I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.
In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.
We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.
America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.
“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.
This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.
If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.
Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them in its image.
I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.
Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”
But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.
Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:
“A world of fear and treachery in torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy, everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. “
In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.
When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.
I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.
So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?
“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.
Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.
But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not. Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.
One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla, Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.
Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.
“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”
One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.
In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.
While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.
Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.
Guy Fawkes, 1605, plotted to blow up
his reasons were religious or something –
he was Catholic – or Protestant –
malcontent – psychopath –
(in truth, his grievances are lost to history
or even if they’re not, they’re quite irrelevant to this case) –
and he was guilty found.
How in hell did Fawkes haul two tonnes of gunpowder
into the basement of Parliament without anyone knowing??
I suspect a conspiracy.
King James I, who gave us The Bible,
but had the power to bend the rule ad hoc in extremis,
and he did.
James recommended the “gentler tortours” be applied first,
and then, well, you know, after that do what you have to do.
Fawkes signed his confession dutifully
with a line like a child’s drawing of waves.
The trial dragged on for a couple days.
Fawkes’ co-conspirators – a bunch of
stupid fucks with no names –
cried out their innocence,
even up to the commencement of hanging, drawing, and quartering.
A mighty throng – throng so mighty! –
assailed Parliament to behold the swelling scene!
So many young men and women of England,
so strong in body, so wise in their simplicity,
so generous with their goods,
so fearful of god,
so devoted to their king,
grown men wept to behold the assembled
pure stock vouchsafing England’s future. Amen.
They cheered as each conspirator was hoisted,
and, kicking, opened like a hog,
their sausages removed in bulk,
the craftsman-torturer heaving on the guts
like a man trying to pull a boy out of a well,
clipping a strip of white connective veil,
here and there, to make the whole thing
come out neat.
Sure, some stayed living for quite some minutes
and all that jazz you know.
Later they would cut the cocks off and toy
with them, stick them in each others faces
and say, “Oh, you make me so horny, give sucky sucky please?”
Obviously, they daren’t do such a thing
in front of Parliament. Or ladies.
But back at barracks, they could unwind a bit.
The arms and legs were separated publicly.
This was part of the ritual.
People expected it,
and they cheered like hell as each limb came loose.
When one executioner clowned with the right leg
of Robert Keyes conspirator,
the groundlings laughed.
But a conservative MP fumed
and said a mockery was being made of justice,
and he would make the saucy fellow pay for it
and maybe he would think twice next time.
Fawkes was left till last.
They wanted him first to watch it,
then after he watched it, he would mount
the scaffold it was going to be so great!
He ascended slowly,
like a grandmother afeared of a fall, hips
and shoulders barely holding true after weeks on the rack.
The rope –
limp, sleeping, and really thick too –
was looped over his neck,
and the crowd giggling glee,
to see it all
(Some ladies later reported to their maids that, well…
“A queer feeling, as like I would nurse a babe or – or – ”),
and Guy Fawkes, finally at the top, was heard to say,
So he took the plunge, a big jump forward, and out –
the hangman slapping his ass as he went,
saying “You go, girl!!” –
a jump enough to snap Fawkes’ neck and kill him. Ha!
The crowd had been robbed of the pleasure
of seeing the live body writhe
under the torturer-craftsman’s tools.
But they cheered anyway.
And then cheered when Fawkes steaming dead man’s guts
And then cheered as each limb
And the head too,
gray-faced and gray-bearded,
looking like the face of a man in prayer or on the verge of orgasm,
they cheered at that, when the head came off.
And when it was displayed to all
like the next item up for auction,
Eyewitnesses wrote the crowd felt “joy”.
And we watched the whole thing on tv, didn’t we?
We were there.
And there too.
And we were in there,
and in there.
Every part of that meat was ours.
And we cheered too to know it was accomplished.
We squeezed each other so tightly round the neck,
we came in our pants.
Occupy Wall Street is almost certainly the most important democratic movement of the 21st century. It has inspired everyone across the political spectrum (Oh, come on. Yes, it has. Don’t be shy, you conservatives. Come on out. You can hate corporate corruption too).
Movies entertain, sure – and entertainment is very important, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but movies also encourage, spark debate, instruct, inform, and invite us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You might not have know this. It’s a carefully guarded secret.
Here’s a proposed film festival for Occupy Wall Street protestors around the world and for those inspired by them and even for those not sure yet what side of the fence they’re on – maybe especially for them. Just a few suggestions for your rental queue or your local indy cinema from my list of favorites.
