Monday, October 27, 2003

"GROSSE POINTE BLANK" IS AMORAL? Weird-o. I thought it was one of the most blatantly moral films of the 1990s. I mean, "have babies and stop killing people" doesn't seem hyper-subtle to me. It struck me as the funny, non-nihilist, sadder-but-wiser, and did I mention funny? version of "The Ice Storm."
THE NOVEMBER ISSUE OF CRISIS isn't online yet, but it's really good. Cover article on demonic activity by someone who initially regarded the assignment as a "spooky thrill," but found out it was much, much more intense than that. Very useful piece on Left Behind--don't get caught in the Rapture-mania. Also, I have a book review (of Amy Chua's World on Fire: How Exporting Free-Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability), and the always-acute Sandra Miesel has a guest column on Iraqi antiquities.
"CARNIVAL OF SOULS": An unofficial contribution to Sean Collins's "Thirteen Days of Halloween" series, in which he discusses his 13 favorite horror flicks.

"Carnival of Souls" is basically the distilled back-from-the-dead/"they don't know they're dead" movie. Carnival locale; disaffected protagonist; isolation (Kansas and Utah film sites helped with this, apparently); slow, draining, but engrossing pace; makeup for a generation of Siouxsie and Bauhaus fans. It's great, though, for two reasons:

1) It is so distilled. It's so completely what it is. There's nothing in that movie that isn't essence of postmortem. Nothing is unnecessary, nothing is out of place. "CoS" captures the absurdity and wrongness of death--and the horror of being trapped in a psychologically isolated "death in life" state--more completely than pretty much any other movie I know.

2) Candace Hilligoss. She's the lead. First off, she can act standoffish and remote like nobody's business. She's like a photograph from another world, tacked onto the small-town church and carnival settings she inhabits. Something about her is fundamentally not there.

Second, and relatedly, she has The Face. Her curls and her high cheekbones were made for horror, maybe more so than "Scream Queen" Barbara Steele's more famous features. She has a high-contrast, grainy, almost solarized face--a traumatized and Medusa-like beauty.

You'll want to turn to stone when she looks you in the eye.
Blogwatch-Man, Blogwatch-Man,
He's your friendly neighborhood Blogwatch-Man....

Krubner is back.

Lawrence Solum: Very interesting post on Janice Brown, Lochner, and stuff. Via Los Volokh. Longtime readers know that I disagree with Prof. Solum about how much confirmation hearings should focus on "ideology" (I prefer the more confined term "jurisprudential philosophy"), but his posts are always illuminating.

Sed Contra: Emmaus Ministries, helping male prostitutes get off the streets. Moving post, very much worth your time.

The Rat breaks her grad-school-imposed posting silence to review the new Hollywood movie of "The Human Stain." (Speaking of grad school, congratulations to Motime on taking the GRE!)

Thrown Back remains your man for on-the-spot, thoughtful posts about Terri Schiavo. Especially recommended: witness; media responsibility and wild irresponsibility.

Internet booms in Kabul. Internet booms in Kabul! Via Kesher Talk, which is back after a brief hiatus--go there for daily Jew-osity.

Black is/black ain't--a man who thought he was a light-skinned black guy learns that he has zero African DNA. Does it matter? Via Hit and Run.

Welfare reform makes you healthier? "Significantly, these changes occurred regardless of whether these single moms were currently employed or jobless, suggesting there was something about welfare reform that motivated these women to change their lifestyle, either in order to keep their jobs or in anticipation of going to work and getting off the dole, Kaestner said." Via Kausfiles.
"'I wish I lived here!' the little boy shouted, balancing with his knees clutched around the big one's head.

"'I'm goddam glad I don't,' the big boy panted, and jumped up to dislodge him.

"Powell sat without moving, without seeming to know that the other two were behind him, and looked straight ahead like a ghost sprung upright in his coffin. 'If this place was not here anymore,' he said, 'you would never have to think of it again.'"

--Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire"

Sunday, October 26, 2003


Cuckoo: Paperback collection of autobiographical comic about woman diagnosed w/dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). A good chunk of the book is taken from Cuckoo #12, the monthly-comic-sized thing I picked up at the Small Press Expo. The repetition was disappointing, especially since, weirdly, the print quality seemed much poorer in the paperback than in the comic book.

I'm generally unsympathetic to autobiographical works. They tend to promote cruelty to people around you--exposing their secrets and their shames--in the service of the Grand Artistic Vision. They also tend to be, unsurprisingly, self-centered and full of special pleading, trying to buy your sympathy with tales of trauma.

Cuckoo isn't like that, mostly. There were definitely times when I was uncomfortable with the amount of other people's lives the creator revealed, but for the most part the book didn't feel prideful the way so many autobios do. The creator, Madison Clell, has a wry sense of humor (and a very visual kind of humor, too), which helps a lot. She clearly doesn't see herself as better than the other people in the story, or as a distanced observer of their failings.

The layouts are varied and compelling--making the book harder to read, since every page is crafted for maximum impact and the subject matter can get pretty horrifying. There are scenes of child sexual abuse. The book is harsh, not self-pitying, but it definitely requires a strong stomach.

I was glad to have this, but not sure I would recommend it over Cuckoo #12, which included most of the best stuff from the paperback. If you can't find that, check the paperback out instead.

Jar of Fools: Story of sad-sack young magician, sad-sack old magician, con artist, con artist's daughter, and con victim. A sweet, poignant story, but I ultimately wasn't sure that it added up to much or did something I hadn't seen before. However, the creator, Jason Lutes, draws faces really well. He makes people as lumpy and human as we are in real life--ugly, but attractive.

Uzumaki vol. 1: This is the first Japanese comic I've ever read. It was a fine introduction--familiar enough to be intelligible, different enough to be intriguing.

First off, the story's hook is great: a town being invaded by horrific spirals. Yes. Spirals. The pinwheel type things. So far I have not said this to anyone who has not started giggling, which is part of the book's achievement: It takes this bizarre premise and makes it genuinely menacing and horrifying. The spirals are major bad juju, and you quickly start to believe in their threat.

The spirals could represent any number of things--charisma, the perils of breaking out of routine, selfishness (a spiral collapses inward), folie a deux, individuality (I do wonder if the emphasis on the dangers of wanting to stand out is a particularly Japanese element), the unknown, stifling small-town-ness, the desire for a radically new and different world. The spiral is a flexible symbol, which gives the book mystery. The symbol is a tease, a femme fatale. I loved the ambiguity and shifting meanings.

And the pictures are truly creepy. They range from the subtly menacing (spirals forming in a plate of noodles, or looming in the air over the characters' heads) to the blatantly horrific (tormented human faces embedded in spiraling clay).

Uzumaki also lacks the main thing I can't stand about the manga I've seen: the eyes. The enormous dollface eyes over teeny v-noses. The eyes in Uzumaki are larger than life, sure, but they look basically normal--the eyes in (Japan-influenced) ElfQuest are bigger. The main character, Kirie, is quite beautiful, and does not look creepily neotenous (sp?) as so many manga chicks do.

Understanding Comics talks about the different kinds of pacing found in Japanese vs. Western comics. I was on the lookout for this difference as I was reading Uzumaki--in fact, it's the main reason I picked up the book. I don't know that I noticed the specific differences McCloud describes, but the panels did seem to be laid out differently from most of the Western comics I've read.

Not sure if this is an accurate perception, but I generally think of Western comics as having one of three styles of panel layout: 1) every single panel, and every single page, are designed differently, each layout carefully chosen to reflect the exact mood and pacing of the scene. Think Torso, Cuckoo, Alias. I love the precision of this approach, but it can shade into showoffiness.

2) Very regular or at least fairly regular square panels, laid out in ranks upon the page. Love and Rockets, Watchmen. This is great in that you get extra impact any time you violate the regularity, but you do lose a degree of distinctiveness on the "normal" pages, and it's easier (esp. for a very verbal rather than visual person like me) to ignore what the pictures are doing.

3) The size and number of panels vary a lot, but the shape not so much. I tend to associate this with superhero comics, which I think is because New X-Men uses it. (I hope I've already made clear that I'm speaking from a fairly limited knowledge base here! Take all generalizations with a lick of salt and so forth....)

Anyway, Uzumaki doesn't do any of these three things. It's closest to #3, but the panel shapes vary much more, using slanted lines (making the panels rhombuses--is that the word I want??--rather than squares or rectangles) to give a more dramatic, "running" kind of pace. The panels also seem (again, speaking from limited knowledge) more likely than in Western comics to spill down to the edges of the page, giving you a sense that the stuff in the picture is coming out of the comic at you. In general, the panels felt more skewed and more frenetic. EDITED: No, that's not quite right, actually. It's more that there's a higher contrast between the story's contemplative and frantic passages than in #2 or #3-style comics.

