Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 July 2014

On Gentleness in Critical Thought

My dear friend Cassidy and I recently appeared together on a panel at the ATHE LGBTQ pre-conference in which we were asked to present manifestos. Mine was less of a manifesto (I tend to feel less sure about things the older I get), and more of an attempt to puzzle through some recent debates on the internet about cultural appropriation and cultural stylistics. (I posted it here a week ago or so.)

Cassidy's manifesto was a plea for more critical generosity (a term I've heard rather often in recent days), and what Cassidy specifically argued against was what my friend termed the "call-out culture" of the internet. Cassidy's argument – as I understood it – was that the internet is a place where we hide, where we say things we wouldn't normally say about people we wouldn't normally denigrate, where (because of anonymity) we have the ability to take stands and make pronouncements that we wouldn't normally make. This, Cassidy acknowledged, was both a good thing and a bad thing, but what my friend was hoping for was more conversation, more dialogue between parties who disagreed. Generosity, dialogue, exchange, Cassidy argued, was what queer community was about.

I haven't really experienced much of this "calling out" on the internet. I avoid the comment section of all YouTube videos and most articles I read. These comment sections are invariably filled with angry, incoherent screeds penned hastily and unthinkingly, and I find that very little can be argued in the usually very small number of words in a posted comment. I avoid long rants on facebook, too, and when someone is rude on my wall, I simply block them so that they can't comment on what I post any longer. This is all because (as anyone who is close to me knows) I value politeness a great deal. I think that society, propriety, is really important. We should be nice to one another. We should treat one another with care and avoid being rude at all costs. Nobody likes a jerk, but if I notice someone being publicly rude, I am apt to turn against that person forever. Politeness, to me, is paramount: a way of moving through the world with grace and generosity.

I did, nonetheless, recently get embroiled in a minor spat on the facebooks. (I didn't respond to anything at all, but others spoke – quite rudely and unthinkingly, in fact – about something I had said with which they took issue.) I have been deeply troubled by this impoliteness for the last three days. I know we oughtn't to take such things personally, and I know people can say things hastily and without thinking because of their own feelings and sensitivities, and so I returned in my own thought to critical generosity and the power of dialogue between parties who disagree.

Meanwhile, I've been reading Madhavi Menon's Shakesqueer: a Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a volume that collects 48 different essays by various queer theorists, each of which treats a different text from the Shakespearean canon (and some Shakespearean apocrypha, as well) and tries to excavate queer theory from Shakespeare rather than to bring queer theory to the texts. In a book with nearly fifty essays they are not all going to be great, obviously, but I am a little over a third of the way through now and there are some really great ones. And sure enough, a couple of days ago I ran across an essay by Cary Howie entitled "Stay" that theorizes exactly the kind of critical generosity for which my friend Cassidy was arguing. And Howie uses Henry VI, Part 3 to theorize this, no less!

Howie points to the many times that characters in 3HenryVI ask other characters to "stay", and theorizes that The demand to stay is always, in other words, a demand to stay with someone, to keep someone company, to inhabit a shared time or sense of time. To refuse this demand is to refuse what could be said to be common, a refusal highlighted by Edward's ironic "we": togetherness, the acknowledgment that the first person plural binds us somehow. Howie tells us that requests for patience are often coded in the text as "feminine": (to stay is to acquiesce to the demands of a "wrangling woman").

He further argues that King Henry's own tendency to go off and think by himself is a fundamentally solitary one. It does not solve the problem of the social; it avoids the social altogether. What Howie tells us is that To stay with a text like Henry VI, Part 3 is also, then, to stay with one another, to acknowledge patiently what happens in the middle of things, where we are reading and living, singularly and in common, but also writing and fighting and waiting and dying; where one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most necessary, is to resist the impulse to say what we will or will not become. But the alternative to this is not retreat – not withdrawing into ourselves or our own cliques where we can avoid conference and community.

