Have a Good Time

November 16, 2014

The watch: some notes on recent film

“Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review,” suggested Jamelle Bouie, before anything else, in a piece for Slate in September titled “A Few Helpful Rules for Reviewing Books About Slavery.” He was responding, of course, to The Economist‘s soon-infamous defense of slavery in the form of a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The movie still in question no longer appears next to the withdrawn article, which The Economist has kept online “in the interests of transparency,” but it’s an image of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. It was originally captioned with the words “Patsey was certainly a valuable property,” and positioned just to the right of the review’s opening paragraph—a paragraph that begins, with no introduction, by reproducing the text of a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper ad quoted in Baptist’s book: “FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications.” The Economist‘s anonymous reviewer goes on to explain that “such accounts […] punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.” The ascription of grimness to Baptist’s history, and not to “the business,” is already a sign of the direction the review will go in. Not contesting Baptist’s arguments so much as slickly ignoring them, it will come to focus on a claim that increased cotton production between 1800 and 1850 can be attributed to slaveholders’ supposed “vested interest” in “better treatment”—having adapted, to accompany this claim, the image of a character whose fate, onscreen and off, contradicts the claim on every imaginable level. Even before this, though, the original combination of the grotesquely captioned photo and the unattributed slaveowner’s ad copy has had the fleeting but unmistakably uncanny effect of making The Economist‘s article feel, itself, like an advertisement.

Bouie’s article was one of many necessary responses. Others include Jeet Heer’s tweets on The Economist‘s faux-contrarian history of apologism for slavery and posts by Will B. Mackintosh, Greg Grandin, and Chris Taylor on the inseparability of that apologism from the defense of capitalism. Ta-Nehisi Coates also tweeted about his memory of a stream of similar magazine articles throughout the 90s, articles for which “no one ever apologized”—a reflection, in some ways, of the same recent social-media developments whose radical potentialities are beautifully explored by Ashon Crawley in an essay from August, “Do It For the Vine,” on the occupation of Ferguson.

And it’s the appearance of The Economist‘s review at this precise time, in the wake of initial events in Ferguson, that has been on my mind for a while, along with Bouie’s crucial first rule: Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review of a history of slavery. I’ve been thinking about why that rule was broken, why it will surely be broken again, and the implications of those facts for navigating a contemporary film environment that continues to engage, consciously or not, with the history and continuation of American white supremacy and antiblack violence. The intimacy of the connection between contemporary discussions of, respectively, America’s cinematic history and its racist legacy is suggested by the way The Economist‘s article—even while implicitly allowing a cinematic image to stand in for history—advances, almost word for word, the same evaluative claim about Baptist’s work as history that conservative American critics tended to make about 12 Years a Slave itself as cinema. (“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave,” wrote James Bowman in the American Spectator, “as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that [Steve] McQueen does not want us to hear about it. This […] surely means that his view of the history of the American South is as partial and one-sided as that of the hated Gone With the Wind.” Like The Economist‘s, these are sentences to which it’s hard to know how to respond. One detail I would highlight, though, is the conflation of seeing with hearing about: Bowman’s cherished fantasy of an apolitical film about slavery—the basis of his whole non-review—can’t be sustained even on its own terms, thanks to his evident disinclination to approach 12 Years a Slave as a film about Solomon Northup at all.)

Movies are, it’s true, usually not works of history. Hence the acuity of the need to read them historically. What joins together for me an apparently disparate group of movies I’ve seen in the last three years is a feeling that they demand to be seen as documents of the same American moment for which “Ferguson” might have become one shorthand. I would hesitate to make too strong a periodizing claim, partly because I’ve also been spending time with Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonismswhich is, among many other things, a reminder that one name for a cinema persistently structured by logics and optics of antiblackness simply is and always has been American cinema. Still, the purpose of this post is to gather together some thoughts (other viewers’ and my own, with suggestions for further reading gratefully encouraged) about a period loosely bookended by two events: the release of The Watch, formerly titled Neighborhood Watch, in July 2012, which coincided with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the release of Let’s Be Cops in August of this year, which—as Wesley Morris observed in an essential piece for Grantland—coincided with the police murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson uprising, as well as with the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing.

One undeniable feature of this period is its relative abundance of major releases by black directors directly addressing, from various geographic and historical angles, struggles for black life and resistance in the face of white supremacy. The last two years have seen 12 Years a Slave; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; and, from across the Atlantic, Amma Assante’s Belle—a dramatization of part of the prehistory of the English legal abolition of slavery that reaches one of several narrative climaxes with a scene of a woman looking at a painting, and thus a movie that might have a lot to tell The Economist. But in this post I want to see what emerges from close attention to three other films and to some threads that connect them and lead out elsewhere: The Watch; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; and After Earth.

dotherightthing thewatch

“The narrative strategies labor like responsible citizens, razing social barriers of the ‘past’ and democratizing the personal pronoun we. The cinematic strategies labor like watch commanders, sending the spectator out on patrol.”—Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black

The closing credits of The Watch begin to the sound of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” It’s obviously not a film that could have known what was coming, or one that shows much of a desire, in general, for proximity to the political. Granted, some of the jokes in its first few minutes are at the expense of the privileged subjectivity of Ben Stiller’s hero, Evan Trautwig—a Costco manager and city councilor in Glenview, Ohio, struggling with his fertility and, as a result, with his marriage—who announces hopefully in the opening voiceover that he’s “on the market” for a black friend, and who can conceal neither his surprise nor his awkward pleasure when Jamarcus, played by Richard Ayoade, shows up to volunteer for the local patrol he’s organized after the mysterious killing of a Latino employee. (This is arguably one of the most remarkable signs of The Watch‘s pre-Zimmerman origins. The depiction of a neighborhood watch founded in order to investigate the killing of a Latino who had just become an American citizen—with a fresh tattoo to prove it—seems to reveal the movie’s assumption that the key suspicion it must allay within its audience is the suspicion that any neighborhood watchers would prejudicially target, first and foremost, residents suspected to be unrecognized as American citizens by the law.) Trautwig has advertised the patrol at a high-school football game, bribing an announcer so he can deliver a halftime speech in a scene that holds up a small-town mirror to Bane’s injunction to Gothamites to “take control of [their] city” in The Dark Knight Rises. The only volunteers before Jamarcus have been Vince Vaughn’s Bob, the paranoid and authoritarian father of a teen girl, and Jonah Hill’s Franklin, a kid with a knife who always wanted to be a cop.

