Why I Art

I’ve taken up photography and videography this summer. It’s always interested and awed me, but I never thought I had the eye or creativity to perform as well as all the other awesome photographers around me.

Sure, I used to record silly movies with friends and I got an expensive point-and-shoot camera for high school graduation, but I never showed or recognized any particular aptitude.

But studying story led me to books about screenwriting, which led me to consider visual storytelling and direction. I watched many, many hours of YouTube videos about filmmaking and visual composition.

In short, I got the bug. Then I talked myself (and eventually my wife) into dropping some mad dough on a camera, for a couple of reasons—one being that if I invested into it, I’d keep doing it, keep learning.

And so I carry my camera around, shooting what I see, amid snickers and stares from family and strangers.

This new way of living sparked an interesting discovery this morning. I wondered why. Why do I have so many artistic interests? Though self-doubt blocks me from taking pride in most of them, I argued with myself that my joy and desire come way before the results of the art I produce.

Before I began writing regularly, I already knew why I wanted to. And the rest of the mediums that I dabble in provide the same kinds of benefits that writing does. Maybe it has something to do with a pantheistic or mushy emotional value I place in art, and maybe I’m wrong but this is why I art.

It helps me experience the world better. The locus of this realization was David Foster Wallace, which I admit makes me feel a tad pretentious. But it’s true. Maybe it was just the time in my life that I read him, or maybe he’s a literary deity—or probably, both. But he saw the world well. And I want to do the same thing. I want to have empathy for everyone and learn/feel their stories. I think people are the most important things on the planet, and I believe personal relationships are my ties to people, and those relationships happen only through communication, and our primary way of communication is language. So I write, I learn story.

The other mediums help me see the world in the same way, because (here comes that mushy thing I was talking about) art is a reflection of life, it’s a manifestation of the way someone (or a community) sees the world. So I wish to learn as much as I can about the creation of art for two reasons: (1) to develop taste, to appreciate and understand others’ art better, in order to experience the world more fully; (2) to express my understanding of the world, which has a reciprocal/reflexive effect of making me more aware of the world.

Note: “world” is pretty vague. By it, I mean everything (e.g., physical, metaphysical, epistemological, etc.). So, that’s not better, huh.

7/23/15

7/23/15

And sure, among the many doubts I have is that if I’m switching between writing and music and photography and graphic design that I’ll never master any of them, but the quick, logical argument (the one I’d vehemently argue in a coffeeshop) is that I’m not interested in being a good artist as much as I am in being a good person. And I think art helps me.

Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.

A Review of Chabon’s Debut Novel (& TMI Re Me).

There’s a Pulitzer in the house or garage of Michael Chabon, I imagine. Also, in my mind, little children scurry below the shelf on which the prize is precariously perched, no glass or protective measure for it, other than elevation. The award acknowledges his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was informed by the internet (thanks, internet) that the long piece of fiction I’ve been giving my time to is classified (thanks, Aristotle) as Young Adult. The classification has to do with the age of the story’s protagonist, the content/subject matter, perspective and word count. Currently in YA, John Green is the preeminent author, the one who is selling massive amounts of books that are not serialized—which contrasts Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. On Twitter, Green, who apparently was in Pittsburgh at the time, cited Michael Chabon’s debut novel as the “first contemporary novel I [Green] ever loved.” I read this the day that I had heard another author praise it when he was talking about first novels.

I had seen The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay on a colleague’s desk. He has voiced his admiration for Chabon twice to me. These factors were enough for me to immediately begin Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s debut novel, which he published as a 25-year-old. The book was his master’s thesis, from his time at UC-Irvine’s MFA program.

So what does a 26-year-old expect to find in a debut novel that was published 25 years ago and was written by a person who was younger than 26? Whatever I expected, I found something different, as is usually the case.

The last debut novel written by someone younger than me—or really just a novel written by someone younger than I was when I read it—that I also really liked was written by the preternaturally talented David Foster Wallace. It was also a master’s thesis.

Mysteries gives a love triangle from the first person perspective. And the triangle has two boys and one girl as its angles. However, one of the boys is the vertex. Like, our main character is angle A, and our “triangle” is BAC, which—as you geometrically savvy readers can see—might do some harm to the tried and true metaphor of love triangles. At any rate, this is indeed a triangle, because our main character Art (angle A) falls in love with Arthur (Art; angle B) and Phlox (angle C). And Arthur and Phlox work together at a library. And yes, our main character struggles with the bisexuality.

Art works at a bookstore. It is the summer after he graduated from college. Meeting these two wonderful people confuses him and constructs an amazingly unforgettable summer.

Art’s father is a “gangster,” which is written in the first line of the book. Like a Disney movie, Art’s mother is dead. And Art doesn’t really understand what his father does. In fact, his father keeps him out of the-know purposefully. However, Cleveland—a character who embodies and is represented as larger-than-life—is friends with Arthur, and he learns of Art’s father, and he aspires to make a name for himself via the gangster vocation.

And this all leads to some bizarre scenes. The most moving scenes involve Art and Phlox or Art and Arthur, or all three of them. This is the first book I’ve read that had a young character’s struggle with sexual orientation as one of its main arcs. And I thought the added layer of confusion resonated true. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been told from a high schooler’s perspective. It’s a coming-of-age story that is representative of the cultural directive that everyone goes to college: like you cannot come of age until you are free, and you are not free until you finish college.

Chabon crafts wonderful bits of language for action, dialogue and description, but none of these things ever seem to add to a real life character. Yeah, as I typed that, I understood it sounds tough, and I don’t mean that. What I would like to tell you is that some of the plot in this book, which seems to illustrate a fictionally large and excessive real world—some of that plot interferes with the characters.

Also, Chabon is—already in his debut—demonstrating his mastery of storytelling, which must’ve come from his reading. He knows how novels work.

Honestly, it’s sort of disconcerting, because on every page I see wonderful language or lines of dialogue. These characters say some amazing things, and usually that’s enough, but I just didn’t feel like the love triangle plights were real. I mean, they were very smart, but they each did things that seemed to me very dumb—in the name of love or because it was just really mean and careless/selfish. Also, Cleveland’s aspirations led to hyperbolic scenes, especially the culminating event, which is rich with tongue-in-cheek bigness.

Art is remembering this summer, from an indeterminately distanced future. The last line is, “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated.” Chabon’s wonderful writing will pull you through the narrative, but when I look back on the novel, I feel those aforementioned tinges. The end does however explain—or to a cynic, cover up—the criticism.

But also the ending makes total sense to me. I get it. It just didn’t feel the way I felt when I graduated from college, but I didn’t graduate in standard time—nor was I single.

So without reading myself into the book, I can happily encourage your reading of it. There are some totally human parts and some parts that are just beautifully crafted. And when those two come together, those parts are worth your time. Some follow:

“It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.’”

“I’m an atom, I bounce all over the place, like a mercenary. No, not a mercenary, a free agent—a free atom—isn’t that something in chemistry?”

“Hopping the low white rail, I checked as always for the little tangle of graffiti I’d scrawled on it one laughing, runny-nosed night with Claire two winters before.”

Slapstick – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the authors who welcomed me into adult fiction, or adult-themed fiction. So I go about the world with an understanding that he has impacted me and my reading. I respect him, which is clearly seen by my inclusion of the erudite “Jr.” after his name.

My wife also really likes his work. While we were dating, she read all of his long fiction—so, yeah, her birthday and Valentine’s Day were graciously easy one year.

The first of his books I read was Slapstick. I saw a used copy at a used bookstore and picked it up because it had a clown’s face on it and its first line was instantly inviting. I had heard of the author, Mr. Vonnegut, from a friend, whom I respected. My friend was reading Cat’s Cradle, which is probably my favorite novel by Sir Jr, and he had that book ostentatiously sitting in his passenger seat when I entered the vehicle one afternoon.

When I got home with my new clown-clad book, I was expecting some uproarious alone time. My expectations were engendered by the raving claims all over the front-/back-covers (just above the clown’s drawn eyebrows and below his painted lips). The claims said my gut would be busted and my side would be split and that I’d, in short, look like the clown after reading it, my face becoming that permanent rictus of the joyful because I’d—just as my grandmother warned—made the same face (a grand smile here) so much that it had stayed that way.

That didn’t happen.

However, I did smirk at some things. And I failed to understand others, which made me think that I didn’t understand the things I smirked at, which added to the whole discouraging affair. Thankfully, I have been equipped (a priori) with the facility of finishing. I dislike bookmarked books. I must assist that little booger on his quest to escape, so I read (except Twilight—there’s a copy of that book somewhere in the world that I started, and there is a sad, sweet, little bookmark, between pages 73 and 74, stalwartly fighting the good fight, keeping my page, a page that will forever be unturned).

So I persevered. I finished the book. And now, I think, that much of my praising of Mr. Vonnegut was really a positive projection (or is it displacement?) of my satisfaction with having finished a book I didn’t fully understand. I had read a book, but saying I’m such an awesome and cultured teenager because I read Kurt Vonnegut was somehow too much, so I instead said that the book and its author were great, which obliquely but sufficiently delivered the image of myself I wanted people to see, because saying Vonnegut was great meant I had read Vonnegut, which meant I was smart.

So now, something like ten years after I first read Slapstick, I returned to it.

The book is an autobiographical sketch by a 100-year-old, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, living in a post-apocalyptic NYC. He gives his current living conditions, which are characterized by a deluge of ignorance—ignorant people ignorantly acquiescing to ignorant situations. And then he shares his life’s story, which is meant to explain how the world became the way it is, Mr. Swain being at the center of the change, not causing it but witnessing it (though he played his part; we all do).

So I didn’t really like the book because it didn’t feel like a real story. It felt instead like a sequence of outlandish events that were all constructed so that Vonnegut could turn a hyperbolically enlarged mirror to us, which held our own American and ignorant image. Yeah, that sounds mean. And the humor that was there felt stale in such a way that it didn’t pay off the debts the story incurred. And there was no answer offered. In fact, it felt so defeatist that an answer doesn’t exist in Slapstick’s universe except for exceptionally small Asians who do not share though they have recognized the power of togetherness and community. This is indeed Vonnegut’s answer, but the way to cultivate community is not given. Maybe reading Vonnegut is the way. (Let’s all read his book and discuss it, huh, what say you all?).

At any rate, I am conflicted. Vonnegut sits atop lists of great twentieth-century American authors. But give me Catch-22 or The Crying of Lot 49 before Slapstick. Fortunately, I am still in love with Slaughterhouse-Five, but I’m scared to reread Cat’s Cradle (it’s really great in my nostalgic-tinted shades). I still love Vonnegut, but I am sadly but properly growing out of him, I guess.

Here follow some context-less sentences from the novel:

“Hi ho.”

“I spoke of American loneliness. It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky. It was the only subject I had. It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan. I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.”

“And all the information we received about the planet we were on indicated that idiots were lovely things to be.

So we cultivated idiocy.”

Scorpionoia

Scorpionoia: House Pests and Love Nests

Or, Snakebites and Gigabytes / Scorpion Stings and Bad Dreams

A couple of nights ago, a scorpion stung me. It was through a shirt, and it really wasn’t that bad, which I can say now because I’m a couple of days removed, and there is nothing left of the event other than my memory of it.

So here/there it is/was: my newborn son resisting sleep; my wife doing the very thing he resisted; me reading. Because of his whininess (a paternally inherited faculty) I picked him up and took him to the rocker-recliner, so he could feel comfortably snug and I could read. After sitting down for a few moments, I decided that a pillow would suit both of our desires better than the terrible torture of pillowlessness. I placed the pillow on my lap, placed him on the pillow and suddenly felt a pain on my stomach. I looked down, expecting something other than what I saw, and flipped out a little bit (allegedly). I flicked the scorpion away and put my son on the bed—or, gave him to my wife who woke up from some sound she said she heard.

After gaining my composure—yes, I know: my son is two weeks old and he’s already witnessed his father being better at something than he is (and sure, in this case, the thing I was better at was being a baby)—I immediately located my phone and researched scorpion stings and scorpion species and treatment. You should really look up the symptoms of serious scorpion stings. They’re like sweating and itchiness and whatever else we all come down with upon the very sight of something even slightly arachnoid. The last two sentences are highly sibilant, which reminds me of something that I thought I’d get to later, but now is a good time: two nights prior to the scorpion attack, a snake was in the house. And this event forced the same reaction: I was on the phone trying to identify the snake and gathering ideas for snake-proofing, etc.

And this whole pest problem has occurred for the first time in our new house since bringing home the brand new baby, who—after every individual movement (or non-movement), sound (or silence), and behavior (or misbehavior)—has both my wife and I frantically googling as well. Here’s a taste of my recent search list: “newborn nasal congestion” ; “newborn farts” ; “grunting baby” ; “newborn breathing patterns” ; and then all these others about snakes and scorpions (including “snake poop”). Well there, I let it out. We all know that the single most revealing act that anyone can make in our wide-webbed world is to confess one’s google search history. And man, letting out that dirty (and smelly, smelly) laundry feels great.

But seriously, it’s a little bit funny (this feeling inside) to mechanically and habitually and instinctively and instantaneously get this urge to search for some info or answer online about something worrisome at hand. I could go deeply into personal details about my irrational paranoia concerning my son here, but I’ll reject the instinctive (and here a little self-involved) wallet-full-of-my-kids’-pics-ritual pull. It’s wild how reliant we are on the information overload. I’m doing all this reading on SIDS, and my wife’s grandmother explains how if her baby (my father-in-law) were crying, she’d just pick him up and put him in the bed—the bed that had her and her husband already in it (!), with the adult-sized, thick, suffocating blankets and comforters and pillows and whatever else the SIDS site said was a capital-n “No, No”! With all the information comes all this (perhaps warranted) worrying. This isn’t a new sentiment, but I’ve been worrying and web surfing so frequently that I’ve been reflectively considering the significance, wondering if anything is lost.

Others have written about the pervasive google habit, because of its portable availability on our phones, and whether our memories and brains are shrinking, but I don’t really care about that. The world is always shrinking and always growing; it must remain as the one abstraction that we comfortably allow to do two things at once, that we let be both/and, that we allow to remain a paradox—a paradox that we welcome and try not too hard to think about because its physical limitations infiltrate our conceptual undertakings and we realize that we’ll never be able to hold a consistent and well-rounded (just took you out to pun-ch!) and truthful idea/image of the world in our heads. Which, by golly, need be the impetus we all feel to write it (the world) down. Put your thought down on paper; externalize yourself and your ideas so that you can then (because we aren’t all F. Scott Fitzgerald) hold another, ostensibly opposing idea up to that one and both can be true at the same time. And then we’ll realize that either/or is useless, and the lines we draw between things can’t be straight and are probably circles (or infinity signs!), the borders we build must be porous, the bottles in which we place things are rapidly exploding like shaken colas, the cages that contain our conceptions are constructed by cretins, the words we assign can’t carry their weight, and on and on.

When considering writing this, I never expected to get to a point about paradox, but I guess, now that I am here (and my being here must demonstrate that the discussion is a p…x), I’ll attempt to concisely compose the apparent paradox at hand: I pride myself on knowledge and knowing, yet without hesitance I yield when it comes to something important. Maybe this isn’t paradox number 1, but I do think it’s true. Regrettably and revealingly, I am prideful. But again, I release that reaction if something seems dangerous or is out of my scope—as snakes and scorpions and (more so, proven every moment) babies are.

Please feel free to try your attempts at consolation or just respond or something. I mean, I have plenty of time after the attack because I contracted scorpionsomnia (there just must be more of them—and in our bedroom!).

The Character of the Confederacy

This may be timely or topical. The following is a semi-review–a collection of thoughts about a book:

A Confederacy of Dunces (pub. 1980) by John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969)

It’s difficult to discuss the novel without detailing its context: the author and his end. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide (coincidentally, the same as many of the authors whom I’ve been reading) by running a garden hose from his exhaust pipe to his car’s cabin on a rural road (coincidentally, the same way as a character early on in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’m currently reading). Toole killed himself because—as the legend goes—he was depressed, doubly, by his Dunces failure to be published and his mother, for whom Toole’s feelings oscillated between adoration and abhorrence.

It’s also difficult to read the book as something other than largely autobiographical, though written by a mysterious author, of whom I know little else besides what I’ve already written.

I imagine this second difficulty originates from the way readers experience the struggle for the book’s literal and figurative space: between the HUGE Ignatius J. Reilly (the main character, our “hero”) and the language (as written by a real [and dead] author). Because of the struggle, and the fact that the best language actually comes from Ignatius’ mouth, these two things combine, thus authobiogra-feels.

ACoD is a picaresque novel, proven/supported by its main character’s social status, the characters’ language, and the plot. And I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without mentioning how severely funny this book is, largely (in so many ways) because of Ignatius. The book is full of pithy, perspicacious, cynical and enlightened statements from both his mouth and others’. The events in the book (i.e., plot) do move in some sort of order and are really funny (situations—like sitcoms) but the most humorous portions develop from the combination of the comic situation and the comic character—a truly titanic clown.

The thirty-year-old hyper-intellectual (or at least, hyper-studied) Ignatius, who thinks himself an anachronism and is totally discontented with contemporary society, must get a job. This serves as Toole’s excuse to put Reilly in a course (which includes searching for a job, working, sabotaging a company, searching again, etc.) that would be a lame plot, but having Ignatius makes the reading a real joy.

Ignatius spews his invective against each person, organization, and sect of society he confronts. The language and views are brilliant, new and fun(ny).

But I’m left wondering if it’s enough for a book. As long as I enjoyed the experience, can I review the novel favorably? I mean, I’d recommend the novel, but it isn’t necessarily “a good story.” So I am led to consider my favorite books, at which point I find that I do not read for plot. Books like Franny and Zooey, Infinite Jest, The Sound and the Fury, White Noise, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Great Gatsby are less about what happens than how these 3D characters see and experience their world (which is my world). So, sure, character > plot—which might as well be a platitude at this point. But I think I might have followed Ignatius J. Reilly (and Myrna Minkoff) for another 400 pp. Hell, I’d probably read his multivolume tome of a journal.

Maybe this is another way to get at or say that great books exist off the page. I mean, the book doesn’t really go anywhere (like, plot-wise) but the great Ignatius makes me view the world (and its inhabitants) differently, newly, really. So, “story” still exists somewhere between “plot” and “character” as the essence of art (I’d argue life), but it’s certainly closer to character, if the two are poles.

My brief thoughts on the book’s initial failure (which ostensibly led to Toole’s suicide): the book—and probably its author—is advanced. The copyright on the book is 1980, but the book was probably finished around 16 years before that. It’s tough for me to imagine diehard fans of Lassie and Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies and Red Skelton and Gomer and Gilligan and Gunsmoke, etc. to find this book anything other than perverse. In short, the world wasn’t ready. Had this book been written/published in 1970, we’d more than likely still have John Kennedy Toole with us—or at the very least, a few more dazzling works of his.

Sans of Feel: These Men Aren’t Real

As an intermittent entertainment, I view movies in a theatre. To give you a sense of “intermittent,” the last 4 were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ; The Dark Knight Rises ; Django Unchained; and now, Man of Steel. Three (the first three) were highly anticipated. I didn’t care, not a bit nor ever, for the Man of Steel/Kal-El/Clark Kent. But why wasn’t I empathetic?

Three-fourths of his parental unit dies during the film. One “perishes” twice, and all three are taken by some sort of dissolution, in which each is seen painfully aware—even looking directly at the camera sometimes—of the audience (i.e., character or filmgoer or both) attending their annihilation.

Clark’s earthly father, Jonathan Kent, passes in a tornado: the Kent family is traveling on a Kansas road; Clark and Jonathan argue about Clark’s utilizing-thus-revealing his powers (which is SOP for the movie’s first hour) until they hit some traffic; the Kent troupe exits the car; Jonathan sends Clark and Martha (their wife/mother, respectively) under an overpass for safety; he struggles his way through the parked cars, heroically saving women and babies and even the Kent’s very own dog; from afar—under the overpass—Clark and Martha watch as Jonathan gets stuck in the car, precluding his escaping the twister, but he does have enough time to exit the car, stare at his family and hold his hand up—passing up the help, commanding Superman to restrain himself—just before he (Jonathan) is immersed in the stormy violence of thrown cars, etc.

Yes, Jonathan Kent is a martyr, who dies in statement for the case he’s preached hitherto. And this is the most touchingly beautiful scene in the movie for so many reasons. In the (self-insistence and self-)interest of full disclosure, the inherent emotional appeal of the scene itself is blind to this reviewer because of two closely related factors: the movie was viewed on Father’s Day and this reviewer will be a first-time father in approx. 28 days. So perhaps the effect was compounded by this reviewer’s context. But gosh, Jonathan Kent was played by Kevin Costner, of all empathy-resistant actors. I mean, I think even my father-in-law thinks KC a “cornball,” possibly even voicing the sentiment via this same cognomen. However, when Costner raised his hand—the universal symbol for “STOP”—my body went into anti-survival mode: i.e., it attempted to empty itself of saline H2O, to dehydrate itself—even utilizing the ducts under its epicanthic folds.

Anyway, this moment in the film and my experience thereof protrude as the only memorable/meaningful part(s). This isn’t to say I don’t recall portions (even large useless portions) of the film, but the contrast between my involvement or investment in this moment and all the others summoned a deeper consideration of the film. Jonathan’s resistance to Clark’s revealing himself was indeed the logical act, predicated on the prior actions, but still, why was it—coming before the film’s midpoint—so different?

