Why do people like naming guns "Betsy"? Is it like when I name my giant chin zit "Ned"? To hide its potential for violence and social disruption beneath an unassuming, nonthreatening name?
Edit: As my excellent friend on Facebook points out, here is another example!
I saw an Instagram clip of Emma Portner and her partner dancing to Bob Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I decided I wanted to do something like that, so I wrote a pretty bad poem with the intention of dancing to it. Of course it was undanceable so then I added music in the background. It wasn’t quite anything, but the deadline for having something to show for the piece was approaching so one night when I was so deliriously tired I couldn’t see straight I got out of the shower, sat on my bed, and did a one-take riffing on the poem I’d written to turn it into a personal essay. It wasn’t too bad at that point so I started choreographing, what my dance partner says isn't really dancing because it's sign language (it's not). Now I’m almost done with that too except I keep hitting roadblocks because I’m not a poet, nonfiction writer or choreographer, and I like to pretend I am sometimes. Anyhow I went back to the original piece that inspired me, hoping for more, and really paid attention to Bob Dylan’s words and realized that it’s a tribute to his mentor. It reminds me of that time in my video essay class when the assignment was to make a visual poem and the instructor said it was fine to use someone else’s poem. I started out with my own, knowing what I wanted to do, but the words felt inadequate so I went online and found a better version of my words. I can imagine a time when I might want to write a tribute to a person's life, when I want to eulogize them and share what made them special to me, and I guess this is all just to say that I don't think it's too much to ask that on that day I’ll find words as piercing as “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.”
I am really into costumes. Maybe it comes from my theater background. There is something thrilling to me about pretending to be someone else – even if it’s just in appearance. Truth be told if I’m going to be somewhere that could feasibly have site-specific wardrobe, you best believe that I’m taking advantage. Which is why Purim is always a Big Deal for me.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been a Viking, Holly Golightly, Pride from the Seven Deadly Sins, a steampunk explorer, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil, Eliza Doolittle at the races and Elsa from Frozen. This is not counting the sundry group costumes and themed parties in which I also participate. I also want credit for the fact that these were all modest costume, which means working on the average cheap costume found on Amazon for a believable extension that doesn’t detract from the overall effect. I can’t sew, but if enthusiasm counts for anything I’d consider my tendencies to be cosplay-lite.
When I first picture myself pulling off a costume I’ll get an itch to see it happen. Sometimes that means holding on to a character from 2016. If it’s not around Purim time, I’ll sometimes buy the costume accessories anyway, collecting them with the hope that I’ll have use for them in the future. Wonder Woman’s headpiece and armband. A rainbow unicorn horn. A red-lined cloak. Steampunk stuff.
There’s one character, though, that I can’t bring myself to mimic: Harley Quinn.
It’s always the jacket that stops me. Printed on the back are the words: Property of Joker. It makes me take off my pastel-colored glasses and remember what the character represents, a living caricature of infantilized hypersexuality. Harley can’t free herself. She needs the Joker to do that. Much as I’d like a cute, high heeled, baseball bat-wielding character to be the feminist icon for taking no prisoners, Harley is not that.
If I can’t respect a character, I can’t embody her. Not to say that Audrey Hepburn’s characters are blushing flowers or that the Vikings didn’t rape and pillage everything in their path. When I dress up, I’m merging with the character to present a version of myself that can’t be expressed any other way. In costume, I am myself as seen through the lens of this new character. I don’t want to see myself in an abused light.
This is not to disparage the hundreds of thousands of women who do dress up as Harley Quinn, as evidenced by Instagram tags and Amazon reviewer photos. I have no problem looking at the different takes on her – even the preteen takes, decidedly and mercifully less sexualized – and appreciate the costume for what I envisioned for myself, separate from the character flaws. The women who dress up as Harley Quinn look like they’re empowering themselves in a cute outfit. I find it encouraging that there is a whole range of body types demonstrated. In a hypothetical situation I wouldn’t be able to make it modest, but I would be able to wear it with confidence and not have to worry about feeling fat.
