Friday, November 7, 2008

The Song Said Let's Be Happy

I don't want to overstate things. I have no interest in political messianism. And I know what the realities of public office can do to moments of possibility, glimmers of hope. I'm aware that these things are true. But this week, right now, I really would rather just think about how fucking awesome this is. I rarely make use of the diary function of blogs but some of the things I've felt in the last few days are just way too sweet to not record.

On the bus, early Wednesday morning: the light was thin and gray, the day was wet and cold but felt radically, beautifully new. Not that any extant problems were automatically solved but that, for the first time in years, I felt genuinely hopeful that maybe I could think of our time and place as anything more than a total nightmare. I thought of how wonderful and weird and unpredictable our country is; I thought about my friends; I thought about Abraham Lincoln and Sam Cooke; I thought about how proud I was that we could actually do something good. I felt (and still feel, I guess, when I think about it) really happy.

One beyond-amazing Minneapolis detail I want to leave you with. It was about midnight on Tuesday, post-chili, post-champaign, post-Black Eyed Pea holographic interface. Unable to resist the car horns and group shouts and popping fireworks and hi fives with strangers, my foxy co-conspirator and I took a walk. There were party sounds coming from multiple directions, but the locus of the noise seemed to be 26th and Lyndale. This is one of the more magical corners in our city, equally able to supply a body with used records, delicious muffins and serious, cheap intoxication.

So here's what was happening there: 50-100 folks of typical Uptown vintage--cycle hipsters, pink-dreaded, hemp-laden, culturally damaged, post-everything hippies, gutter punks and basically straight-laced grad students in full, celebratory uproar. Joyfully--chanting, singing, stomping, bikes and signs aloft--marching the intersection's full circuit. From the CC Club's southwest corner, to that shuttered building's southeast corner, to Treehouse Records on the northeast, to Common Roots Cafe on the northwest. Just basically crossing the street. With the light. Cops were on hand, but had no real beef since the throng were neither breaking any important laws nor significantly obstructing traffic. And when one driver did have to wait a moment to turn as the crowd filed off the street, he gently backed up and literally said "excuse me." He fucking apologized for almost interfering with a spontaneous street celebration. The whole thing was this beautifully raucous public expression of ecstatic politeness and rule-following. Living here can be just so hilariously awesome.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

She Blinded Me with Blindness

It's strange to go to a movie theater and watch a movie and come to a strong opinion about it and then to poke your head around Interspace and find that almost nobody agrees with you. That happened to me when I recently went to see "Blindness," the new movie by Fernando Meirelles, which, I think, is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. And indeed, most people (critics, I guess they're called) strongly, and with some ridicule, disagree with me. (The generally reliable Andrew O'Hehir goes so far as to call out the one lady who stood up and tearily applauded after a screening of the film at Cannes, while the rest of the audience--according to O'Hehir--counted their lucky stars the the movie was finally over. I'm with you lady.) Anyway, "Blindness" totally blew me away and I'd like to offer some thoughts as to why.

The crux of my difference with these critics seems to be a matter of interpretation. Most see the characters' sudden blindness as a metaphor for our taking for granted society's fragile stability; for the thin veil between political civility and anarchic violence; for our susceptibility to tyranny; for our willful ignorance of our own capacity for evil. There but for the grace of God go we humans, always and forever. (My guess--though I'd probably better admit right now that I haven't read it--is that these are the main themes of Saramago's novel.) These things are certainly at work in the film and the epidemic of blindness is indeed the narrative engine that propels these apocalyptic events. And I would agree with many critics that such events, although always worth taking seriously in this totally rad world of ours, are not necessarily the freshest cinematic fodder (the fact that I have Lord of the Flies as an easy, time-tested reference is testament enough to that) and that some of these elements come off, in the film, as a little trite. If this were your primary reading of the film (and particularly, I would imagine, if you were a fan of the book), Meirelles' disorienting visual style would seem obtrusive, occluding and at cross-purposes with the film's narrative and political message. I also think that you might tend to see many of the characters, nameless as they are, as conveying only symbolic meaning, as mere placeholders in the allegory.

