Friday, August 28, 2009

Tortured Logic (or, reason #127 why Barack Obama is not your friend)

In a December, 2007 essay in The Atlantic, the outspoken conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan did an interesting thing. In a long, polemical essay that ranged widely as primary season was heating up, he articulated a viewpoint for why Barack Obama should become the next President of the United States. Sullivan's chief argument for Obama was that his leadership would constitute what he termed a “re-branding of America” more than any substantive shift in its politics or specific policies. Sullivan argued that Obama's international upbringing, his post-baby-boomer age bracket, his relatively unassuming roots, his unique ability to straddle many cultural and political divides, and—the trump card—his nationality, added up to rare opportunity to project a new kind of American power in a volatile world situation that, in Sullivan's view, demanded precisely that.

There was both a domestic and an international edge to Sullivan's argument. But at a time when the war in Iraq was by all accounts going badly and when the rest of the world was still holding its nose to keep out the lingering stench of George W. Bush's reign, it may well have been the international dimension that had Sullivan most concerned. And, from his point of view as a commentator striving for (and often getting) the ears of the most powerful figures inside the Beltway, though I don't agree with him (far from it!), I can't say I blame him. The essay is worth quoting at some length:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

As the onset of an economic meltdown grew eminent in the months preceding the election, I think it's safe to say that the appeal of Sullivan's analysis only widened among those in the halls of power. “This,” it must have seemed to a growing number of them at the time, “is our guy.” He was able to simultaneously project calm and vigilance, worldliness and humbleness. And the best part: he was Black. Any mistakes he made in ruling over an outstretched empire or enforcing a necessarily less bellicose system of exploitation in his home country, would have to be measured against that one, irrefutable fact.

That one fact about Obama has led many to argue that he knows something about oppression—“he must!”—and that on this basis he would be a drastically different kind of leader with drastically different aims and motivations than his hated predecessor.

To be fair, he is quite different in many ways from George W. Bush. To take just one example, I recently read somewhere that until the royalties from his first book deal started coming in, he was still paying off loans on his Ivy League education. And he was one of only a small handful of Senators who voiced opposition to the Iraq War before it started.

But here's another irrefutable fact: Obama's job is Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful economic and military machine on Earth, not the community organizing job he came to Chicago for in the early 80s. The personal experience of growing up (largely) in America and being Black isn't going to change this.

And let's be real for a moment: the Oval Office is not a place where high-minded principles go to die; it's a place where an elite few who have learned to skillfully pay lip service to them go to bury them once and for all. And you don't get there without some clear proof, well in advance, that you're willing to do terrible things in the service of the larger cause you've signed on the dotted line to serve.

So in light of all this, as disgusting as it is, the announcement earlier this week of what amounts to a new way to torture people in U.S. custody, should come as no big shock. There will be a new White House-supervised unit called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which will shift chief responsibility for overseeing the interrogations of prisoners who have been “rendered” to various countries, from the CIA to the National Security Council. This time, we are told there will be more oversight by the administration.

Right about now, if we're being honest with ourselves, we should be asking some questions about all this.

First off: oversight? They want us to think that more oversight, by a President who has refused to release photos of torture by the previous administration, is going to make us feel better?

Moving right along, here's a basic one: if you guys don't plan on overseeing torture, why the hell are you shipping people overseas to be interrogated? Huh?! Isn't that the whole reason the U.S. government does that?

Obama was pretty unambiguous during his years in the Senate and throughout his campaign, that torture wasn't something he was going to let happen under his watch. Did he mean that in the we'll-just-continually-re-define-what-it-means-and-then-say-we-don't-do-it sense, or did he actually mean it? Or, was he just saying what he thought the right people would want to hear?

Finally, doesn't this all seem to fit pretty well with Sullivan's point?

Basically, what we're looking at with much of what's happening under Obama is a re-branding, and not something fundamentally different than what the world has known America to be. It's not that it's all about Obama, per se. But the perceived need on the part of the U.S. to do things like torture people to get information has not suddenly abated. And the presence of a man whom the world seems to adore at the helm of a machine that does these things can change the equation in dramatic ways. It can let that machine do a lot of awful things, with a whole lot less scrutiny. If we're talking about principals, there really isn't anything more basic than the unconditional prohibition of torture. So if “change we can believe in” means things like a change in who oversees the savage treatment of human beings held in secret dungeons, then we'd better turn our eyes away from Obama's handsome face and look to where real change comes from (hint: it's not the top).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

This review was originally written for publication in the Evnoy, and due to that paper's absence of a policy on its writers having blogs, you're seeing it here. If you're dying to see it in print, you have two options: 1) come to the Hunter College campus in New York City some time after the first week of September and pick up a copy out of a lovely, hidden-from-view, falling apart display box; and, 2) send me some money (lots of it) and maybe I'll send you a copy of the free college paper I write for. Either way, it's a bargain.

Funny People: Dick Jokes With Some Depth

As the first decade of the 21st Century enters its twilight months, Judd Apatow is emerging as an iconic comedic director for a generation. Well, Like a rosy-faced 15-year-old boy copping to the ultimate semi-pubescent sin, I'll admit it: before seeing his latest offering, Funny People, I was an Apatow Virgin.