 

My real beef with MOS: I don’t relate. To whom am I supposed to relate in this film? I tell my students that empathy is the deep secret of literature—I think I learned this from Eliot, but he’s not telling. I say, hey literature is about humans and how to live and what life is, etc. And we look to the humans to show us these things, but if a story doesn’t have any human-characters, then we shall consider the other characters (be they animal or alien or objects, et al) as avatars. At any rate, a real world/-view should be presented, and the audience granted access to navigate said world/-view through the story’s characters.

One could persuasively argue that I spend the majority of my professional life proving to skeptical students that we can actually relate to stories, so I have a little experience and, more importantly, genuine investment in the matter. But Man of Steel doesn’t do this. It presents these 2D characters throughout, who even claim to be 1D sometimes (most Kryptonians [think: Zod explaining his now-purposeless existence, etc.). Superheroes must be embattled, sure, but so must most other characters. Isn’t life inherently embattled?

The film shows Clark Kent saving lives from 0:00:01 to the oh-so-distant end. Is he too good to be relatable? Here we could investigate the Superman-as-Jesus discussion (a cursory Googling will inform you). And we could consider if stories that follow Jesus—as main character—are relatable, etc. The overwhelming answer here is yes; for more than two millennia large groups of people have found the story of Jesus compelling. Sure, this is for a variety of reasons, but I’ll take up one: the people who mostly find the story enjoyable are those who are affected by it, those who believe they are part of it. In other words, the story forces a group of people (depending on audience’s awareness/beliefs) into the story; this is ‘auto-empathy.’ In Jesus’ story (affectionately known as a/the gospel), there are some real humans around the guy: the disciples, Pharisees, a whole retinue of sinners, etc. And again if the reader is so inclined, she can insert herself into the story.

MOS shows characters who are not embattled; the characters haven’t internal struggles but are rather negotiating their relationships to externalities (e.g., a boss who doesn’t want Lois to print a story, the impending destruction of Krypton/human race, etc.) The characters react to these events in such prescribed and obvious ways that there really is no conflict. The ubiquitous air of absent conflict ruins MOS and Superman-as-story. Not only are the non-titular characters facile, but Clark Kent is also: his two problems in the film were discovering his origin and defending humanity. In a way, Jor-El (Russell Crowe; Clark’s heavenly [God-the-]father) solved both problems for his son, like pre-solved/predestined. Empathy demands suspense [I think I believe this currently]. But I was never suspended, never actually contemplating Superman’s survival, wondering whether or not this grandiose moneymaker will end itself by killing the MOS. Plus, he’s Superman.

I think the real problem here was that the film didn’t spend enough time with the characters. The audience is denied the truth of the characters. At one point, as NYC-proxy Metropolis endures the wrath of Zod’s world-builder, etc., a colleague/intern of Lois Lane’s is trapped inside a cage of concrete and rebar. Laurence Fishburne unsuccessfully struggles to extricate her, but I don’t think he ever does (this was late in the movie mind you, as my attention began to wane); she did eventually survive though. Anyway, I was sitting there, watching an actress act like she was close to death, in the same way that KC was trapped in the path of the tornado, and I did not care. I knew she would be saved, because the movie isn’t about her or the frailty of human life or loss. It’s about the MOS, a story so much bigger than my day-to-day affairs that it’s fundamentally inhuman, and thus unidentifiable.

Maybe, this is less an observation of the film than it is of the film’s audience. The movie’s substance (sic; “LOL”)—I don’t have the will nor stomach to check the numbers—is its action; I’d estimate that more than half of the movie was fighting—yes, physical(ly) on-screen battle. There were possibly more punches than pronouncements, more destruction than dialogue, more kicks than candor, more eye-lasers than I-love-yous—more violence than viability. So if you like Transformers (Bay) or UFC, or you belong to the I-only-watch-sport-x-for-the-crashes/fights, then go see MOS. And if you revel in the cerebral, prepare to do much of the work yourself during your viewing of MOS, because it does mention some very important themes, which ironically come from the mouths of Kryptonians, the film’s de facto human-like avatars.

 

 

Note: this reviewer’s expectations/judgments could be a result of having finished Season 4 of Breaking Bad the night before viewing the film at hand.