But I think that there's something essentially filmic (and non-novelistic) here that goes deeper than the aforementioned political message. Novels have the verbal breathing room to create rich political and social worlds, fictionalized historical contexts and characters with multi-dimensional inner lives. As evidenced by way too many failed adaptations, it takes a very subtle touch to translate this into a visual language (See, "Children of Men,"). Its appropriate, then, that "Blindness" (the movie) pays only glancing notice to the larger political world, concentrating instead on the hermetic world inside the hospital, on movement, on physical and spatial relationships, on the characters' profound struggles to relearn their bodies and navigate space. So I actually found Meirelles' dark, disorienting visual style appropriate and really powerful. The film's overwhelming whiteouts and blackouts, its chaotic closeups, the darkness and blur on the frame's periphery all serve to undermine our (the viewers') trust in our own vision (a fairly ballsy step for a filmmaker, I'd say) and allow us to share the characters' claustrophobic, radically unstable perceptual experience. Much of the film's power centers on explorations of this experience. There are moments of incredible delicacy, as characters grope and stumble through space or desperately reach for each other. And there are moments of suspense and even real horror as we share in their profound, frantic lostness.

So let me suggest, then, that blindness is neither symbol nor metaphor but the very subject of the film itself. And, further, that the catastrophic events in the film--the government's totalitarian response to the crisis, the hospital's squalor, the anarchic decay of decency that occurs inside--are not simply the results of an extreme political crisis. They also, and maybe more importantly, illustrate the characters' total, violent perceptual reordering and reveal their gross lack of self-knowledge. "Blindness" is about people who have become so alienated from an authentic understanding of their own bodies and the world around them (and remember, viewer, that you too are implicated) that, without their vision, they are completely lost. The world has ceased to exist.

This, I think points to the significance of the characters' anonymity: their old self-conceptions have been erased; without their sight, they are blank slates, people just on the verge of coming into being. They are forced to totally refashion their selves, to discover new meanings in the world, to forge new communities and create new sacraments. This, despite the terrifying things that it forces you to witness is why I felt that "Blindness" is a basically hopeful film. It believes that this overwhelming newness and discovery is possible. It is primarily concerned with the experience of Being, with the ecstatic, sometimes painful process of awakening to the world--and it includes the viewer in that intimate experience. While watching it, and for a time afterwards, I felt incredibly physically aware of the most subtle sensations: plays of light and shadow; the feeling of water on skin; the warm, close aura of other bodies. Did I mention that I loved this movie?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sorry All Over The Place

I know it's painfully, romantically fan-ish to offer an encomium to some newly dead artist/hero. Like being suddenly gripped by the urge to plaster Antonioni posters on your wall when, maybe, you find it kind of hard or impossible to not fall asleep during The Passenger or L'Aventura. It smacks of an instant revisionism in which artists suddenly mean more in death than they did in life. I want no part of that. But I'll tell you that just a few weeks ago I finished Consider the Lobster, Mr. D.F. Wallace's most recent book of essays. In fact, the book was two feet in front of me, on my coffee table, when I got the text message explaining that the fellow who wrote it had hanged himself. Its still there, in fact (the book). And then that very same night, in (I admit) a fever of the aforementioned romanticism, I picked up Infinite Jest which is over 900 pages long. Over 1,000 if you count the footnotes. I'm almost embarrassed at serving up such a bandwagon-ish homage, but reading those books has reminded me just how much this one particular author has meant to me. So you'll have to forgive me for briefly going off like its 1994, Nirvana Unplugged on repeat.

First, an apologia. If you know anything about Wallace, the author, you probably know about the self-consciously fragmented nature of his prose; that it was shot through with digressions, footnotes and appendices; that nearly everything he wrote was longer, by far (see above) than any reader could reasonably be expected to tolerate. This occasionally seemed like fussy self-indulgence; it came to stand for everything that was silly and hermetic about postmodern fiction, earning Wallace some exasperated teasing in the process.

