Just One More

This is going to be another brief and sappy post. Brace yourselves.

In almost exactly a month, I’m leaving Edinburgh.  I’m going back to America, back home, to my parents, my family, some remarkable friends, my state, my nation.  I’m looking forward to it, seeing people I haven’t seen, seeing a country I’ve been away from for a year, hearing American voices, eating chili dogs.  Hell, I even miss high fructose corn syrup.

Last week, I had a mini freakout.  Edinburgh suddenly felt ridiculous.  The tourists are impossible for a city of this size.  The road works are confusing.  The preparations for the festival seem to be put there specifically to make life difficult for anyone trying to live in this town.  It’s still cold at the end of July; the sun only makes sporadic appearances.  The pubs close too early.  I hated Edinburgh.  Good riddance that I’m leaving, I thought.  To hell with it.

Which is not true, of course.  I don’t hate Edinburgh.  I’m not in love with it, like some of my friends are, but I don’t hate it.  I’ve enjoyed living here, all things considered.  I like the pubs and the wandering narrow streets, the weird directions, the gothic buildings.  I love the strange otherworldliness of Old Town and the clean Georgian elegance of New Town.  I even kind of love the crowds, which aren’t so bad once you get off the Royal Mile.  I’m ready to leave the city, but I actually think I’ll miss it.

But the worst part is the part that I really don’t want to deal with, or think about.  It’s the people.  I will miss the people.  I’ll miss getting a phone call at 9:30 with those fatal words ‘let’s just go out for one’.  I’ll miss the blow-out parties at Lindsay’s flat.  I’ll miss lying in the Meadows on those rare sunny days.  I’ll miss the coffees we’ve drunk.  I’ll miss the drunkenness and the sobriety.  I’ll miss the faces of people I know so well.  I’ll miss going to the Vue on Saturdays, and getting drunk on Tuesday afternoon (or Wednesday or Thursday for that matter).  I’ll miss sitting down in a pub and the smiles when someone says ‘I wrote a thousand words today!’ I’ll miss the stories.

I’ve left places before.  I’ve left friends before.  Clinton, St. Andrews, New York and now Edinburgh.  People scattered across the world in random nations, states, provinces.  Keeping in touch by facebook.  Hearing about friends getting married, or losing loves, or getting a job, a home, another life.  I’ve managed to stay in contact with a lot of people, and I plan on seeing them all again.  But it’s never the same.  Not because people change too much.  Hell, I’ve got friends I’ve known since middle school and, despite growing up, we’re still friends.  But it’s never the same because something has always ended.  A year at graduate school, at college, at high school.  We grow up and stay close, but the experience cannot be repeated.

All of the philosophical stuff comes out at times like this.  Life is ephemeral.  We only have the moments as they happen and then they are gone.  We should not try to hang on to them too tightly, for we will only live in the past.  All I can think right now, though, is that a good friend is about to leave to go home.  She’s not the first to leave; she won’t be the last.  Toasts will be drunk and promises made and, eventually, kept.  It’s not the end; it’s merely another step along the road.  That doesn’t make it any easier.

Let’s go for just one more.

Gentlemen, You Refuse to Understand Us

Every year on the 4th of July, I sit down and watch 1776, a musical (!) about the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  It never fails to make me feel good about my nation.  But this year was the first that I actually felt affected by it.  Perhaps this is because I have spent almost year out of America, the longest I have ever been away from home.  I’m used to spending 3-6 months at a time away from home, and have been since I first started attending college at St. Andrews when I was eighteen years old.  But a whole year outside the nation of my birth, and the nation that I still feel a deep and abiding connection to, definitely has affected me.  So on the 4th, watching 1776 had a peculiar resonance with me.

It wasn’t, amazingly enough, about the actual object of the Revolution.  It was about what it means to be an American.  I found myself focusing not on what the characters of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were saying, but on what their opposition said.  Not that I agree in any way with the opposition, rather that I began to consider what it means to be an American, in all our eccentricities, our values, and our contradictions.  For our nation was born out of contrast and contradiction, a dedication to tradition given us by our British forebears, and a hope for the future and progress that came with not only ceasing to be a part of the British Empire, but also with the curious mix of ethnicities and races that make up the weird and wonderful place of the United States.

This came home to me watching the arguments that 1776 puts forth.  While not the most historically accurate of films, it does give a sense of the very real controversies underlying American independence.  Most specifically for me, it comes in the character of Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina and one of the leaders (in the movie) of the opposition.

I’ve become positively fascinated by Rutledge, and not just because he gets one of the best songs in the movie (or that John Cullum has one hell of a baritone and looks good in ruffles).  Rather it is because both he and Dickinson, as the most stalwartly opposed to independence, express an element of America that we tend to either vilify or ignore.  ‘Molasses to Rum’, although not historically accurate (the historical Rutledge did not oppose any sort of anti-slavery clause in the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson did not free his slaves until after his death), is a powerful polemic against hypocrisy.  While it is easy to vilify Rutledge as a slave-holder, it is a hard pill to swallow when he points out that commerce in America was built upon slavery.  That while the South may have held the whip, the North reaped the rewards of an economy built on blood and suffering.  As white Americans, there’s not one of us that gets to take the high road on this one.  And as a Northerner with numerous Southern relations and background, I feel quite aware of the question.

But beyond the slavery question, the character of Rutledge provides one of the more interesting points of 1776.   America might be divided along North/South, East/West/Midwest binaries, but we are all (and here’s the bombshell) Americans.  This country does not belong to the flag-waving creationists.  But it also is not the sole property of eastern liberals.  Claiming that one man does not (and cannot) understand another because of the location of his home, the state he was born in, the color of his skin, how long ago his ancestors came to this nation, what his first language is, etc, etc, is quite simply a cop-out.  We won’t take the time to listen.  Not to the pundits or the politicians, but to each other.