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is a rich, famous stand-up-comic-turned-movie-star who finds out he has a rare form of leukemia and will probably die, so he goes on a quest to find what he loves most in life. Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) is a struggling stand-up comic with a penchant for lewd humor whose act impresses Simmons so much that he takes the young buck under his wing. The two end up navigating some rather heavy emotional terrain as a partners-in-slime, telling gross-out jokes through thick and thin.

Funny People is a bit like an inversion of the typical dude-humor comedy we're getting used to dropping our twelve bucks on. Dick jokes? Yeah, there's no shortage of 'em. But this movie brings something to the table that few comedies try to these days: nuance.

Contemporary comedies often look something like this: you have a funny or ridiculous basis for a story that's held together by an ill-wrought dramatic premise, and the real point isn't whatever it is that the characters are striving to accomplish in the story, nor the ideas or themes the film calls to mind. It's the various gags, jokes, cringe-inducing awkward moments, or encounters with scantily clad young women that litter the path to the closing credits (think of a movie like The Hangover and you know what I mean).

Funny People--dare I say it--is more sophisticated than that, even as it relies disproportionately on reminders of the quirks of our own anatomies for laughs--and even, speaking of body parts, if the fits of laughter it sends us into aren't so potent they could count as the week's ab workout. You're more likely to chuckle than you are to wheeze and convulse.

But that's okay. Because Funny People has some things to say about friendship, love, fame and happiness that resonate louder than the peppering of (rather good, if often pretty tasteless) interludes of standup by Sandler and Rogen. There is some complexity to the relationship between George and Ira. One is rich and famous, but jaded and cynical and leads a life drenched in wistful regret. The other is star-struck and naïve, and wants what his new friend has, even as he begins to unpeel the layers of rot that should tell him to run the other way. Their relationship is fraught with reminders of what fame does to a person, and of what real friends are--and aren't.

When Ira makes the ailing George an iPod playlist with a bunch of cheesy songs and then we hear that he's included Warren Zevon's “Keep me in Your Heart,” (a devastating song written by a man who knew he was dying of cancer), it's actually a touching moment. And the fact that he put Bill Medley's 80's cornball love ballad “Time of my Life” on the playlist isn't any less funny coming in a scene with some emotional gravity. It's one of the things that's making me begin to appreciate the Apatow touch, because scenes like this one seamlessly traverse so much of our humanity without losing their comedic zing.

Adam Sandler once again shows us that there's more to him than met our eyes during his much-celebrated early 90's Saturday Night Live run. It's not that he lights up the screen as a washed-up comedian staring death in the face. But you do get the feeling—and maybe this is because there's surely some Sandler in the Simmons character—that the melancholy, aging face that a few times manages to burst through the funny-man facade, is that of a complete human being. That said, the parts of our old friend Adam that are both most memorable and most satisfying, come to us when he is precisely that funny man he's shown us he knows how not to be. In particular, he gives us a sequence of old-granny-voice prank calls that were easily the closest thing in the movie to having me on the floor, and were, by any measure, 100% Sandler.

One major disappointment of Funny People is the way it descends into a third act whirlpool of plot-twisting contrivance. I'd bet money that some frantic producer got a hold of the final revision of the script and concluded that it needed another 30 minutes of length and the full development and resolution of what should have been a minor subplot. If you see it—which I still recommend—this'll stick out like a sore thumb.

In this movie, the specter of death isn't funny, per se. It's as tragic as it is in the saddest melodrama, or in the real world, for that matter. But the transcendent power of humor is revealed as a tool to help us pull through (and even as a mask to hide behind in ways we shouldn't). It's ambiguous. It's not neat or clean. And I know we're talking about Hollywood here, but still, that's the way real life is: messy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering John Hughes: Don't You Forget About Me (or the confused mess I was ten years ago)

This piece was originally written for the Envoy. A version of it will appear in that paper's upcoming issue.

In some ways, it was the impossibly rainy summer of 2009 that drove the final stake through the heart of my childhood. And by my childhood, I mean the 1980's (and you could stretch that a bit into the early 90's, too, if you really want).

From that blissfully uneasy perch, that nexus of still-novel independence and turbo-charged vitality—my mid-20's--I watched it happen. And you watched it, too. We couldn't ignore the headline-dominating passing of Michael Jackson, or the subsequent blasting of “Billie Jean” at every party, bar, club and out the open windows of every low-slung, neon-light-adorned, souped-up cruising import car in the city for two months.

Some of us cheered, and some of us cringed as Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to their fourth NBA championship—more than Michael Jordan had won at his age—and just like that, the path to a “New Jordan” may have reached a point of no return.

But back in the years when sports fantasies began to give way to smoke-filled rooms full of kids with mohawks and studded jackets, in days when bonds forged in meandering discussions during Saturday detention meant way more than who your prom date would be, another icon of the 80's pried his way into my life. I'm talking about John Hughes.