My guess is that he viewed his voluble, non-linear narrative style as an almost embarrassing necessity. But, a necessity nonetheless. Because I think these choices (/compulsions) reflect one of the most complex compromises of (post-post)modern life: how to reckon with, but not succumb to, the world's often unbearable speed and glare and noise and kaleidescopic moral complexity. How to face these terrifying facts, understand them from within, acknowledge their amazing allure and potential and the fact that they are inextricable from each of us--how to do this and still mount a passionate critique of the terrible human costs of this ridiculous, profane culture. Wallace seemed to know that if he wanted to avoid dismissive, self-righteous culture warrior condemnation, the kind of humorless, out-of-touch critique common among moralists both right and left, he would have to actually speak our culture's language, would have to reflect and inhabit the fractured, surreal fabric of contemporary discourse.

The result of this effort was, for me, one of Wallace's great contributions: a record of a spoken language; unbelievably literate, rigorously intellectual yet hilariously ironical and colloquial. He was fiercely and unapologetically apologetic, always qualifying his own ideas (often with dense, explanatory digressions), often skirting and even crossing the boundary of solipsism. This needy hedging and addending could be maddening, for sure, but as Troy Patterson points out in Slate, Wallace was insistent on making the reader aware that his voice was entirely subjective, entirely personal. As such, his ideas were always humble suggestions, never authoritative decrees. Despite his staggering breadth of knowledge and intellectual ability, he never affected the expert's tone. He knew that we were already subjected to daily torrents of unearned opinion masquerading as smug expertise. He viewed himself, instead, as a stand-in for the reader, a subjective observer with no special claim to authority, only a responsibility to honestly report what he saw and what he thought about it.

In this voice, Wallace made some work that has lodged itself in my internal organs to the extent that its hard for me to imagine a time before I knew it. Most notably: his beautiful essay on David Lynch which doubles as on-the-set profile and personal homage; an argument on television which charts the movement from counter-cultural irony to mainstream consumerist cynicism and ridicule; an ostensible review of a dictionary that became a 70-page history and treatise on the political import of written American usage; an article on the Main Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine that, we soon realize, is actually a meditation on the lobster's ability to feel pain and our complicity in its suffering; his coverage of the 2000 McCain campaign for Rolling Stone which, once again, far transcends his journalistic assignment and articulates both our deep need for a meaningful political discourse and our disgust at the state of current campaign politics. And, shit, Infinite Jest. Its an incredibly sad, incredibly funny book that is, in many ways, an example of Wallace's narrative style at its most distinctive. His voice is most somehow his own, even as it is refracted through myriad late-millennial vernaculars and perspectives (and hundreds of pithy, digressive footnotes): addled junky; radical separatist Quebecois; prep school Bostonian; futurist academic; AA sloganeering; avant-garde videography; absurdist ad copy and etc. And every word--every interior monologue and satiric, postmodern flourish--with such incredible heart. With such an unmistakable sense of, basically, giving a shit.

I guess what I'm saying is that when I read this stuff I get that rare feeling of seeing my own world (or an absurdist, imagined version of it) reflected. Of experiencing the relief of identification and real sympathy. In his voice, I've felt like I've heard a version of my own voice (though smarter, more articulate, better read) and I've heard the ceaselessly curious, funny and generous voices of some of the best people I know. These are people of unrelenting conscience, people who, unlike the great majority of cynical yelpers out there, are too humble and self aware to proclaim their own authority. The best way I can put how I feel about this: there's now one less kindred spirit, one less sympathetic voice pushing back on our culture's lonely, cruel banality. That really sucks.

