Captain America, Propaganda, and Heroic Violence

I saw Captain America: The First Avenger last week. I thought it was good. A solid OK. It was a good comic-book movie, as opposed to say, The Dark Knight, which was an excellent movie-movie. But I digress….

Captain America Comics No. 1

Damn straight.

A Different Hero Then and Now

I was intrigued with how they would dance around the problem of propaganda in this film, because, c’mon, if there were ever an iconically, jingoistically American hero, it’s Captain freakin’ America. He’s punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first comic after all. But people didn’t roll their eyes at that. Well, to be fair, I don’t know what people did when they saw him. But I know what people didn’t do. They didn’t drag his name through the mud for encouraging a politics of aggression and militarism. They didn’t hold him accountable for throwing out due process of the law. They held him up, instead, as a hero.

Two Kinds of Hero

Thor's Battle Against the Ettins (1872)

Fighting for.

Dean A. Miller, in his indispensable book, The Epic Hero, identifies two kinds of heroes in Icelandic sagas: Thor (“willing to follow, serve, and represent”) and Odin (“absolutely resistant to any form of subordination to a directive principle”). They are both extremely powerful, necessary in their own ways, crucial in the right circumstances. Miller uses Thor and Odin as his labels for the kinds of heroes that they are (actually, “Þórr-warrior” and “Óðinn-warrior”), but he could have just as easily used Hektor and Akhilles, Arthur and Launcelot, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. Captain America very clearly is a Þórr-warrior; he’s fighting in defense of the established order, in order to preserve it, to save it. America means something to him, and he’s willing to defend it with his life. Which is interesting to me, because, for the past few decades, American mainstream popular culture has overwhelmingly chosen Odin over Thor.

Tyranny and The Man

Odin, the Wanderer (1886)

Fighting against.

The Vietnam War is often cited as a turning point in the popular consciousness of America. It wasn’t when we started to become suspicious of our government; it was when we started to assume it was guilty of … well, whatever was wrong at the time. Anti-heroes started springing up like mushrooms. Federal agents became more and more sinister, agents of The Man. Common people couldn’t turn to the government for salvation because the government, more often than not, was the source of the corruption. This is still, I would argue, our default setting with regard to Authority, and so I think our default hero is still someone who tears down social structures, as opposed to someone who defends and maintains them.

Heroic Violence

Heroes are, without exception, intimately tied to violence. Even if the heroes are nonviolent themselves, such as Jesus Christ or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they attract violence to and around them. Not always on purpose, but always always always. It has to do with their function in relation to society’s structures: they are either tearing them down or making them stronger, always to the consternation of another powerful force, always with violent results.

Enter Captain AmericaCaptain America: Who Will Wield the Shield

Captain America is very much a defender and maintainer. His iconic weapon is, not accidentally, a shield. So I was interested to see how the new film would deal with this tension, avoiding the appearance of “oppression,” which is how power wielded by or for Authority is so often labeled these days (the Óðinn-warrior’s derogatory moniker being “anarchy”).

The movie, to its credit, did address this tension, but it did so in a way that was ultimately unsatisfactory to me. In what was probably my favorite sequence of the movie, Captain America’s first military assignment is to be a USO show, convincing people to buy bonds and encouraging the troops (or trying to) to stay the course. He becomes a one-man propaganda poster. The troops hate him when he tries to put on his show for them; they want the dancing girls to come back. It magnifies a growing disillusionment Captain America already feels. He’s being used by the government, but not in the way he wants to be. It’s interesting (vis-à-vis Thor/Odin) that, immediately after this, he establishes himself as Hero in the film’s first major (and violent) action sequence, rescuing a unit of POWs with the implied consent of his colonel-mentor but against official (governmental/Authoritative) orders.

Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull

Vhat are you looking at? I am evil, yah?