I loved this, and am planning to pick up the next volume or two next time I'm at the comic shop.
SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK: The second installment of "Now and at the Hour," my short story about a future where people can be revived after death. You can read the story so far starting here, or just catch the latest bit here.

Excerpt: "Caroline said it was a cheap excuse, but I still think the explosion at Imaginet is when our marriage started to go wrong. We joked about being married ''til death do us part--and after!' But it turned out to be easier to die with Caroline than to live with her."

This story turns out to be shorter than I expected, so there will probably be only one more installment before I move on to the next story. That last chunk should be posted in a week or so--sorry for the delay, but I'll be spending most of this week in New Haven, and posting opportunities may be limited. (I'll still be posting regularly at MarriageDebate, and I should be posting here every day also, but I don't want to promise more story when I may not have time to deliver.)
"'Every day I say a prayer of thanksgiving,' Mrs. Cope said. 'Think of all we have. Lord,' she said and sighed, 'we have everything,' and she looked around at her rich pastures and hills heavy with timber and shook her head as if it might all be a burden she was trying to shake off her back.

"Mrs. Pritchard studied the woods. 'All I got is four abscess teeth,' she remarked.

"'Well, be thankful you don't have five,' Mrs. Cope snapped and threw back a clump of grass."

--Flannery O'Connor, "A Circle in the Fire"

Saturday, October 25, 2003

WHAT DRINK ARE YOU? I'm a Black Velvet. Via Dave Tepper.
PREACHING IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE BODY: An excellent Washington Post piece on our ailing Pope. Moving and theologically rich. Via Amy Welborn.
BLOGORAMA: Unqualified Offerings has the report. Julian Sanchez has the photos. It was fun. Am still chewing over the Eve/UO same-sex marriage argument; more on that, of course, later on this site and on the MarriageDebate site. And yeah, Hulk smash.
TERRI SCHIAVO: Kausfiles is acute.

Father Johansen is on the scene in Florida: "But then they added that they would physically prevent him from giving Terri communion. ...

"(a) Terri is responsive to those around her, in distinctive ways (she responds to different people differently).
"(b) All three doctors testified definitively and convincingly that Terri is NOT in a Persistent Vegetative State or coma. They all but begged the reporters present to stop reporting her as "brain dead" or PVS.
"(c) Terri would almost certainly benefit from rehabilitative therapy, which therapy husband Michael has steadfastly denied for 10 years. ...

"One of the things that struck me very quickly is how level-headed, reasonable, and calm the Schindlers are. That might seem a strange thing to say, but when I arrived I didn't know what to expect. I only had spoken to Bob on the phone up to that point, and he sounded exhausted. I was half-expecting to meet people rendered emotional wrecks by their week-long ordeal of watching their daughter dying. They've also been portrayed, by the husband and his attorneys, and by unsympathetic media, as everything from religious fanatics to pathetic simpletons.

"But they weren't, and aren't. They're very normal, solid people. ...

"People develop all sorts of conditions, varying in severity, from which they will never recover. Some of those conditions severely compromise a person's 'quality of life.' ...

"People with Down's Syndrome won't 'get better.' The best you can hope for is to teach them enough skills so they can function in society, and many Down's patients will never even reach that point. But we don't (yet) kill the mentally retarded because they won't recover. ...

"She is broken, and can't be fixed. She is useless, and uselessness is The Very Worst Thing.

"But that is not how God sees things. Remember that when God created the first man, He called him 'very good.' He said that before Adam had done anything."

Noli Irritare Leones is reflective--start here and scroll down: "I won't call this a right to die; I don't believe that I have absolute rights over my life. I won't call it a right to die with dignity, because that, to me, makes it sound as if my dignity depends on my abilities and independence, and I don't think it does. I'll call it a right not to be tortured as I am dying, a right to choose the more merciful and less burdensome exit over the one which gives my life every possible moment of duration it could have.

"As it happens, the Catholic Church, as far as I can tell (see here particularly the links that Peter Nixon has posted), actually supports both of my intuitions. And so I could, consistent with Catholic teaching, avoid the treatment which perhaps prolongs my life, but at the cost of making my last days an ordeal, or receive pain medication when terminally ill, even to a degree which might shorten my life. All of this seems to me appropriate and merciful, and a reasonable balance between considerations of respecting life and those of easing the burden of the dying. But then, that still leaves the question of how these principles should actually be applied."

And lots more worthwhile thoughts here.

I am basing many of my reactions on the interviews (on all sides) that I did in the course of writing this piece for the Register.
THE ARSONIST OF THE HEART: Two related poems, both hardcore and hard-hitting, from Dappled Things and the Old Oligarch. Neither one grabbed me stylistically, but each had several ferocious images that made me glad I'd read 'em.
Counting flowers on the wall
Doesn't bother me at all
Playing solitaire 'til dawn
With a deck of fifty-one
Blogging cigarettes and watching "Captain Kangaroo"--
Don't tell me I've nothing to do!...

Amy Welborn: Healing after clerical sexual abuse.

Relapsed Catholic: Review of Michael Rose's new book about good priests. Forthright.

Sean Collins: Fascinating reviews of "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Barton Fink," both of which I'll probably rent soon based on his posts. Also, essays on sound in "The Birds" and design in "Vertigo," which I'll absolutely read if I can convince my computer not to wig out at PDF files. Oh, and responses to movie reviews by me and other people. (Wow, I haven't posted in a long time!)

The Volokh Conspiracy: Your source for information on Amazon's new feature: searching the entire text of a book. Potential problems discussed here.
"No reliable statistics are available on the average time lapse between utterances such as 'I just can't' or 'This probably isn't a good idea' and the commencement of [adulterous] foreplay, but sociolinguists should consider investigating their peculiar aphrodisiacal power."
--Laura Kipnis, Against Love: A Polemic. This book oscillates wildly between acute social satire--kind of like if Jane Austen and Walker Percy had a love child who couldn't write very well--and dumb-as-a-stump naivete. I found it much more interesting and insightful than I expected. (Read it for review, not for pleasure--ironically, given Kipnis's pleasure-at-all-costs pose.) She has a strong sense of the contortions adults go through to preserve or change our self-images; but a, shall we say, less-robust appreciation of the fact of pregnancy.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

EVERY DAY IS LIKE POETRY WEDNESDAY: From WH Auden. If it's not love, then it's the bomb that will bring us together... but the part of this poem I can never get out of my head is the babes in the wood:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allowed no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their message:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

END-OF-LIFE ISSUES LINKS: From Sursum Corda, a roundup of Catholic documents. (I disagree for a bunch of reasons with the way several of the commenters at his site apply these docs to the Terri Schiavo case, but still, he's really doing a service by providing the links.) From The Weekly Standard, "The Battle for Terri."
SSM: ALTARED STATES: Both sides of the same-sex marriage debate often get muddled up when considering the fact that marriage is a religious as well as a civil institution. Opponents of same-sex marriage sometimes speak as if the fact that something is condemned by the Bible is enough to justify its illegality, or as if civil marriage needs to mirror sacramental or religious marriage. That's pretty clearly not true in any country without an established religion.

But there are serious misunderstandings on the pro-SSM side as well. Two of the ones I've seen are: 1) Marriage is a religious institution, so the state shouldn't get involved, and 2) Marriage is a religious institution, so if civil marriage doesn't recognize e.g. Unitarian same-sex unions, that's religious discrimination.

Lots and lots of religions have some kind of religious ceremony and status for marriages. (For some reason, pro-SSM writers tend to use the shorthand, "Marriage is a sacrament." American discussions of religion and public life often include misunderstandings of Protestant concepts; this is the most prominent example I can think of where an American policy debate features a misunderstanding of a Catholic concept!)

But marriage is and has pretty much always been a civil institution as well. (For a really good discussion of the distinctions from a Catholic perspective, go here.)

And if marriage serves necessary civil purposes, purposes which can be fulfilled without reference to religion, I'm not sure why the fact that religions also honor this bond is even relevant. In other words, "Marriage is religious so it can't be civil too" strikes me as a total non sequitur.

And that, in my view, is also the answer to the religious-discrimination question. Civil marriage exists for civil reasons--e.g. to secure the benefits to society that come from ensuring that kids mostly grow up with mom and dad. Religions may develop their own reasons for honoring marriage, and their own definitions of the word, but that doesn't mean they get to map their definitions and purposes onto the secular definitions and purposes. If some religion decides that polygamy, or brother-sister unions, or whatever, is especially exalted and wonderful, that has exactly no impact on the secular arguments for and purposes of marriage.