Howie then asks us: What would a gentle criticism look like? Could it disrupt the violence that so often attends this play's staging of the body in haste? Could it even disrupt [...] the brokenness, the ungentle extremes, of our critical habits, accustomed as we so frequently are to the form and the fantasy of disputation? How can we begin to treat our texts and one another more gently? Henry VI, Part 3 provides us with at least one gesture toward a response. It invites us to stay here. Stay longer. Wait a while. Something or someone may still – may even, and this is the most shocking thing, gently – take us by surprise.

I am thankful to Cassidy (and also to John Fletcher) for thinking through these things, and for putting me on a road to thinking about them myself. The importance of such critical generosity in acrimonious times such as these ought not to be underestimated, particularly within groups we refer to as our own communities.

28 July 2014

Under the Skin

There are spoilers here. Although I am not sure either of us understands the movie any better than you will if you read this. In fact, it might only be of interest to those who have seen Under the Skin. If you haven't yet seen it, you must. It's this year's Upstream Color: fascinating, formally cool, visually stunning, deeply unsettling. This is unmissable.

 ~ ~ ~

Carlos: Under the Skin!
Aaron: Right??
Carlos: So I must preface that I had no intention of seeing it this weekend. But I dropped by wallet in the parking lot of the Vons my friend and I were buying snacks at before Boyhood. So we had to go back and find it and by then we missed Boyhood. But I found my wallet and a redbox. So I was completely emotionally unprepared for Under the Skin.
Aaron: Ok. Good preface.  
Carlos: But I looooved it. Stylistically it reminded me a lot of Drive.
Aaron: I think I was imagining it would be more like Sexy Beast, but, well it was just so out there.
Carlos: I think, occasionally, to its detriment. But I think that's because the soundtrack wasn't as absorbing.
Aaron: Hmmmm. I loved the score.
Carlos: Haunting. To be sure. But those long shots of Black Widow looking at her rear view mirror started to wear on me by the end of it. But that that's about it as far as my complaints.
Aaron: Ooo not me. I have no complaints.
Carlos: I figured you wouldn't. I'm still unpacking it. Because I had a lot of preconceptions about what it was supposed to be and it was none of those things. Which I loved.
Aaron: I spent most of the film thinking what is going on??
Carlos: Yes! I was completely disoriented, but in the best possible way.
Aaron: I got from the very beginning – the opening sequence of spheres – that someone was learning to speak.
Carlos: Yes.
Aaron: And then I understood that the body (ScarJo, I mean) was not from round here. But once she starts seducing men?
Carlos: Was that first body her as well? It was a different girl, yes?
Aaron: Different girl. A failed version? Or perhaps someone who – like many sex workers – has met her end at the hands of a violent male.
Carlos: Maybe. I like that you referred to her as "the body" but I think "husk" is more appropriate.
Aaron: Husk is good.
Carlos: Especially considering the "body" count of the movie. Yes, once she starts seducing men. I loved the hunting sequences. Her point of view moving from man to man. Occasionally woman to woman.

Aaron: Here's a question I'm thinking about: what do the men she seduces see while they begin to wade into the pool? Surely they aren't seeing what we are seeing.
Carlos: Oh my god, I have no idea. Those sequences had me mesmerized.
Aaron: Yeah me too! And there is where the score is really really effective, too.
Carlos: I watched it with two straight guys. And I brought up the question. They had a pretty simple answerIf ScarJo (or a physical equivalent) is undressing in front of you, you will see little else. The other guy nodded, sipped his beer, and said "tunnel vision". And to a certain extent I think they're right.
Aaron: Really? And you wouldn't see that you had begun wading into a pool of some unidentifiable liquid?
Carlos: It's a larger metaphor for something else. Look at how people are hooking up over Craigslist, Grindr, etc. And then you get those horror stories of people getting chopped up instead of hooking up.
Aaron: Oh for heaven's sake! That isn't an answer. I don't think it is a metaphor for anything. But I try to resist metaphorization. Materially: they wade into a pool of liquid. And she does not. And they don't see that. If we don't metaphorize that...

