compliment because one half of them will usually say, “I love your Harry Potter glasses” while the other half says, “I love your John Lennon Glasses.” This second compliment has started to dwindle and so I have to remind people about this second person. It’s because of John Lennon that I picked these glasses in the first place, but I was part of the Harry Potter generation and I’m actually rather terrified of the day when people stop calling them Harry Potter glasses for that would mean I’m becoming a rather old man.
None of this would really explain why, going to the optometrist again recently I was inspired to write about Blade Runner.
Sitting in the chair that offered no lumbar support I looked around the room. There of course wad a chart filled with photos of various eyes suffering from a wide range of disorders and disease. To my left were the binocular machines which would test my vision. And to my right was the doctor who was telling jokes that could only come from a refreshingly dry humor that’s impossible to find in this territory. The thought of eyes though inspired me to think back on the film Blade Runner which I had watched again recently with a group of friends. There was something about eyes that I kept going back to.
This association isn’t unfounded because eyes play a critical role in the film because the way to determine the difference between a Replicant (the name for the humanoid slave robots) and humans was something called a voight-kampff exam which is an eye exam. You also have the fact that the film begins with an eye looking over a wide city-scape. When Batty, the central replicant who wants to extend his life, confronts his maker Tyrell he murders him by digging his thumbs into the man’s eyes before cracking his skull. There’s also the scene in which Batty confronts Hannibal Chew, a genetic engineer who makes eyes, and one of the other replicants slowly places eyes on his bare shoulders and Batty offers up this brief exchange:
Batty: Questions… Morphology? Longevity? Incept dates?
Hannibal Chew: Don’t know, I don’t know such stuff. I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.
Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!
The examples of this constant eye imagery and association could fill up an entire word document so it’s not necessary to list them all out. I simply want my reader to recognize that it was probably because of this frequent eye imagery that I began to think again about Blade Runner.
The film has, since its release in 1982, become a cult classic and an icon of both science fiction and film noir. It doesn’t hurt that the film was directed by Ridley Scott when the man was in his prime of his carear and riding high off of the success of the film Alien which had been released just three years earlier. On one side note there existed this beautiful period of great science fiction movies that, while I won’t say hasn’t been repeated, just hasn’t been matched in my estimation. Watching Blade Runner is an experience unlike any other because the film creates a new world in which the viewer is left to disappear completely into. The darkness of the city is matched only by the near constant neon lights that seem to illuminate only the figures of the people moving about the place. Advertisements tend to be more real than the human beings walking around because despite their mass-production reality, there’s a human charm to them. The near constant rain becomes not just an atmospheric aesthetic, but part of the landscape of the world. And all of this combines together to establish a place that was labeled as “cyber-punk” that has helped create a new genre in and of itself of science fiction.
Blade Runner takes in the distant future of the year 2019, which is a disappointment in and of itself because humanity has barely managed to acquire workable iPod minis let alone advanced robotics. The Tyrell corporation has created humanoid robots known as “replicants” which serve mainly as payless workers (slaves, let’s call it what it is), and the story begins when four replicants escape the off-world colonies. A former police detective named Rick Deckard is brought back onto the force in his former position of Blade Runner. His job is to hunt down the replicants and terminate them (kill them, let’s call it what it is. The rest of the story follows Deckard as he tracks down the replicants who are themselves trying to sneak into the Tyrell corporation to see if there is a way to extend their lives since Replicants are controlled by a four-year life-span.
Batty is the leader of the replicants, played brilliantly by the elusive Rutger Hauer, and as driven more than any of the group to find some way of extending his life. Throughout the film there are small shots of his hand trembling while looking like dying tissue, and I believe it’s this idea of degeneration that actually inspired me. Going to the eye doctor is repair; it’s a check to make sure the system can still run. While my hand doesn’t regularly crinkle into a trembling fist which is itself a portend for my ultimate death, I have observed the fact that my body is beginning to show some signs of wear. And thinking of such wear I’m immediately reminded of the therapist monologue in the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty:
I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth or wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong that you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is some people are okay going to work and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us get’s to choose.
Choice is everything, and so as I contemplated the degeneration of the body while I sat in the doctor’s office, looking at those eyes on the chart, I thought about Blade Runner and how the idea of choice and time and repair becomes so wrapped up in our ideas of memory. Who I am is built upon my memories, and those in turn shape who I want to be and become. And so as I sat in the chair paying attention to how terribly my eyes had degenerated I wondered about what new glasses I would get, and what famous celebrity or fictional character people think about when they saw my new specks.