Keeping civil marriage secular is not "religious discrimination."
HERE COMES DERRIDA, THE PHILOSOPHER WITHOUT FEAR! Over the weekend I had a small-scale revelation. I've written here and here about my problems with Derrida's version of deconstruction--but the Old Oligarch wrote a superb essay on the ways in which an authentic intellectual conservatism could and should be deconstructionist, and so I had to start rethinking my take on the guy. Here's a scattershot post on where I'm at now:

J.D. is very big on being open to the avenir, the what-is-to-come, the unanticipated and not yet even imagined possibility. But in attempting to avoid stasis--robotic repetition, tradition as ossification, nostalgia rather than renewal--he dissipates into vagueness and foggy abstractions. He can't tell us what "being open to the avenir" requires without constraining it somehow, thus not being open to the avenir! So the concept swallows its own head (kind of like David Blaine on "South Park" tonight... did I say that out loud?).

But the problem of distinguishing repetition and nostalgia from renewal is pretty obviously a pressing concern for anyone who calls herself a "conservative." I'm deeply unimpressed with conservatisms that seek a return to some past time, real or imagined--conservatisms that locate the Fall in the Industrial Revolution or the sexual revolution or the 1992 election, instead of, you know, the Garden.

Similarly, it's often really hard for people to understand how they can take a stand while still being open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Too often, people end up in relativism or subjectivism because they try to speak in three tenses at once: present, future, and subjunctive (? not sure if the last one is right). "I think A... but tomorrow I'll think something else... and it could even be not-A! Oh no! How can I take any actions based on A? What if I'm wrong? How can I know?"

I wonder if it isn't possible to move beyond both of these dilemmas--not to "solve" them, since I don't think existential questions are there to be "solved," but to transform them--by investigating a different Derridean concept: openness to the Other.

Openness to the Other requires specificity, not vagueness; attention, not conformity; humility, not pride. It is the act of love.

Openness to the Other would prevent us from making up predictable fantasy-pasts onto which to hook our nostalgias. CS Lewis makes this point in a quick, heartbreaking moment in A Grief Observed, in which he realizes that when he imagines his late wife, he erases all the otherness and individuality, all the unpredictability, that he loved in her. He made her into a fantasy, not a memory. Genuine openness to the Other requires attention to specifics and an unwillingness to conform the Other to our needs--an unwillingness to treat the Other as a "human resource."

And openness to the Other would force us to take a stand. Because if you love someone, if you are attentive to her, you will not be able to leave her to her own devices. You will advise and interfere and pray and beg. You will notice when she heads in a direction that will hurt her, or cause her to act craven, or cause her to fail to be her best self. You will want her to be her best, and you will want to be your best for her. And that means you have to have a standard of "best."

(Related: I read a really compelling point against aesthetic relativism a while ago: Artists are almost never aesthetic relativists. That's because they know they aren't good enough, and they know they need to improve, and they want to know how!)

Love is an acid that eats away relativism.

I've seen these processes work in my debating society--and, unsurprisingly, it was interacting with that society that prompted these unfinished reflections. It's the intense friendships, the sense of adventure, the desire for other people to be fully other, and the care for other people ("other" doesn't mean "I don't care if you damage or diminish yourself"!), that allow this group to sail so far out across the wine-dark sea of philosophy. It's the personal openness, the way we get tangled up in each other's lives, that makes the society such an intense intellectual experience.

More as I figure it out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES: Comics reviews. Snapshots first, then longer reports. Next installment will review Cuckoo, Jar of Fools, and Uzumaki. The longer reviews in this installment are in alphabetical order, which means they end on a hell of a note. This was a very, very good trip to the comics shop.

First, the short takes: Sean Collins asked, lo these many weeks ago, for recommendations of horror/frightening comics. I finally thought of a few. All from Love and Rockets.

The most horrific L&R is definitely the title story from "Flies on the Ceiling." That hits me in the heart and the gut every time I read it. But a few other L&R stories also fit the bill: Wigwam Bam (more of a noir, and probably more dependent on your already knowing the characters, whereas I think you could start with "Flies on the Ceiling"); Poison River (Gilbert Hernandez's best art by far, and some of his best storytelling); and, absolutely, the "Human Diastrophism" story from Blood of Palomar. (That's another one you could start with, since I don't think it requires any prior knowledge of the characters. And holy cannoli, frightening.)

Gone and Forgotten (a wildly funny site) slams Marvels. Now, I've already expressed my love for this book! So perhaps my reaction is simply predictable.

But I guess I just didn't feel like I was being herded into taking the pro-costumed-vigilantes side as thoroughly as G&F did. I thought the book made several of the points G&F makes in his review, e.g. "there are just as many super bad guys as there are super good guys." (Wasn't that the point of kicking the book off with Namor vs. New York?)

I expect my take on the book stems from five facts: I knew very, very little about the Marvel Universe when I read it, so "fannish" concerns were pretty much nowhere on my list of reactions. And I didn't know who I was supposed to root for. (I still don't really know to what extent Namor is supposed to be a Good Guy.)

I love J. Jonah Jameson. He's my third favorite superhero-comics character ever. (After Cyclops and Daredevil, assuming you care.) He's great and a half. I want to be him if I grow up. So I always do sympathize with the anti-superhero faction.

(Relatedly:) In art generally, I tend to sympathize with whoever is wrong. It's very easy to be wrong. People are often wrong for the best reasons. Ultimately, Marvels does present most (but, I'd still contend, not all) of the anti-superhero sentiment of the M.U. as wrong; but wrong in a way that you and I are wrong all the time, every day. Wrong because accurate moral assessments are really, really hard.

I'm kind of obsessed with the concept of the sublime. All sublime things are frightening; not all frightening things are sublime. I thought part of the point of Marvels was the blurry line dividing the two categories.

And finally, I'm obsessed with the consequences, virtues, and blindnesses of the American moralistic streak, and I thought Marvels brought those out in a subtle and unexpected way (and in a way that, again, complicated and undercut the "you should love the masked vigilantes who protect your country!" message).

OK, so... that was a creative definition of a "short take." Sorry...! Now the reviews:

Goldfish: Underworld fatherhood and romantic crimes. Brian Bendis working with some of the same characters, and roughly the same style (cinematic, cutting, noir), as in Jinx. This is shorter and cheaper than Jinx, and it is quite good, but it's really not as stylistically innovative or emotionally intense as Jinx. If you want to do a "starter Bendis" book to see what the hype is about, I'd suggest Alias vol. 1 or Torso (below), and if you want flawed-but-brilliant Bendis noir then Jinx is worth the price and size. Goldfish is more for a) people who are totally into David Gold's character and b) Bendis freaks. I'm absolutely a) and have a mild case of b). So I liked this, but you needn't run out and buy it.

Human Target: Final Cut: This is a stripped-down, very basic rendering of the book's core idea: a man who can perfectly impersonate anyone else, who acts as a decoy for people whose lives are threatened but who feels his own identity dissolving into the many masks he has to wear.

I thought this was much better than the merely-competent earlier volume. I'm not sure why, though. Maybe it's just that this storyline feels less random, more designed specifically to play to the concept's strengths (it's set in Hollywood, perfect choice), and less convoluted. Liked this a lot.

Torso: Bendis true-crime piece about Eliot Ness's battle to crack a Cleveland serial-killer case. Black and white, like Goldfish and Jinx. Phenomenal use of space and panel shape to create atmosphere, "tone of voice," and pacing. Excellent facial expressions.

Really, this is fine stuff. You know how James Wood, the New Republic literary editor, always picks the exact right word for every situation? And you know how it can get showoffy, cloying, and distracting--too perfect? Bendis at his best is like if James Wood a) made comics and b) knew that sprezzatura is preferable to mannered perfection. All the precision with none of the prissiness.

Watchmen: I have very, very little to say about this. It was breathtaking. This book is exactly as good as everyone says. The striking, distilled characters; the powerful presentations of moral dilemmas; the ferocious interweaving of different narrative strands and symbols; this is for real. I can't believe I put off reading this for so long. This is canon fodder--and not solely the comics canon, which is boringly obvious, but the ultimate canon where all art forms converge. This is A-level art. This is the $#@!

Do yourself a favor. Don't bother reading reviews or whatever. Don't make the mistake I made of leafing through this in the comics shop and saying, "Eh, not so much, not today"--Watchmen needs to be read with more attention than you can give in a comics shop. Just buy this and read it. Daggone.

