Over the weekend, I watched the original Tim Burton Batman. As a film, it still works pretty well. But while watching it, I couldn’t get past just how fascist the whole thing was. This is true of all superhero films to some extent. But it is unrelenting here. Normal functioning of the society just doesn’t exist. So we are expected to wait around for our Übermensch to come and save us. And the film ends with the city installing a special light where it can call Batman if things go badly, which of course they will, because things are just as bad as they ever were except that the Joker’s gang is now gone.
There is an irony there too. Batman was responsible for making the Joker. That’s what made the city get so much worse. If he had never existed, then Gotham City would have remained like Chicago in 1920s. Instead, it was turned into a place where you couldn’t even wear makeup. Speaking of which, the Joker’s poisoning of products is perhaps the worst aspect of the fascism implicit in the film. All the police and scientists and hobbyists in the town could not figure it out, but Batman — in his spare time between being a rich playboy and frightening local hoodlums — manages to figure out the key. So it isn’t just that the government is corrupt — all the people are stupid too.
That brings us to Vicki Vale. She first appeared in the comics in 1948. But this film was made in 1989 — well into the women’s liberation movement. Yet the character was more liberated in 1948. Here she is a great career woman — in reputation only. She takes a couple of photos toward the beginning of the film, but mostly she just throws herself at Bruce Wayne. And then, she’s used as a prop for the Joker to lead around. Other than jumping out of the way of some acid, she does nothing but wait around for Batman to save her.
Other than the fact that Bruce Wayne is rich, it isn’t clear what’s so attractive about him (not that that isn’t enough). But especially after she finds out that he is Batman, she ought to run away. And that’s true of the city too. Batman is a deeply disturbed person. He might be fighting the Joker today, but he is very likely to be poisoning the city tomorrow. He generally seems more interested in saving Vicki Vale than the city itself. In fact, there is an interesting scene that starts the film where a family is robbed at gun point. Batman eventually shows up to abuse the robbers, but doesn’t help the family at all.
There are ways to tell stories of collective action. But as a society, we are stuck in Roman times. It’s all about the hero archetype. And that is a fundamentally fascist idea. We need to get past that. There is no one hero who is going to save us. And if there were, we should be worried about it. Because we wouldn’t be in control. And then it really doesn’t matter if it is Batman or the Joker who is our Übermensch. He creates his own moral universe — one that we don’t want to live in.
I wish I were exaggerating here even a little but I am not. CNN dedicated an entire six and a half minutes to covering, in a tenor of total seriousness and extreme gravity, what they said was an ISIS flag being waved at a gay pride parade, when in fact it was readily and painfully obvious that the “ISIS flag” was in fact a joke flag covered with images of dildos and butt plugs.
“An unnerving sight today at a London gay pride celebration: an ISIS flag among a sea of rainbow colors,” CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux announced. The word “unnerving” made several other appearances in the very long segment about a flag of dildos and butt plugs.
The segment went on to analyze the photo of the flag in great depth, zooming in especially on the man waving it. A London-based CNN reporter who called in — yes, there were multiple reporters on this, no one covers breaking news like CNN — pointed out with concern, “This man, quite distinctive from the rest of the crowd, he was dressed in black and white.”
CNN’s Most Embarrassing Flub Ever?
Here in the Bay Area, there are certain people — almost entirely men — who have a really bad attitude this entire Pride weekend each year. They are of the “why do they have to flaunt it” types. On the plus side, things really are better. Twenty years ago, two men holding hands would have been considered “flaunting it.” Today, I’m not sure what makes the cut — but it is a higher standard. It’s still sad that LGBT couples doing in public what octogenarian heterosexual couples do is still considered something that must be stopped. But I am glad to say that progress does continue to be made. And it continues to be made because the LGBT community has the bravery to “flaunt it.”
After the legalization of same sex marriage this last week, one response I’ve heard it, “I wonder what they’ll ask for next?” Because it’s always something, am I right?! It’s funny how asking for equality is framed by opponents as something special that is being asked for — as though same sex marriage is equivalent to asking to not have to pay taxes. But I try to avoid getting into arguments of these types. The people who say things like this are not open to rational debate. Their complaints are based on the most primal of fear and hatred.
But there is an obvious response: there is no “next.” The LGBT community is asking for equitable and humane treatment. Same sex marriage was just a small part of that. It wasn’t even the end of institutional homophobia. As of late last year, you could still be fired for being LGBT in 29 states! I’m proud to say that in the three states I’ve called home (and still feel at home in) — California, Oregon, and Washington — you cannot be fired for being LGBT. You can still be fired in “liberal” New York for being transgender. So I guess that “those gays” won’t be satisfied until they have equal rights to work in Texas; what moochers!
There is, of course, the issue of getting beaten, raped, and murdered because you happen to be LGBT. And I like to think that most of the people in the Bay Area who bristle over San Francisco Pride do not think that this kind of thing is okay. But what these people who don’t want homosexuality “flaunted” need to understand is that all of these issues are related. Same sex marriage is about equality, but it is also about making homosexuality no big deal. When sexuality and gender identity become just another of the endless idiosyncrasies of humanity, it will stop bothering people.