White anxiety and white vigilantism are, in these early scenes, more or less satirical targets. And yet the movie’s ineluctable embeddedness within histories of racialized surveillance and violence starts to become clearer with the late revelation that Jamarcus is the only member of the team who is also a member, however friendly, of an invading alien species, and the only such alien we see in human form. The film’s position here is underscored by a certain correspondence between, on the one hand, the alteration of its title in the wake of events in Florida, and, on the other, the trajectory of George Zimmerman himself before the day he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not officially on duty as the local neighborhood watch captain that day; nor was he licensed, as that captain, to be armed; nor was he ever on duty as the policeman he, too, always wanted to be, the kind of cop whose heroic death is marked with the term that served as the title of another big movie in 2012, End of Watch. In short, it wasn’t even really in the name of any neighborhood watch that Zimmerman acted. He was simply watching. And the nature of his concern for a neighborhood meant that he was on the lookout for perceived threats not just against that neighborhood but against an entire world—just as, onscreen, Trautwig and his crew soon come to realize that Glenview is (as Bob says) “ground zero” for an inestimably larger fight. It happens to be a fight against aliens whose strength is displayed, in one sequence, by the way one of them resists the group’s chokehold (as Bob shouts “Bring him down“)—and who, in a scene emphasized in trailers released after the title change, must be shot many, many times, even as they lie prone on the ground, before they are dead.

Eventually, with one exception, they all are. Trautwig and his wife have apparently adopted a child and repaired their relationship, and Franklin has finally been accepted onto the police force, in what feels like an alternate origin story for Hill’s character in 21 Jump Street, released four months before, or a teaser for its sequel, released two years later. (Without which, as Wesley Morris speculates, Let’s Be Cops probably wouldn’t exist.) When he wanted to join the neighborhood watch, Franklin’s desire to “work through [his] emotional shit and bust some heads in the process” was an unsettling joke. His hard-won opportunity to realize this desire with a badge is one unspoken component of a happy ending.

If the violence of the second half of The Watch is shocking and obvious, it might be instructive to consider the appearance and the operation of the kinds of watching that undergird it. And not only in brash and spectacularly ill-timed comedies of policing, but also in the kinds of movies that see their purpose as something closer to the quiet documentation of the ongoing scene of everyday American life—movies like, say, a low-budget post-mumblecore comedy, with likable actors and a mellow vibe, which wants nothing more than to breeze away eighty minutes in Baton Rouge and give its audience a few reminders that everything happens for a reason.

jeff

That’s certainly how the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home tended to be received on its limited release, three months before The Watch, in March 2012. It’s an unassuming movie that would never dream of advocating violence against anyone. It also obeys a narrative logic wholly incomprehensible without the premise that white men are licensed, by some secret law of a beneficent universe, to watch and follow people who are not white men.

The full weight of this law is revealed only at the movie’s end, but it’s most glaringly evident in the first twenty minutes. Jason Segel’s Jeff, the younger of two brothers and an unemployed thirty-year-old stoner, is introduced to the audience on the couch in his mom’s basement as he records a blissed-out monologue about his conviction (largely derived from another alien-invasion movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs) that everything happens for a reason. You just have to follow the signs. The movie’s world immediately seems to bend to accommodate his faith: an infomercial on TV urges Jeff to “pick up that phone,” at which moment the phone rings, and a stranger on the other end asks to speak to “Kevin.” When Jeff says there’s no Kevin there, the stranger angrily insists otherwise, spells out the name—kay ay vee eye en!and hangs up. While Jeff is wondering what “Kevin” could mean, his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, calls from her office and asks him to go to the store to buy some wood glue so that he can fix a shutter that’s been broken forever. On the bus to the store, Jeff sees, seated in front of him, a young black man (played by Evan Ross) wearing a jersey that bears, sure enough, the name “KEVIN.” The man soon gets off the bus, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Jeff abandons his errand to do the same. He stalks the man through a convenience store, as mock-ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Eventually he ends up hovering at the edge of a basketball court where the man has joined his friends for a game. When one of the other players is hurt, Jeff is invited to play, and then to go off and smoke some pot with the young man, whose name, it turns out, is Kevin after all. After a drag on a shared joint, Jeff is in the middle of praising the quality of the pot when—with the effect of a jump scare, a sudden intrusion into the space of the scene—two darker-skinned black men attack him from behind, beat him to the ground, and take his wallet, while Kevin looks on. “Sorry, Jeff,” Kevin says, and disappears from the movie, having fulfilled his twofold function: he has been briefly held in the film’s gaze as, first, a suitable target for the innocent and well-meaning Jeff to follow across town in his pursuit of signs, and, second, the bearer of an unpredictable violence depicted as fundamentally unconnected to that earlier pursuit. (Until the moment of the assault, Jeff thinks they’re just new friends smoking together, and the audience has been encouraged to think the same.)