 Carlos: I mean, it's more about how we treat sex now. That for many lonely people desperate for a connection, if something like that – that they've been deprived of – is offered to them, you can lose sight of yourself and your personal safety.
Aaron: Totally. Totally. But that isn't a metaphor. That is literally what happens. That is the plot. 
Carlos: Right. But the imagery is not what happens in real life.
Aaron: Haha! That's what I'm asking about. That was what I was thinking about during those sequences.
Carlos: Oh when I say real life, I'm talking about our real life. I think it's non-explained away with alien magic, honestly.
Aaron: Yes. I think you are right.
Carlos: Alien magic or hook up culture?
Aaron: Alien magic. Well, alien technology.
Carlos: Same thing.
Aaron: It is definitely about our hook up culture in a lot of ways. But also so much about loneliness, right? So much.
Carlos: Oh my god, yes. About connection.
Aaron: The man with Neurofibromatosis really illustrates this.
Carlos: Yeah. I actually read a really great interview with him a few months ago, saying how the filming of this movie really changed his life.
Aaron: And then she -- as it turns out -- also has a body that is different.
Carlos: That, like every other scene in this movie, was heartbreaking.
Aaron: She cannot physically connect with the man she wants to love. Oh my god, yes. And what is amazing is that by that time I understood what was happening, so I wasn't spending that sequence attempting to figure anything out.
Carlos: Yeah. Before she even looked with the lamp?
Aaron: Right. Yes.

Carlos: It's interesting, too, that whatever happens under the black pool, quite literally, turns the men into chunks of meat.
Aaron: I like your meat metaphor because it is sort of like a factory. The way a factory might process chicken or beef. They are eviscerated, yes?
Carlos: Well, I'm pretty sure it's worse than that. Getting all your innards sucked out after your body goes liquid soft seems worse than being sliced up.
Aaron: Isn't that what evisceration means? I need to look up my torture terminology. Clearly.
Carlos: I guess it is. I've been using it incorrectly. Eviscerate is a big catch all murder term.
Aaron: I loved that sequence with Paul Brannigan from The Angel's Share. When he touches the other body under the liquid. The point of view changes so much. And I didn't mind at all.
Carlos: Oh yes. He was very good and that whole image was the worst.
Aaron: He's so good!

Carlos: Can we talk about the motorcycle man/men?
Aaron: I was just gonna ask about him.
Carlos: This is the biggest question I have. Who is he? Is he another Husk? Is she responsible for feeding them? Because he seems to be angry with her whenever she gets out of line.
Aaron: I thought not but perhaps so. I think there's only one.
Carlos: But there were like 4-5 bike men?
Aaron: I don't mean that I think there's only one. She only has one. The other bike men in that scene I assume have their own husks for whom they're responsible.
Carlos: I kept calling him her "cleaner."
Aaron: Yes. That makes sense. He does that.
Carlos: That's what I figured. But shit was hitting the fan, and he needed help. I feel like I need to see it again. So much work was done in the tiniest of actions.
Aaron: He is part of the same machine she is, I think.
Carlos: I do too. I think he's a husk.
Aaron: Most definitely a husk then.
Carlos: But he just has a different role.
Aaron: But perhaps one who knows more than she. Yeah you are certainly right. Husk.
Carlos: Well, think about it. Remember that scene where she looks herself over in the mirror? I didn't realize it at the time, but she was looking for cracks in her façade.
Aaron: In act three? Oh yes!
Carlos: Later, after men stopped being brought in, Cleaner did that too.
Aaron: He did??
Carlos: Yep. Very briefly. So it stands to reason that if they do not consume these men, their masks slip away.
Aaron: Oh wow. Which is what happens at the end.
Carlos: Yeah. Oh man, that was hard to watch. So beautiful and tragic. I mean, the act was not beautiful, but the way it was composed was.