What ultimately irks me, though, is that the solution to the whole overriding tension that really interested me in the movie in the first place was to set in opposition to Captain America a horrendously evil villain. Not even a Nazi—a demon Nazi. This villain, Red Skull, simplifies the entire situation, and that makes it exponentially less interesting to me. True, the Joker is horrendously evil in The Dark Knight as well, but the issues he brings up and the ideas that he confronts the other characters with (and, more importantly, the conclusions that other characters come to with regard to those issues and those ideas) are still problematized, complicated, difficult. The Dark Knight‘s characters are forced to make pragmatic decisions, as opposed to idealistic ones. And that is a profoundly interesting kind of heroism to me, because it is essentially human, with uneasy solutions. The solution to Red Skull? Kill him; save the world.

The movie also misses the mark with the problem of propaganda. The soldiers hate Captain America (and Captain America hates himself) because he’s trumpeting the fight without doing any of the physical fighting. But that’s not why propaganda is poisonous. Propaganda is poisonous because it frames complicated issues in oversimplistic, extremist terms. Quick and violent solutions not only become reasonable, they become necessary. Anything else becomes part of the problem. Furthermore, propaganda’s heroes remain unfazed by the horror of both the opposing evil and their solution to it. They are committed to a kind of moral genocide against evil, and all of their enemies are unproblematically (and 100%) evil; thus, simplistically expendable. It, unfortunately, sucks the humanity out of the heroes and sweeps away the very real and very problematic consequences that come to a soldier who is confronted with violence and destruction on a large scale. Alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, night terrors, emotional numbness, alienation, nervous breakdowns. We don’t need to include these things in our heroism because they are good. We need to include them because they are human. And, ultimately, for our own psychological and philosophical well-being, so too must our heroes be.

Uncle Sam

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David Foster Wallace Continues to Astound Me: A Review of Infinite Jest

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, absolutely, the best book I have ever read in my life. The best. I say that without hyperbole or irony, acknowledging that it makes me sound like a mindless Wallace drone, that there are plenty of people out there and amongst us who pick the most pretentious, reader-hostile books to fawn over because of the very fact of their pretension and hostility to the reader. I accept their association, because it is worth it.

This book is as hard to read as people say it is. It is famously difficult for a reason. It is long; it is dense; and Wallace is actively challenging you but not out of hostility. I came to the book knowing what it was, already loving Wallace, and wanting very much to read this book, and even still it took more than one heroic exercise of will to keep reading. But I did, because sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is something your body very much doesn’t want to do.

Why should you read it? Let’s consider it’s difficulty. Let’s consider the most famous aspect of its difficult: the endnotes. Over a hundred pages of endnotes. Is there anything more tedious and inconvenient than having to flip back and forth to read what are at times trivial medical definitions and at other times major plot points? It is tedious. And it is inconvenient. It’s a gimmick, and one that makes an already cumbersome book more difficult to stay focused on. But let’s also consider that this is a book about entertainment and that David Foster Wallace’s greatest dread was that we go through life unengaged, passive, only looking to satisfy easy pleasures. And let’s consider that the book is about addiction, both narcotic and alcoholic, and that Wallace felt a deep and personal connection with the people he met whilst researching it and that their daily lives are one tedious and inconvenient thing after another, that if they relax for even one moment they could slip past the event horizon of a black hole so hideously and unthinkably deep that it takes the constant threat of death and ruin to make anyone endure the kind of program and withdrawal and humbling misery that is necessary to convince them to claw away from its edge. But they do. Let’s consider them and then think again about how difficult it is to flip back and forth in a book.

I’m almost afraid to say anything more, afraid of coming off way too strong, of sounding like an over-aggressive salesman. I probably already do, probably after the first sentence. But, as much as this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, and as much of a rhetorical posture it is to say that this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, this isn’t just a rhetorical posture. Maybe you have to already know me to believe me. I already loved David Foster Wallace before this book, and this book exceeded my outlandish expectations. Which isn’t to say that it was easy or that I totally get every facet of it or that you even have to. I encourage you to buy a reader’s guide; I did (Elegant Complexity, by Greg Carlisle), and I’m glad I did, because it doesn’t make me stupid and it isn’t a defeat to ask for help. And I encourage you to read it. But you have to want to read it, because there will be plenty of times whilst reading it that you will not want to read it, especially in the first two hundred pages, which are chaotic and jump around in time and place and perspective and throw so many characters and plots at you that your mind will recoil and beg you just to put in a movie. But it’s worth it. It is. I guarantee you it is worth it.