(There are also obvious contemporary political applications: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)

Sigh, I have some less than complimentary things to say about the Jess Lemon review, but my comments on that are basically unrelated to Watchmen itself so I'll save 'em. Be grateful. But these passages are absolutely right:

"What makes WATCHMEN great, though, is that it's got a beautifully formed aesthetic--it's pretty clear that somebody sat down before they started writing or drawing and decided what it was going to look like, what sort of pacing it'd have, how exactly the story was going to be told, what things they would and wouldn't do in the telling. They figured out how every chapter and every page would be structured, what kinds of clothes people would be wearing, what the architecture and geography would look like, how transitions between scenes would work, how cars and street furniture and household appliances would be designed, what kinds of information would be revealed or concealed or only partly displayed, and how all of those things would relate to the overall meaning of the book. That kind of formal planning takes a certain amount of effort to do, but it pays off so much. ...

"...And those six full-page frames at the beginning of the last chapter hit me like a brick, and I realized afterwards that it was the first time in the book that we'd seen one image from the story proper occupying an entire page. That's such a pure comics moment."

And I don't know if anyone cared about my whole Spanish Tragedy/superhero comics parallel post, but if you thought that was cool, and for some bizarre reason you haven't read Watchmen already, you're in for a real kick in the head.

Visible shivers running down my spine....

"What is the cause of thunder?"
IF I OWE YOU EMAIL, and I bet I do... um... I'll totally write back later this week. But don't sit by the phone (...not that you were). I'm swamped and scattershot. Just so you know, I'm not ignoring you, and if you said nice or at least conciliatory things I do appreciate it.
SILVER SCREAMS: More movie thoughts, in and out of synch with Sean Collins. Follow-up to this post.

1) He's almost entirely right about "The Birds." His take on the movie itself is totally right on. I think it's more unusual for Hitchcock than he does, but maybe that's because I think movies about original sin ("Strangers on a Train") are pretty much the opposite of movies about evil as absurdity ("The Birds"). I do feel the need to point out that Hitchcock's scariest movie, as well as the best movie ever made by him or (as far as I know) anyone else, is "Vertigo." (More on that from Oakhaus. "Devastated" is exactly the right word.)

2) "The Wicker Man": There's a streak of self-righteousness (not the same as hypocrisy!) and cruelty in the Christian police officer's character. Very much a "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican" streak.

But I definitely didn't find the movie's sex-pagan alternative even slightly attractive. Not even in the (sadly, quite large) pre- and anti-Christian segments of my brain. I didn't find the Summerisle religion life-affirming or natural or sexy or vibrant. It wasn't Diana of Ephesus--it was a car radio blaring, "Every freakin' night and every freakin' day/I wanna freak ya baby in every freakin' way." It was your freshman counselor demonstrating how to put a condom on a wooden phallus. Which is about as far from eros as I can possibly get. It was post-Christian, not pre-Christian.

3) "The Sixth Sense" and "The Shining": There's more to say here about the parallels between these two movies, because in some ways they are halves of a good movie. "TSS" got the better characterization; "The Shining" got the imagery.

The King novel still scares me silly every time I (stay up all night to) read it. King is a ferociously frightening author--Pet Sematary is his best thing by far, with The Shining, The Dead Zone, and Cujo next in that order. (TDZ marred by "Manchurian Candidate" ripoff third section, sigh.)

The Shining, for me, is a mosaic of pure horror: "The plants under the rugs are moving"; the moment when you realize that Jack Torrance really did [spoiler excised, but... um... it's the scene where he's removing the wasp's nest from the roof or wherever it is]; the dog-man; the moment at the end in the shed with the roque mallet. Wow.

I'm not totally sure what didn't work for me about the translation to film. Part of it is that so much of the horror of the novel, for me, came in the slow destruction of Jack Torrance (or the playing-out of the destruction that had already happened, or his failure to reverse that destruction), and the movie just doesn't have that kind of time. Part of it is that we didn't get right inside his head the way we do in the book. Part of it is that, as everybody who dislikes this movie always says, Nicholson plays crazy from the get-go, and that doesn't work.

And a big part of it is that when Jack Torrance doesn't work, NONE of the story works, because the wife and child are not characters. They're plot-device victims.

Cole, the child in "The Sixth Sense," is less thoroughly defined by his victimization than Torrance's wife and child, but I do think "TSS" falls into that same trap. And the images in "TSS" aren't nearly as haunting as the ones in "The Shining" (movie), although some of the dialogue is chilling ("All the time... They don't know they're dead"; and the bit about "Do all your soldiers speak Latin?" "No. Only one"). But the actual dead people don't look scary.

At any rate, I'm really looking forward to the rest of Sean's "13 Days of Halloween" movie reviews, because even though I wasn't super sold on the two flicks I've watched at his recommendation so far, they both provided food for thought and I find it illuminating to sharpen my impressions on his.

Plus, I want to be scared.

Monday, October 20, 2003

TERRI SCHIAVO UPDATES here and here. One is reminded of Gandhi's comment when asked what he thought of Western civilization: "I think it would be a very good idea."

UPDATE: Florida House votes to let Gov. Bush intervene. Pray, please. (This article both accepts the demeaning and vague term "persistent vegetative state," and assumes Terri is in that state, but ignore that for the breaking news.)
Well I've been a blogwatcher on LSD
And I've rode bare-a***d on the top of the Sphinx
I've even done a gold ribbon [???] on the top of Kismet
And well, that was fun for a while, you bet, but...

Cacciaguida: What's the difference between bawdy and crude?

Camassia on Andrew Sullivan's "leaving the Church, keeping the faith" statements. Follow-up here. Both well worth your time.

Dappled Things: "The Moslems are, yet again, wreaking terror and havoc in our country by wearing their very dangerous head scarves." The next post down is the last three words (or one word thrice?) on moonshine enforcement in Fairfax, VA.

Dear Raed has a whole passel of new stuff up.

New Iraqi blog! Via InstaPundit.

Hit and Run: Jesse Walker on Bolivia's political turmoil, market reforms (or are they???), and Lady Coca. The comments here are also rewarding and quick reading.

Jason Kimble vs. me on gay marriage--once again I'm gonna have to issue an IOU on this one, though I've already started working on (short! really!) replies. But I've got a lot on the plate right this minute and will not be able to get to this stuff until later in the week.

Sed Contra: Moving post on meeting the Pope.

The Volokh Conspiracy: A funeral in Israel--state-established religion not exactly working according to plan.

New X-Men #148: "As with a lot of Morrison's superhero work, it combines old school Silver Age lunacy with entirely modern Morrisonian lunacy, and somehow comes up with something that seems to make complete sense on its own terms." I want to write about this idea of lunacy later, since I think it's the reason I adore the Lee/Kirby X-Men and Grant Morrison's run but am not especially sold on Chris Claremont.

And an excellent piece on Evelyn Waugh's religion--worth reading even if, unlike me, you're not a fan of the guy who could write both a hilarious satire of journalism and the only convincing deathbed conversion scene I've ever read. Via Dappled Things.

...Bikini girls with machine guns...
ARTSY: Fun quote from a friend: "Artsy, as in there are naked people in it? Or artsy, as in, 'this is boring'?"
BACK from a weekend trip to sunny New Haven. Always invigorating to see college students pursuing truth in friendship and with joy.
"'Need answers quickly. World on verge of apocalypse. Death and war already here.

"'Other horsemen can't be far behind.'

"Rameses... Password incomplete: Do you wish to add a rider?"


Friday, October 17, 2003

NOT DEAD YET. Place to go for Terri Schiavo news.
NOT BECAUSE SHE EMPLOYS ME. Best piece I've seen so far on Pope's anniversary.

"The New York Times, with its typical impeccable timing, marked John Paul II's anniversary with a photograph of the empty pews of Europe. Of course, it is not just the pews of Europe that are empty; it is also the cradles. ...

"Both here and abroad, hopes for a new Catholic Church dedicated to contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality and female priests were cruelly dashed. After 25 years, what has also been dashed is the myth that these steps represent irresistible 'progress.' We have seen the future, and it is not Episcopalian.

"John Paul II's most astonishing achievement is a re-imagining of the intellectual basis of the Catholic faith, in creating a genuinely new synthesis between faith and reason that is attracting adherents among thoughtful people across denominations and faith. With a single phrase, 'the nuptial meaning of the human body,' he has thrown a persuasive light on traditional Christian (and Jewish) sexual teachings. Plumbing the depths of the subjectivity of the human being, John Paul II has pointed out, opens a new path to respect for human rights, including the right to religious freedom. ...

