Saturday, March 4, 2023

Cool Reaction

OMG! "Beat" (Kitano) Takeshi's favorite movie is Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) 1945, directed by Marcel Carne. (!!!!) This is also my favorite movie. "Beat" Takeshi is so cool. "Beat" Takeshi thinks Children of Paradise the best movie ever and I do too SO, I am now cool just like "Beat" Takeshi  -- because that is how that works. Waste of time, may I add, explaining logical fallacies and transitive law and such to me just now. I am not proving anything. I am claiming what one might call associative cool. No, it's not a real thing. 

I found Takeshi Kitano's Top Ten Films of All Time List exactly where such lists breed, on social media. A friend, a playwright and cineaste, posted a link. Takeshi is a big Kubrick fan. 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968  (#2) and A Clockwork Orange 1971 (#3) show up right after the Carne picture. There's a Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia 1974, that I never liked at #7, and Sam Raimi's Darkman 1990 at #8 which I find completely mystifying. None of that really matters though. All that matters is that I now have something to talk about with my new pal, "Beat" Takeshi, namely Les Enfants du Paradis -- when and if we should ever meet which is never going to happen. I would of course also tell him how much the beloved husband and I became obsessed with him after Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in 1983, how we loved Kikujiro 1990, how much I admire Sonatine 1993 and  Hana-Bi 1997, how I've watched his version of Zatoichi 2003 a ridiculous number of times on television. Now that we are buddies and I am cool like him, he will probably be embarrassed by how much I go on about his work. Better we should talk about Carne.

I first saw Marcel Carne's great Romantic drama from the light booth at the Craft Avenue Theater in the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The playhouse was actually a complex of various stage spaces. Most nights they showed repertory movies in the Craft Avenue stage, children theater during the day.  The theater was so old, I actually had to raise and lower the lights manually, using levers. This meant I got to sit in the booth and watch the movies -- in case there was an emergency or the film broke and I had to bring the lights up. It was the early eighties, I was a student and doing the lights was part of my work-study job. I also sold Milk Duds and popcorn (more than once to Mr. Fred Rogers!) Saw a lot of great films for the first time at that job: Fellini's La Strada 1954 and Amarcord 1973, Wild Strawberries 1957, Le Belle et le Bete 1946, Seven Samurai 1954. The prints were usually shit back then; unrestored, often cobbled together with glaring breaks, unreadable white subtitles on washed out film. Sometimes it didn't matter. Rashomon 1950 survived the worst showing through which I ever sat; repeated breaks, bad sound, a mess and a revelation. And Carne's masterpiece was magical even when I couldn't quite hear or read Jacques Prevert's words, even when Jean-Louis Barrault's face faded to just sad eyes in a blazing white mask. (There was finally a worthy and complete restoration of the film in 2012.) 

If you've never seen Children of Paradise you must. It is a great film. It is beautiful and moving and the story of its creation and the artists and collaborators (ahem) who made it is as fascinating as any in film history. If you don't like it you may still be cool, but you can never be my friend, or "Beat" Takeshi's either I should think, though he may not be quite so judgmental as me.

Takeshi Kitano, if you don't know (and if you don't know you can never be cool, sorry) is a Japanese comedian and tv personality who became an exceptional filmmaker and actor. He's won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He's been awarded the Ordre des Arts et Lettres in France. He is cool the way Bogart was cool. He has the cool to which most actors, most directors, most humans may only aspire. What is that? I do not know, but, you know, right?