I know that Wallace was intimately familiar with pain. He described, in the voice of Kate Gompert, a character in Infinite Jest, the feeling where "every cell and every atom or brain-cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn't, and you felt that way all of the time, and you're sure, you're positive the feeling will never go away, you're going to spend the rest of your natural life feeling like this." So, in a way I don't begrudge him his choice, no matter how much it hurt people that loved him and loved his work. What scares me is that here is someone who knew how shitty and painful life could be, but who bravely spoke up about it, who showed courage with almost every word he wrote, calling us out for our boredom and inattention and cruelty, whose work I so deeply identified with and...finally, he just decided it was too fucking hard. Where does that leave us, the people still out here? What are we supposed to do?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Confusion is Next, Oscar Edition

What really got to me was Denby's uncharitable reading of "No Country." (Here I'll be just assuming that you've seen this movie, mostly because I'm not feeling up to extensive plot summary--so there are plenty of spoilers and assumed knowledge) After taking the film to task for what he sees as the un-believability of the crime story narrative in general, and of Javier Bardem's monumentally homicidal bounty hunter anti-hero, Anton Chigurh, in particular--how is he never seen? how do the police not catch him? etc.--he gives us this:

"Some people have said that you cannot read the movie literally. Chigurh is Death, they say, a supernatural figure, a vengeful ghost...the ineffable spirit of Evil. But what do you do with the realistic body of the movie if you read this one element supernaturally?"

Now, I didn't come here to engage in a scene-for-scene on the effectiveness or believability of the film's crime narrative. I will say, though, that I was totally gripped by it and so was almost every single person I've talked to--and, you know, I feel like I know some pretty sophisticated film watchers. I'll also submit that the kind of "realism" typical of the crime genre, particularly its great villains, has always been a bit supernatural, has always resisted fact-based "real world" criticism, of the kind that Denby, rather cynically, offers. Finally, as Denby puts it himself, the film boasts “a formal precision and an economy that make one think of masters like Hitchcock and Bresson.” Movies that are this well crafted, this visually complete—not to mention deeply beautiful—create their own criteria for believability (I’m pretty sure it’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’). A story like this doesn’t work because the facts check out or because the plot is plausible, it works because the moral and visual world it creates is fully realized.

Denby is right in a way, though: it does break the rules of the film’s crime narrative if Chigurh is not actually meant to be a believable character, if he is meant to be merely symbolic in an arch, Bergman-esque way. And I realized, as I read those words, that this is exactly how I had been seeing that character: Chigurh is Death; death comes to us all; you can't stop what's comin': this is what the movie is about, lets all go watch "The Seventh Seal".

There is no doubt that the inevitability of death--and our own powerlessness in the face of it--is a major theme of the film, especially as expressed in Tommy Lee Jones' character, the maudlin Sherriff Ed Tom Bell "You can't stop what's comin'," says Ed Tom's paraplegic, painfully old brother "it ain't all waitin' on you--that's vanity." But there is a strange counterbalance to this sense of Biblical destiny. Carla Jean Moss, wife of the doomed hero Llewelyn, constantly pleads with her husband to give up on his ill-starred quest for wealth. And when Chigurh arrives to kill her, as he promised he would, but offers to spare her if she correctly calls a coin flip, she refuses to take part in the game. She chides Chigurh, telling him that he, not the random flip of a coin, can choose whether she lives or dies. How could this be? How can we have this kind of choice if death is our fated end? And how could Death himself possibly be held accountable for what he does?

Here, I think, is where the film's strange structure comes into play. For the most part, the movie does operate as a more-or-less traditional crime/film noir. The hero embarks on a mission into the underworld, from which he hopes to emerge unscathed, into a utopian future and, as seems preordained by plot mechanics and fate, meets a tragic end. But when the narrative arc does culminate as feared and expected, we are not even allowed to see the consummating event. What's more, Llewelyn is not even killed by Chigurh, his nemesis, but by a faceless gang of Mexican drug-runners who had been no more than side players (and dead bodies) throughout the majority of the film. It's a jarring and ignoble end to the journey; a total ("unforgivable" says Denby) anti-climax. What's more, just when the movie seems like it should be over, it proceeds to almost incoherently meander for twenty-odd more minutes: Chigurh is, with no narrative setup, badly hurt in a car accident; he has a grotesque, comedic conversation with two dumbstruck boys; Ed Tom recounts a series of dreams; the movie ends. It's open-ended and weird and put lots of viewers off.