All quotes taken from Blade Runner and Rick and Morty were taken from IMBD. The definition of Robot was provided are of the Etymology Online Dictionary
I’ve included here a link to the Pickle Rick episode, specifically the therapist monologue that I’ve quoted here. Unlike the Twitter Troll Bots who seem to rail constantly against the new season and the writing thereof, I can’t help but remind them that Pickle Rick is evidence enough of how amazing this season really is. If the reader would like to hear the monologue in its entirety they can do so by following the link below:
42 Nipple Options, Alex + Ada, Artificial Intelligence, body objectification, commodifying the female body, Essay, Feminism, graphic novel, Harmony, Harmony the Sex Robot, Honda P2 Robot, Human Body, Human Developement, Human/Robot Love Story, Jenny Kleeman, Jonathan Luna, Literature, Long Read, Love, Love isn't about ALWAYS agreeing, Mutual Identification, Philosophy, Pornography, rape-culture, RealDolls, Robots, Sarah Vaughn, Science, science fiction, Sex Dolls, Sex Robots, Sex Trade, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solipsism, suggestions, The Gaurdian, The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot
I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.
abuse of authority, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, chaos, Essay, film review, graphic novel, Happy Birthday, Humor, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, journalism, Libraries, Literature, metacognition, police brutality, science fiction, Spider Jerusalem, The Left Hand of Darkness, Transmetropolitan, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Ursula K. Le Guin, White Tower Musings, Writer's Social Role, Writing
So much can happen and change over the course of a year. That’s the stuff of sentimental platitudes, but I’m writing my yearly reflection essay since the anniversary of this shitty-blog is today. And, as always, when I write about White Tower Musings and writings, I tend to get either mopey or maudlin. But in this case so much has actually happened over the course of a year and so I wanted to take a moment and really reflect on what has happened.
My regular reader will have determined at this point that I’ve graduated college and started working at the Tyler Public Library. I say this with no hyperbole, this job has saved my life. Part of the life changes that have occurred since last year was graduated from college with my master’s degree and then figuring out what was next. I flourished in graduate school because, I say this without any ego here, I was one of the good students who gave a shit and so I managed to succeed. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I was making myself, in my head, into something I wasn’t. Instead preparing myself for life after college I clung to school never wanting to leave. This in turn created the idea in my head that I was going to be a college professor, teaching English and writing and hopefully literature to freshmen and sophomore students. But that didn’t happen, or at least, not right away, and so for a period of about five of six months I sat in my house, living off the money I had saved from work, occasionally going out and having coffee with friends, desperate for work. When an offer finally came from a local community college I snapped it up imagining that teaching would make me happy, or, to be honest, that I would find a group of people like the one I had in graduate school or the writing center at UT Tyler. This was anything but and I realized quickly that I had sold the idea of teaching college to myself because I was an egoist. I thought that teaching would make me happy because it would be a chance for me to flex my intellectual muscle and that I would change people’s lives. I might have succeeded in the latter, but it became observable fairly quickly that I wasn’t a great teacher, I was, at best, passable.
But these birthday essays are always about metacognition, or, thinking about thinking. While I was teaching I was also still writing for White Tower Musings, and these essays tended to be my lifeboat. They kept me happy, or, at least, they gave me an outlet from which I could focus away from the frustrations of day to day reality. I wasn’t always thinking about the students, and if I was thinking about them it usually wasn’t positive thoughts. And then the suicidal feelings kicked in.
All of these thoughts, all of these feelings are still with me (it’s only been a about seven months since I quit my job at the college and started working for the library) but as I continue to wake up everyday and try to get in my 300 words I realize what this site has really meant for me. But I still think about the students in that class, specifically what I failed to convey and instill in them which is that writing and writers really can enact change.
About a year or two back the graphic novel book club that I’m a part of got around to reading a book entitled Transmetropolitan. It was a science fiction “dystopian” story about a reporter named Spider Jerusalem who has retreated to the mountains where’s he disappeared from society. His publisher tracks him down and informs him that he owes them two books or else they will track him down and sue him into a state of emotional, physical, and psychological poverty. Jerusalem comes down from the mountain and returns to “The City.” This nameless urban territory is impossible to describe largely because Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson manage to assault the reader with near constant bombardments. In “The City” there are advertisements for the President, family cannibal restaurants, the famous kids cartoon show “Sex Puppets,” religious organizations with titles like “fuck the Holy Gut Wound of St. Marc” and “Thor Needs Virgins,” hostels for de-frozen cryogenic patrons, and I could literally fill pages with all the back-ground that Spider Jerusalem encounters.
The book is broken up into a ten part series and, apart from its eerie similarity to the 2016 United States Presidential election, I’ve started reading the books one by one and am currently working through number 7, and while
I would love to sit down and write reviews of every book I’ve come to recognize that such impulses are largely fools errands. These essays come about because of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about at a certain time, and as my “third birthday” comes around Transmetropolitan has reminded me about the power of writing because of one small scene in the first book.
Spider Jerusalem is writing a column about a Police Riot that is attacking a group of people known as Transients, human beings that have blended their DNA with that of aliens. Jerusalem manages to sneak into the riot, get to the roof of a strip-club, and there, surrounded by strippers, he starts to write.
There’s a jungle rhythm beating out below me; the sound of truncheons hammering on riot shields, police tradition when the streets get nasty. I’m in Angels 8, above what will doubtless be called the Transient Riot. History’s only written by the winners, after all, and if the cops want it called the Transient Riot, then that’s how it’ll be.