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Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth

SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS … spoilers, spoilers.

I just returned from seeing Black Swan at the cinema. As a piece of filmmaking, it is absolutely phenomenal. I have loved Darren Aronofsky since his debut, Pi. The only one of his films I have not seen is The Wrestler, mainly because that came out when I was living in China. I admit I don’t quite understand the story of The Fountain, but … ah, what storytelling!

Thus, he did not disappoint me with Black Swan, pushing us uncomfortably close to a mind maintaining but a tenuous hold on reality, gripping it with fingers slick with the sweat of obsession. But the question that my own mind is currently obsessing over is this: Is Black Swan ultimately a realization of or biting critique of Freudian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth?

You can’t help but read the film in Freudian terms. I think I’ve seen the word “psychosexual” in nearly every review of it I’ve read. All the classic Freudian players are here: the overbearing, Superego of a mother, the fragile, repressed Ego hero, the free-spirited Id. The movie no less can be read in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, with its Jungian concepts: the Bad Mother, the Hero, the Shadow, the Father. But the complexities that the film is able to twirl around with those concepts is what captivates me.

On the one hand, we have the Freudian reading: Nina, a sexually repressed ballerina lives at the mercy of her overbearing Superego, personified as her mother. Through her dancing and the prodding of her psychoanalyst/ballet director (who speaks in terms of “breakthroughs” and even sits her down on his couch before grilling her about her sexuality), she is able to unleash and ultimately harness her Id, breaking free of the confines of her oppressive Superego and achieving the height of perfection.

Joseph Campbell would describe it slightly differently, though in no less lofty terms: the Hero embarks on a journey of self-actualization by slipping out of her childhood prison (her Mother’s home/womb), aka The First Threshold, besting its Guardian (the Bad Mother), and entering the world of Adult Experience. There, she is confronted by her Shadow (her repressed sexuality) but with the guidance of her Father-figure/Mentor, she is able to overcome and assimilate her Shadow, becoming the Master of Two Worlds (her psyche and the stage) and reaching the height of perfection.

However, the critique of these readings comes in the actual events of the film, the things these overly metaphorical interpretations gloss over or try to nullify. The film’s horrifying plot introduces enough ambiguity that cracks begin to appear, if the above readings are not shattered altogether.

Take, for instance, Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor. His obsession with Nina’s sexuality practically makes him a stand-in for Freud himself. Psychoanalysis would say he’s trying to help Nina express what has been repressed in her, but he’s doing that by literally sexually molesting her, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, he has a reputation for this behavior. In what world could this possibly be acceptable? A world in which Freud is le roi.

The ending even complicates a black and white reading of Erica, Nina’s mother. Given a nuanced consideration, Erica can be seen as genuinely trying to keep her daughter alive, albeit in a severely imperfect way. Erica shows signs of mental disorder herself, but her actions are not only oppressive. She is also trying to protect her daughter, who exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD), self-destructive mutilation, paranoid psychosis, and, ultimately, suicidal tendencies.

The ending, though, delivers the coup de grâce. Aronofsky achieves it by mixing the metaphorical with the literal when Nina finally battles her doppelgänger for psychic dominance. Campbell and Jung see this confrontation with what they call the Shadow as the ultimate test in human self-actualization and individuation. You must confront, overcome, and assimilate the Shadow, integrating it into your personality without it taking over, actualized in the movie by Nina’s fight with the phantom Lily/Nina/Black Swan in her dressing room, during which Nina confronts L/N/BS, stabs her to death (overcoming), and then delivers a bravura performance as the Black Swan in the ballet (assimilation). But the Shadow is part of your own psyche, so when you battle it (even figuratively) you are battling yourself. Thus, when Nina stabs her doppelgänger, she is literally stabbing herself.