The Coen's experimented with this kind of structural gambit in their under-appreciated "The Man Who Wasn't There," in which a fairly coherent film noir unravels into a quasi-mystic, sci-fi farce. But the strange, ambiguous interlude of random life in "No Country" is a little more pointed. I think that by undermining the integrity of the genre, the film is showing us that a single, familiar narrative scheme cannot possibly encompass the entirety of the film's world (and, by-proxy, our own world); that there are many strange, unpredictable, ridiculous, possibly boring things in the world beyond and outside of Llewelyn and Anton's bloody arc.

Most genre films seek to create a hermetic world in which the only possibilities for action are the ones presented by the expectations and conventions of the genre. We learn here, though, that the characters had a choice whether to embark on those familiar narrative paths. There is something extremely unsettling about the blank, un-contemplative way that Llewelyn makes the choices that lead him toward his death. And I think one of the real sources of terror in the Chigurh character is the way in which he abdicates his own will, as if his future actions--horrifying, murderous actions--had already been carried out. Both Llewelyn and Chigurh act as if they have no agency, as if their lives are bound to pre-written narratives.

Chigurh, then, does not incarnate (or represent) Death himself. Instead, he performs evil. It's a fine distinction--evil, after all, tends to deal primarily in death--but more than simply a semantic one. Death is transcendent; it comes to us from beyond the pale, from outside everything we can possibly understand. But evil is purely human; it is something that we do. As far as I can tell, evil is what happens when humans fancy themselves as agents of fate, fancy their own beliefs transcendent and then forcibly (often violently) impose that version of transcendence on others. So it surprises me that Denby would say, as he does, that Chigurh is unrecognizable as a character, a “trashy element” of the film. Because I think that he is eminently recognizable. The unbelievable abominations he commits; his sophistic, matter-of-fact rationales for committing them; the way he denies his own agency and secretes it into a protective cocoon of inevitability: these are horrifyingly familiar. Chigurh is no mythic avatar. He is the dumb, inexplicable, blank face of human cowardice, of human evil. I did not act; it was fate, it was history, it was God.

This unfortunate facet of human nature has always been a great boon to cruelty and institutional power, both as a method of self-justification and as a tool to manipulate average people into submission. It is no accident that all of the major male characters in the film are Vietnam veterans. For one thing, they have all been indoctrinated into a way of violence, have mastered its tools and techniques. But also, and at even greater spiritual toll, they are all practiced in enacting some other author's bloody story. Ed Tom is aware of this; it is the root of his stricken resignation, his worry at the condition of his soul. And he knows that Llewelyn should be just as aware. "He's seen the same things I seen," he says, "and they sure made an impression on me."

The insanely hard thing that this film asks you to do is to recognize that death is inevitable--"you can't stop what's comin'"--and then to act as if you are free. Act as if you are free even when consumer culture, when fundamentalist religions, when your own government all tell you that you have no choice, that opting out of their narrative is not an option. It's a matter of courage; this is why Carla Jean’s final, unbelievably courageous act is the film’s one truly heroic moment. She completely understands the reality of her situation. She knows and expects she's going to die and that Chigurh is going to kill her. Yet, she refuses to allow her fate to be decided by the chance flip of a coin, even though she knows it could save her life. She refuses to absolve Chigurh of his responsibility by allowing luck to decide: "It ain't no coin, it's you."

(Incidentally, I'm fascinated by the way that the Coens use women to critique the bloodlust and craven ambition of male protagonists. Reflecting back to Frances McDormand's pregnant, resolutely decent Marge Gunderson in "Fargo"--"all for a bit of money...I just don't understand it"--Carla Jean and Ed Tom's wife, Loretta, act as antidotes to the violent narrative of manliness. Carla Jean fights to bring the mute Llewelyn back from death. Loretta gently reminds Ed Tom to stay above the fray--"don't get hurt...don't hurt no one". They are the ones who show basic care for humanity, for life as a spiritual value.)