Despite everything, I still wonder what it would feel like to wear that outfit. Would I feel empowered enough to create my own narrative in the costume? Or would I slip into a “bimbo” routine, smacking gum like Robbie does in the movie, putting on a bad Brooklyn accent and ultimately fit myself into her misogynist narrative? In a better movie, with female writers, Harley Quinn might have been an iconic character. Her wardrobe is so specific and fresh that it isn’t hard to imagine that character, which we may yet see in one of her upcoming films. Until her redemption arc, though, I’m going to have to keep resisting the urge to see myself through her.
To be honest, fangirling – when your mind enters a fictional world so intensely that you develop territorial tendencies that border on the loyalty you feel for your immediate family – has always scared me a little bit. My teenage encounter with Buffy the Vampire Slayer coincided with my first experience of binge watching. And man, did that show take over my brain. After watching a couple of episodes in a row, trying to understand how a one-hour TV show could occupy me longer than any movie I had ever seen, I became obsessed. I thought, dreamt, breathed Buffy in a way that I never had about something fictional. Even the fantasy books that I read growing up (the ones that made me want to write my own fantasy books, the ones that kept me busy for hours in a corner by myself, the ones that made me so happy that my own writing was actually just rewriting the fantasy books I was reading) didn't take over my imagination the way Buffy did. Because of my awareness of that all-encompassing infatuation – along with a religion-inspired need to believe I cared about more than just television – I stopped watching it. Cold turkey. I had enough under my belt to talk to people about it, to appreciate the Sunnydale High School T-shirt a fellow intern was wearing the first day I met him, but I full-on rejected the feeling that resulted from immersion in Joss Whedon's vampire world.
Enter J.J. Abrams. When the new trilogy of Star Wars was announced, I was excited; but I wouldn't say elated. I had watched all of the films when I was a preteen, around the time Episode I and II came out. I did have to wait for Episode III until I was a teenager, glaring at the computer screen when I realized I would have to wait until 2005 for it to come out – 2005! three whole years! – and learning how to be patient for movie release dates for the first time. I liked the films a lot. I was proud to be able to talk about them with my older siblings. Yet I didn't watch any of the films again after that initial encounter. So when Episode VII was announced, I was excited and planned on seeing it after the hype died down.
A week before The Force Awakens hit theaters, I noticed that few of my contacts on Facebook and Twitter were rewatching all of the old Star Wars films. At first I was skeptical, thinking of the sheer number of hours it would take to get through the series. But I changed my tune pretty soon. As Episode VII's release drew nearer, I found myself committing to the same process. It appealed to me in some way: Work hard by getting through the old ones in order to enjoy the new ones better. Okay, I said to myself. Yeah. Let's do this.
I started with The Phantom Menace because, like I said, I wanted to work hard in order to reap the benefits. And boy did I work hard. Watching the first three episodes first was mind-numbing. The ratio of minutes to action is bogglingly high. I did, however, get the benefit of (sort of) keeping track of what was going on in the Senate for the first time. (I was also able to recognize Global Treasure Keira Knightley this time around in her geisha makeup.)
Now this may be a direct result of the fact that I started teaching high school at the beginning of the year, but one of my readings of the story arc in Episode I, II and III is about teaching. About the effects of good teachers and bad teachers. Yoda is a good teacher – we already know this from Luke's successful training in the original Star Wars. Palpatine is also a good teacher, in the sense that his students – Count Dooku and Anakin – continued the mission that he taught them. Qui-Gon is a good teacher, because his student Obi-Wan Kenobi continued his legacy as a stellar representation of the Light Side.
But Obi-Wan himself is not a good teacher. While I agree that the failure to align Anakin with the Light Side is due in part to him being too old, as the Jedi Council foresaw, as well as his generally childish attitude, I'd posit that Qui-Gon or Yoda might have been able to steer him despite all that. Obi-Wan was not up to the challenge. He let Anakin's delusions of grandeur balloon and affect his behavior, let the chutzpah ooze from him in nearly every interaction. I'd also suggest that in Episode VII, it turns out that Luke wasn't a good teacher either. His student, Kylo Ren, was tempted to the Dark Side and he massacred the next generation of Jedi – much the way Anakin did in Episode III.