Aaron: But that's not... Wait. Their only purpose in consuming these bodies cannot be to sustain their own lives, surely.
Carlos: It didn't seem to be a pleasure for her.
Aaron: No, not at all, but I'm saying that they need those bodies, or their eviscera, for a purpose other than their own personal maintenance. They are required to do this. For some other purpose.
Carlos: Are they, though? It read to me as a food-as-fuel situation.
Aaron: Well yes, I mean somebody made them. Their maintenance might be linked to this but it isn't the only purpose.
Carlos: Did someone?
Aaron: A machine fashions her body and teaches her how to speak. She has just been born when we meet her.
Carlos: She has been born, but we didn't see anything beyond a black dot becoming an eye. To me, I was reading all of this as purely survival functions. There didn't seem to be any higher purpose to it. Which goes back to the men as well, and the question of what they see.
Aaron: Only survival, huh?
Carlos: Because for them, sex with this woman, or rather connection with this woman (any woman it seems, really) is necessary for survival.
Aaron: That makes it all so much more depressing, Carlos.
Carlos: And it goes back to that hook-up-culture bit, earlier. We hurl our bodies into each other because we long to find that correct fit, whether it exists or not, with little care for our greater well being. It's that tunnel vision. I thought it was a pretty depressing movie.
Aaron: I find it hard to be depressed when I am so excited about the film itself.
Carlos: I can be both.
Aaron: I was really energized and happy during the whole film because I found the form so fascinating.
Carlos: Maybe depressing is the wrong word. Bleak. It was bleak.
Aaron: I was moved but not depressed at all. It is a very sad film. Bleak yes.
Carlos: Yes. Let's go with that.
Aaron: But it is so exquisitely made that it left no residue of its own bleakness with me.
Carlos: Maybe you're just not on Scruff enough to really feel it.
Aaron: That seems possible. Touché. Well I also have made peace with my own loneliness to a large extent.

Carlos: Let's keep talking about this sustenance vs. higher purpose. Because aside from the birth, I'm wondering what other clues might have hinted at something larger for you?
Aaron: It is the machine itself that signals that. Something gives her a purpose. Information that she is supposed to do something. Something manufactures that house, the pool, the technology that eviscerates. Even the technology that transforms the eviscera into a substance usable for food or something else. What makes the husk itself?
Carlos: Because the way I saw it, she sort of moved in reverse in terms of her sexual evolution. When we're young we're taught that you must have a connection in order for sex to mean something, and as we age we learn that sometimes you just need to get your rocks off to make it to tomorrow. But the husk's evolution was in reverse. She used the hollow sex as a means to survive but discovered that without the connection that there is no meaning in what she is doing.
Aaron: I don't think she learned anything like that. Sex was a kind of utility initially; she has sex (or rather seduces men) because it is necessary. And then there is the possibility of connection with someone else, a sexual connection, and she opts for that. She didn't see that there might be something else, something redeemable in a man. And so what she learns is a kind of humanity. She sees them as something other than murderers, rapists, etc.

Carlos: But at that point, she has stayed with the man a couple days, right?
Aaron: No. First the man with Neurofibromatosis. Him first, and then the man who tries to help.
Carlos: And she lets him go.
Aaron: Right. For me that is her learning something human. Something about care or connection or, oh I don't know, generosity.
Carlos: So that begs the question, are they sort of a hive mind? Did she call the Cleaner? If the Cleaner knew about that guy, how could he not easily find her? Because as soon as he was let go, the Cleaner knew exactly where to go to take care of it.
Aaron: He couldn't find her when she started running. Before that, he is tailing her in some way. I think.
Carlos: But that's what I'm asking. How did he find that guy in such a specific place? And then was not able to find her?