I've bounced around from passion to passion a lot in my day. I spent most of high school screwing around doing tricks on BMX bikes, but never fully found my niche in a crowd that measured achievement in scars. Although they did seem better than any of the warring social factions at school: you know--the jocks, the “preppy” kids, the stoners, the my-parents-will-kill-me-if-I-get-a-”B” types, etc. I spent some time on the periphery of the local punk rock scene, but found a lot of the same vain struggle to conform, yet be yourself there, too. Looking for the place be “me” only led smack up against the realization that the only “place” to do that is when you're older... if you're lucky.

I grew up amid the very tree-lined images of picture-perfect suburban Americana to which Hughes's most iconic films pay cinematic homage. I went to New Trier High School, just outside Chicago (said to be the real-world inspiration for the fictional Shermer High). Until I left for New York on a quest to change the world at 22, I lived in a nice, two-story house that had a basement “rec room” and a basketball hoop lovingly affixed to the roof of a 1.5 car garage. My parents rarely fought, never once threatened to ruin my social life if I didn't get good grades (maybe that's part of the reason I never did!), and are still happily married—so far as I can tell.

So why did it feel like such a hellhole?

Really, it wasn't. At least not entirely. But adolescence, wherever you grow up, is an alienating place. And John Hughes, decades into his adulthood, held fast to that understanding and projected it onto movie screens and right into our hearts. If there's one overarching theme to be taken from Hughes' films—or at least the best, and most memorable of them—it's the idea that, for all I'm-in-with-the-in-crowd galavanting and all the the I've-got-it-all-figured-out-at-16 bravado, none of us really fit in. And none of us had much at all figured out.

As a BMX bike-riding, Marx-reading, punk rock-listening juvenile delinquent, I never quite fit any of the archetypes The Breakfast Club helped etch into our collective consciousness. But maybe that was the whole point of throwing a jock, a bad-ass, a popular girl, a nerd and a misfit into a room together: you might never guess it, but growing up is rough for everybody, and everybody's got a different mask to hide behind to try to make it look like they never cry themselves to sleep. So whatever you're into, however you fashion your identity, and, as the enduring popularity of Hughes' repertoire has shown us, whichever era you look back on and call your heyday—youthful insecurities are universal.

It's in this light that I prefer to cherish the memories of Friday nights in my parents' basement, crowded around an L-shaped couch with a bunch of friends, blurting out a chorus of lines from Ferris Beuller's Day Off like we were stealing each word out of Matthew Brodrick's mouth.

You know, it's not like there's nothing to it when people say Hughes' character studies in affluent suburbia painted a one-sided, deliberately misleading picture of the experience of growing up. That his best films were made during the Reagan years, at a time when everything that had been learned by the “60s” generation was being buried in a million ways, does—and can't help but—have bearing on how history judges the work of an artist who featured white faces in a white-picket-fence world.

But we'd be a pack of narrow-minded philistines to deny that there is a richness and a universality to Hughes's treatment of subjects like budding sexuality and the need to assert an individual identity in a world that seems one-dimensional. The themes, if not the literal experiences, mark all of our lives. And the observant, gentle hand of a man who could immortalize those sometimes mundane, sometimes life-affirming, sometimes bitter moments that now seem hard-wired into our cultural DNA, deserves some fond remembrance. Who among us can't relate to some aspect of the bashful Claire Standish or the hopelessly belligerent John Bender? Who among us can say they've never shown the world a confident human being when inside they were a mess?

As this summer starts to fizzle out and attention turns to what lies in wait on my next tour of duty in the trenches of academia, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the fading memory of bygone days. And in that process, it's come just a little clearer into focus, that whatever identity I, or anyone else showed the world back in high school, really, none us of was anything more or less than a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.

Here Goes Nothin'!

Welcome. So I've been doing a lot of writing lately. Mostly for classes I'm taking at Hunter College, and for the school newspaper there, the Envoy. It's been good. And one of the reasons it's been good is that it's made me realize writing is something I ought to do even more of. Wherever it leads, for better or worse, it's something I have no business not making a prominent part of my life.

This blog is where that realization has led. For now.

I'm calling it "The Scenic Route" for a few reasons, all of which have an autobiographical element to them. I'm 26. And I'm an undergraduate in college. A lot of my peers had their degrees by 22. I'm on my way somewhere, but I've taken longer to get there than I could have. And, I'd argue, I've seen a lot more than I could have along the way. So that's one part of it. I've also been a nerd about all things spatial and geographic my whole life; I collected maps instead of baseball cards as a kid, if that tells you anything. I like to navigate, and I like to travel. These little nuggets are where the name came from, and they tell you some things about this (relatively) young blogger. But I'd like to range pretty wide in what I talk about here.

The plan, as it stands, is to publish content ranging from ruminations on whatever I'm thinking about, to film reviews that originally run in the Envoy, to political rants or more well-developed political writings, to possibly even some short stories or other fiction.

I have a lot to say (or, in any case, I'm fond of thinking I do). So this'll be the place to say it. At least for a while. We'll see how it works. Check in every so often. And give me your feedback, your suggestions, your rotten tomatoes, a little bit of your time. I'll try to make it worth your while.

See you on the interwebs,

Scott Klocksin