Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Joker" reviewed

Joker is a very good movie and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perhaps the finest of his career. Given his CV, that’s saying a lot. The movie made $96 million in its first weekend, breaking the record for movies opening during the month of October. It has an 89 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find all the fanfare and acclaim encouraging because Joker is not a Star Wars or a comic book movie, even if it does indeed feature an iconic comic book character. (It’s more Taxi Driver than Venom.) It’s serious, it’s got a whiff of indie in it, and the subject matter is timely. It would be great if our blockbusters were more On Golden Pond than Logan, but if we must tell the origin story of a comic book character to get people to watch stories of social significance, then, well, so be it.

It’s amazing that one of the biggest box office hits of the year is actually a sad movie that places your feet in the shoes of the most disadvantaged. You feel the Joker’s loneliness, his rage, his pain. It’s been suggested that the inspiration behind the Joker’s character is a group of men known as “incels.” “Incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” commiserate with one another in the dark corners of the Internet and often digitally terrorize women. Self-avowed incels have committed at least four recent mass shootings, including Californian incel Elliot Rodger in 2014. I’m not sure if the filmmakers consciously decided to tell an “incel” story, but I think the suggestion is more than appropriate, given that the Joker is a lonely and disturbed man who violently responds to the frustrations and injustices that make up his daily existence.

This movie doesn’t glamorize violence, though it does have something to say about why some violence happens. And critics (I think wrongly) have scorned the movie because it humanizes a common and unquestioned villain—the disaffected white man. Some critics refuse to watch it, and goad others not to watch it, perhaps because swapping fury with pity and reexamining long-held beliefs and reshaping long-drawn identities are unpleasant contortions for one’s psyche to endure. In a viral tweet that got 55K likes and 16K retweets, Rachel Miller writes, 

I don't want to watch a movie that shows us the trauma that drove the Joker insane. I don't want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass murderer. I don't want to watch a man get rejected by women as an excuse for his future of domestic abuse. I don't want to be shown what a poor, unfortunate underdog this man was who was sadly forced by circumstances… to take up a life of crime. I don't want to have sympathy for a man best known for his robbery, murder and arguable rape shoved down my throat for two hours. I don't want this to be sold as a relatable story that can happen to anyone with a bad enough day, and I don't want to be around any of the lonely white boys who relate to it… I don't know if there ever is a good time for a movie that paints mass murder as the logical conclusion of a socially isolated debatably neurodivergent white man being failed by the system, but I feel as though this is not fucking it.

CNN writer Jeff Yang says Joker is an “insidious validation of the white-male resentment.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, doing his best to find racial themes where there aren’t any, says “Joker is an intensely racialized movie” suffering from “obliviousness.” More Twitter: David Lo Pun-ch Nazis warns that Joker looks like “a sympathetic tale of a ‘wronged by society’ white dude and their entitlement to violence.” Hilary gro writes “is it really the best thing to keep making movies that portray disaffected white men doing violence as sympathetic?” (Credit to Alex Abad-Santos at Vox for the Twitter research.)

It’s as if these critics and tweeters are saying, “I don’t want to watch something that may get me to think about a group of people in a more compassionate and nuanced way.” Perhaps I’m being a little unfair: to give them the benefit of the doubt, the critics may simply be saying that the trajectory to violence in Joker is not in accord with up-to-date psychological research and the movie is therefore unenlightening, even counterproductive. If that’s the case, fair enough. But I disagree. The other thing about these tweets that amazes me is how incels (or “lonely white boy[s]” “white dude[s],” or “disaffected white men”) are almost universally mocked and ridiculed, and their misfortunes dismissed. I don’t want to sound alt-right or a member of men’s-rights group, but I want to push back against the trend of using the term “white man” as a pejorative. The term, slowly approaching the synonymity of “Nazi,” is bandied about by normally-thoughtful people with a carefreeness and nonchalance that is as troubling as it is unexamined. (I’ve had several conversations with people who, with startling casualness, condemned the “straight, white, male” identity to someone who is, well, a straight, white male.) Has it not occurred to these folks that one can be both a white, straight, man AND downtrodden? That we’re not all sexist ass-grabbing bosses or racist planet-ending CEOs? That we’re not all doing well?