Generally speaking, cool is something about which I could not be made to give much of a shit. I myself have never been. Hasn't bothered me much. Like obscenity at the Supreme Court, I know it when I see it of course, but cool has changed a lot since I last worried about it in my teens. Back then it involved cigarettes, liquor in heavy glass tumblers, maybe a little cocaine, tight trousers, what else? Even then cool was unreliable. Miles Davis, sure. The gays? Depended then on who one was meeting in which alley to what purpose and so on. I was pretty sure at the time that pretty much all the gays other than me were cool. Right? What did I know? Redneck is frankly antithetical to cool and guess what I come from. When I was a teenager I must have aspired to at least a little cool. Reading a little Marshall McLuhan back in the day probably helped. And People Magazine, maybe? Esquire? I don't remember. Also, I never much liked most of the people who were cool, back when cool was still a thing in pop culture -- which we did not call it at the time by the way. Nobody thought "pop" was any kind of culture at all back then. Elvis was white trash. Comic books were for little kids and lowbrow Gomers. Nobody thought pop music was cool except nine year old girls and their little gay friends. Even low culture wasn't quite so low as to be overtly popular, just a little simple, like folk art and white gospel music. Pop was neither threatening nor respectable, just pleasant, like menthol and wine-coolers. It's actually hard for anyone in this post-ironic age to appreciate that kitsch was still just worthless trash back then. That cheese had to age a long time before anyone decided to serve it again. We weren't completely clueless, but we weren't terribly hip either, most of us. In the seventies some of us  understood that those hideously bright clothes we all wore were made out of fibers better suited to underground cable than to underground clubs, but most of us just thought we looked pretty. Everybody knew Nixon wasn't cool. The Vietnam War, Bob Hope, etc., not cool. Abbott & Costello had to be long dead before "Who's On First?" started to sound like Congreve to anybody over the age of twelve. Before pop got to be anywhere near to being high culture or any kind of culture back then Roy Lichtenstein had to repaint it -- and much BIGGER. So, cool? Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall. I don't have an answer, or even need one really. Everybody hates a fad but loves a trend, no? Cool.

Obviously I am not immune to any of this even now. I tried kale chips, and those flat, watery soda drinks, and I watch all the latest true crime still hoping for another Tiger King. Back in the day I wore something called "Earth Shoes" despite the fact that they were fucking ugly and not actually all that comfortable. Why? Were they cool? I'm thinking not, but for a minute there they felt very much of the moment. Fad then. Likewise mood rings, the Equal Right Amendment (alas), and pet rocks. Trends that survived the seventies? I'll say, sexual liberation, computers & new tech, maybe... library science - 'cause that's where the Internut was a bornin'. Not unrelated though I certainly never saw it coming was the eventual triumph of nerd culture. How did THAT happen?! (See computers and tech.)

Nerds are nice. Admittedly I encounter them primarily in one of their happy places -- the Science Fiction/Fantasy section at the bookstore -- but in my own anecdotal experiences nerds are much nicer individually and en masse at a book-signing or a convention for example than, say, ladies of a certain age who garden. Never has a nerd taken umbrage at the absence of an out-of-print title on nasturtiums or insisted that they've "always" bought their seed catalogs at the bookstore, etc. If anything, nerds are inexplicably delighted by almost everything related however tangentially to their hobbies, interests, collecting, reading, childhoods. Nobody ever laughed more heartily or with less reason at the slightest joke made by anyone at an author event. No one applauds a pun like the nerds. It isn't mindless enthusiasm either, like you might see at rally for the Orange Goon, or at a music service in a mega-church. Nerds are serious people, good humored and kind, also earnest, intellectually engaged, and deeply attentive to detail. They like art and ideas and conversation. They respect and honor their favorite artists and encourage each other's creativity. They share information and research and they support their communities. I honestly admire them.

I am not however of them. I don't read their books anymore. I did when I was a teenager, but then I started reading other things and fell out of the habit. I'm not a fan of their Marvel movies either, or their comics or their cosplay, or their tv shows, mostly. I have enjoyed some epic dragon related content, but I was also one of those spoiled, casual viewers who turned it off even before the blond lady lost her wits like soap opera actress in search of another daytime Emmy nom. Zombies, icy, or smelly or both are just so fucking dull. I like a villain capable of a bit o' pointless verbal taunting, maybe a little light seduction. Icy stares are fine, but there are only so many ways to play wordless menace and most of them are fucking boring, mate.

Not that I am not still occasionally induced to watch new zombie dramas despite being bored to walking death by zombies. Fast or slow, zombies are tired, honey. (Also? Any Halloween costume a frat boy can make without a girlfriend -- vampire, caveman, zombie -- is not cool. But then frat boys are inherently not cool unless they are in gay porn and even then they are not cool, just hawt, depending on one's investment in wooden paddles, performative reluctance, hypermasculinity, etc.) Now it seems zombies might be cool again. Well, shit.