"At the same time, he has called for a 'new evangelism' among Catholics, so long accustomed to leaving all that to their professional clergies, to viewing evangelism as a 'Protestant thing.' ..."

and more...
I'm worse at what I blog best
And for this watch I feel blessed...

Hit & Run: Spies vs. secrecy.

Pope Quiz. Via Amy Welborn.

What's radical about weblogs? My answer is still substantially what it was here. Via someone I forget, sorry.

"How much is Internet porn screwing with the way a generation of young men view women?" Via Father Sibley, I think.

100 scariest movie scenes of all time. Via Relapsed Catholic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

THEY REMOVED HER FOOD AND WATER TODAY. Numbers to call and a prayer to Saint Jude.
SSM: WHY? Got a couple interesting emails today, asking why I spend so much of my time on same-sex marriage lately. The emails were phrased in sharply personal language, but whatever, it's certainly a fair question.

Partly, honestly, it's just the tidal rhythms of my attention. Sometimes I am superjournalistic, unable to think of anything except how I can affect the daily surf of the news. For the past couple months, though, I've been in exactly the opposite mode. I've been thinking almost exclusively about my fiction work. It's hard to pull myself away long enough to earn the rent by doing basic journalism work. And this blog has reflected that seasonal shift in my interests. It's moved from politics and high-philosophical talk to a much more cultural/artistic focus. Same-sex marriage is the exception to a general "all arts all the time" rule.

It's the exception for six main reasons. In reverse order of importance:
6) I'm getting paid for this. I've been doing piecework for the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy for a while, and just accepted a part-time editing job there. I'm supposed to be thinking about this stuff!

5) I do think same-sex marriage is about marriage. And I do marriage/chastity counseling once a week. I used to think of it as "pro-life" counseling, meaning anti-abortion. That was pretty short-sighted of me. In fact, my volunteer job (at a pro-life pregnancy center) is about women who want to make marriages but have no role models and no sense of how to go about that. My volunteer job is about the necessity of marriage, the fragility of marriage, and the devastation of a marriageless culture. So yeah, this is personal.

4) I don't want this to be a solely cultural-criticism blog. Just a personal preference.

3) I think about same-sex marriage in highly literary terms. I think those terms are accurate and translatable into policy language. I think you can talk about the deepest needs of the human heart--the need for a role, the need for a gendered heroism, the need for a mask, for example--without flying off into academia-speak.

2) I'm queer, and so people might listen to me who would otherwise not listen to an opponent of same-sex marriage. You all can vote amongst yourselves as to whether I'm the Benedict Arnold of the Gay Community or its Elia Kazan, or whatever. I can spend my time ripping strips off myself, or I can spend my time not caring, and I think I was supposed to learn in high school that the former route is... not productive.

1) I'm saying stuff I'm not hearing other people saying.

I do hope that helps.
LABELS: So there are people who call themselves progressive Catholics, liberal Catholics, conservative Catholics, blah de blah. And I guess I wonder why we can't revive an old traditional identity--bad Catholics? Like, I don't do it right, but I know there's a right way and I know I'm not the standard of value, and I know I need to get my head together, and I know I'm not doing it and can't do it without Christ?

Was reminded of this topic by Andrew Sullivan, but have, unsurprisingly, thought this for a long time. Shout outs to Oscar Wilde, Robbie Ross, Graham Greene, the amazing and inspiring women I counsel at the pregnancy center, and the posse.
THE LUXURIES--YOU KNOW, FOOD AND WATER. They're killing her today. Keep on rockin' in the free world.
NEW JOB: I'm doing a day-to-day editor gig at Haven't posted yet but will soon. You all should visit!
ARE ALL THOSE YOUR GUITARS?: So I had one of those days. Here's my soundtrack. You can take this as a same-sex marriage post if you like, since the whole self-dramatizing (hey, if I don't dramatize myself who will?) angstfest was sparked by that "issue." (I hate that word. So antiseptic.) This is just a passing phase, one of my bad days.... Anyway, better now, but I thought this list was funny in its intensity of sturm und drang, so figured I'd share. I feel like this more days than not. Fortunately, I'm pretty skeptical of "feelings."

Vestpocket Psalm, "Sonic Reducer"
Elvis Costello, "I'm Not Angry" (Spending all my time at the vanity factory, wondering when they're gonna come and take it all back...)
Avengers, "Paint It Black" (I see the girls walk by, dressed in their Sunday clothes...)
Elvis Costello, "Battered Old Bird" (He said, "One day I'll put away all of my cares.")
Avengers, "Thin White Line" (Don't ask me how I feel/'Cause I feel fine)
The Baltimore Consort and the Merry Companions, "Cold and Raw" (Well I myself did disappoint, for she did leave me fairly...)
Ani Difranco, "Adam and Eve," except for the lame condescending part
Cat Power, "Faces"
Nina Simone, "I Shall Be Released."

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND: Hmmm, so I saw a lot of movies. But, uncharacteristically, I have little to say about them. In chronological order:

"The Wicker Man": The Old Oligarch must see this movie. Evil child-killing pagans. I kept thinking about the student of O.O.'s who said that it was OK to kill grandma because her life energy would nourish the broccoli. You think I could make this stuff up? (O.O. on "Christians stole Easter from pagans!" stuff.) This movie creeped me out but did not scare me, maybe in part b/c I a) already knew a lot about freaky British Isles customs, and b) didn't feel like my basic worldview was being challenged.

"Blood of a Poet": You know, this was better than I expected. Too Robert Lowell-y, by which I mean that I expect the symbolism meant a lot more to Cocteau than it does to the viewer. But there were several interesting moments or tableaux showing art as/art vs. sensuality, art as voyeurism, art as wound, and art as revenge.

"Beauty and the Beast": An unexpectedly straightforward retelling. Good acting, esp. from the peripheral male layabouts. But this kind of movie is always judged against the version of the fairy tale that plays out in your head--the thing you think of when you think "Beauty and the Beast," the thing you've created for yourself out of scraps of every retelling you've seen. And the only moments in Cocteau's version that really captured that internal, perfect version, for me, were the scenes in the woods. Cocteau films the exact woods that are in my head: artificial, thick, dreamlike, menacing, and very small.

"Daredevil": Watched this again, and also listened to the director-and-producer commentary on the DVD. It's... well, it has virtues I'd ignored. There are several excellent ideas (e.g. painkillers, the water in the Kingpin's office). The pacing is much better than in "Spider-Man," making its different moods (action, angst, comedy, romance) feel less Chinese-menu "one from column A, one from column B." Jon Favreau is fantastic, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell are very good, and Ben Affleck is (no, really!) quite good. The colors are terrific. The "Daredevil's moral growth" arc is less skeletal than I'd remembered, and, I think, ultimately works well.

That said, my initial problems with the flick remain: Several plot moments make exactly no sense (in a really irritating way), the flashbackery is overdone, the music is superangsty (and so catchy! I want to gouge this stuff out of my head!), the different plot arcs never add up to an overarching point to the movie, and I really don't care about all the people punching other people. But--yeah, I'm a lot happier about this movie than I was after the first viewing. Definitely an elegant mess. Emphasis on the mess, but still, elegant.

"The Sixth Sense": Erm. I have very scattered impressions of this movie. Accurate, though blunt, criticism of psychiatry. The twist ending is very well done--perfect Agatha Christie: Shove the truth in your face and make you completely miss it. Very Lord Edgware Dies. But it didn't scare me. It reminded me a lot of "The Shining," another movie that didn't scare me and that featured a child whose character was basically defined by his victimization. Also, too much of this movie takes place in tortured whispers.

I missed the IMAX movie about the sunken ship. Hope to see it next week.
"NOW AND AT THE HOUR": New short story starts here. First sentence: "My finest death was two centuries ago now." Enter a world where the drugs make you feel like you're in West Berlin, and you can live forever if you accept that everything dies. Next installment Thursdayish.
FEAR TO BLOG!: The search-engine requests that brought you to this fearless corner of cyberspace. In chronological order this time, most recent last.

meth amphetamine patriot
coffee affects statistics
separation divorce inevitable geek
sexy saudi dissolute
black fraternities demonic
jiggering machine (whoa! these are real!)
vulcans republicans
search brink riot fight mistake watch video
power without glory catfight
loa business email and contacts (just remember, possession is nine-tenths of the loa! wocka, wocka!)
journalists kurd chalky
consequences of heroism
one froggy evening jewish
hamster's death sorrow
queer eye for the stretch guy picks (is there something you're not telling us?)
psychoanalysis of hunchback personality complex
creepy quotes
tomorrow gadgets
joyful uplifting porn
smith eats babies
epistemological check can't cash unicorn
fear to blog
bupkes sheep
What if I were Romeo in blogwatch?
What if I were Heathcliff, it's no myth...

Dear Raed is back from Jordan and has begun posting again.

Mark Shea: Powerful letter about the death penalty, mercy, and a prison conversion. Rush Limbaugh and a kind of optimistic stoicism that besets some (mostly, but not exclusively, secular) conservatives. I'm not hyped on armchair psychoanalysis of Limbaugh himself, but thought Shea's post was right-on about the larger "conservatism as self-actualization" worldview. Also, Muslims as Samaritans.

Sed Contra has moved. Visit the old site for a good basic post on friendship and same-sex attraction (SC's earlier writing on this subject has definitely shaped my thinking), and then hit the new site for the brawling pope.

"Mrifk!" Possibly the worst fantasy story ever written gets the MST3K treatment. I really did laugh 'til I cried. Via Mark Shea.

And yeah, that's a darned weird, and, honestly, annoying choice of covers for the big Peanuts book we're getting soon. I really, really love the "darker" Peanuts strips, but in part I love them because they take place in this sunny, inquisitive world. Peanuts so often shows the kind of hope that is the same as resignation, or vice versa. If you only emphasize the resignation or darkness, you become all self-dramatizing and tragedizing in a very '90s alt-adolescent way. And I know from self-dramatizing and tragedizing!
"'I'm pleased to meet you,' the old woman said. 'Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?'

"He judged the car to be about a 1928 or '29 Ford. 'Lady,' he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, 'lemme tell you something. There's one of these doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart--the human heart,' he repeated, leaning forward, 'out of a man's chest and held it in his hand,' and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, 'and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady,' he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored eyes brightened, 'he don't know no more about it than you or me.'

"'That's right,' the old woman said."

--Flannery O'Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

Friday, October 10, 2003

IT'S SHANKTASTIC! IT'S SHANKALICIOUS! IT'S DEESHANKFUL! Did a ton of writing today, very psyched, but then did volunteer job, now crashing. Brain fried. Eyes rebelling against computer screen. Plan to post tomorrow, late, after viewing many movies (right now the rundown is "The Sixth Sense," "The Wicker Man," "Blood of a Poet," "Beauty and the Beast" [Cocteau], and some IMAX thing about a sunken ship). You'll get movie reviews, SSM stuff, and the first scene of the new short story. I think you'll dig the new story.

Here are some links that I would comment on if I were awake:
criticism of my same-sex marriage posts from Motime and Pigs & Fishes (scroll around). Will reply to P&F on-site later, but would prefer to talk to Motime over email, except I can't find an email address on his site. Am I just dumb? Or is it not there? If you're reading this, MLTP, could you drop me a line? Thanks.

Sean Collins: His take on David Skal's Monster Show. I think I expected less of the book, thus was less disappointed (this is the great thing about being a pessimist!). Agree about weird prominence of Diane Arbus (the introduction, which focuses on her, is really creepy and morally ubersketch), disagree about IMO utterly justified prominence of "Freaks." Anyway, much of what Sean says is perfectly true, though where we disagree I still think I'm right...!

Julian Sanchez: DC Blogorama!!!! Thursday, Oct. 23rd. I plan to be there, rockin' the casbah.
"'She would of been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"
--Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Thursday, October 09, 2003

HORROR BITES: Below, you'll find five short-ish posts about same-sex marriage, of which I think "Heather Has No Daddy" is the most important. You'll also find a blogwatch with some comments about superhero-comic conventions. Now I'm going to blog some random comments on horror that didn't make it into my big "Rene Magritte, Master of Horror" post below.

The Old Oligarch and I talked about this quite a bit while I was working on the Magritte post. His comments included the idea that horror is when "the parts are still there, but it's gruesome because what supports them is missing." There's quite a bit of that in Magritte, I think, but I'm too tired to work it out....

More scrutably, he suggested that horror is about "chastising overreaching appetites. Man searches for justice in the natural level, but it doesn't happen there, so it has to happen symbolically via horror." (He's getting this from E. Michael Jones's Monsters of Id; what little I've read of Jones didn't impress me, but this particular insight sounds absolutely right to me.) Readers of my short fiction (you only get the first scene, because my archives are Bloggered...) will probably not be surprised that horror's overblown, outraged, anguished, bloody-minded response to a world "where nothing is ever put straight" really resonates with me.

O.O. added that horror often involved "gross magnification of one aspect of man"; he used the first "Terminator" movie as an example of the gross magnification of the unconstrained will. The Terminator is "like Kant on steroids, all it knows is duty and will. And it's terrifying because there are no limits to that. It never gets tired or despondent, it just wants to kill you."

For his part, Sean Collins, in his senior essay (PDF--I've started to read it but haven't finished--maybe tonight), identifies dread as the key feature of horror. It's the opposite of suspense--you're not wondering what will happen, you know what will happen, and it is going to hurt.

He also writes about a certain kind of horror imagery, which comes in two varieties (I'm doing this from my notes, since I can't cut-and-paste from a PDF, so please let me know if I get it wrong): 1) a being in a place where no one ought to be, in defiance of laws of possibility; 2) a "monumental, monolithic, or statuesque object, serving as a testament to the presence of evil, madness, sickness, or irrationality."

For #1 you should picture the two twin girls from "The Shining" ("Come and play with us")--unmoving, not threatening or attacking Danny, brightly-lit, but wrong. Magritte does this all over the place. Elements of this kind of image include: everyday appearance; lack of visible threat or even action (its mere presence is what's wrong or a sign of what's wrong); an onlooker in the movie, in this case Danny.

Anyway, I have no particular conclusions to draw from this, just wanted to get those scraps onto the blog, perhaps to be woven into a coherent narrative later.

In a bit, I'll post the ten scariest and/or most horrific movies I've seen, and try to figure out to what extent they fall into these categories.
SSM: THE GAY RUSSIANS LOVE THEIR CHILDREN TOO: Final same-sex marriage post for today. Another quick take on Unqualified Offerings. (I know I'm only addressing bits and bobs of his arguments. I promise, as this series goes on I'll wrestle with lots of 'em, not just a few.)

UO writes, "I've probably got more to say about gender roles later, but a brief thought for now: From what I can tell, gays love their kids too. So if it becomes widely accepted that straight children of gay parents have special gender-model needs, particularly straight children opposite in gender to their parents, I would expect actual gay parents will invest a fair amount of thought and ingenuity in finding ways to meet those needs. Magazine articles, advice books, Yahoo groups, pediatrician's office classes, the playgrounds of parks in gay neighborhoods, coffee klatches -- all the places that parents try to figure out what the hell they're doing before they ruin their children...."

Yeah, I think people generally love their kids. I also think--and this is pretty obvious really!--that parents often choose family structures that put their kids at a distinct disadvantage. That's pretty much the entire "Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" argument in a nutshell.

If it is so easy to overcome problems in family structure simply by reading magazines and seeking out Gender Appropriate Role Models, why does this not work so well when it comes to divorce or single motherhood? Surely these parents, too, love their children. But it's really hard to replace Dad. Maggie Gallagher (there's that name again...) wrote an excellent 1992 piece about her own experience as a single mother (unavailable online, but you can find an excerpt here) that takes a hard-hitting look at this fact.

And as Jennifer Hamer's important What It Means to Be Daddy: Fatherhood for Black Men Living Away from Their Children inadvertently showed, no matter how much a guy wants to be involved in his family, it's really hard if he's not married to his kids' mother. And that's true of the kids' father, not their "father figure." A friendly guy who comes over to the house a lot, and tries to be like a father to you, isn't even close to a reliable, in-house, married father. There is really no substitute.

I should be crystal clear: People whose parents chose sub-optimal family forms, or had said forms thrust upon them, or some combination of choice and constraint, generally go on to lead only reasonably screwed-up lives just like everybody else. Nobody's doomed because mommy and daddy didn't marry. But it makes things harder. Often, a lot harder. Kids grow up, and they work through it, because we're a tough breed, humans. But why should they have to?
SSM: HMMMMM.... Unqualified Offerings makes an interesting point: "The next problem may strike some as minor: [the argument that male/male couples' often laxer standards of sexual fidelity will spill over into heterosexual couples] depends on straight men (in marriages) observing the behavior of gay men (in marriages) and wanting to emulate gay men. That is, the theory assumes that in this matter straight men will adopt a completely different stance toward gay men than they do in almost every other aspect of life: 'don't be so gay.'"