This battle with her Shadow allows Nina to become the master of both her own psyche and the stage, a heroic triumph for Jung and Campbell. But it literally means death. This undercuts the entire Monomythic project and calls into question a society that would empower a perverted ballet director and hold as the ultimate perfection a suicidal (literally suicidal) obsession with achievement. Nina reaches her ultimate glory when she is at the height of her psychosis. Her catharsis, her breathy and elated realization of perfection as she bleeds to death, should give anyone pause the next time they hear Joseph Campbell’s maxim: “Follow your bliss.”

Ultimately, however, the question is am I seeing this in the film because Darren Aronofsky wants me to or because I want me to? I obviously have little love for Freud, Jung, or Campbell and quite a bit of love for Aronofsky. Thus, I recognize in myself a desire to see my own beliefs and values reflected in Aronofsky’s work. I don’t know. I’ll have to meditate on it. Because Black Swan does conform very well to Freudian and Jungian readings. But, honestly, their theories are so elastic, unscientific, and subjective that they consume and eradicate any utterance or text, which, of course, does not mean they are in any way “correct.” Ah, but that ending … it just seems so … perfect.

And a shout-out to the maestro of maestros, Clint Mansell, for another phenomenal soundtrack.

Apocalyptica Hath Cometh

And they did bring the rock. Riding their cellos from the pages of Revelation, they stormed onto the stage, heralded by a roid-raging gorilla on the drums.

For those who may not know them, Apocalyptica is a Finnish cello quartet, first gaining fame by covering Metallica and other heavy metal favorites in a style that I will call . . . heavy cello.

But back to the awesomeness. And it was awesome—I mean that in the archaic, wrath of Odin sense of the word. The power of their playing was something to behold. Being surrounded by screaming, jumping metalheads certainly added to the experience as well. I was introduced to the band by Christina. She has a love for Metallica that seems unlikely to abate and, while I can’t quite share in that passion, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate those who cover them.

The only bad thing about the show was that it was at the House of Blues. Man, does that venue blow. A two-story sweatbox with about seven chairs on each floor and wonderfully obstructive pillars, Christina and I were crammed into it with one thousand of our newest close friends. We managed to steal a view of the stage (I could see the right side at least) from around one of those wonderful pillars. Luckily, Apocalyptica thrust us into a euphoria far away from the crappy venue we were in.

There was a short lull in the awesomeness when Corey Taylor, a founding member of Stone Sour and member #8 of Slipknot, joined them on-stage. He sang three songs with them, I believe: “I’m Not Jesus,” the appropriately named “I Don’t Care,” and maybe some other song I can’t remember. It’s not that he was bad, per se—and granted, this genre is generally not my thing—but Apocalyptica by themselves was just so much more awesome that I found myself distracted by Mr. Taylor more than anything.

Oh, but Apocalyptica was sweet, sweet sweetness. They did a heavy cello version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “Heroes,” people! Played, as Perttu Kivilaakso explained with his heavy Finnish accent, “very sexually.” He and Eicca Toppinen even entertained the crowd with impromptu slapstick dialogue while their gorilla changed snare drums. An excerpt:

Perttu: How did you think to play the heavy metal onto the cello?

Eicca: *Gives knowing look to crowd* This is very new question, yes, that I have not heard before. I play the heavy metal onto the cello because . . . it helps for the children.

Perttu: When I am to grow up, can I become as beautiful as you?

*crowd cheers*

Eicca: Hope you don’t get the fat like me.

Perrtu: *raises a fisted hand and his skinny arm to crowd*

Oh, Perrtu and Eicca, you’re so good to us.