Because there’s going to be Transient blood all over the place. And you know something? It’s not their fault.
The Transients couldn’t have managed this on their own. They’re just big kids who thought it’d be fun to live inside an alien body. A sane society would’ve tagged them for the waterheads they are and bought them a big playground. But no one even checked to see if their silly claim for succession was feasible. Civic Center just decided to stamp on them instead. They payed a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration. Spontaneous violence, the only excuse Civic Center would have to send in the riot cops. These people are bleeding down there for a scam.
It’s a show of power. How dare anybody ignore the authority of Civic Center? How dare a bunch of freaks try and think for themselves. So let’s go out and stomp on children, lunatics and incompetent, because by damn it makes out balls feel big. I can see a blatantly unarmed Transient unarmed man with half his face hanging off, and three cops working him over anyway.
One of them is groping his own erection.
I’m sorry is that too harsh an observation for you. Does that sound too much like the Truth? If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be seeing a Transient woman with blood on her face huddled in a porn-store doorway, clutching her belly. I wouldn’t be looking down at a dead boy, thirteen, he’s a day, draped over the hood of a police wagon. No one’s eyes would be bleeding from incapacity sprays of the nerve bomblets the cops are launching from Cranberry. I wouldn’t be surrounded up here by the people who have to live and work here, weeping openly.
Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence. You see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. Your boss does what he likes. The asshole at the tollbooth, the bouncer at your local bar, the security guy who frisks you ate the clinic, the papers and feedsites that lie to you for the hell of it. They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.
This “riot” here, this terrible shit-rain visited upon a bunch of naïve and uppity fetishists; you paid for it. Lap it up. You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you. (62-7).
This was a rather long passage and partly because it was so long my contester will interrupt. What relevance does this passage have to anything or anyone? It just sounds like a bunch of sci-fi bullshit that doesn’t have any real connection to real life. Why should I give a damn about Spider Jerusalem or a bunch of alien-human hybrids?
My reader has a good point, and while I could answer it directly I’d prefer to let another writer do most of the work for me. Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve only recently discovered but already she’s secured a place in my heart for her essays about the craft of writing and the importance of science fiction. In the introduction of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness she explores the idea of science fiction and what it can do:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
Transmetropolitan is a science fiction story because it predicts a future where technology has led to opportunity and comfort, but by and large Warren Ellis writes the world in such a way that capitalism and urbanization has led to a kind of cultural explosion where every conceivable taboo is relinquished and human beings are a mass of apathetic sensualists who are either dead inside or else completely oblivious to the suffering of other people.
And where does metacognition come into it?
In the last three years I’ve watched my country change into something odd. Protests are becoming far more common, and tragically so is police action against such protests. In the last three years the social role of journalists seems to have improved, but by that same token the populace is splintered by their “news preferences” which has led to some institutions being labeled “fake news.” In the last three years the issue of race has become something that has invigorated social rights activists, and by the same measure “white-lashing” has increased as bigots have warped and twisted political slogans and mantras into something that benefits their own ideologies. In the last three years there have been enormous political and social strides for queer people, and at the same time political actions hellbent on labeling queer people as perverts and cretins has never been stronger.
Absorbing my culture I think back to the image of Spider Jerusalem perched on the roof writing his column. It’s a simple image, but one that has become iconic. The writer and their typewriter, or laptop if you prefer something more contemporary, represents intellectual activity, but it also tends to become synonymous with change and power. Writers observe and absorb their cultures before writing their take which can often translate exactly what people are thinking or feeling and inspire change.
Looking at the last lines in the film All the President’s Men you get a sense for what’s possible when writer’s do their job right:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
But what does any of that have to do with my shitty blog?
I don’t enact change, real change anyway. Most of my stats demonstrate that most the people who find this site are people looking for pornography or else help writing papers for their English 1301 course. I’ve said this all before in previous Happy Birthday essays, but it warrants repeating because after three years I realize I fucked up tremendously with those students because of my selfishness. I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a great writer, and while I do have some talent, the reality is what I’ve said it is: I’m just another nobody with a shitty blog.
But even if I haven’t accomplished something of great merit, I can rest on the fact that I’ve written and brought attention to other great writers whose work has and will continue to inspire the next generation of young thinkers and skeptics and journalists and novelist who will look at the world and see something wrong or beautiful and want to write about it.
I’ve thought more and more that I would love to publish the essays here as a book and title it The Work Thus Far. It seems fitting. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many essays I write, it never feels like there’s a real end. The writer, the Great Man, sits at his keyboard typing words out and throwing them into the great sea of the internet hoping somebody out there will care. The writer writes, and in the end that’s all I could ever really ask for.
Thanks for three years dear reader.
All quotes from Transmetropolitan Vol 1 were taken from the Vertigo paperback edition. The quote from All the President’s Men was provided by IMBD. The quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness can be found by following the link below: