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What’s This Movie Called?: Or, Snakes and Ladders, and the End of Stardom and Friendships [December 16, 2016]

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December 14, 2016

I suppose I’ve sort of, kind of, maybe been wanting to watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  The only movie I really wanted to be sure to catch in theatres was Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, starring Tom Cruise, and I’ve already missed that.  It’s now playing in Naperville, I think, but even I’m not enough of a Tom Cruise to make that long trek out to a suburb to see it.

But, anyway: as my friend M. and I entered the theatre recently to see Fantastic Beasts, I turned and asked, “So, what’s this movie called?  And what’s it about?  What does it have to do with Harry Potter?”  


It may seem strange, to walk into a movie with such spectacular cluelessness, but it does speak to the pull of any J. K. Rowling production, cinematic or literary, that people like M. and I, who are relatively picky about in our tastes, would gladly be willing to watch or read it it without too much of an introduction or, really, any knowledge at all.


About an hour later in the darkened theatre, I was on the verge of flopping about from the boredom, becoming That Very Annoying Person At The Movies. M. sat more elegantly in his seat, with his head down and fingers delicately curved around his right temple, shaking his head in disbelief at how boring it was.


We both looked at each other, sighed, and quietly decided that our time was better spent chatting and catching up over tea at a nearby bookstore than trying to see if the enterprise unfolding on the screen in front of us would eventually be worth it.


The trouble with Fantastic Beasts is that it’s less of a movie and more like something out of a videogame franchise.  Think of The Hobbit, based on a slender but enjoyable book, stretched out over three instalments when a single film should have sufficed (and did, in 1977, in animated form). It’s not as if The Lord of the Rings trilogy was any less gimmicky, but you could discern more of a cohering, narrative principle in them, an earnestness about the story and characters.  In The Hobbit, the animating principle was clearly, “How do I, Peter Jackson, continue to make incredible profits off this mind blowingly successful series of films?” Fantastic Beasts has a similar feel to it.  It abounds with special effects which scream at you to be astounded, and a storyline that doesn’t draw you to either the plot or the characters because those are entirely subsidiary to the overall aim of taking your money.


The movie is a prequel to Harry Potter. The title refers to a textbook taught at Hogwarts, written by one Newt Scamander. In the new film, with a screenplay written by Rowling, Scamander finds himself in New York in the 1920s, with a briefcase filled (via magic, of course) with animals like the Niffler and the Bowtruckle.  Scamander is a conservationist of sorts, and is in America to release one of the animals back into its habitat in Arizona.  He meets various people along the way, including a pastry chef, Jacob Kowalski, hoping for a bank loan to start his own bakery, and two sisters, Tina and Queenie Goldstein.  The first is a demoted Auror, hoping to suck up to her bosses at the Magical Congress of the United States of America by arresting Scamander for smuggling in the creatures.  Her sister is telepathic, and attracted to Jacob.

You can read the rest of the plot here, which is what M. and I did.  There are four protagonists (at least by the time we left) but it’s hard to care about any of them.  Eddie Redmayne manages to at least make it seem like Scamander knows more than he’s ever willing to let on, which makes him a bit more interesting.  Dan Fogler as Jacob serves an expository function: He’s the “Non-Maj” (an awkward term for what we’re using to calling Muggles) who keeps asking the “Who? What? Where?” questions that allow the viewer to orient herself and Find Out Things.  As M. pointed out, those questions were more organically addressed in the Harry Potter films which featured mostly schoolchildren needing to orient themselves in a new world, and to whom questions came more naturally and inevitably.  Here, poor Fogler has to blunder around, being bitten and beaten and generally walking around in a befuddled fashion.


There are of course beasts, several of them, lovingly rendered in excellent CGI, but like the humans, they exist simply to generate momentary bursts of interest (Oh, look, a Very Horny Horned Beast That Looks Like a Shiny Rhinoceros!)  before disappearing into flabby bits of a pendulous narrative that is about something to do with People Who Hate Witches.  There’s also a dark, muddly inkblot that swirls around in a transparent casing called an Obscurus. It is perhaps Evil itself but who knows, who cares.  


It’s curious to me that a movie as incapable of inciting any real attachment for character or plot is also as popular as it has been, but then I recall that I went to see it knowing only that it was somehow connected to the previous Harry Potter films.  I’ll wager that a lot of the film’s success has to do with audience loyalty to the previous franchise, but I’m curious to see if the next four (at least) generate as much excitement.  


The question of entertainment cropped up again when my friend G. and I were at his place during the first snowfall of the year, contemplating board games for winter.  He’s subletting, and his landlord has left behind a number of board games.  One of them consisted of a long wooden case, with a little compartment at the end, containing very mysterious-looking little doodads. It reminded me of how much fun it can be to play tactile games with friends, not games like chess (which I’ve never bothered to learn), but games that are really just about rolling dice and moving markers along and whooping in joy when you got ahead of your opponents and grumbling when you fall behind.  As a child, my favourite board games were Snakes and Ladders and Ludo, and G. and I started looking online for versions (since Chicago’s winter will, apparently, be quite cold this year, even for Chicago).  


When I first moved to the U.S, I asked if anyone had played the game, and was told it had mutated into something called “Chutes and Ladders”: a kinder, gentler version that replaced snakes with chutes.  I turned up my nose at the thought and forgot about the game for years.  When I got home from G’s, I began avidly looking for a version that involved actual snakes.    Most of the versions I found feature cartoon snakes with friendly, smiley faces. But the whole point of it as a kid was the fear you felt — okay, I felt — when you found yourself at the mouth of a King Cobra and slithered down its length.

So I set out to find a version of the game that reminded me of one I’d played as a child.  If I were writing this even ten years ago, this would have been an account of me walking from store to store, but it’s the Age of Amazon so I just went online and checked out what was available.  What I eventually got was cheap (about $10) in comparison to some of the versions that were selling for anywhere from $50 to a few hundred dollars. When it arrived, it was an odd sort of disappointment.  Unlike the gaudy and shiny foldable cardboard version I played with as a child, this one was about 10 inches square and encased in a decent wooden frame. It came with magnetic counters and two wooden dice with brass inlays.  The part with the snakes and ladders itself, though, is a cheap laminated printout of what looks like a badly taken photograph of those more expensive versions.  It’s also slightly off-kilter but it’s serviceable enough for winter nights.  And, most importantly, the snakes are as I remember them: Stern, haughty, tongues sticking out menacingly, with none of that cuddly cartoon nonsense.


I’m still on the lookout for a decent cheap version from India, so G. will probably have to bring one back for me when he comes back from his next trip.


As the year settles towards its end, it’s hard to believe that Frida and I have been here for nearly twelve months now.  We’re nowhere near as settled as we’d like to be but this is at least a stable place to be and get more work done.  I’m spending the last few weeks taking care of a backlog of work and figuring out my schedule for the coming year.  Here are some of my (sometimes longer) ongoing projects which you’ll see in the new year.


On Facebook, a very dear friend wrote asking about how to end a friendship.  There was, first, a palpable sense of discomfort among everyone who responded: We were all, clearly, wondering , “Does she mean me?”  But it did lead to an interesting discussion, and made me think that it might be time for me to write a sequel to my piece “Friendship in the Time of Love.”  There’s been research showing that we tend to go develop mostly new sets of friends about every seven years.  That’s not because of some mystical reason: the number makes perfect sense given that most of us tend to take on new places, new careers, new schools for kids (or just new stages in schooling) every seven years or so.  In all that, it’s inevitable that many of our friendships are likely to end as we develop new tastes, find new homes, move away, or perhaps even become different people. And then, of course, these days, there’s social media, especially Facebook, where matters like elections can bring out some raw feelings and cause deep schisms among friends.


Friendship is something I think about a lot, having eschewed more conventional relationships for a very long time.  But as much as I’ve worked on understanding it and maintaining several friendships, I’ve been giving more thought to how they also end.  Do you end a friendship deliberately and with clarity, or do you just let it drift slowly towards a  natural death?  I think it all depends on the nature of the friendship, and on whom you’ve become in the intervening years.  I’ll write on all this and more in a piece tentatively titled, “Friendship and the End of Love.”


Celebrity.  Or (micro)celebrity.  As I noted at the beginning, I’m a huge fan of Tom Cruise (in case that was not clear).  This fact often shocks people who think they know me, given the content of his films (which are defined as entertainment rather than “art”) and his often publicly stated positions about matters like Scientology.  And then, of course, there was that couch incident on Oprah, and Katie Holmes and Suri, and all the rest.  


But I love Cruise films — Cruise does what he does really well (there are even video compilations of him running, like this one), and he fascinates me because he’s the last of the old-style Hollywood star system.  Think about it: there’s no one after Cruise who commands an allure that matches his in what we still call Hollywood.  In comparison to Cruise, everyone else is a mere celebrity (Matt Damon comes close, but not quite).  Cruise’s stardom isn’t necessarily something innate to him and is the result of a complicated set of vectors; there will probably never be another one like him simply because the system that produced him no longer exists.  That being said, the fact that he can still churn out multiple and very successful episodes of the Mission Impossible franchise as a singular star and not as part of a ensemble (think X-Men) is indicative of star power, not celebrity, which, like the Oscars, is more about marketing designer clothing and jewellery than anything.  When was the last time you watched the Oscars because you actually wanted to see who showed up?  


Cruise, like several of his contemporaries, doesn’t even bother attending anymore.  The only reason I’ve watched the Oscars in the last few years has been to liveblog about it on Facebook and Twitter, alongside several others, all of us trying to be as funny and sarcastic as possible.  I’m not even sure I want to do that in 2017; it’s three hours of my life I may not want to give up and after Bjork was mercilessly mocked for her swan dress in 2001, no one has actually dared to wear anything that’s not safe and completely boring, even if exquisitely made.  But the Oscars was what you once watched because you wanted to devour news about what your favourite stars said and wore. Today, anyone slightly famous who goes to the Oscars is little more than an advertising billboard, coached to recite (and pronounce perfectly) the names of the designers who’ve deigned to let them borrow their rags for the night, their borrowed jewellery nervously watched over by security guards dispatched by the jewellers.    


My work on Cruise isn’t meant to be an appreciation or a fan letter, but a critical study of stardom and its end.  In the process, I’m looking at the economic and cultural shifts in an industry from a time when an actor’s wife was as carefully chosen as the clothes he wore to events to now, when most actors struggle to first make sure their “brand” is fixed in place before disappearing from careers that are increasingly short-lived.  Cruise’s impact is especially felt in the foreign market (foreign to Hollywood, that is), where the gossip about his life and politics seems to have no effect.  In the years since his career took off, the international film market has itself shifted massively, with “Bollywood” (I grew up calling the films of India, “Hindi films,” so that term still irks me) film and its aesthetic permeating and intermingling with Hollywood (Indian film star Anil Kapoor’s appearance in  the Tom Cruise film Ghost Protocol is just one example).  I find all of this relatively untheorised and unthought about, and will explore all of it much further.


It could be argued that Meryl Streep is the last female star, given that her name still seems to have the power to attract both audiences and producers.  The posters and publicity for Suffragette, the British period film, prominently featured Streep but she in fact only appeared in it for all of, perhaps, five minutes (and much of that appearance was really just her voice).  Streep is most famous for her supposed acting genius, but I’ve long contended that she is in fact a terrible actor, incapable of actually acting and far more concerned with being Meryl Streep, Greatest Actor than with letting even her costars shine on their own.  As I pointed out in this piece about Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep always appears in costume as a character; she never actually allows herself to play a character.


Still, Streep’s influence is considerable, and I’ve been studying classical treatises on the art of acting, along with some of her (mostly hagiographic) biographies to think through and write about the connection between her particular form of stardom (she is literally the only woman in her generation to be so recognisable, leaving behind far more talented acting actors like Jessica Lange) and her branding of what has become a very particular and recognisable kind of thespianism, to coin an awkward but fitting word, which is seen as her unique talent — even though it actually involves not actually acting, but providing an easily digestible version of such.  The Onion put it brilliantly in this piece, when it asked, ventriloquising her, “Name One Masterpiece of Cinema That I’ve Starred In.”


When I first started thinking (and often posting, on FB) about Streep, I was mainly interested in this connection between her stardom and acting. Streep is also unique in Hollywood as someone who has kept her private life out of the limelight (although both her daughters, aspiring actors, have benefited from their connection to her), so her stardom is entirely about her much-praised ability to act.


But this last year, Streep took on a very public and deliberate role in the 2016 election, striding across the stage at the Democratic Convention and literally roaring and grunting her support for Hillary Clinton.  She became the face and voice of an elite, liberal feminism, alongside women like Lena Dunham, and I’ve since expanded my research to see how her role as a white, female star, the only one of her kind, really, dovetails neatly with the kind of feminism that I and several other left feminists have been so critical of (as evident in this anthology).  As I keep reading about and researching her place in film history, I’m keen to see what connections I can make between the comfort she offers in her various roles (most of which, after a certain period in her career, simply portray Meryl Streep being Meryl Streep) and the role, no pun intended, she plays in furthering a particular form of feminism that we see in her more public life and advocacy.


While Cruise and Streep are certainly stars and celebrities in the conventionally understood sense of the terms, Suey Park, of whom I’ve written extensively, is not.  Park counts as a microcelebrity, and as I explored in my piece, Suey Park and the Afterlife of Twitter,” she helps us understand social media and think about what a theory of Twitter might look like.  There’s a widespread tendency, outside some academic enclaves, to dismiss social media, especially because the views and trends expressed there tend to be fleeting and evanescent (if an opinion doesn’t trend on Twitter, does it really count as an opinion?).  And, let’s face it, Twitter, for instance, isn’t doing that well and could, technically, disappear as quickly as it appeared, taking an entire host of our internal (and often deeply and troublingly toxic and very conflicted) history with it.


But social media has a weird potency precisely because it operates in such intensely drawn silos and bubbles; the smart thing to do is not to dismiss it because of such pockets of insularity but to consider how it functions despite them or, perhaps, because of them.  Park is emblematic of someone who metaphorically lives and dies on her “career” as a social media presence; today, she has effectively disappeared from the scene but leaves behind a question: If Suey Park does not exist on Twitter, does she still exist?  And, more importantly, what does existence, living itself, mean if it is closely connected to social media?  And is social media itself the issue, or is it that existence is now defined along the vectors established by platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat? In a ten-minute “documentary” on Suey Park, she claimed that she had been stalked by a sniper outside her window, one who obligingly texted her in advance to warn her that he had her in his crosshairs. She declares that everybody just knows her as “the girl who died on the internet.”  But what does it mean to “die” on the internet?  Who are the selves and sets of consciousness we create online with such potency that we can declare them dead or alive?


To think about these questions, I’m looking at a Tom Cruise film, Edge of Tomorrow, where Cruise’s character finds himself recruited to fight in a war against aliens (the space kind) and in a Groundhog’s Day of constant death, his own death (the film’s tagline was “Live.  Die.  Repeat.”).  I’m also looking at Norma Khouri’s infamous and false narrative about a Jordanian woman named Dalia who, Khouri claimed, had been murdered by her family in an honour killing.  Khouri published a book about Dalia, whom she claimed as a close childhood friend, in 2003, but the book was swiftly exposed as a hoax.  A 2007 documentary on Khouri, Forbidden Lies, followed her back on her journey to Jordan (Khouri was in fact an American citizen, and nearly every part of even her own life had been a fabrication) and criss-crossed continents to see what “truth” it could uncover about her story, to see if Dalia had ever really existed.  


The result is not a definitive answer about the “facts” — the “lies”  or “truth” about Khouri’s life and Dalia’s — but a narrative about how such matters are constructed.  There’s little doubt, by the end, that Khouri is a world-class conmaster, but the film also draws out a different narrative, probing the reasons why we believe what we believe (the most obvious, in Khouri’s case, is that white people in particular love to devour stories of beautiful dead brown women).  And there is always the lingering matter of Dalia’s death which, even as it’s unproven (simply because there never was a Dalia) exists as a potent reminder of the end of life.


As I’ll continue to demonstrate, Suey Park’s life story has been greatly enabled by such criss-crossing between lies and death, fiction and a claimed end to life itself (“the girl who died on the internet” and the man who literally dies every day), including, most notably, a deeply hagiographic piece in The New Republic by Elizabeth Bruenig, which greatly helped Park to create yet another persona in a long line of avatars.  The first part, on the afterlife of Twitter, set down the theoretical framework to understand Park as a symptom of the internet.  This second part looks at the very notion of death itself as played on the internet: It’s not surprising that so many microcelebrities also stage their own deaths and/or disappearances (Park is a veteran of the latter in particular): I want to explore what it means to die, a lot, on the internet and what that says about the construction of celebrity itself, in an age when the idea of “celebrity” has expanded to even include groups of personalities whose opinions alone serves to ensure a degree and kind of fame.


I want to take this opportunity to again thank everyone who has either donated and/or subscribed to this site.  The money from outside projects is better these days, and my intention to only work with some kind of advance is working out as well, but my sustenance comes from readers and supporters like you.  Projects like the one I described above will only be published here: They’re often long-form and complicated and take months of research and prep to put together, but I wouldn’t trade working on them for anything.  I’ll also, of course, have shorter pieces.  I’m taking some time these next few weeks to clean up the tabs on my site, and create new and more relevant ones, including one that will take you to all my past updates so that you don’t have to wade through a number of posts to find them. I also need to go through and update other tabs, including the book review one (which currently is sadly outdated, even though I’ve been writing almost nothing but book reviews for outside publications).  And more.  


The next four years of a Trump presidency will provide much grist, but where many people will be focused on criticising and even caricaturing the president-elect (who knew we would one day be saying, “President Trump?”), I’m much more interested in continuing to think and write about what a truly left alternative will be.  As the years go on, lefties and progressives will be trying to jettison their principles (“Well, maybe, we don’t really need unions, do we? And maybe we ought to try talking to the Right?”) and taking every opportunity to demonise and caricature Trump.


We fail to take Trump seriously at our peril.  A recent piece on Time’s portrait of him for its “Person of the Year” award gave us a glimpse of the silly, puerile bad-90s-style-semiotic-reading  that, I fear, we’re going to see more of.  I’ll have a longer response up soon, but for now let me just say that painting Trump in demonic terms fails to take his politics and economic agenda into account.  As long as his opposition continues to hope to laugh or demonise him out of existence, we’ve failed to provide any evidence that we have anything like an alternative in place.  This is where the Democrats, who focused entirely on his personal failings and forgot to add anything resembling a better plan for a collective future, failed so miserably.  I’m not that hopeful about the left, which is still grumbling about the “White Working Class” (because, apparently, identity politics can only be critiqued as long as we're critical of black and brown identities), but let’s see. There’s a strong case to be made for a critique of diversity and identity politics while still paying attention to how that works in  racialised fashion, but I’m not really hearing a particularly nuanced appraisal of all that in too many places on the left.

If you’re unsure of supporting me as an individual writer or if you’d like to think of ways to support work like mine alongside that of others, please consider subscribing to magazines like Current Affairs (where I’m an Editor-at-Large) and Baffler.  Both places have given me the space and time to build and work on pieces that take enormous risk and synthesise a variety of sources and research, and I’ve produced some of my favourite pieces for them.  Supporting them means supporting me and/or writers like me. Or you can support places like Electronic Intifada and Monthly Review, where I’ve also published, and which report and write on political situations and perspectives that are often under-represented.  If you’re not sold on my work or any of these outlets, that’s fine too — but I encourage you to seek out and support, as best as you can, whether in cash or kind, the writers and publications you do like, and that don’t simply echo the hivemind writing and reporting that you find in more mainstream publications.  In the years ahead, the easy task will be to simply focus on what Trump and the Right are getting wrong.  The much harder work lies in continuing to imagine what a real left future might look like.