In its sudden shift from whimsically scored humanist comedy into unscored, “realistic” violence, this sequence comes closer than anything I know to presenting someone literally mugged by reality. Even in the most generous possible reading of the sequence—where its goal, say, is a liberally informed gesture toward a social world Jeff has no knowledge of, delivered in order to stress his privileged naïveté, his unpreparedness for the cruelty of everyday life—the only realization of that aim the film can imagine is a blunt presentation of Kevin as a deceptive embodiment of that cruelty. (Evan Ross brings as much to the role as anyone could, but it’s precisely his affable charisma that the scene betrays.) And yet the movie finds a way to fold this “reality” back into a providential narrative, without ever returning to Kevin or his friends, and over the course of the next hour Jeff’s stoned-innocent approach to the world will be emphatically confirmed as the right one anyway.

That’s what really fascinates me about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I think: that after Jeff is “beaten up by Kevin” (which is how he describes the event a few minutes later, though Kevin himself didn’t touch him), the movie obliges Jeff in the continuation of his quest for a Kevin-event. It ultimately allows him to find, indeed, another Kevin—one who looks very different, who happens to have a last name, and who redeems, in a single stroke, Jeff’s day-long search for “a perfect moment,” his previously aimless life, and, by implication, our experience as moviegoers. After the mugging, Jeff wanders across town and runs into his older and seemingly better-adjusted brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms. But Pat has his own problems: his marriage is collapsing, and he’s just bought, against his wife Linda’s express wishes, a new Porsche that she knows they can’t afford. Linda, played by Judy Greer, is unhappy about it. (Later it becomes clear just how cogent her analysis of the situation is, in a scene Greer imbues with a startling intensity: she doesn’t love Pat anymore, and, as she tells him, she’s glad they haven’t yet bought a house or had any kids, because that will make it easier to end the relationship. But the movie is not going to let this happen.) Pat also has reasons to suspect she’s having an affair, and so he enlists the help of a reluctant Jeff in a creepy pursuit of Linda across the city. There’s an interlude in a cemetery, where the two brothers’ bickering is briefly interrupted by the revelation that they’ve both been having the same dream about their father, who died in 1995. Events unfold from here so that the paths of all the major characters converge in the same traffic jam, on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, at which point Jeff realizes that another car has gone off the bridge; jumps into the water; saves two young white girls and then, with more difficulty, their father; and is saved, in turn, by Pat. After these dramatic developments, Jeff and Pat reconcile; Pat and Linda are implied to be back on track (perhaps with a child in the future); and Jeff is back on the couch, watching a news report that teases upcoming coverage of “the rescue tale of local councilman Kevin Landry.”

imdb2

Jeff’s decision to trust his instincts and follow that first Kevin on the bus, in short, began a series of events with a fantastically overdetermined resolution: the preservation of a marriage, the saving of three lives, and, as a function of the particular lives saved, a tangible civic benefit. A councilman lives to adjudicate another day. Satisfied, Jeff fixes the shutter. The camera’s shutter closes and the movie is over.

So it turns out that Jeff, Who Lives at Home and The Watch aren’t as far apart as they might look, with disparities in genre, tone, and critical reception starting to feel more like the elements of a good-cop/bad-cop dialectic—or, you could say, like the superficial fraternal differences between two movies that are having the same dream. Both are effectively comedies of remarriage in which the health of a white heterosexual couple’s relationship is tied to the health of their city, metonymized in the figure of a white city councilman. In order for this conjugal-civic happiness to be restored, Councilman Evan Trautwig must pump bullets into bodies in one city, while, in another, Jeff must stoically suffer an unprovoked beating at the hands of a Kevin who, despite actually bearing the name across his body, could never have been the Kevin he was looking for. To one viewer posting on an IMDB forum, this Kevin stands in for an urgently underestimated threat to civil society itself, a “racist” epidemic of young black men robbing “white guys or couples” in attacks that are never reported nationally, only locally. The viewer is upset by the injustice; still, he enjoyed the movie.

One other impassioned IMDB comment is worth noting: “This movie,” says a different forum member, “changed my stance on homosexuality.” This is the plot strand I haven’t mentioned (and in fact its separability from the main plot was a sticking point for other viewers), but the film’s vision of liberal community does have room for a tentatively established interracial queer couple. Jeff’s widowed mother Sharon has an online “secret admirer” at the office, gradually revealed to be Carol, the friendly coworker she’s been keeping apprised of the mysterious admiring messages all along, played by Rae Dawn Chong. The movie ends with Sharon maintaining on some level that she doesn’t identify as gay, while keeping the option of a relationship with Carol very much open, because, as Carol has said, they get each other. These scenes are sensitively played by Chong and Sarandon, and I don’t want to discount the remarkable effect they clearly had on one viewer, and maybe on others. I would just say that another way of getting at what makes Jeff, Who Lives At Home so interesting to me—what really makes it, I think, something like a defining movie of its era—is the way it seems to invite and to reward the reading practices of both of these IMDB comments simultaneously. The film is a careful shaping of an ostensible American everyday into a perfect moment, where “perfection” means the safe continuation of existing conditions and “the everyday” encompasses queer couple formation and contextless black-on-white violence. Watching Sharon and Carol find happiness with each other, it’s easy to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home as a document of a year when dramatic advances in same-sex marriage movements were taken to show the continued acceptance of LGBT people into American life. Focusing on the larger narrative that redeems Pat and Linda’s marriage, by way of Jeff’s progress through a raced teleology of Kevins, I think of Dan Savage—surely one of the most prominent champions of marriage in contemporary America—whose tendency to cast black citizens as ontological obstacles to the march of “marriage equality” garnered him appreciative citations in the fantasy fiction of (once again) The American Spectator. Here Trayvon Martin’s “homophobia” serves as an explanation for his fear of the man who was stalking him, and consequently as an excuse for his own death.

ae2

“’I was like, “No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!”‘ Smith said, spoiling the film.”—The Huffington Post

ghosting, noun. the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen”—Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The prominence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs as a motivating factor in Jeff’s odyssey through the everyday makes it all the more striking to find, in the Shyamalan film released the following year, a kind of sustained aesthetic resistance against the system of signs on which movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home rely. Not that this did After Earth any critical favors. It’s undeniably a Shyamalan movie—in ways that Ben’s great post from last year investigates—though popular understanding of its authorship certainly tilted more than usual toward its star and coproducer. It was an M. Night Shyamalan movie but a Will Smith event, and, as such, it was met with roughly the same widespread derision and hostility as Smith’s decision not to play the role of a formerly enslaved bounty hunter in a movie that wouldn’t let that character kill the main antagonist himself. Smith had made it very clear that he’d declined the offer of Django Unchained not just because he could afford to, but because he’d felt—like the Academy, as it turned out—that the title character wasn’t the most significant one. In early 2013, everyone seemed to think this was evidence of hilarious vanity. (Around the same time, Smith was profiled, along with his son and After Earth costar Jaden, in a piece for New York that gave the impression of having been calculated to make him appear as out of sync with the world as possible; and he co-produced Shola Lynch’s documentary on Angela Davis.) So it was partly for this reason that a gleeful sense of karmic justice was palpable in the air when After Earth, the film Will Smith had turned down Quentin Tarantino himself in order to make, debuted to reviews like Joe Morgenstern’s in The Wall Street Journal, asking if it was the worst movie ever made.

The intensity of so many of the attacks on After Earth made every thoughtful response to the movie feel like a gift: Armond White’s review for CityArts, or Ben’s post, or Olivia Cole’s, or—one of the best things I read online in 2013—Nicholas Ochiel’s. And I don’t have much to add to these readings beyond a few more intertextual considerations, a few attempts to think through how the landscape the film is situated in makes it resonate all the more powerfully.

On the surface, the film’s premise and poetics might bring to mind an Afrofuturist echo of Fanon’s conviction, repeatedly cited by Frank Wilderson in Red, White & Black, that the end of white supremacy must mean nothing less than “the end of the world.” In its uncompromising interrogation of the antiblackness that saturates “the epistemic air we breathe,” and in its insistence on both the necessity and the incomprehensibility of the end of such a world, Wilderson’s book could almost have been titled After Earth itself. “To say we must be free of air,” as he writes near the conclusion, “while admitting to knowledge of no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here.” From this perspective, the sight of Jaden Smith as Kitai Raige reaching for the “air-filtration inhalers” that will allow his temporary survival on an Earth with insufficient oxygen points toward a way of reading the dangers of this anti-human atmosphere (with White, Cole, and Ochiel) such that they come to resemble dangers much closer to home. The full setup clarifies the nature of this cinematic “end of the world,” and reveals a subversion of the decisive temporality promised by the title. Kitai has crash-landed on the planet with his father, General Cypher Raige, a thousand years after humans have been forced to abandon it. The Raiges’ ship is dead and there’s nowhere else to go. On the same ship was a captive member of the Ursa species, fierce creatures from the new homeworld, capable of tracking humans by chemically detecting their fear. (It’s General Raige who has led humans in the fight against the Ursa, but one of them, years ago, killed Kitai’s sister.) The captive Ursa has escaped; the general’s legs are broken; the other half of the ship is miles away. Kitai must elude unfamiliar predators, stay warm, conserve his limited oxygen supply, find the ship’s tail, and activate its beacon to send a distress signal into space, or—the line recurs—”we are going to die.” So he begins to make his way across the harsh landscape, digitally tracked by his father from the crash site, and wearing a skintight suit of “smart fabric” that senses threats, its darkness marking him out for danger: “My suit’s turned black. I like it but I think it’s something bad.”

Even this brief sketch of the action of After Earth suggests its radical difference from other movies of its period. It is a kind of apocalyptic mirror image of the settler-colonial kitsch of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, in which a white boy and girl in 1965 New England find romantic bliss against a pristinely empty natural backdrop that could only have been created for them, with Hank Williams on the soundtrack. (The confidence of a white at-homeness in the world extends into the name of one of Moonrise Kingdom‘s production companies, Steven Rales’s “Indian Paintbrush,” which also helped finance Jeff, Who Lives at Home.) It’s also galaxies away from the two other big post-Earth releases of last year, Oblivion and Elysium—or, more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—where, more conventionally, the Earth itself is what’s at stake, to be rescued or redeemed through heroic individuality. (Ben calls this “a whiteness of genre.” Hollywood’s inability to visualize humanity’s salvation without whiteness at the center has also resulted in a recent wave of egregiously white Biblical epics. What I tried to explore in the paragraphs above, triangulating from The Watch and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is how the sense of a world at stake can make itself felt as well in white American conceptions of the everyday. As for sci-fi, though, maybe it should be noted that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion—which, like After Earth, was mocked as a Scientologist vanity project, though with less vitriol—makes “vanity” feel like an odd verdict, too, with the news that Earth was destroyed by nothing other than an army of clones who all thought they were Tom Cruise.) And, finally, After Earth stands in sharp relief against Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another speculative fantasy that grounds its story of a child passing through ruined earthly environments, and toward a climactic confrontation with unearthly creatures, in the child’s relationship with a critically compromised father.

ae01-2

The difference here isn’t just between the near-unanimous critical praise for one film and the near-unanimous dismissal of another. After seeing After Earth for the first time (and after reading so many reviews that seemed to locate a critique of Jaden Smith’s acting solely in a recognition of how much of the movie he spends looking terrified), I kept returning to a pair of brilliant posts from Social Text, by Christina Sharpe and Jayna Brown respectively, on the exuberance of the critical consensus around Beasts. And also on the movie’s “romance of precarity”—or how its effective reception as an inspiring document among largely white audiences depended on the blackness of its desperately poor protagonists “mak[ing] their precarity unreadable as precarity.” Responding to an Occupy-themed blog post by Nicholas Mirzoeff that had celebrated six-year-old Hushpuppy as a heroine whose “wilding” allowed viewers “a means to visualize climate resistance,” Sharpe is devastating:

How does a little black girl child orphaned and abandoned become a vision for climate resistance for so many people who watched the film? It is precisely this kind of misprision, this not feeling or seeing, that subtends an event like the death of Glenda Moore’s sons during Hurricane Sandy. Riffing on Invisible Man, optic white does not see your plight.

The film ends with Hushpuppy, six years old, motherless, fatherless, kinless, leading a group of black and white children and adults through a causeway after pushing her father’s corpse out to sea. She is caretaker, man, boy, girl, woman all within herself; she is part of the community but complete unto herself. Abandoned to precarious life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, in this analysis, is unable to acknowledge or comprehend the burden it needs Hushpuppy to bear. It depicts an uninhabitable environment and at the same time encourages its audience to view Hushpuppy and her father as at home in it. In contrast, the specificity of After Earth’s sci-fi scenario allows it to go out of its way, from the opening shot, both to show the beauty of a digitally realized, wildly post-human planet, and to insist that this Earth is not where Kitai wants to be, or should be. His suffering is not in the service of saving it, because he is not The One, because no one is. There’s no Wall-Evian fantasy of repopulation here, no trace of the redemptive turn embedded in Oblivion‘s tagline: ”Earth is a memory / Worth fighting for.” Instead, Earth is a nightmare to be woken from (with repeated scenes of characters urging Kitai to wake up); in terms of structure and affect, everything is pared down; and the boy at the center is “a vision of climate resistance” only insofar as the experience of the film is that of watching him resist a climate.

In short, this is not a pretense of representing the social. As Nicholas Ochiel’s post in particular indicates so sharply, it may be more like a pretense of not representing it. And Ochiel’s reading of Kitai’s experience through the lens of the truth that “it has always been open season on black folk in America” enables, I think, a decisive response to one of the most popular and most tedious objections to After Earth on “scientific” grounds, voiced across the Internet even before the movie’s release: namely that its suggestion of a kind of malevolent evolutionary agency, articulated in Cypher’s warning to his son that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” reveals the movie’s ignorance of the laws of evolution. Now, under any circumstances, this objection would represent a notable failure to approach a work of art on its own terms. When Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people” in trailers for The Sixth Sense, the utterance wasn’t widely received as evidence that “M. Night Shyamalan has no idea how death works.” But what the complaint misses here, crucially, is the very deliberate construction of a libidinal ecology—one whose surprising and willful distance from any coherent message about either evolution, or, as in Shyamalan’s The Happening, climate change, is indicated by its supplementation with a monster that is literally a fear machine, hanging bodies from trees. This ecology is not a happening but a structure, comparable to the libidinal economy of antiblackness whose irreducibility to the political economy of capitalism Wilderson is always at pains to emphasize. (In this sense, the notion that After Earth’s environment is more hostile than it has to be simply because the film “doesn’t understand the laws of evolution” is analogous to The Economist’s claim, against Edward Baptist, that slaveholders must have learned to practice “better treatment” because to do otherwise would have gone against the laws of the market. And I would say that one picture of an environment constantly evolving toward violence against a particular kind of body, even if direct opportunities for that violence remain temporarily absent, can be found in The Watch.) What the movie commits to putting on the screen, above all, is a world weaponized against a black teenager’s survival.

Following Ochiel’s and Ben’s readings, I would stress that it’s in this context that After Earth‘s study of fear needs to be understood. General Raige learned to defeat Ursas by “ghosting,” purging his body of any trace of terror. Halfway through the movie, in a monologue filmed largely in one medium shot, he gives his son an account of the events that led to his first learning to ghost, arriving at a formulation that was shortened and emblazoned on posters everywhere: “DANGER IS REAL / FEAR IS A CHOICE.” Armond White recognized this as “street hardness.” Reactions more commonly tended to be divided between, on the one hand, an assumption that any discourse of fear-management was necessarily Scientology, and, on the other, a dismissal of this assumption which also stripped the movie of its particularity altogether. “Saying that danger is real but fear is not is run-of-the-mill ‘brave warrior’ stuff,” claimed a Scientology scholar, in a Gawker article titled After Earth is Just a Shitty Movie, Not Scientology Propaganda.” And, divorced from its context, of course Cypher’s dictum is run-of-the-mill. But it’s also the thesis of a movie that is not quite After Earth itself, which holds more space for ambivalence about fear and about choices than its promotional campaigns. Ghosting, the technique that allows Cypher and then Kitai to survive, is just that—a survival technique: not an easily generalizable rule for managing subjectivity but a last-ditch affective gambit, undertaken by desperate people in order to face what was intended to destroy them. That it takes a psychological toll is obvious, if not from Cypher Raige’s name, then from Will Smith’s every word and gesture in a boldly uncharacteristic performance that so many viewers found baffling. In the closing scene, when the two are reunited, a near-dead Cypher’s rigid salute to his son collapses into an embrace, and into agreement with Kitai’s statement that he “want[s] to work with Mom” now, a scientist. Having had to become fearless is not, in this film, an enviable burden, and finally what matters is not that Kitai has become fearless but that he’s managed to stay alive. He’s managed it partly thanks to his father’s transmissible gift of ghosting; partly thanks to the unexpected maternal care of an earthly creature whose offspring had been killed; and partly thanks to a blessing and a warning received in a vision of his sister—which, further complicating the task of interpreting Cypher’s gift, might make After Earth the first Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense to feature an actual ghost.

In this vision of Earth, it’s a community born of ghostly attachments that enables continued life. (And even after the final defeat of the monster that most spectacularly threatened life, the ecosystem still has to be abandoned.) This, then, is not a Shyamalan movie without a twist: the twist is survival, in spite of everything, a survival that is alone worth the telling.

Against a white everyday that continues to sustain itself through criminalizing and policing black life, resistance in Ferguson and elsewhere is the necessary dream of an Earth after this Earth.

November 25, 2011

A map of the country

“So we heard the proposition last night, ‘We need to dismantle the United States.’ This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, ‘Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?’ That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide.”—Andrea Smith, March 2011, at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide

Occupy Thanksgiving: Decolonize! / DisOccupy / IMAGINE OTHERWISE

June 28, 2011

Coined sovereignty, brought justice, promised joy

“Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).”
—Judith Butler, “Jacques Derrida”

“No, they cannot touch me for coining; / I am the king himself.”
King Lear, IV.vi

A year ago, Daniel wrote here about the Israeli military’s conclusions regarding the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, and the verdict of a Los Angeles jury in the trial of Oscar Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle (who, two weeks ago, walked free); and, following a line of thought traced by Jakada Imani, asked: “What would justice look like?”

I just want to ask that question again in the middle of 2011, a year that seems fated to be widely remembered as a special year for justice, or even as the year in which justice was done. Announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, President Obama used the word “justice” five times: once, at the end of his speech, in an effort to situate this assassination as a marker of the blessed utopian potentiality of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” (on which suggestion, see Kai Wright’s “The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”); once to pay tribute to the American intelligence community’s “pursuit of justice”; once, of course, to assure the families of bin Laden’s victims that “justice has been done”; and twice, elaborating on and deepening that same point, in reference to the fulfillment of a promise made ten years ago—that the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks would be “brought to justice.” One detail that these references conceal, but that the video I’m posting below recognizes and illustrates, is that the promise fulfilled on May 1 was not (literally) that promise. It was George W. Bush’s assertion on September 20, 2001 that “[w]hether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

This is an instance of antimetabole, a term defined by Wikipedia as “the repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed grammatical order,” and etymologically based in the combination of the Greek anti (“opposite”) and metabole (“turning about”). It’s the kind of rhetorical flourish that tended to be put forward admiringly as evidence that, when the occasion demanded it, President Bush could get serious. Is there any other recent moment of American political antimetabole at once so meaningless and so plainly, terribly significant? To speak of this alternative possibility of “bringing justice to our enemies” is to speak not just to the belief that, in Butler’s words, “one has already arrived at justice,” but to the unspoken faith that justice is proper to the United States, that it has no authorization or meaning beyond the reach of the United States. In other words, I would argue, it only indexes in the most explicit way what was already present in this specific invocation of the act of “bringing our enemies to justice,” heralding as it does the Global War on Terror. It clarifies what kind of “justice” this war will entail, and in what spirit it will be pursued. It might not be adequate to say that “bringing our enemies to justice” (with its air of righteous self-assurance—and maybe, when spoken by Obama instead of Bush, of convincing ethical seriousness) and “bringing justice to our enemies” (with its suggestion of a vengeful, far-reaching violence, inflicted on bodies to whom justice itself is foreign) are two sides of the same coin. They might be more like the same side of the one-sided coin of imperial American power. Which is why I would say that right now it’s possible to know exactly what justice looks like, or at least what this justice that has just been done looks like.

[A TV ad for The Justice Coin. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

One expectation we might have of any reference to justice figured as a coin, a “justice coin”—an expectation which I think this ad helpfully overturns or turns about—is that it would necessarily come in the service of a recognition of some sort of inherent doubleness: a tribute paid to what Henry James said he was looking for in What Maisie Knew, in his pursuit of “themes” that would “reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong.” Jamesian passages like this one, as Phillip Barrish notes, are often taken to indicate an ideological overlap between literary realism, with its portrayal of “a complex world where actions always have multiple ramifications and effects,” and a political “realism” according to which justice must always be sought and paid for in compromises with injustice and violence. In this view, true maturity comes with a kind of happy acceptance that it was necessary for the U.S. to kill bin Laden and that in the pursuit of such justice it was necessary to get our hands dirty: by, say, extracting evidence through torture, or killing untold numbers of civilians with drones and bullets, or shooting our extrajudicial enemies in the head and burying their bodies in the sea.