Above all, what boggles my mind is that people don’t see that the problem is reversed. The problem isn’t with the LGBT community, but with those who are offended by it. It has never moved an argument forward for me, but I have asked many people, “Why do you care?” In the past, I have heard responses about pseudo-scientific reasons such are scarring children. People are less and less likely to use these excuses. Now they usually respond, “I don’t. It’s just…” It’s just what? They aren’t too clear on that, but I know what they want to say, “It’s just that they creep me out.” Or: “It’s just that I don’t like it.” And all that means is that it is all about the anti-LGBT people. It’s just that they don’t understand that.
If you ask Tyler Cowen, Scandinavians just have the right stuff! He approvingly quoted a new Nima Sanandaji book where he claims that the Scandinavian countries don’t have more equitable societies because of their redistributive systems but rather because Scandinavians are just better. And we know this because, “Median incomes of Scandinavian descendants are 20 per cent higher than average US incomes.” This isn’t about race but rather “cultural norms.” This is almost too delicious. I should not be allowed such cake to masticate!
Here’s the thing: of course it isn’t about race. It couldn’t be about race because race is a myth. But even among those who still believe in race, nothing can be about race because everyone (except for the proud bigots) knows that you just don’t talk about racial differences. So this is how people who want to make these kinds of anti-egalitarian, classist arguments talk about it. Sanandaji is Swedish, but it hardly matters. Paul Ryan is American and he talks about the “dependency culture.” But the meaning is the same. The point is that words become offensive because the the ideas that they represent. For example, we know that the “poll tax” was racist, so people don’t use the term today, even though they are using the same kinds of tactics today.
It’s clear enough today that phrases like “cultural norms” and “dependency culture” are racist. But it isn’t clear to most people. In 20 or 40 or 100 years, people will see it very clearly for what it is. And this isn’t to say that Cowen and Sanandaji think of themselves as racists. They may not even be — at least directly. They seem like men who are ideologues who want to push a particular economic system that just so happens to be good for them and their allies. But roughly the same can be said for a lot of 19th century slave owners: it wasn’t about racism; it was about profits.
Over time, I’m sure that science will show that all this business about “cultural norms” will be seen as working in exactly the opposite direction. Matt Bruenig thinks this, Institutions Matter Except When They Are Socialist. He noted that Scandinavia has a long tradition of egalitarianism. So those societies have set up economic and political systems that facilitate this. I assume he means to imply that the 20% advantage is just the result of the Scandinavian ancestors being lucky in the sense that they are white in a white-controlled racist society. I wish he had been explicit in that regard.
But the main thing is conservatives like Cowen have this neat trick. They start with a racist society — one that has done everything it can to keep down African Americans especially. Then they rush off and find people who came from countries that are heavily represented in the power elite. And then they conclude that the American economic system must just be treating everyone the way they ought to be treated: according to their “cultural norms.” Whether it is because of explicit racism or the desire to acquire as much money as they can, the result is the same: unjustified inequality.
I’m very fond of the Fred Neil song “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which I know, of course, from the Harry Nilsson version. I like the music of it, but most of all, I like the refrain, “Skipping over the ocean like a stone.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a line that so perfectly sums up having a carefree attitude while heading into doom. I’ve felt that way many times in my life — except without the carefree part.
The song, of course, became a hit because it was used in the film Midnight Cowboy. That’s still quite a watchable film. “Everybody’s Talkin'” is used at the beginning of the film, because it sounds so carefree. I guess that the rock doesn’t know that it is doomed; certainly Joe Buck doesn’t. The song is not used at the heartbreakingly beautiful ending, because the stone is no longer skipping.
[Editor’s Note: This is a rerun of last year’s Anniversary Post on Ray Harryhausen. I just can’t find anything I’m really interested in writing about. Also, I’m just not willing to put in the effort to learn about things like the first privateer battle of the American Revolutionary War. But since writing this article, I learned that Harryhausen spent the rest of his life complaining that Godzilla had ripped off The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Two things about that. First, maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t; but get over it, man! Second, Godzilla was a better film. Still, I love Harryhausen!]
On this day in 1920, the great, great, great special effects artist Ray Harryhausen was born. He is best remembered for his films Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. His work holds up surprisingly well in this world of computer animation where literally anything can be done. Something to note about his films is that the look of them is not dictated by his special effects. That is a common complaint of mine about many more modern special effects.
Harryhausen was originally inspired by the work of Willis O’Brien on the movie King Kong. And he even managed to meet O’Brien when he was fairly young. After working at the bottom rungs of the film industry—notably under Frank Capra during World War II—he eventually worked as assistant animator under O’Brien for the film, Mighty Joe Young, where Harryhausen ended up doing most of the actual animation while O’Brien worked on the more fundamental technical problems. I suspect this was how things usually worked.
Within four years, Harryhausen got to be in charge of his own film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms—basically a Godzilla film, although the connection goes the other way since Godzilla didn’t appear for another year, and the original screenplay title was “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” By 1958, Harryhausen brought the process to color films with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He continued this on with other notable films like Jason and the Argonauts in 1963 through to his last film in 1981, Clash of the Titans. In 2010, Clash of the Titans was remade just to prove that more advanced technology doesn’t lead to better films.
Here is a short Turner Classic Movies tribute to Harryhausen:
Happy birthday Ray Harryhausen!