Joker gives us a face to all the men (and women, too, but allow me to continue focusing on men) who are struggling. Cultural expectations of masculinity demand that men share less with one another. Men have fewer friends, and they experience more emotional isolation (which, research shows, is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking). In the U.K., 18 percent of men say that they don’t have a close friend and 35 percent report feeling lonely at least once a week. Twice as many men die of drug overdoses than women. Between 1999 and 2010 in the U.S., the rate of suicide among men in their fifties rose by 50 percent, which some analysts say has as much to do with isolation as economic anxieties. (This isn’t to say that other demographic groups have it easier, but allow me to continue to exclusively speak for a demographic that we dare not speak of with pity or compassion.) Perhaps next time we mock or ridicule incels or non-thriving white men, we should at least take a moment to reflect on how our society also leaves many of them behind, how our culture sometimes deprives them of essential human nutrients, and how the absence of these things can drive a person mad. After a school shooting, it feels good and reassuring to hurriedly channel our grief into an easy and accessible emotion — righteous anger — rather than doing the work to scrutinize our atomized, competitive, and lonesome society for manufacturing so much despair. Instead, we call them cowards, and losers, and hateful, and move on.

I have been blessed with a functioning-enough brain and okay-enough looks to have done okay in the dating department, but I’ve tasted enough loneliness and social invisibility to be able to comprehend, and thus sympathize with, men who are more substantially deprived. Most of us, though, would rather joke about how such a person can’t get a date, how they just need to hit the gym, or how, as white men, they have outsized notions of privilege. We’re trained to think, “Too bad! Buck Up. Your kind has had its advantages for long enough” (which is an unfair abstraction to impose on an individual who may not have, thus far, ever experienced any of these advantages). It’s as if we believe that a shoulder to cry on, a hug, and sexual attention are luxuries to be fought over in the marketplace of intimacy, not vital human needs to be generously dispersed in the human community. “Joker,” in this way, is doing something that ought not need doing: It provides a compelling portrait of an oppressed person who our society doesn’t want to see and who our society definitely doesn’t want to call oppressed.

I’m guessing that, regardless of our demographic (though maybe not so much the seriously-well-off), we’ve all felt oppressed by an unfair world. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has turned against you. Movies like I, Daniel Blake or Falling Down capture this. We’ve all been there. A small medical procedure ends up costing you thousands. Your landlord doubles your rent. You’re trying to sort out a bill over the phone and the call drops after having been on hold for half an hour. Your car is making a funny noise. You’re paying too much for your phone bill. The cable company increases its rates yet again. You live with a daily onslaught of unforeseen and outrageous bills, taxes, and fees. The U.K., where I live now, has it’s share of problems, but at least here in Scotland we have free health care, a year’s worth of mostly-paid maternity leave, free undergraduate education, and the right to roam. Sometimes I think what passes for normal in the U.S. is borderline inhumane, and enough to drive us all mad. I still have one foot in North America, though. Just last week, I transferred a large sum of money from my U.S. bank to my U.K. bank, and my U.S. bank (Citizens Bank) unknowingly gave me an unfairly low currency exchange rate, stealing $1,000 from me. Later on, I called to inquire about the rate and they said I should have asked for a higher exchange rate. How the fuck am I supposed to know that I can haggle about a currency rate? Shouldn’t my bank try to help me? How can something so unjust exist? Has the world gone fucking crazy? It’s moments like these (and I feel comfortable saying this because I assume we’ve all felt this way) when we just want to blow the whole world up. We want to give expression to our rage. We want to punish the unfairness of the system. We want to push over a shelf in a supermarket, heave a brick through a bank’s glass wall, or just violently explode. It’s always just a passing thought, to be drowned beneath a beer, drained into the sewers of our psyche, or maybe, hopefully, cancelled out and forgotten by the good deed of someone else. But we get these thoughts when our rage reaches a rolling boil, and it’s then when I think I can begin to understand why those with fewer psychological resources commit atrocities. It’s partly because atrocities have been committed on them.