Now, with respect to James and his work, this is why I basically prefer to agree with Eve Sedgwick that the most interesting content of such passages isn’t related to justice at all, but rather to the shameful pleasure of queer sex. (Which puts the “bright hard medal” in a long and broad history of literary queer money, bearing in mind that one of the earliest meanings of “queer” is “counterfeit.”) But it’s also exactly why I think something like a TV ad for “The Justice Coin” is a valuable document. It seems to reveal something about the counterfeit nature of the maturity of realism—about what Jodi Dean, in her post on obscenity and assassination, identifies as an infelicitous attempt to cover “an obscene enjoyment of violence and arbitrary power” with “the big Other of justice.” (As Dean goes on to say, “we remain stuck in a realism of the worst, excusing our worst impulses as ‘realistic.'”) The “bliss and bale” of the United States alone mark each face of this coin, respectively: one side shows the Navy SEALS who “carried out Operation Geronimo” and the words “YOU CAN RUN / BUT YOU CANNOT HIDE”; the other side shows the spectral twin towers, the signs of a horror that everyone remembers, but already overlaid with the words of both President Bush and President Obama, promising first that justice will be done and then that it has been. In what looks like a material answer to zunguzungu’s question as to whether bin Laden’s death marks “the conclusion or the final normalization of ‘9/11’,” ten long years (in which of course bin Laden did hide, and in which a totally incomprehensible number of people who weren’t bin Laden were killed, maimed, tortured, and displaced) are collapsed into one moment of trauma and resolution, to be commemorated forever—in this case through the purchase of a collectors’ item, valued at $99, which could be ours now for $19.95. That seems obscene, and I think it is. But I also think it might be a mistake to regard the obscenity as merely a counterfeit addition to the justice that has been done, like a layer of gold on a brass coin. On the contrary, I think a text like this ad—weird, upsetting, straining so hard and so unsuccessfully to convey authority and legitimacy—is what does justice to these events.

“When celebrants chanted ‘U.S.A.! U.S.A.!’ and sang “God Bless America,” were they not displaying a hateful ‘us versus them’ mindset?

Once again, no.”
—Jonathan Haidt, “Why We Celebrate a Killing,”  The New York Times

I had just finished thinking about this post a few days ago, on June 24, when the New York state legislature legalized gay marriage: an impressive victory in a fight which—to make this clear quickly—I, as a queer person, have felt for a while not to be mine. (See Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on the violence of assimilation, Sassafras Lowrey on priorities and the queer homelessness epidemic, Kenyon Farrow on racism and the marriage movement, or “Beyond Marriage.”) It was my last night in Appleton, Wisconsin, where I’d been working for three months as an anti-Walker “field organizer” (but not really—more on this later, maybe), and I was sitting in a coffee shop looking at Twitter, when suddenly my feed went into overdrive and almost everyone was ecstatic. I saw that Amanda Marcotte had written, “I love the USA chant. Exactly. That’s what it should be for,” and I realized that for the second time in as many months there was a public celebration of justice in New York, with that chant in the air. Implicit in Marcotte’s remark is a normative distinction between the celebration of marriage rights and the celebration of a killing that the chant shouldn’t be for—which, of course, is a distinction that really matters, and I don’t want to imply that these are similar events. Part of me wants to express nothing but solidarity with my gay American sisters and brothers who want to get married, and happiness at their ability to have intimacy publicly recognized and respected in the ways they want and need. But another part of me wants to add, hegemonic American nationalism is hegemonic American nationalism, and sometimes it’s homonationalism; which is to say that the spectacle of “USA!,” in the wake of a decision to expand a circle of privilege for one subset of New York state’s queers, can’t be abstracted from an ideological environment that privileges the “tolerance” of states like the USA, the UK, and Israel while systematically and violently conflating Orientalized bodies and cultures with homophobia and queer death.

 

So I just sat for a while at the coffee shop in Appleton considering these two photos—one taken just after the New York legislature’s announcement, the other taken on the night of bin Laden’s death and shared by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—and remembering the night, two months earlier, when I was at a bar down the street with Ben and other members of our campaign team, and suddenly the music was turned off, the TV volume was turned up, and everyone at the bar, including others at our table, was loudly toasting the death of bin Laden. I realized that in reaction to each of these very different experiences—sitting in a bar that had become a space to celebrate a killing, and sitting in a cafe reading endless online expressions of joy, over victory in a struggle I felt pressured to be invested in, but wasn’t—the shape of my feeling was approximately the same. I remembered Sara Ahmed’s recent work on moments when we become “affect aliens,” in her book The Promise of Happiness and more briefly in the great essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects),” recently shared on Twitter by SubaBat. As Daniel helped me see, there’s something here—in Ahmed’s “We are not over it, if it has not gone”—that could be akin to a rewriting of Derridean justice into the affective sphere: where, at least for a certain kind of willful subject, (political) joy is fully conceivable only as spectral, as to-come. This possibility is obviously there in the title of her book: maybe I’ll report back soon, when I’ve actually read it. In the meantime, in the language of the infomercial, I’ll try to sum up my feelings about these two moments of justice by saying I’m not sure I buy it, and I’ll end this post by reframing it as a quiet invitation to join me in feeling like a justice killjoy.

[Ad transcript.

Narrator: September 11, 2001.  The terrible events of that day will live in infamy.  But the United States would ensure that those responsible would pay the ultimate price.
President Bush: Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.
Narrator: Finally, after ten years, our nation savored the taste of justice.
President Obama: Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world: […] Justice has been done.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. [Gunshot] We give thanks to the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. 
Narrator: And now the Historic Coin Mint is making available this rare commemorative coin paying tribute to the Navy SEALS who carried out Operation Geronimo—featuring SEAL Team 6, with their distinctive trident and their classified stealth helicopter.  On the other side, the tragic reminders: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, along with the powerful words of our presidents.
President Obama: Justice has been done.
Narrator: A collectors’ item, it’s forged from brass and coated in magnificent 24-karat gold.  It’s valued at $99, but for a limited time is now available for just $19.95.  You’ll also receive this acrylic protective case to preserve it and this certificate of authenticity.  But wait: be one of the first 500 callers and you’ll also receive this distinctive SEAL Team 6 lapel pin to wear with pride, and the Operation Geronimo military briefing packet.  With photographs, maps, and operational details, it’s a $79 value.  Today, it’s yours free—just pay shipping and processing.  Altogether, an over $200 value, still for only $19.95.  You’ll even have a 30-day inspection period to get a full refund of your purchase price.  This offer won’t last long, so order right now.]