What's kept zombies current in the culture is guns. Simple. (Guns figure pretty obviously in some of the Bogart and "Beat" Takeshi cool too.) Video games are where zombies come from now. Zombies aren't characters, they are targets. The timeline runs roughly: folklore, evil hypnotists, Val Lewton, Night of the Living Dead, comic books, Max Brooks, then Frank Darabont decides to become Walt Disney (Zombies on Ice! Zombies of the Caribbean!), and -- exhaustion. And somewhere in there, between Ms. Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto, the undead went straight to video, just games this time. Zombies, zombies, zombies, 'cause your mom was not comfortable with you shooting people people. I was far too old for first person shooter games. I still remember playing Pong for about ten minutes when it was the new thing. That's how old. That's how long my interest was held. The idea of roaming through incredible complex digital landscapes interests me not at all as I am already disinclined to wander through actual landscapes. Virtual cities wherein one can neither book shop nor eat? Get back to me when I can browse for rare volumes of Walter Savage Landor and can taste virtual pizza. Add to this carrying a gun around to shoot anything and I am simply not your guy. If I need to carry a gun in order to survive I won't. Seriously, what is this? Texas? No thanks, y'all.

I think we've established though that I am not immune to trending and faddish whatnot, so yeah, I watched the first couple of seasons of The Walking Dead, even after they killed off the reliably shirtless Jon Bernthal and I no longer had a reason to live. Actually, I lasted on and off until two things happened. First, some asshole with a baseball bat beat Glenn to death for no fucking reason and we were meant to watch the whole bloody business no thank you and fuck you ALL VERY MUCH. Then my friend Chuck died and nobody I loved was watching anymore so I couldn't care. Anytime I happened to catch some stray episode from some random redheaded stepchild of the franchise thereafter I had to wonder what we were all on about back in 2010. Watched a bit of the "series finale" (which it wasn't) and frankly it made Dick Wolf's Law and Order retreads sound like Shakespeare. What an airless, empty graveyard of a show it has become. Seriously, last season of Lost  level bad. 

And now a much admired first person shooter game has become a much talked about new television series. Again, not the audience. (Enjoy.) But then, the beloved husband -- who refuses to ever watch anything with so much as a hint of the supernatural or the speculative -- messaged me while I was in Pennsylvania visiting the elderly mother and told me I had to watch episode three of season one of the new HBO show, The Last of Us. What now? If there is anything my darling A. likes less than dragons, it may be zombies. For him to insist that I needed to see this new zombie show was really weird. (I understand that because the arising incident in this thing is some mushroom-mycelium-whatsit rather than straight up dead rising from the grave, one ought not to call said creepers "zombies." The fact that no one in the story calls these things "'shrooms" or "truffle-shufflers" or anything fun tells me... they're just zombies with a more fabulous color palette -- "Zombie, Shiita - kay, you stay.") 

So I did as I was told, like I always do. Okay, maybe not always but often. When I got back from Pennsylvania, I settled in and watched season one episode three of The Last of Us. Have you? If not, do. And don't read this as I will not hesitate hereafter to spoil it for you, try as I might not to, and not for want of enthusiasm. I loved it! I laughed! I cried! I cried a lot. It was maybe the best hour and change of television I've watched this year or in years. I even went back and watched the two preceding episodes which were just fine for what they are. Don't know that I'll ever need to watch the rest, but episode three -- Holy Shit that was GOOD!* 

Basic outline of the show/game is your usual magical child savior who must be protected at all costs because only she can... oh, who cares? The world has ended after the usual fashion, just this time with mushrooms rather than mushroom clouds or Martians. The usual mayhem ensues. And zombies, natch. (If I may be allowed a curmudgeonly moment from the get, is there anything more artistically and or ethically bankrupt than the one wee innocent who must be saved in order to save the world? Stillborn storytelling. Monotheism at it's most reductive. Innocence can't save shit, people. Not its job. Just stop investing in this bullshit. Nobody else needs to admire your damned baby, Mary. And while I'm ranting? The world doesn't have to end for the Fascists to win, people. Think we've proved that more than once now. Don't wait for the apocalypse, go ahead and punch a Nazi now.) 

Anyway, the magic child this time is a really good actor named Bella Ramsey and she teamed up for most of this long zombie road picture with the delicious Pedro Pascal, who is clearly having a moment now what with this and The Mandalorian, SNL, etc. (We know him from Game of Thrones, and Narcos and appearances in old people tv like The Mentalist and The Good Wife. Watch Narcos if you can stand seeing people people seriously mistreated.) Pedro plays the hero here, though I don't think I'm giving anything away by predicting that savior girl is destined to kick ass in her own right someday. Just a guess. I don't care.