And (spoilers here) this brings me to my sole criticism of Joker. Society indiscriminately tortured the Joker, but the writers didn’t have the courage to let the Joker indiscriminately get his revenge on society. When the Joker kills the show host, played by Robert De Niro, he’s surgically seeking revenge, expressing his rage by discarding just a few bad apples. What really needs to happen, for complete catharsis (for both the audience and the Joker) is for him to take aim at the audience, who represents the greater society. We need the Joker to be more like Carrie, who, in a fit of rage in the 1976 movie, burns alive her allies as well as her enemies. In that movie, it feels weirdly right and good and true because we’ve all been in that mental space before. And such a scene serves an important warning to us all: treat one of us without dignity and we may all pay. In its final act, Joker, though a mostly-bold and ultimately good movie about how indignities lead to violence, pulled a punch.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Movie reviews from this week

I had a nice 5-for-5 movie binge this week. Rapid-fire reviews….

American Factory (available on Netflix) is a documentary that juxtaposes U.S. and Chinese working cultures. My dad, who’s been a factory worker in the U.K./U.S. for over fifty years, watched the movie and said the depiction of the Americans’ inferior work ethic is accurate. And while I was impressed with the efficiency and dedication of the Chinese workers, I found something disturbing in how the Chinese have normalized work as the principal component of their lives, seemingly prioritizing it over family, leisure, religion, or individual pursuits. The most striking scene was when the Chinese factory workers lined up for attendance and yelled out their work-number in sequence, as if they were soldiers. I asked my dad if his coworkers would ever do such a thing and he laughed and said, “that’s unAmerican.” This Chinese company (an automotive glass manufacturer) seems to have managed to persuade their employees that they’re working not just for themselves, but for the company and their country. The Chinese workers seem to have bought into this and they’re consequently driven by a higher purpose to sacrifice and work harder. The Americans, on the other hand, are only in it for the paycheck and probably half-resent having to spend forty hours a week doing mostly monotonous labor. The Chinese way is kind of creepy, but wouldn’t it be nice if we felt a little pride in our company and what we made? Have American factory workers ever felt this way (perhaps toward companies that provided good wages and benefits)? Or was it always about making a living? I’ve had a knee-jerk sense of resentment for every corporation I’ve worked for (Tops Supermarkets, Home Depot…), and I’m wondering if this is an unhealthy and irrational compulsion, or the trait of a people who are enlightened enough to know better than to buy into a company’s self-serving propaganda. There’s probably a good and ideal middle ground in which (with fair wages and benefits) we can be proud of our company without weirdly weaving it into our identities or allowing it to dominate our lives.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (Netflix). When I think back on this movie, it seems as if it was about everything and nothing. It doesn’t have anything new to say, but, as with all of Moore’s movies, I was entertained and disturbed (and my blood intermittently boiled) from start to finish.

Fatal Attraction. I watched this because it was featured on “The Rewatchables” podcast. The chemistry between the Michael Douglass-Glenn Close (and Michael Douglass-Anne Archer) characters was riveting, and I was entertained and horrified throughout. The subject is timeless: the temptation to philander and the fear of the consequences. The ending, though, was too commercial, and I don’t think the original and deleted ending (with Glenn Close committing suicide) would have been any better. It was a good movie that never found a good conclusion.

Mother! (Netflix). I’ve read that the movie is a metaphor for climate change. I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what it was about and what everything is meant to symbolize (the strange crystal in the writing den?), but the movie was like a disturbing dream, and if a movie sufficiently disturbs me, that’s usually enough for me to give it a thumbs up.