They really were, too. They played four encores. Contrast that with Explosions in the Sky, who I saw earlier this month, who didn’t even play one. I recognized four songs: “Heroes” (very sexually), “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters” (a favorite (most of the time, the favorite) of Christina’s), and a delicious punishment courtesy of Edvard Grieg (the highlight of the evening for me).

Their musical dexterity was remarkable as well. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. I knew they were classically trained. Maybe it’s just the cultural disconnect between seeing a man clad in black with long black hair, a huge skull impaled by a cello behind him, playing a melody that could have made Beethoven weep. And the head-banging—seriously impressive. It’s hard enough to shred on any instrument as it is, but to be able to do that while swinging your hair in continuous (sometimes synchronized) swirls, losing all manner of equilibrium: Inspiring.

I recommend you check them out, especially if you like rock or classical music. They’re at least worth a few watches on youtube. I will happily go see them again.

I Love You, Jenny

I saw Rilo Kiley at the Riviera yesterday and they were . . . I believe the word is . . . rockalicious!

The show opened with Grand Ole Party, a band that vacillates between White Stripes-esque minimalist rock and a funky twist on indie blues. The band consists of guitarist John Paul Labno, bassist Mike Krechnyak, and Kristin Gundred on the drums and vocals. Labno’s guitar is pretty standard, Krechnyak knows how to carry a song on the bass (when they let him), but the band clearly rests on Gundred’s heavy beats and wailing (emphasis on wailing) vocals that beg a Karen O comparison. Unfortunately, Gundred can’t stand up to the comparison. Where Karen O has an overpowering stage presence and the lungs to infuse her singing with not just force but emotion, Gundred just wails her little head off. I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault. She actually sang back-up with Rilo Kiley and she was fine in that capacity. She just plays the damn drums. And whenever anyone does more than one thing at a time, the performance of one if not both things suffers. In Gundred’s case, it’s her vocals. This could be an instance where a band’s studio stuff is better than their live stuff. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a song of theirs that pushes the three-minute mark (or even two and a half). But they were only the first act.

Then came current-Jenny-Lewis-lover Johnathan Rice, who sounds like he can’t decide whether he wants to be an emo Tom Petty or Jon Bon Jovi. I wasn’t excited when I found out he was opening, and after the first song I knew why. To give you a sample, the chorus to one of his songs (which actually proved to be the one I liked most from him) was:

We’re all lost out in the desert
And we’re gonna die
Wipe the sand and salt
From your blistering eyes

Woooo! The rest of his set was more of the indie confessional magic that made Conor Oberst famous. Bleh. The highlight was when Jenny Lewis came out and sang a duet. Sadly, that was but one song, and there were a couple more to get through before the end. But the end did eventually come. Sigh . . .

Then Rilo Kiley hit the stage and it was magical. They opened the set with More Adventurous-opener “It’s a Hit” and the energy didn’t stop. I wondered how deeply they would delve into their pool of songs. They had a nice mix of More Adventurous and their latest album Under the Blacklight, which, of course, makes sense and they rocked those songs. They played three songs off The Execution of All Things (“Paint’s Peeling,” “With Arms Outstretched,” and a rocktastic “Spectacular Views”), which was, admittedly, more than I thought they would, but only one off Take Offs and Landings (“Wires and Waves”) and none of their early EP stuff. C’est la vie.

These small quibbles aside, the show was great. They played “Rise Up with Fists!!” off Jenny’s Rabbit Fur Coat and even a version of “Ripchord” with Blake on a ukulele and Pierre on a mandolin. Honestly, the whole experience was a little surreal. Rilo Kiley’s been one of my favorite bands for a good three or four years now and this was the first chance I had to see them live. Being that close to Haley from The Wizard and Pinsky from “Salute Your Shorts” was . . . well, I guess I was starstruck. They had my whole attention the entire time they were on stage. They play a great show. If you’ve never heard them, I encourage you to check them out. If you have and you like what you’ve heard, see them live. That’s an order.