March 31, 2010

Remains as courtesy

Filed under: futurity,obsolescence,the city — by Daniel @ 10:27 am
Tags: , , ,

Chicago parking meters were privatized last year in a deal which was pretty awful for everyone but Morgan Stanley.  The new deal came with a new physical apparatus, boxy pay-and-display machines that take credit cards.

What happened to the traditional mounted gray houses?  I took this picture on my cell phone at 55th Street and Kenwood:

“METER REMAINS AS A COURTESY TO CYCLISTS. PLEASE PAY AT PAY BOX.”  Though no longer serving as quarter-banks, the parking meters remain as bike lock-up posts, aids to another form of transportation.  The city even provides an illustration of how to position a bicycle to lock it to the meter.

How long will this last?  Will there be a time when the original function of the traditional parking meter is entirely obsolete and its bike post function primary?  One could imagine other apparatuses of urban transportation taking on new functions in their proper obsolescence: El stations repurposed as helicopter docks? Underwater canals in the subway?

On a similar note, a footnote to a recent article in the venerable LRB directs the reader to a discussion of a certain point “on the Channel 4 website, if you Google ‘factcheck end to boom and bust’.”  Perhaps John Lanchester was too lazy to look up the link?  At any rate this reluctance even to signal the coming print obsolescence in actually providing the link–to the website of a TV station–only further emphasizes the weakness of the medium.  Or perhaps it is an attempt at a statement of revolt: denying print’s coming function as only an ancillary vestige to a superior form, like the eerie ads in the print edition for the LRB blog.

March 28, 2010

“When a life is about to end, and another to begin”

In a recent post on NPR’s decision to revise the terms in its coverage of abortion rights, Laure Essig talks about the symbolic violence of “pro-life” language (“Who isn’t pro-life?”) in ways that bring to mind some questions from Lee Edelman’s No Future.  Halfway through the introduction to that book, Edelman describes his reaction to a billboard proclaiming, “It’s not a choice, it’s a child”: “No more than the right will the left […] identify itself with abortion; instead, as the billboard noted with scorn, it aligns itself with ‘choice.’  Who would, after all, come out for abortion or stand against reproduction, against futurity, and so against life?”

If No Future offers one kind of answer to Essig’s question, in the form of a queer polemic against the pervasive “reproductive futurism” that keeps politics beholden to heteronormative visions of the future represented by the Child, Essig’s piece also reminded me of another such answer, highlighted in January by Kelsey Wallace at Bitch: a Milwaukee PSA against teen pregnancy, created by Serve Marketing, which involved a fake horror movie called 2028.  When teenagers in Milwaukee responded to the extensive ad campaign for 2028 by showing up for the much-hyped “premiere,” what they got instead was a longer, scarier ad—the trailer below—which, as Kelsey says, is “not for the faint of heart.”  It’s certainly stuck with me since I first watched it, and there’s something truly striking in its capacity to upset everyone.  When I saw it two months ago, my first reaction was to think that this video—precisely because it erases abortion as an option, while evincing a general disgust for human bodies and the material world they inhabit, consequently implying that any and all teen sex resulting in pregnancy is going to fuck things up irremediably and forever—this video, I thought, is actually what “anti-life” looks like:

The complete title of the YouTube clip is “2028. It Finally Ends.”  Just what “it” might be is left interestingly unclear, but there seems to be no doubt that 2028, this phantom movie whose name merges 2012 with 28 Days Later, belongs not only to the pulp-horror genre but also, somehow, to the recent abundance of post-apocalypse films that are concerned so directly with futurity, or, as Edelman might say, with “thinking of the children.”  (The film version of Children of Men, based on a novel subjected to particularly strong criticism in No Future, is set in late 2027.)  Why would you name a movie 2028, after all, unless it was a scary movie?  What’s depicted here is a personal apocalypse, curiously inverted so that it’s the figure of the child itself, the monstrous child, bringing that apocalypse about.  This little demon literally stands for the “end” to “a life,” the negation of the future in and through motherhood.  And not just teen motherhood: it’s remarkable that virtually none of the details of Colleen’s experience that we’re meant to find so horrific (morning sickness, labor pains, a son who gets into trouble, a younger version of the same son who cries so much that you wish he would shut UP!) is specific to the situation of a young single mother.  (The important exception here would be the rage of Colleen’s father—whose violent and abusive behavior is presented, infuriatingly, as the natural or understandable consequence of his daughter’s pregnancy.)  At first glance the ad appears to be performing a kind of mystifyingly intense, radical opposition to reproduction, futurity, and life itself.

But of course its inversions are incomplete, and of course “the children” as “our future” are still there: in fact what makes the video so fascinating, I think, is the way it captures the oddly vexed, the almost queered, variety of reproductive futurism that’s embedded in the national discourse on preventing teen pregnancy.  This is summed up perfectly in the name of the website we’re urged to visit at the end of the video: Baby Can Wait.  If the words immediately preceding that name (“Get pregnant as a teen and the next 18 years could be the hardest of your life”) implicitly posit that “life” begins at conception by disavowing the possibility of any action taken after a teen “gets pregnant,” then “Baby Can Wait”—especially in combination with the earlier footage of this particular baby—conjures up a world in which life begins before conception, and in which Baby is both incredibly creepy and undeniably in control, from the future, of the present.  Baby can wait, and Baby is waiting.  And Baby’s world is the real show: ours is just the trailer.

Blog at WordPress.com.