Aaron: You mean that guy's home?
Carlos: Yes.
Aaron: He must've had his ID from his clothes.
Carlos: Ahhh. Okay. Makes sense.
Aaron: I don't think they have a hive mind.
Carlos: Unless it's based on proximity. Because there were a couple times where he just showed up. But she could have called or texted off screen.

Definitely this guy.
Aaron: So I still think -- and maybe it is because it makes it less depressing -- that there is something alien and larger that uses these men's eviscera for something other than the maintenance of the Cleaner and the husk.
Carlos: Some Eldritch horror, no doubt. Swimming with tentacles and eyes.
Aaron: Or something more like what we could call technology. A computer.
Carlos: I'll stick with Yog Sothoth, thank you.

Aaron: Hahahha. What is so fascinating to me is the way the film frames these men's lives as disposable.
Carlos: I loved that.
Aaron: They are a fungible quantity but even more than that a disposable fungible quantity. It is devastating to imagine. Because they really are that and not through any machine or biopolitical power (I mean, healthcare or employment or anything). They are disposable because they are alone and lonely and have no one in their lives who loves them. So this disposable quality is affectively produced.
Carlos: You said this film wasn't depressing... But that line was about the most depressing fucking thing you could have said.
Aaron: Yes. I see what you mean.

25 July 2014

In Search of a Culture That Isn't Appropriate/d

A few weeks ago an essay called “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture” appeared on the website of Time magazine and went viral.1 The sentiment has caused some angry (and some epically stupid) responses from a variety of sectors.2 I want to try tonight to think through some of this stickiness about cultural appropriation. Before I do that, I want to note that it would be impossible for anyone to respond to the entire stream of nonsense that passes for knowledge or cultural critique on the internet, still less possible to respond to it in a knowledgeable or sensitive way. Although let me just say that recently the performance artist Ann Coulter wrote a bizarre, nationalist anti-World-Cup column in which she said that “what sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs” and I did want to comment on the absurdity of this.3 I don’t have anything to say about souls, but as anyone who has spent any time reading Georges Bataille – or anyone who has eroticized feet as much as I have – knows, what separates us greater beasts from the lesser beasts is the big toe.4 Apes simply don’t have them: in fact, they have more opposable thumbs than we do. In any case, football uses the big toe liberally, and Ann Coulter ought to read more Bataille.

So: cultural appropriation. Two stories. When I was small, nine or ten years old perhaps, I learned that my parents, who are both white people, were concerned that I was spending too much time with my older sister LaTonya, who is black, and that I had started acting “too black”. LaTonya – who hilariously used to call herself The Root, a nickname she invented – told me that my parents thought that I was acting blacker than she was and that she needed to calm down her influence on me. I, of course, had no idea that I was doing anything, that I was performing a particular style of any kind or, indeed, that that my parents would racialize that performance. I was a kid. And I thought my big sister was the cleverest, coolest, most hilarious person in the world. What I think fascinating about this moment in my life is that, although my mother doesn’t remember it this way, I am positive that what my parents saw in me and what they perceived as threatening was neither blackness nor femininity per se but what blackness and femininity meant to them. For my parents, my performance of what they perceived to be a combination of blackness and femininity meant that I was going to grow into a gay teen who would later become a gay adult. (They were mostly wrong about the teen part, I guess, and mostly right about the adult part.) But was I being black? Was I being gay? Was I being feminine? Female? Queer? I know I was not thinking about gay culture at all, because I didn’t know a thing about it, and spent the majority of my time reading the story of Esther and Haman in the Old Testament. In any case, I hesitate to answer yes to any of those questions, mostly because I was a child and I can’t remember very well what I thought I was doing or what I wanted to be. All I remember is that one of the disciplinary systems in my life named my nine-year-old style as “too black”, and that, 25 years later, I now perceive this naming as racialized code for “too gay”.