What films would you add? What films help you to envision the world you want to live in? Or warn you away from the one you don’t?
So there I was thinking about the future, when I began to worry – very much worry – about the safety of U.S. President George W. Bush – and V.P. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove and Condie and, oh, everyone.
As we all know, the office of President has acquired the power to declare any American citizen an Enemy Combatant and so order their immediate arrest and indefinite detainment. So I’m very worried that the next President – the one to be elected in 2008 – could turn out to be the conniving, ruthless, chick-with-something-to-prove, Hilary Clinton. And that she will … well … I can hardly say it … she will immediately declare, as her first act in office, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Condi, et al. – because of their so-called “crimes” – Enemy Combatants.
I wouldn’t have worried so much about this a few years ago, but now the law now clearly and unambiguously allows a President draw up his (or her) own list of Enemy Combatants, and to subject them to indefinite solitary confinement. No charge is required, just Mrs. Clinton’s conviction that it is so is legally sufficient.
Hey, while she’s at it, how about …
… Kenneth Star. Gennifer Flowers too. Why not Monica Lewinsky, that tramp? And has Bill outlived his usefulness? Her first E.C. declaration might be painful, but it should get easier over time.
Of course, all those Combatants would get a right to a military tribunal. Sweet deal when you’re the Commander In Chief.
Hilary Clinton is a merciless opportunist who makes Lady Macbeth look like Desdemona. All intelligent people accept this as true. Don’t they? So how will President G.W. Bush get himself out of this pickle?
I know what I’d do, if I was him.
I’d stay President for as long as I possibly could.
Yes, like rats fleeing the sinking ship, we have left the United States of America and have landed on these Shores Of Freedom, this Rock Of Justice that is the United King-dom, a country where you can’t trim your toenails without it being recorded by a video camera.
Even in Hyde Park yesterday, as Janet and I fed crows and squirrels peanuts and potato crisps, I was sure that there must be cameras in the trees.
Cameras in the trees. Cameras in the trees!
Oh, I know how that sounds.
But if you were here, you would see the truth. You would understand.
Why, even as I sit typing here at the Internet Cafe, I look up and, at a glance, spot 3 cameras staring down from the corners of the room (there are more than 3 corners to this room, I just can’t be bothered to look over my shoulder) – not to mention the webcams perched at each individual computer station, staring like surprised cyclopes.
The upside to all these cameras around town is that your much more likely to get on TV. Judging from this past week’s viewing 75% of British television features someone being caught on hidden camera. In fact, one of the shows we were treated to on Friday night was soley dedicated to the phenomenon of private celebrity sex tapes being leaked to the public. It was appalling trash, this programme, but we watched it anyway – for cultural research purposes.
All these cameras around might make some people very nervous and, true, it does unnerve me a bit. But my exhibitionism luckily just outweighs my paranoia. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking about getting dressed up more often, just for the cameras.
“Why, the QUEEN!” I answer indignantly. “The QUEEN! The Queen of all of us! Queen Elizabeth II of the Rose and Crown and Elephant and Castle of the Garter of Tudor. The QUEEN!!”
“Oh, her,” scoffeth you, “She’s just like you and me. She’s just a human being.”
No, she ain’t.
I have heard Queen Elizabeth II speak. Or give speeches, at least – which is very similar to speaking. I even have seen the Royal Her in the flesh once or twice. She came down to the University of Kent at Canterbury when I was there, with her hubby in tow, and some of the rest of The Family (that guy with the ears, who was married to that blonde who died – he came) to open the university’s new vertebrate vivisection wing.
It rained that day. I’d like to think it was the Queen’s divine juju power that brought the rain. Or did it snow? Actually, now that I think about it … yeah … it snowed. Either one, I’m sure the Queen was responsible.
But, yes, I’ve heard The Queen speak. I’ve seen her speak her Christmas address. And The Queen speaks good. Not like an American, no. No, she speaks like someone from another country. THAT is how good of a speaker she is.
I think one of the things that makes The Queen such a good speaker and speeches-maker is her choice of words to use when speaking them. To prove this, I did some research. I just adore facts and figures. I arrived at some startling results, which I will share here with you, the world (although soon I hope to publish in one of the academiac journals!!).
For your study:
10 Words The Queen Has NEVER Used
And that’s what separates Her Majesty from the rest of us.