Once I got through the first three episodes, I slinked into Episode IV: A New Hope without too much hope on my part. But boy did I get blown away. It was a mechaya to experience an enjoyable Star Wars movie after trudging through the first three. I couldn't believe how pleasurable it was to watch Luke, Han and Leia flying through the galaxy, kicking ass and taking names. I didn't realize how truly whiny Luke is in the beginning, which makes Anakin's arc a little more understandable. Not to mention how morally ambiguous Han Solo's actions are at every turn.
One of the fun things about the original three movies, though, is how complementary the three main characters' personalities are. They all have flaws that keep them from defeating the Dark Side on their own. They all need each other to accomplish that ultimate goal. Nonetheless, it never feels clear whether or not they'll actually be there for each other in the eleventh hour.
When Luke abandons his Jedi training to go save Han and Leia, it feels like a turning point that could become fatal. If he fails in his self-appointed mission, not only will it all have been for naught, but – as we later see – he would have given up on finishing his training completely. But he succeeds, and then he has to face Darth Vader and the Emperor on his own and witness the death of his father. When he returns to his friends, none of them can understand what he's gone through. They see a change in him, but it's not something they can relate to. Luke is on his own, the only Jedi left in the world.
All of this is to say that by the time I went to see The Force Awakens on Christmas Day, I had watched all seven Star Wars movies in the space of a week. A week! I never would have guessed I could do it but after the fact, I wouldn't do it any other way. I went into that new Star Wars movie with the wide-eyed excitement I first felt for the films back when I was twelve, sitting in my basement, watching VHS tapes on a VCR that couldn't rewind. I got goosebumps – as I had each of the six previous times I had seen and heard it that week – when the combination of the logo and theme music burst onto the screen in the dark theater. I watched Rey and BB-8 trying to figure out their place in the galaxy. I looked out for all the callbacks to the older movies. I enjoyed Kylo Ren's face reveal scene much more than I should have. (A hot Darth Vader, woohoo!) More than anything, though, the movie was fun, and I had a great time watching it.
It made me remember how fun it is to fangirl about something without a trace of guilt.
Now that the hype has died down, I no longer feel the need to buy Star Wars merchandise, or decorate my walls with Star Wars travel posters. But I do have a lingering desire to feel that excitement again. I've been wanting to see The Force Awakens again since I left the theater, but I promised myself I wouldn't go see it again for at least two months. February 25, here I come.
Disclaimer: I am not the world's biggest fan of the violent genres. I do not have encyclopedic knowledge of fight choreography and what makes a shootout/explosion sequence compelling (...uh, nothing?). I have not, despite my love for Timothy Olyphant, watched the movie called Hitman. However, I noticed this thing about movies depicting hitmen as their protagonist that I (previously explored in a Facebook post and can no longer find now) and would like to share here. To be clear, I am not referring to wisecracking, borderline psychopathic, obscurely idiosyncratic, Tarantinoesque/Coen Brotherly hitmen who provide humor in an otherwise bleak landscape of human grit. I'm referring to the stereotype of the uber-capable, never-misses-a-shot, does-this-job-because-he-has-nowhere-else-to-turn kind of hitman.
This kind of hitman in movies is the prototypical anti-hero. He is dark because he must be sneaky; he is mysterious because he can't have personal attachments; he is excellent at what he does because he is still alive to tell the tale. (Which he doesn't. Except to that one beautiful girl who will never see him again.) We like watching anti-heroes, such as the protagonists in Mad Men and Breaking Bad, because they allow us to feel better about our own bad behavior.
But there's a key ingredient when it comes to the hitman: He isn't meant to show emotion.
Think about Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for a second, who only ever killed someone in a dream. Yes, he's admirable for the suave coolness he oozes wherever he goes. But in addition to that, we watch him go through the full gamut of human emotions. We see him angry (a lot), we see him sad, we see him nervous, we see him having a nervous breakdown. The ideal hitman shows no emotion. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Colin Farrell in London Boulevard. Christian Bale in Equilibrium, who had to be given a puppy for us to like him. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator is the best example - he's a robot!
What I'm getting at is that while it's very cool to have a hitman in your movie, and I certainly am not immune to the charms of watching someone decimate an entire room of people with perfect fight choreography, the problem with having a straight up hitman as your main character is that they aren't very interesting as people. I have no emotional connection to them and no investment in their fate. Even Keanu Reeves in John Wick was entertaining, but not particularly compelling.