Second story. Two years ago at my institution a straight white woman directed a production of Angels in America Part One and I sort of hated it.5 I was really frustrated by what I perceived as “straight boys up on stage going through their gay paces”. So I blogged about it. “They're up there on the stage playing gay characters,” I complained, “which is (I am sure they think) very admirable and brave and all, but the more I watched the more wrong the whole thing felt.” I further complained – and I am going to keep quoting here – “This isn’t theirs, I thought. […] They don’t understand it because it isn’t for them, or rather, it isn’t about them. This is not theirs.” Still quoting: “The implication here is, of course, that Angels in America is somehow mine, and […] the more I think about it, the more true I think that is6 – as laughable as that sounds.”7 My friend Brian Herrera’s response to this post was “Are you becoming something of a cultural separatist in your post-PhD years?”. I didn’t take Brian’s bait then, so I’m taking it now, and I (re)tell this story mainly because I sympathize with the feeling (apparently in the exact same words as the author of the Time piece) that I am a part of a culture and I don’t like when that culture is represented in what I perceive as a hollowed-out way.

But now two more thoughts about this: It seems to me that in the two stories I’m sharing from my life, one is about style and the other is about a specific cultural object. (Both stories are, of course, about performance.) It isn’t that I think co-opting a style is any more or less pernicious than co-opting a cultural object, but I think the two things are different. Ought we to call twerking a cultural object or a cultural style? Is a reference to Come Back, Little Sheba or Mommie Dearest an object or a style? Is my way of saying “Ain’t that some shit” an object or a style? I will agree that if I perform any of these things – to twerk, to reference Come Back, Little Sheba – I locate myself within what we might call culture, but I am not sure with what culture I necessarily identify as I perform each of these. I do know that I didn’t invent any of them any more than Ann Coulter invented the opposable thumb. If I use any of these gestures I place myself within something that existed before I came along. And not just that! I might give a word or a gesture a flair I would call my own, but I also know that I can never fully possess a gesture or a word. If it is mine, it is so only for the briefest of instances, before others start reading into it and onto me – like my parents read blackness/gayness/femininity, where I thought I was just being me.

My final thought has to do with the way “culture” is made. I’ve been reading a lot about early twentieth-century black Communism these days, and one of the debates among the poets of the 1930s and ’40s is what “authentic” black culture looked like. The differences between the work of Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes illustrate this beautifully. For Brown, southern, rural black culture was the “real” black culture – the folk. Northern urban culture was a culture co-opted by white people, corrupted by capital, stultified by industry. Some scholars have argued that Brown’s poetry dealing with “the folk” is just as inauthentic as urban jazz, and they are probably right. But more importantly, what I hear in the work of Sterling Brown – and I don’t hear in the current discussions of black female culture vs. white gay male culture, is a desire to escape mass culture. I find Brown’s poetry beautiful, and if he failed to access an “authentic blackness”, he was attempting, nonetheless, to move away from the cultural forms that he felt were being forced upon him by the producers of mass culture. Brown understood that there is no authenticity in mass cultural forms, and so he tried to get back to something authentic.

Now, it is possible that there is no authentic culture anywhere, and – as some have argued – that all cultural forms are examples of hybridity and the encounter with an other. But here’s what I think I know: Beyoncé and Orange Is the New Black and Scandal and Frank Ocean and even RuPaul’s Drag Race are products of USAmerican mass culture. And we may enjoy any and all of those cultural products, but none of them is ours, none of them is oppositional, and for any of us to lay claim to any of them means that we have begun to buy into the delusion that mass culture is a culture that we produced ourselves, and that those cultural products express us when, as we ought to know by now, mass culture is chiefly disciplinary; it doesn’t express a style of our own, it tells us how we ought to style ourselves.

This essay first performed as a part of ATHE's LGBTQ preconference 2014.
1. or, How to Pretend You’ve Invented the Opposable Thumb with a Straight Face
2. Sierra Mannie.
For epically stupid, see Steve Freiss. See also: Ali Barthwell, Anthony Michael D’Agostino, Daniel D’Addario,
Madison Alexander Moore.
3. Ann Coulter.
4. Georges Bataille, “The Big Toe,” trans. Allan Stoekl, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, (University of Minnesota Press, 1985).
5. Said in the manner of David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans from In Living Color. And if you don’t know what this is, educate yourself here.
6. Impossible to say without giggling.
7. Aaron C. Thomas.

21 July 2014

The Dawns Here Are Quiet

I am staying on the campus of Sweet Briar College for the next week or so, and I am in staying in the house of a guy who studies Russian literature and culture – at least it would appear so from the large number of books on Kazakhstan and Russia that are in the house.

There is also a large collection of DVDs here, a decidedly odd collection, in fact – two seasons of Dark Angel, Lucky Number Slevin, The Lives of Others, Donnie Darko, 28 Days Later, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events – it is very strange. But there are a lot of great Russian films on DVD here too. He has Mongol and Prisoner of the Mountains, and an unopened copy of Dersu Uzala and one of Mikhail Kalatozov's Letter Never Sent, and a whole bunch of others, some of which I can't identify because I read Cyrillic poorly.

But, I found a copy of The Dawns Here are Quiet and I watched it last night. It's not available via Netflix, so I was really excited to find this 3-hour film here, and wonder of wonders, it's great.

The Dawns starts off as a comedy, a silly little film about women soldiers moving into a small provincial district of the Soviet Union (near Finland, I gathered) in World War II. Also, I had seen the beginning of this film – something like the first 10 minutes – and I was really confused when I started it. Not sure where or when I saw these first 10 minutes, but I'm sure I had. In any case, the movie moves from being a comedy into being a poignant standoff films of soldiers in the middle of the forest fighting Nazis. Great stuff, and quite suspenseful. I pretty much loved it.

This film isn't on DVD, so I can't actually recommend it to anyone, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts on it. I watched a couple of old Soviet films last year at Dartmouth, and hopefully I'll be able to raid their film library a bit more this coming year.

16 July 2014

Planet of the Apes. Now with Even More Apes!

I will confess that I am having trouble keeping the titles of these Planet of the Apes movies clear in my head. The new one is called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the last one was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but look: not much of this matters, because this series is actually well done. What you need to know is that this is Apes 2 and it is good.

Andy? Are you in there?
Perhaps most remarkable of all, this new Apes does without an A-list star. Andy Serkis, the actor whose face one never sees in anything, gets top billing in Dawn and he deserves it. The other actors are Gary Oldman (the only remotely famous performer), Jason Clarke (who was in Zero Dark Thirty and Gatsby), Keri Russell (Dawn's director was also a director on Felicity back in those days), Kirk Acevedo (who was so good on Oz back in those same days), and little Kodi Smit-McPhee (the kid from The Road is now 18).

But Apes has great characters. I find myself absolutely loving the main chimp, Caesar, and I am totally invested in all of his struggles and abilities. It is to the film's credit that scenes with Caesar and his mate or Caesar and his son are taken completely seriously and are also seriously compelling. I am always interested in what Caesar will decide to do, how he will handle his son's rebellion, how he will deal with the other apes in his clan, etc. These things are fascinating – and not just because he is a talking chimpanzee, but because this "animal" is a person, a character struggling with ethical dilemmas and important decisions about the lives of the other persons around him. And he is just so cool.

The other thing that is awesome about this is how stunning visually it is. Dawn is filled with surprising images: the chimpanzees riding horses on the poster are the least of it. Because we are dealing with apes, this is an action movie that is able to move off of the ground in ways that many action movies (even ones with flying robot suits) cannot even manage. It is a movie where the perspective of the fights, attack sequences, and camera angles has literally been rethought from the ground up. This is almost always intriguing.