I addressed this, I think, obliquely here--see esp. point two, and apply it to what tempted men might want to believe about sexual fidelity.

More directly, I'll just say that SSM will change the cultural ideals of what it means to be a good husband. If you tell men that husbands who sleep around with other men are a-okay, you lose an important self-image tool (I won't do this because I want to be a good husband) that societies have used for centuries to rein in tempted men. I can't say it too often: People live by roles and ideals--masks. Change the masks, or remove one, and you change or constrain their options and their behavior.

But I'll also note a really weird aspect of UO's claim: He's basically relying on the continuing strength of what SSM advocates generally call homophobia in order to make his case for SSM. That's not illogical, precisely, but it is a bit... queer.
SSM: SAPPHISTRY AND SOPHISTRY. Okay, that title's a bit harsh, but it is kind of funny how every time you talk about same-sex marriage somebody says, "But lesbians are supermonogamous! Shouldn't you be encouraging them to marry?" For some people this is just a cheapie, for a few people it's a real question; for many, I think, it's somewhere in between. Let me teethe on it for a bit.

1) Lesbian marriage makes men optional extras in marriage and family formation. So much more on that here, and a bit in the post immediately below this one!

So... there can be more than one kind of harm from a policy, right? The harm done by lesbian marriage might be distinguishable from the harm done by gay men's marriage, especially if you think there are significant differences between the sexes, yes? In fact, there might be more than one kind of harm done by both kinds of same-sex marriage. So, hypermonogamous or not, dame-broad marriage is a bad idea.

2) Do we, in fact, know that lesbian couples hold one another to a high standard of sexual fidelity? Do we, in fact, know that lesbian couples view sleepin' around as being unfaithful? Or are we just assuming that, based on (do we even know this much?) lesbians' higher rates of monogamy (than whom?)? I'm not sure what we're supposed to know about frail-skirt couples (sorry, I'm getting a little wiggy here).

To make the "Lesbians Will Save Marriage From Gay Men" argument, you've got to posit that lesbian couples who would marry a) are more monogamous than heterosexual couples who do marry, and b) more monogamous because they demand sexual fidelity, not because, say, women have a lower sex drive than men, or lesbians have fewer opportunities for infidelity than gay men or heterosexuals, or whatever. B) is important because we're talking about what SSM would do to the ideal of marriage, how it would affect the cultural belief that marriage requires sexual fidelity.

Can we really make these claims responsibly?

Oh--also--you have to assume that if you have three broad cultural clumps (lass/doll, dude/cowboy, lady/guy) with very generally speaking some restrictions apply void where prohibited differing stances on whether marriage requires sexual fidelity, people will go with the majority vote, or something, rather than just saying, "Well, shouldn't each individual couple make it up on their own? Dowhutchalike and all that?" Oh good, just what we need, fewer role models and ideals, more ad-hoc randomosity in our marriage culture.

So, not sold on the premise of the claim, and definitely don't think it constitutes an argument for SSM even if the claim is granted.
SSM: HEATHER HAS NO DADDY: I neglected an important angle in my post on same-sex marriage and masculinity, another way in which same-sex (unisex) marriage tells men that they're not necessary to forming a family. I'm referring, as the title of this post should make clear, to lesbian couples raising kids.

Lots of these couples are dedicated parents. But they're also raising kids in a family structure that a) makes it harder for both daughters and sons to form a sense of what it means to be a man and how men fit into the family, and b) reinforces cultural messages that children don't need fathers, they just need "parents."

Think for a second about another, frighteningly common model of two-woman parenting: a mother, her daughter, and the daughter's children. Most people find it perfectly intelligible that a) many of these families are doing as best they can, working really hard to give their children love, but b) their kids do suffer from not having a male role model and a sense of men's place in the family. I don't think we should expect lesbian parenting to be radically different in either of those respects. As this touching bus poster (PDF) put it, "My mommy can't be my daddy too."

When you tell men they're not necessary to the family, you know, sometimes they believe you.
SSM: QUICK HITS. Dappled Things, while saying several nice things about the series so far (thanks!), writes, "Her observations about male gender are very interesting, but I found less than convincing the argument that once getting married ceases to be a thing that proves masculinity, then men will gradually lose interest in it. It's one thing to say that once we let girls be altar boys, all the boys will drop out. To make a similar argument about something as ingrained in the human race as mating and marrying seems to me a bit of a stretch."

Well, but the last sentence there is the giveaway, no? "Mating"--you can't beat people away from that one with a bat. "Mating and marrying," though, have already been effectively delinked in a lot of communities. Hence my volunteer job. If marriage is invincible, indelibly written on the human heart, untouchable or only slightly touched by culture, where do all these fatherless families come from? When one's surrounding culture doesn't support marriage, it's much harder to make a good marriage, to understand how to do that and why you would want to.

Lots of men and women will always have sex. Some men and women will always marry. But the ratio of "have sex + marriage" to "have sex (and therefore babies) without marriage" varies quite a bit. We've watched it vary within my lifetime. The recent renewal of marriage is immensely important; I'm opposed to anything that would undo the marriage gains of the 1990s. I think unisex marriage will kick marriage just as it's getting back on its feet. So, not a fan.

And Motime Like the Present has a series of quick points, to which I'll try to give brisk replies.

So: In re marriage as purely symbolic: Not sure I follow the logic here. Sounds like MLTP is arguing that now that marriage is basically meaningless, we can't deny it to same-sex couples. A who a what now? I expect I'm missing something there.

But if you want a good look at why marriage is not merely symbolic, even today, and why marriage and divorce are crucial issues, I can't recommend The Abolition of Marriage highly enough. Powerful, high-impact, and profound. One of the few public-policy books I could imagine actually changing someone's life. It's a fast read, too. If you want more recent stats, The Case for Marriage is good. I think AOM also addresses MLTP's larger points about divorce.

MLTP also suggests that men should simply control themselves and act right because they fear punishment for acting wrong. I don't think this works well at all in the sexual realm (e.g. don't abandon your children or the woman you made 'em with). I think it works somewhat better for "male aggression," though still not as well as punishment plus cultural support for honorable masculinity; but aggression isn't the only thing we're trying to handle here.

So why not offer a carrot as well as a stick? My position is that we should offer cultural rewards for and ideals of masculinity, to make it easier for men to do the right thing. The consequences of men doing the wrong thing are pretty awful for (in order of obviousness) children, women, and men themselves, so why not try whatever works?

On the men-controlling-themselves tip, I'll drop another book recommendation, too, I think....
Because the blog
Belongs to watchers...

Motime Like the Present: His thesis statement on Silver Age Marvel comics and the Puritan legacy. Also something about same-sex marriage, of which more in the next post.

Both Sean Collins and Journalista! read my revenge-tragedies/superhero-comics post below as a brief in favor of superheroic conventions.

I see why they thought that, but it's not totally accurate. Some of the conventions exist because they help stories work, or they symbolize something in a meaningful way (secret identities), etc. (Note: These can be ditched when they get in the way of telling a good story--I'm loving the whole "Matt Murdock Is Daredevil" storyline--but the conventions form a useful background or toolbox.) Some of the conventions exist for, as far as I can tell, random reasons (double-initial names). Some of the conventions exist because they pander to people's worst instincts and preferences (retcons!).

In some ways, the less helpful a convention is to straight-up superhero comics, the more interesting it will be to writers, who want to know why the convention accreted on the genre in the first place if it is so unwieldy or dumb.

That said, thanks to J! for the kind words and to Sean for connecting my post with a perfectly accurate thing said by Marvel head honcho of some kind Bill Jemas.

Afghan Voice: Fascinating-looking blog. Via Oxblog.

Democratic Debate Drinking Game.
My heart is by dejection, clay,
And by selfe-murder, red.
From this red earth, O Father, purge away
All vicious tinctures, that new fashioned
I may rise up from death, before I'm dead.

--John Donne, from "The Litanie: The Father"
OH NO YOU DID NOT. "Batman Draped in Thai Silk." "Sita Being Abducted by Superman." "Darth Maul (from Star Wars I) with Thai Headdress." "Spiderman and Maiyarap (King of the Underworld)."

All this and more, at Jirapat Tasanasomboon Artwork. Good to know that globalization has brought "It's not kitsch, it's pop art!" to Thailand. Truly, we are a world connected.