Here, I’ll sound one last note of amazement at the way the Coens unite the film’s formal and moral schemata. Pop narrative structures (in music, in literature, in visual culture) can be amazing and fun, but they can also too-easily change the shape of our expectations, teach us to buy into the stories that power tells us. That soothing familiarity brought about by a genre's alchemy of expectation and reward can cause us to uncritically accept certain narrative arcs as inevitable, can blind us to other possibilities. We begin to foreclose the possibility of anything outside of the familiar story and this foreclosure carries over into our real lives. In the character of Carla Jean, in the soulless trajectory of Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh’s story, “No Country” reminds us that real living is contingent on a certain courageous imagination. And it attempts to encode this reminder in the very experience of watching the film. It is unsettling to have our narrative expectations undermined just as it is uncomfortable and scary to imagine new kinds of living, to create our own stories. This is why art like this, why experiences of strange, foreign beauty, experiences of sublimely subverted convention are so important. Because, if you listen close, such experiences remind you that freedom is real, but that choosing it requires outrageous courage.

Confusion is Next

In a recent New Yorker, David Denby wrote a fairly backhandedly complementary piece on the Coen bros. Although the occasion for the essay was the brothers' Best Picture nomination (and eventual victory) for "No Country for Old Men," Denby proceeded to fairly seriously attack their entire body of work—and the films he does claim to like, he damns with faint praise. Basically, it fell into the tried-and-true "master-craftsmen, but cruel and cold" school of Coens criticism, a school with which I almost entirely disagree. Just so you know, this post started out as a letter to the editor and a conversation with my Dad. Two posts and 3,000 words later...(also, don't know why internet persists in single spacing the last half. Internet is magic.)

Denby spends quite a bit of time critiquing the Coens often burlesque treatment of supporting characters, which he finds cruel. What’s more, they hold up all of their characters as objects of ridicule, not as fully-formed people with whom we are meant to sympathize. He argues that the Coens’ films are neither sufficiently reverential of film history, nor sufficiently humanistic. Rather, they are cold parodies of earnest genres with a strong dose of elitist misanthropy at their core. At the center of this argument is a two-pronged observation: 1) the Coens’ characters are backward and stupid. 2) They are ridiculed and punished for their stupidity. Denby on the brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple”:
“What interests the Coens is how foolishly people behave, and how little they understand of what they’re doing. The lovers keep misreading signs and misperceiving what’s going on. The Coens may be the first major filmmakers since Preston Sturges to exploit the dramatic possibilities of stupidity. In Sturges’s movies, however, you don’t feel that the rubes and yokels are being put down. […] In [the Coens] world, stupidity leads to well-deserved disaster.”

This statement is the central misinterpretation in the piece. I’ve always understood “Blood Simple” in particular, and the greater portion of the Coens’ earlier work in general, to be, not a treatise on human stupidity, but a demonstration of the failure of information. It’s true that the characters constantly misinterpret, but only because they don’t’ have access to the viewer’s omniscient perspective; they can’t possibly know that their information is wrong until it’s too late. The subtle misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity build over the course of the film and culminate in a climax in which literally none of the characters’ assumptions are correct. It is not that “stupidity leads to disaster” but that the breakdown of truth-correspondence is, itself, the disaster. Certainly, there’s no shortage of human malice and cruelty, but the main characters are victims of this malice and of the radically untrustworthy world in which they find themselves.

Deception and tragic misunderstanding have been narrative engines since forever, but the very structure of “The Big Lebowski,” subsists almost entirely on misinformation. The film, at first, seems to be a story of a kidnapping and subsequently blown ransom, with various groups and individuals serving as the chief suspects. It’s handled as farce, sure, but at least there seems to be a reliable plot. But, as the film proceeds, every single one of our assumptions turns out to be false; none of the usual suspects turn out to be culpable. In fact, there’s no kidnapping at all and no ransom money; in fact, the real heart of the movie truly is a stoner, The Dude, attempting to replace his urine-soaked carpet.