There are missteps, too, of course: Jason Clarke is not very compelling as the main human character – he's simply neither dynamic nor striking as an actor. (The folks I was with got a little miffed at me when I called him the poor man's Josh Lucas, but it's true.) And really almost all of the interactions between the humans are uninteresting. When the film veered off into their plotline all I could think was let's get back to the apes. (It wasn't as bad as the human storylines in Godzilla, but you know what I mean.) I also sort of found the apes' English grammar inconsistent and therefore annoying. (I don't want to belabor the point because it is not very interesting, but there is literally no reason for any of the apes ever to use the first or second person, yet they do about 40% of the time, and when they did I was annoyed.) The film's third act is also way too long and too slow, even though it packs in quite a bit.

More importantly, this is also a thinking-man's action movie. It is a film that really deals with ethical questions – xenophobia, violence, nationalism, and civilization in particular. And I want to spend a little time thinking about the film's perspective on these right now. See, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about nationalism and the value of identity. The film asks the questions: Is it more important to be true to the group with whom you have a genetic identity or to be open to the possibilities of coalition across genetic and other differences? Ought there to be an ultimate prohibition on murder? Or perhaps simply a prohibition on murder within one's chosen identity group? When does war become acceptable? What makes a being in the world worthy of personhood? Who grants or ought to grant this personhood?

Don't read any further if you don't want some of the plot spoiled for you.

What is fascinating about Dawn to me is the stance it takes on this question of the prohibition on murder. Throughout the film, the apes live by the rule Ape not kill ape. Koba, of course, does attempt to murder Caesar, and Koba also kills Rocket's son, Ash. So perhaps all bets are off, but Caesar does still hold to the prohibition on murder for his own ethics. (There is no prohibition against killing humans or other creatures who are not apes, bears, elk, etc.) So when, at the end of the movie, when we have all collectively decided that it is too dangerous a risk for Koba to continue to live, Koba reminds Caesar that ape not kill ape. Yet Caesar will kill Koba, and his justification is (and this is what troubles me) that Koba is no longer an ape. What I find so difficult about this is that this is the kind of racist justification for murder that everyone else uses, as well. It has been much easier, historically, for us to kill those who are not part of our perceived identity group, and many, many violence theorists have noted the ease with which we remove those outside of our own identity group from the very category of the human.

So, what Caesar does when he kills Koba is performatively remove Koba from the category of "ape" so that he can kill him. Koba is no longer an ape because Caesar wishes to kill him, and Koba can be killed because he is no longer an ape. But he is only able to be killed because Caesar is willing to kill him. If Caesar wished for him to live, Koba would still be an ape. Would it be possible for Koba to cease being an ape but still be allowed to live? I daresay such a thing is possible, but the two things go together in Caesar's new society – Koba is juridically removed from the category of ape and this coincides with his murder.

For the most part, the humans, we should note, are no better. Gary Oldman's character would kill the apes simply because they are not humans and he would rather humans live than apes live. What I think is so fascinating here is the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes so colorable the ways that violence is justified through the simple exclusion of a person from the identity category in which he or she was initially included. Ape not kill ape. But who is allowed to be an ape? And who does the allowing? For that matter: Who is allowed to be included in the category of human? And who decides this?

If Koba is able to be removed from the category of ape it is because he has, in fact, been tortured by humans. He has lost his ape-ness (simianity? oh, let's just say his humanity) because of the behavior of the humans who enacted repeated violence on both his body and his psyche. It is not Koba's fault if he is no longer an ape. Koba's tragedy is that he never even had a chance to be an ape.

The film hasn't thought these things through completely, but I think this is perhaps ok. Dawn asks more questions than it can answer, and this is not a problem at all. Meditations on xenophobia and jingoism, even when coupled with an action-movie plot and computer-generated chimpanzees, are still valuable when done thoughtfully and intelligently. In short, this is a big-budget Hollywood picture worth seeing. And Caesar is as compelling an action-movie hero as you will find at the cineplex this summer.