But, onwards.  Here are some pieces worth reading.


While the New York Times keeps beating the Putin-did-it drum, Politico reveals the disaster that was the Hillary Clinton campaign, in “How Clinton Lost Michigan —- And Lost the Election.”


Kathleen Geier dissects the failure as well, in “The Clintons’ Dominance of Democratic Politics Is Over—And They Will Not Be Remembered Fondly.”


I pointed out, in my last update, that Donald Trump won because Hillary Clinton lost.  Doug Henwood echoes the sentiment and expands on how ridiculous it is to keep blaming the Russians: “Putin didn't win this election for Trump. Hillary Clinton did.”


Juan Cole points out, “No America, It Wasn’t Russia: You Did It to Yourself.”


And it turns out that Trump won with half as much money as Clinton raised.  But, Putin.


Is there actually a chance that a foreign power might have interfered with our sacred elections?  How dreadful!  Who would ever think that it’s okay to try to rig another country’s political system?


If you’re feeling like the world is going to hell, take heart in knowing that it might literally be ending soon.


The Minneapolis Poem,” by James Wright, is exquisite.  My friend K. tells me this collection of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and Wright is also worth a read.


Here’s Emily Dickinson, “Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant.”


Current Affairs has this “Know Your Rights” poster out (and it’s also on sale, as a great Christmas gift!), which is a lot more truthful than the ones you see everywhere else.  


Helen Razer, my brilliant Australian twin, is always worth reading and following on Twitter and Facebook, and everywhere she appears. Here’s her “Worst of 2016: The Lowlights of a Disastrous Year.


The Huffington Post has hired a queer woman of colour, Lydia Polgreen, to be its Editor-in-Chief.  This, of course, means that HuffPo will end its avaricious, exploitative ways and start paying writers for their work and that it will now concentrate on actually writing articles rather than simply aggregating links culled from elsewhere.  Because, as I’ve pointed out in “Killing You Softly With Her Dreams,” being run a foreign-born Greek woman who made it up the ranks to own her publishing entity has meant an enterprise that practices the principles of fairness and equality.


Over at The Baffler, Chris Lehman writes about “Neutering the News,” on how the NYT’s public editor (their sorry excuse for an ombudsperson) doesn’t really get what journalism is about.  Or, rather, that her and the paper’s views on what journalism is clashes with, well, the fundamental principles of the field.


In case you missed it, here’s my piece on Hillary Clinton, the rise of elite feminism, gay rights, and the near-erasure of abortion rights, “Rights Make Might: The Dystopian Undertow of Hillary Clinton’s Elite Feminism.”


If your cat isn’t making you feel guilty enough, here’s a useful Gif.


Winter in Chicago might be cold, really, really cold.  


Someday, I’ll write the definitive piece on Boney M., but for now, here’s Nightflight to Venus.


The Times is sounding the alarm about “fake news,” but it has long supported the outright lies of Nicholas Kristof, who has gone so far as to accompany Indian cops to “brothels” in raids that resulted in children being torn from their mothers.  As a reminder of the hideousness of all things Kristof, here is my Somaly Mam, Nicholas Kristof, and the Real Sex Trafficking Story.


I’ll admit that I take friendship and betrayal seriously. This is me, when confronted with the latter: “Bona Cera, Bona Cera…


In case you missed it, here’s last week’s update, “Donald Trump Won Because Hillary Clinton Lost.”


And here is the always amazing, brilliant, and fantastic John Cale, singing “Every Time The Dogs Bark” (dripping with deep irony and more than a hint of sarcasm, infused with his own particular gravitas):


Your friends look to surprise you

As friends they always will

So hold on to the extraordinary - hold on to the skill

And start the easy listening, we're coming home again

Stab the back of hell and heroes until we meet again

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