It’s true that, as Denby says, the film’s incredible likeability derives from its goofy sweetness, but it is not simply “ a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling.” There is a radical skepticism at work here that is far from harmless. Though he is reportedly an author of the Port Huron Statement, The Dude has one of the most hilariously limited vocabularies in history. What’s more, he and his bowling buddies—the John Milius-inspired, maniac ‘Nam vet, Walter, and the loveable but vacuous Donnie—subsist mostly on repeated clich├ęs and sayings, most of which are recycled media sound-bytes (particularly H.W.’s pre-Gulf War national address). And the entire film takes place within this absurd, perfectly L.A. milieu of performance art, radical nihilism, pornography and freeways, a world in which both plot and language have been revealed to be empty of content. It would be hard to find a more complete (and funny) treatise on millennial culture and the decay of meaning-based discourse.

I see “The Big Lebowski” as the culmination of the Coens fascination with the unreliability of formerly stable structures: narrative, political idealogy, language itself. To me, the characters are not so much fools, as prisoners of a world in which the traditional modes of communication are inadequate. This is definitely cynical, and the worlds they create are full of people at their worst, but its not misanthropic. In fact, the Dude’s gentle nature and the sweet, funny way in which the Coens handle his story—and, I think, the comedic tone of all their films as well as their obvious enjoyment of film culture—points to a real tender-heartedness, a real sympathy for the ridiculous fix we’re in.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Sad and Young

Well, I just finished watching the carnival of humiliation, cruelty and machismo that is the Super Bowl. And that was just the commercials. Zing! Strangely, despite my own general disgust at the kind of power the Patriots represent and despite my good friend David's relentless, brilliant and hilarious deconstructions of the Pats' blandly vile aesthetic, I found myself desperately rooting for New England to pull the game out. And fully sickened when they didn't.

I have a couple of thoughts on why this might be. Obviously. Because this is a blog. First, I don't exactly share most people's adoration of the underdog. I mean, I can go for the occasional miraculous upset, especially at the high school and college levels. But mostly I like whichever team or player does the most amazing things and if that inclines me toward the traditional powerhouse from time to time, well that's the way it goes. To me "parity", the NFL's great egalitarian mission, has stood more for boredom and mediocrity, for the conservatism and fear of risk that has come to dominate the league, sucked it of its spontaneity and, well, amazingness.

More importantly, I think if we are to be honest with ourselves we'd realize that there aren't really any lovable underdogs in most professional sports and definitely not in the NFL. Sure there are shitty teams, but everyone subscribes to the same drab, faceless corporatism; the same fetishization of the body; the same exaltation of martial virtue; the same resentment of weakness; the same cruel exploitation of human frailty. The Patriots ruthlessness, their cold displays of power...these are things that every team in the NFL aspires to. Without a doubt the Giants and Tom Coughlin, their craggy, misogynist, fag-hating (probably, probably), gym-teacher/drill sergeant/sociopath of a coach aspire to this too. Depressingly, I also shared this fascination with the Patriots' ability to methodically wield their power. They certainly weren't spontaneous or much fun, but holy shit they were still unbelievably good. I realize that the part of me that still likes football at all--the part that still connects to the little kid in thrall to the armored, uniformed pageantry of a team on the field--that part can't help but respect the Patriots' basic effectiveness. This is not a fascination that makes me feel very good about myself.

The Patriots and the league and the whole fucking country exalt quantifiable success above just about anything else and what really bums me out about this game is that, although this is a huge upset, the Giants' victory does nothing to upset this order. No matter what incredible things this New England team has accomplished--the majestically powerful offense with their numerous scoring records--they, and everyone else, have staked their entire season on this all-or-nothing view of success. That only the end result justifies the effort. To me, this loss reinforces this view even more than a Patriots victory would have. At least if they had won, all of that incredible success would have been validated, would have actually meant something. Now, in the eyes of the league and the culture and probably the team itself, their entire year is just a footnote in someone else's narrative of victory, the forgettable story of just another losing team. When we view ourselves, our work, our lives this way, even our victories seem hollow and unsatisfying. This sick, inevitable, empty feeling makes me tell myself, as I seem to every year at about this time, that I'll never watch another pro football game again.