Via Polytropos.
I AM SO HUNGRY!!!!! About to cook and eat food. Here's what's on the blog, below: A post about superhero comic conventions and revenge-tragedy conventions and writerly inspiration. Five posts about same-sex marriage, part of a series I'll be doing this week and maybe part of next week: friendship, masculinity, my basic position, three types of argument, and the setup of the series. Poetry Wednesday. And the last segment of "What You Can Do for Your Country." It's a big pinata full of bloggy goodness!

Tomorrow I plan to post: the next chunk of the SSM series (much shorter posts, basically replying to various objections); bits and pieces about horror; maybe the beginning of a new short story; and whatever else slithers over the transom.
SUPERHERO COMICS AND THE SPANISH TRAGEDY. This past summer I had a terrific surge of fiction-writing energy, after a long spell of torpor. I'm still working on lots of fun stories, and I love it. So much more fun than journalism! I've had a host of ideas that I really like, jumping-off points for stories. Right now I've got two rough drafts done, two mostly-done, and seven in various stages of draft or notes. This is wildly exciting, given that until this summer I hadn't actually finished a work of fiction since college.

Anyway, people ask you where you get your ideas. And it was really obvious to me that I was getting both many of my ideas, and a huge infusion of writing-energy, from the comics I started reading some time in, I think, June. Of those ten stories, three are very heavily influenced by comics (although that'll only be made glaringly evident in the title of one of the stories; all three of the heavy-influence ones will be totally intelligible to non-comics-readers), and five have various chunks of comics-inspired imagery or plot ideas.

So, lots of influence there. And it was especially striking to me that although I read all different kinds of comics, from Essential Uncanny X-Men #1 to Like a River and Slow News Day, the comics that were sparking my fiction-brain were all very up-front Marvel superhero titles.

How come? Why were New X-Men and Daredevil, which I know are not the best, most artistically great comics out there (although I really love them, and you should too!), turning up the heat under the fiction cooker?

It's because of the same thing that often frustrates people who dislike superhero comics: the conventions. Superhero comics are hemmed in by iron webs of convention. Everything from the double-initial names (Reed Richards, Matt Murdock, Lex Luthor) to the teeth-grinding lameness that is "retroactive continuity." (Yeah, I know, technically that's not a "convention," but if you know what a retcon is I think you know exactly what I mean.)

I don't think I would have realized that the conventions (which are often so constraining to the comics themselves) were what was inspiring me if I hadn't written a paper a while back comparing Hamlet with Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. Shakespeare swiped scads of plot devices from Kyd, and both used conventional revenge-tragedy elements.

But. Here are several quotes from that old paper (sorry for occasional clunky phrasing): "...Hamlet cracks and shifts the revenge tragedy the way that the roots of a tree will break through concrete....

"Several figures or ideas appear in both plays, the first to appear being the ghosts. Both of these ghosts appear within the first scene, to warn of the murder committed just before each play began. In The Spanish Tragedy the ghost's speech and the allegorical character Revenge's response encapsulate the entire play: it will be one long sweep from the 'forc[ed] divorce between my love and me' to the time when 'thou shalt see the author of thy death... Depriv'd of life...' The audience settles down, preparing to spend an enjoyable evening watching to see how Kyd gets from point A to point B.... Throughout the play the ghost reappears, as in Hamlet, to bemoan the way that no one seems to be taking revenge fast enough.... [The ghost] confers with Revenge, and is reassured that the play will end as a revenge tragedy should, with the deaths of the villains.... Where Kyd takes pains to tell his audience that he will not stray from the path, no matter how long it takes him to reach his destination, Shakespeare sends a far more confusing message. The first appearance of the ghost [in Hamlet] adds to the mystery rather than clearing it up; later, the ghost receives no guarantees that Hamlet will carry out his vengeance. The audience, left altogether unclear as to what path Shakespeare is treading, focuses on the characters instead of the plot. The movement toward the bloody ending, which seems so inevitable in The Spanish Tragedy, is quite uncertain in Hamlet--because Shakespeare has selected as his main character a man so ill-equipped to play the vengeful hero that he actually spends most of the play berating himself because he is trapped in the wrong plot, the wrong genre. Thus Shakespeare uses Kyd's ghost to produce the opposite effect.

"The play-within-a-play in The Spanish Tragedy works similarly [see what I mean about clunky phrasing?--ed]. What Hieronimo and Bellimperia, the revengers, need is a way to get close to the murderers, while holding weapons. The play provides a costume for their intentions. Straightforward plot advancement, if very well done. In Hamlet, on the other hand, Hamlet's purpose in devising the play-within-a-play is based on ideas rather than plot concerns. He wishes not to end Claudius's life through 'The Murder of Gonzago,' but to 'catch [his] conscience.' This difference reflects the way that Shakespeare's play takes its cues from Hamlet himself; it is more concerned with ideas, with proving that the ghost was truthful and that therefore Hamlet's revenge would be justified. The Spanish Tragedy never stops to consider the consequences of vengeance; after all, it's a revenge tragedy, and its purpose is to get us to the final scene, where everyone is dead.

"...For any revenge play to work, there has to be some delay.... In The Spanish Tragedy, the delay is mainly caused due to lack of opportunity. ...In Hamlet, Shakespeare explicitly refuses to use this kind of delay; he actually presents Hamlet with the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, and even sets the scene directly after 'The Mousetrap' provides proof of the King's wrongdoing. Hamlet's reasons for not running Claudius through then and there have to do with his own caught conscience, and his vision of the murderer-King ascending to heaven; he stalls because of the play's metaphysics, not its machinery. ...

"Hamlet's character drives most of the plot of Shakespeare's play in a way that no character seems to in Kyd's. However, his is not the only vivid personality in the play, and this is part of the reason that The Spanish Tragedy feels like a court story, while Hamlet is moreof a family story. In a court, positions matter more than personalities or family relationships; the same could be said of the revenge tragedy, where a character's position as bereaved father or wronged wife forms the entirety of his or her personality. ...Shakespeare seems to have created a set of characters, confronted them with a plot line they cannot live up to, and then shoehorned them into it anyway to see what would happen. ...

"...In describing Kyd's play as a tragedy, one refers to a particular style, a set plotline and conventions, and a purpose which Hamlet does not share. Shakespeare was not trying to write a 'tragedy' in that sense; he was trying, in fact, to write around it, to use it as a frame which his ideas and his characters could crack in some places, cover in others, twine around in others. ...In fact, Shakespeare compares the players' reactions to their roles 'in a fiction, a dream of passion' to Hamlet's far less satisfactory response to a similar situation, thus pointing out the way that Hamlet has outgrown its genre. Rather than hammering home an already-made point, however, the comparison adds both subtlety and pathos; Hamlet knows all about the conventions of tragedy, and he realizes that he is breaking them, and he cannot use that to his advantage as Shakespeare does in the writing of his play."

Okay. So. My point (and I do have one!) is that conventions, especially conventions used without much thought, are opportunities for writers. Because we look at the machinery and the trappings and the tropes and ask, "Well, but what if that meant something, instead of just doing something?" What if the ghost was a problem, not a plot mechanism? What if the play-within-a-play was metaphysical, not strategic?

The three most heavily superhero-influenced stories I'm working on are all trying to ask questions like that. You don't have to know anything about the genre conventions to read them (although I expect it would make your experience of the stories a bit richer), just as you don't have to know the conventions of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy to be awed and changed by Hamlet (although knowing those conventions will make Shakespeare's achievements all the more obvious and powerful).

There are countless levels to Hamlet; here are three: revenge tragedy, commentary on revenge tragedies, commentary on characteristic difficulties of human existence. If Hamlet were just a revision or satire or takedown of an Elizabethan dramatic genre, we wouldn't care too much today. Similarly, there have been scores of attempts to Hamlet-ize superhero conventions, but most of them end up just being comics about comics, and really, what's the point? I want to do something that works on all three levels, but mostly the first (basic story) and third (human condition).

The thing comics-about-comics forget is that superhero conventions arise for a reason. They speak to something--sometimes a good thing, sometimes a rotten thing--in human nature. They resonate. That resonance--what it reveals, what it obscures, what it gets wrong about the world and what it gets right--is what your story should be about. (You know who did this really well? Michael Chabon, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. If this post intrigued you, I definitely recommend that book.)

Finally, I realized, typing this out, that one of the three most-comics-influenced stories, "Failure," is in part about the situation I describe here: "Hamlet knows all about the conventions of tragedy, and he realizes that he is breaking them, and he cannot use that to his advantage as Shakespeare does in the writing of his play."

So. A scattered post about conventions as inspirations. I can't believe I compared myself to Shakespeare. Off to scrub myself with the Loofah of Humility. Anyway, I hope this whets your appetite for the stories to come!