Once upon a Time in Hollywood. I’d more or less given up on Tarantino. I found Django and Hateful Eight too tedious and verbose. (Tarantino’s dialogue veers into zones of the eye-rolling surreal at times.) And I also have a strong distaste for Hollywood movies about Hollywood. But I loved this movie. I didn’t know where it was going and I didn’t know what it was (a modern-day Western) until it was over and done with.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Fall 2019 speaking tour schedule

Thur. Sept. 5 - Kenyon College (Gambier, OH), 7 p.m., Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery, 101 1/2 College Drive, Gambier, Ohio 43022

Fri. Sept 6 - St. Edward High School (Lakewood, OH)

Mon. Sept. 9 - High Point University (High Point, NC), noon

Tue. Sept. 10 - Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, VA), 7:30 p.m., Gilmer Hall 019

Thur. Sept. 12 - Virginia Wesleyan University (Norfolk, VA), 11 a.m., Blocker Hall Auditorium

Mon. Sept. 16 - University of Scranton (Scranton, PA), 6 p.m., Moskovitz Theatre

Tue. Sept. 17 - West Chester University (West Chester, PA), 5:30 p.m., Sykes Student Union Theater 

Wed. Sept 18 - Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA), 7:30 p.m. The Event Space

Fri. Sept. 20 - Donnelly College (Kansas City, KS), 2 p.m., Events Center (reservation required)

Mon. Sept. 23 - Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, PA),  7 p.m., Life Sciences and Philosophy Building 142

Tue. Sept. 24 - Haverford / Bryn Mawr College (Haverford, PA), 6:30 p.m., Dalton Room 300

Wed. Sept. 25 - Iona College (New Rochelle, NY) 

Fri. Sept. 27 - Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH)

Mon. Sept. 30 - University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH)

Tue. Oct. 1 - Endicott College (Beverly, MA)

Wed. Oct. 2 - Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY) 

Thur. Oct. 3 - Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT), 12:30 p.m., The Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, The Orchard (Room 103)

Fri. Oct. 4 - University of Albany (Albany, NY) 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Trip to the Isle of Lewis and Harris

The following are photos from a recent trip to the Isle of Harris and Lewis, one island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with two names. 

Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. These stones were erected sometime between the years 2900-2600 BCE.

This sheep's wool will likely be transformed into a Harris Tweed outfit.

Tarbert, Harris

Monday, July 22, 2019

Let’s learn how to live well, before we live forever

“The man who has lived the most is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life. Men have been buried at one hundred who died at their birth.” - Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Emile

Why prolong life if life is barely worth living?

I'm thinking of all the futurists out there, who talk about developing technologies to prolong human life or end the process of aging.

Joe Rogan has these guys on his podcast all the time. Harvard professor David Sinclair says we should consider aging a disease, as if it's the flu or tuberculosis. “It’s only because we all tend to go through [aging]," Sinclair said, "that we think it’s acceptable.”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, spends a good portion of his sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, talking about the future of humankind. Harari points to a number of emerging initiatives, like the Gilgamesh Project, which aims to make humans immortal by eradicating all diseases. He predicts that we will become higher-functioning cyborgs (with computer implants and robotic enhancements) and that we will have far more control over our children’s genes. Harari excitedly writes on his website that, “Humans are going to upgrade themselves into gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that in the past were considered divine, such as eternal youth, mind reading, and the ability to engineer life.”

Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist, advocates for technology that will allow us to upload our consciousnesses into machines, so that our minds, if not our bodies, can be immortal.

I am not against even the whackiest of these endeavors, but I am a bit bothered that these thinkers and their followers are entirely focused on prolonging human life before we’ve done the good work of improving human life. They talk about being transhuman before we've figured out how to best be human. They talk about living forever before we've learned the art of living well.

I realize that life has improved for many. Technology has helped to reduce global poverty and we've pretty much done away with wars. Steven Pinker says humankind, in many ways, has never had it better. I acknowledge that we’ve raised the standard of living, but I’m skeptical that we have done well to improve the quality of living. We're more peaceful, more literate, and fewer infants die at birth. But our long lives are often empty. Our cities are safer, but our communities are dead. Our peaceful times lack meaning and adventure. Our kids grow up depressed and addicted to screens.

Fertilizers, vaccines, GMO crops, and a thousand other technologies support almost 8 billion people, many of whom are rapidly advancing out of poverty. But I wonder if this is a bit like the Neolithic Revolution (a term that describes our species's transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder). Historian Jared Diamond calls the transition to farming humanity's "worst mistake." Yuval Noah Harari says the farming/herding livelihood kept "more people alive in worse conditions." When hunter-gatherers were compelled to begin domesticating crops and animals, they lost their egalitarian societies and their varied and nutritious diets. They were suddenly exposed to slavery, taxation, epidemics, and grueling labor. In becoming sedentary subjects of the state and masters of the plow, they gained a lot, but they lost arguably more.