When you can't relate to a character emotionally, you're missing a pivotal element to the narrative: Why do I care about this person? Yeah, he's fun to watch fight. He's fun to watch saving people. But I don't get much else out of it, let alone the stamina to sit through 2+ hours of him fighting and saving people and not caring.
On the flip side of this (very rudimentary) theory, you have Kingsman: The Secret Service. Remember Christian Bale's puppy? Well, in Kingsman main British guy Eggsy (Taron Egerton) gets his very own puppy to train and develop with at his super secret spy agency. Now, Eggsy clearly does not have the makings of a super spy. He didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge. He doesn't have an impressive family lineage. Even his father, the reason Eggsy was accepted into the training program in the first place, died in the line of duty early on in his career. And to top it all off, Eggsy can't even shoot his stupid dog at the end of training – which, as he's later informed, only had a blank in it!
But the fact that Eggsy couldn't shoot the dog and didn't have the credentials to be a Kingsman is what makes him an interesting character. I could have listened to him goad people to fight in that British accent for hours. It was funny to see him revert back to his sartorial roots for a mission where he had to be a pickup artist. And when he ultimately saves the world, his motives stem more from avenging the death of his mentor than they do from a desire to actually save the world. The reason Eggsy is compelling is exactly because he didn't make for a good hitman. He doesn't blend in, he's terrible at playing nice with others, and above all – he displays emotions. Lots of them.
Video games, though. Now there's a place where a well-appointed, emotionless hitman can have it all.
"Good artists copy; great artists steal." This concept explains roughly 85% of the witty things people say in everyday conversation. I've only ever caught two people in the act of stealing witticisms. I'd like to think that my pop culture radar is so developed that these were the only two to fly under, but my utter cluelessness in these cases would indicate otherwise.
The first time it happened, a friend of friend – call him Mark – had come into town and my crew was showing him around Chicago. After the Bean and karaoke at Trader Todd's, we were merrily driving home when someone mentioned The Godfather.
"You know what I hate about The Godfather?" says Mark. "It insists on itself."
While I didn't agree with the statement entirely (some artworks are allowed leeway to insist as such, and I won't penalize them for being accurate), I did have to admire the sentiment. It was an interesting concept. A great concept. Yes, The Godfather definitely had the conceit of a work that knows it's going to be remembered as a class and thus can take itself as seriously as it pleases.
A couple of years later, I was walking with my brother and his wife down Riverside Drive in New York City. The Godfather comes up and my brother says, "I did not care for The Godfather. It insists upon itself." I nearly lost it. My brother, stunned and mildly curious, informed me that he was quoting a scene from Family Guy.
I was flabbergasted. I had never experienced someone completely ripping off a joke like that, and in a way that could be proven so easily. If someone had recognized the reference during that car ride, I guess Mark could have played it off. But no one did and so he didn't have to.
Of course, as I was to learn when the same scenario repeated itself, people do indeed accomplish that with full intention. Years ago, when voicemail recordings were more of an artform and a novelty than they are now, my entire family was enchanted by a particular person's voicemail. Call him Jacob.
Jacob's recording went something like this:
"Believe or not, Jacob isn't home! Please leave a message on the phone. Is he in bed or maybe drinking tea? Where could he be!"
We would sing the little song at each other - as well as in front of Jacob. It wasn't until this year, when I watched Kat Dennings interact with Jason Alexander on a talk show, that I heard George's voicemail from Seinfeld. It was the same tune, the same self-aggrandizing third person, the same great sense of self-deprecating humor. The familiar feeling from my experience with Mark's reference crept back in: euphoria at my discovery mixed with the sinking weight of disappointment.
Mark and Jacob thought they were stealing when in reality they were only borrowing. On some level I should admire what they accomplished, but I can't help be disappointed - that they weren't as original as they claimed, or that in the world at large I don't personally know whoever came up with that material. Or maybe I'm sad that I could see the behind the window dressings, to the man behind the curtain, to the magician rigging up his carefully-plotted machinations.
Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.