The heroes in these adventures are always rough and ready types, violent, macho tops who always have to be humbled and broken to learn or relearn empathy and to love or love again. (You know, kinda like bottoming that first time. Well done, butch! Who was a big brave boy?!)  I don't begrudge them their teachable moments and life-lessons. They're always SO tired you know, after all the murdering. Better late than never I guess. (Is it though?) The sad reality is that a delightful human and very good actor like the beautiful Pedro Pascal, at least in these hero roles, never gets the chance to be silly and fun and charming and all the other sexy stuff he so clearly is in real life because this kind of hero story doesn't have a lot of room for dancing, or jokes, or sex, come to that, at least not the fun kind where people actually enjoy themselves and maybe laugh while naked. Sex in this kind of apocalyptic story, when it isn't actual rape (see Game of Thrones) tends to either the ravenous up-against-the-wall or clear-the-table quickie, or the sort of softcore romantic porn that years ago in the cable-tv-era became a brand on Cinemax, aka Skinamax: soft lighting, heaving male backsides, lingering shots of clasped hands, tracking shots that end in a raised knee or perfect if slightly damp eighties hairdos. Passion! Profiles! Sparkles! Here poor Pedro doesn't get so much as a lingering kiss, bless him. Widower to start I think and just say his luck does not much improve thereafter.

None of that is ultimately the point, at least for this unlikely viewer. We are now pretty much done with the leads here. What is special in episode three is that our heroes are just the frame story. (!) I went online and learned a new term, it seems that this kind of Very Special Episode is now called a "bottle story," meaning a complete narrative within the larger, episodic story. I also learned that this tv story is very different from the original game narrative. In fact, I learned a lot online after watching episode three of The Last of Us, titled "Long, Long Time." In fact, I have now spent more time online watching videos of people watching episode three than I did watching the whole first season of the show. Plot twist! Who saw this coming?!

For my book club I am rereading the first half of one of my favorite novels of all time, the English comic masterpiece, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. It's nearly time for our second of three virtual meetings on this glorious book and what have I been doing every night at bedtime for weeks? Well, yes I have been reading about Becky Sharp, but I have also been watching something called "reactions" or "reaction videos" on YouTube. I have been neglecting -- just a bit -- something I genuinely love, distracted not by life or other art, but by watching people watch television.

Not my first rodeo. I've actually seen this sort of thing before: young black people realizing that The Righteous Brother or Tom Jones could sing like that and be white, other young people hearing Whitney for the first time, or jazz, or their first chamber music. I regularly watch two adorable British twinks watching old horror films for the first time just because the boys are awfully cute and very genuine and savvy about their love of film, even if they've never seen Battleship Potemkin 1925 or Citizen Kane 1941. I watch this kind of thing for the joy, the cheap hits of happy adrenaline, the contact high, as it were.

However I have never before binged this shit like a hayseed with access to a Sackler plant. Clearly I have a problem. First step, right? So how did this happen? Well, episode three of The Last of Us is special, everyone seems to agree, and more than that -- spoiler alert! -- it's really gay.

It seems that in the game the character Bill, played expertly on tv by Nick Offerman, is a straight up survivalist dick (redundant) who happens to be gay and something of a widower when the players meet him. The writer decided to correct and expand this for the HBO show. And so we get the equally brilliant Murray Bartlett as Bill's lover Frank. Really great television ensues. It has not been without it's critics, this new and much elaborated love story. Everybody's a little tired of gay tragedy and dead queers -- me too in principle -- and there's a whole discussion to be had about gender roles and straight interpretations of gay relationships, and even a straight actor playing half of a gay relationship. I get all that. Valid criticism, mostly. I don't necessarily disagree with any of it. I also get how not cool all of that sounds now. I do. That said, I still loved this story and these actors and this exceptional hour of television. I hope everybody gets an Emmy. 

More though and more to the point, I have loved the reactions of all the viewers on YouTube, or nearly all of them. In large part this is to do with what to my mind is a shift in the culture for which I had long hoped but of which I had almost no expectation in my lifetime. I have now watched better than three dozen people watch a love story between two grown men and nearly no one had anything either homophobic or hateful to say. True, a few of the guys complained about such fuzzy, bearded kisses, "so much beard, dude!" Also, a couple of the fellas blushed and looked away from the (very tasteful and brief) love-making scene. That's okay. What was wonderful to see was how happy nearly everyone was to see Bill, a character all the gamers knew already, find real love. Even the folks who were not players of the game and came to the story for the first time, like me on television were obviously glad for the crazy survivalist bastard. 