My point is that peace and prosperity and technology do not automatically lead to the good life. Progress can be existentially fatal.

Let’s look at the quality of life for the average American. Yes, he can vote, he’s free to buy his own home, and his doctors will keep him alive longer. But this is still a person who has bad habits, bad health, bad character, bad education, bad work, bad relationships, and bad deals.

1. Bad Habits 

- The average American spends ten hours a day looking at screens, including 4.5 hours watching shows and movies.

- The average American household watches 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV every day.

- Americans spend 7 percent of their life outdoors. (87 percent is spent indoors, 6 percent in vehicles.)

- 47,000 Americans committed suicide in 2017, the highest rate in the last half century.

- 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, which is four times as many deaths from overdose since 1999.

2. Bad Health

- According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, 41 percent of Americans qualify as sedentary for not getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

- In 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that, among Americans over twenty years old, 71 percent are overweight and 38 percent are obese.

- More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.

- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.

- In the 2015–2016 school year, “half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns.” (Quote is from Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which cites a 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.)

- According to Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, the percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%)… One out of every seven women at U.S. universities now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder, up from just one in eighteen women.

3. Bad character

- 62 million Americans voted for Donald Trump.

4. Bad education 

- I’m just going to quote this paragraph from Slate. I don’t mean to make this a partisan issue by pointing out Republican stupidities, but the Slate piece provides a nice summary that does the work for me:

As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels”... A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim… Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time… Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama, insisted that the former were larger.

5. Bad Work

- According to author Matthew Crawford of Shop Class as Soul Craft, American workers are increasingly experiencing “manual disengagement.” We aren’t growing crops, or making or manufacturing products anymore. Many of us now are cashiers and clothes-folders, which are jobs that many of us consider monotonous, meaningless, and unfulfilling.

- According to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, “a YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40 percent.”

6. Bad relationships 

- The AARP reports that 42 percent of Americans over age 45 experience chronic loneliness.

- 40 percent of U.S. adults report feeling alone, 47 percent feel “left out,” 27 percent feel misunderstood, 43 percent feel they’re relations are not meaningful, and 43 percent feel isolated. Generation Z (born after 1995) are the loneliest generation.

7. Bad deals 

- According to The Motley Fool, almost all of us are in debt. (81 percent of baby boomers are in debt, plus 80 percent of Gen Xers and 81 percent of Millennials.)

- If America's 2.2 million prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S., behind Houston and ahead of Phoenix.


What's all that about living forever? Who would want to live forever with lives like these? Perhaps a healthy, wealthy, well-educated man or woman from the Bay Area.

But I don't wish to shame these futurists for their prosperity or their desire to create history-changing technologies. And I'm no Luddite. If someone wants to upload their consciousness into their Toshiba, I won't unplug the power cord. I myself wouldn't mind an anti-aging vaccine or another 100 years.

I'm not against the futurists. But I think it might serve the futurist movement well if they did a better job acknowledging how life isn't all that great now, and that their beloved technologies haven't always improved it. They ought to say upfront that, in addition to researching mind-blowing technologies, we should also vigorously address the many problems people face today. And they should probably be less cocky and more cautious, and their government regulators should be substantial and scrupulous.

And I suppose I wish there was a well articulated and well packaged modern-day movement (that has nothing to do with these futurists) that outlines and calls for a mastering of the art of how to live.

I respect these innovators and I do believe they mean well. But I'm skeptical that the future is our best future. I believe we'd learn more about how to live well, not from the mind-bending visions of futurists, but from the examples of our ancestors. We need tighter communities, fewer screens, healthier foods, more nature, more fulfilling work, more physical activity, and more equality. No app will provide these things. I believe we would be more likely to find inspiration for what makes our lives most livable, not 20 years in the future, but 20,000 years into the past.