I was also impressed with the devotion to detail of so many of these reactors; how they noticed consistently the turn of a dinner plate on a charger, appreciated the finer phrases in the dialogue, pointed out improvements in the interior decoration from one time jump to the next. I was shocked to hear one after another of them identify Max Richter's composition, "On the Nature of Daylight" -- at least until one of them mentioned that it's been used in a lot of other movies and shows I've never watched like the movie Arrival 2016 and The Handmaid's Tale that never ends on Hulu. Still. Good eye, good ear. And remember, they record their reactions in real time. One of the pleasures of watching is also seeing them jump to the wrong conclusions with all the enthusiasm of a frog on a hot-plate. Enthusiasm, it's what they do best, bless 'em!

I cannot emphasize enough just how heartening it was to watch a genuine cross-section of people, all races, all genders, in relationships and not, domestic and foreign, united in their nerdiness and devotion to gaming and or this kind of story and this style of storytelling take pause to sincerely enjoy and engage with gay characters, cheer on their love story and cry real tears at the most moving bits. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that watching this made me cry more than the actual episode. Here were these people, not really my people though some were gay, most of them sitting in their special watching chairs, with their Marvel movie posters and comics memorabilia behind them, more than a couple with a wall of boxed Funco Pop** figurines behind them, and in the hour it took to tell this story, these people loved these two gay men, this couple, this story.

That was so fucking cool.

Of course I ended up with favorites. First, all the people who comforted their partners and friends when the story upset them. Obviously, I loved everybody who cried, and the more they cried the more I loved them, but even better were the people who rubbed shoulders or held a hand or got up and got the roll of toilet paper because they couldn't find the Kleenex box. I loved all the young guys who say "bruh" constantly, and to express every shade of emotion. I loved the people who argued with the deviation from the game and then surprised me and usually themselves by saying that this story was "beautiful" which it was, or even "better than the one in the game," for which I will with gratitude have to take their word. I loved all the people, mostly cis men who tried very hard not to cry in front of their friends and found themselves with strange and unlikely itches that needed scratching near the ends of their noses and under their eyes. I loved the young lesbian couple who had to rewind repeatedly for crying so hard and for expressing exactly why this kind of representation on tv and in this genre was so important. I loved the lovely, elfin British lad (do I have a type suddenly?) who wept from the midpoint on and through an accent straight out of Dickens said repeatedly that this episode "'at's the moes b'u'ifull fawkin' fing" he'd ever seen.

As I write there are in the United States roughly 351 separate pieces of anti- LGBTQ+ legislation currently working their way through various State Houses. The Grand Old Minority Party of Political Reaction, (suspicion, hate, racism, greed, etc.) has returned to it's old strategy, well-remembered from my youth, of queer-bashing to appeal to the doddering gray bigots cursing progress as they hurry not nearly fast enough to their graves. The Trumpian circus bankrupted the last plausible claims to civility in the Conservative Movement and revealed it as the know-nothing shit show of fascism, intolerance, and xenophobia it always was. Meanwhile, a whole new generation has come up behind mine, a generation even less interested in religious foolery, sexual repression, granny's suspicion of brown people, and grandpa's fundamental distrust of women. I have great hope, even as I watch the "demon-haunted world" rise up yet again from the pit. I have hope because I have renewed faith in the decency of nerds.

Nerds triumphant might be the watchword of our present cultural. For good and ill their taste in entertainment (save music) has come to be the nation's, if not the world's. (Not mine.) Nerds are the new cool. Obviously we could do worse. (Think Sinatra singing to Nancy Reagan, think Elvis at the White House.) I don't have to like this. Neither do you. Before we know it, if we should live so long, something else will come along. Meanwhile there is this admittedly anecdotal, unscientific review of nerds watching a zombie show and seemingly out of nowhere, restoring my faith in humanity, even as the cruel people seem to go from strength to strength the world over. 

And now (in my head) I'm going to invite my dear friend Takeshi Kitano to pull up a comfy imaginary chair and we'll watch our favorite movie of all time and trust to the new cool. (Now if I could just convince those cute British film fans on YouTube to watch Les Enfants du Paradis! I've left multiple suggestions in the comments but so far nothing. Kids today, am I right?)

*And I did watch the rest eventually and it was... well made.

**Full discloser, I do myself own a Funko Pop figure -- out of the box -- of a Cyberman. Bought it off the discount table at the Funko flagship store in Everett, WA. (Go if you can. Cool joint.) A nerdish friend explained these charming objects to me. "They have big heads and little bodies like human babies. We are hardwired to like them." Absolutely so. Genius.