This is not to say that we’re all going to agree.  We’re not.  Nor is it to say that we should bow down to ignorance, bigotry, or the curtailing of basic human rights.  But, as Americans, we’re stuck with each other.  I’m not going to move to Canada, like some of my liberal friends have threatened (especially after Bush was elected).  Because this is MY country.  I love America.  And I believe in it enough to want to understand the people here.  I have a strange hope that if we were to only stop, all of us, and face each other as Americans, to accept that we are all a part of the same nation, we might actually discover that we don’t disagree quite as much as we think we do, or that at least those disagreements are not as earth-shattering as we make them out to be.  As it is, we refuse to understand each other.  It’s not because we can’t.  It’s because we won’t.

24 Year Old Curmudgeon: Why I Hate Harry Potter

Zappy, zappy.

I hate Harry Potter.  Yes, hate is a strong word, particularly to level at a popular series of novels.  But I do.  I thank God that the last movie is FINALLY coming out.  This will be a diatribe.  I apologize in advance.

I do not know why I hate Harry Potter.  How can I? The books are very popular and well-written…to a point.  I will only concede ‘to a point’.  At the very least they have inspired people to read, which is always good, particularly children.  And fandom is something I can get behind.  I love Ghostbusters and I have friends who are obsessed with Lord of the Rings, comic books, video games, novels, etc, etc.  I have no problem with that.  I get obsessed too, usually over very esoteric things.  To object to that would be the pot calling the kettle, as it were.  So why do I hate Harry Potter? What has he ever done to me?

Well, he’s invaded my cinema, for one thing.  I believe that that was the start of my vitriol.  Before the movies began intruding on my life, I simply did not care about Harry Potter.  I don’t know if I was too young or too old or simply more interested in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to care about wizards.  When the first book came out I was eleven years old and obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.  So I never read the books as a child.  But I have seen the movies.  And even my most Potter-y friends admit: those kids Can.  Not.  Act.  They still can’t act.  Daniel Radcliffe has all the personality of a wet towel; Emma Watson has almost as many expressions as Mr. Potato Head; Rupert Grint whines and whines and whines.  This might be a fault of the source material, of course, or of the scripts.  Regardless, it’s positively grating to watch them on screen.

And what of the Aging British Thespians Brigade? Alan Rickman! Maggie Smith! Richard Harris! Gary Oldman! Ralph Fiennes! Emma Thompson! If you weren’t in Lord of the Rings, you got your chance in Harry Potter.  I love all those actors.  Rickman particularly seems to be enjoying himself immensely, but then he always does.  Every time he talks with one of the kids, I only hear ‘I’m Alan Rickman.  And you’re not.’  Which is fun.  It cannot carry a movie, much less a franchise, but it is fun.

The fact is that the movies are really only supplements to the books.  It’s impossible to follow them without having a serious knowledge of each novel in turn.  As I came to the movies first, perhaps that was my problem.  I was hopelessly confused most of the time.  With the possible exception of whichever film was directed by Alfonso Cuaron*, the movies are fairly dreadful, confused and confusing.  I am of the opinion that cinema should be able to stand on its own, and the Harry Potter movies do not.  So perhaps that is the source of my antipathy.  Like everyone else, I cannot divorce the books from the films any longer and the Films.  Suck.  That is my highly thought out critical opinion born of two years at film school.  They suck.

But even this does not suffice.  Because, the truth is, I should like Harry Potter.  I should like the idea of wizards and good versus evil and betrayal and all that.  I might even be persuaded to endure teenage angst.  I was an angsty teenager once.  I once felt like the world did not understand my intrinsic greatness, like I must be a wizard in disguise.  I love outsiders and rebels and grand adventures.  I should really have no problem with Harry Potter.  And yet…

I can analyze some of the sources of my intense dislike.  The books seem derivative, combining elements of Lord of the Rings, Greek and Roman mythology, folktales and old British traditions, not to mention the ever-present Christ story.  But then so do most books; everyone takes their inspiration from somewhere.  Perhaps it’s that the inspiration comes close to simply lifting whole subplots and characters from other places.

The Christ angle bothers me too.  Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘One who will save humanity (or wizardry) by sacrificing himself for…whatever’.  The Christ story has been done, over and over and over, so that whenever I hear those dreaded words (often phrased differently, but with the same purpose) ‘You are the one…’ I actually cringe.  The world is always coming to an end.  A hero must rise.  Again.  For the hundredth time.

Maybe I’m tired of good vs. evil narratives when we’re living in a world where that simply does not cut it anymore.  To separate characters into good and bad nowadays seems dull, simplistic, and potentially damaging.  Rather than understanding differences, we seek to vilify them.  Rather than examining the darkness and the light within every human being, we draw a dividing line.  We still do it, despite all evidence to the contrary in this world.  Despite the shades of grey.

I know that we need those kinds of narratives, if only to keep our faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.  That was one of the sources of my adoration of Sherlock Holmes: he was the voice of reason and goodness in a terrifying world.  But he was also complex, not always nice, and sometimes not even right.  He believed in the rule of justice, not necessarily law.  I would never argue for always turning the world on its head, for always giving the villains the upper hand, for the defeat of the good guys.  I am not really all that cynical when it comes to humanity.  I believe that all human beings are intrinsically good.  I believe that the human capacity for good is greater than the human capacity for evil.  But I find it dull when it is all made so simplistic, so derivative, so easy to define.

I am a hypocrite.  I have not made an exhaustive study of Harry Potter and I am probably glossing over all sorts of complexities that make those books so popular.  So, I will tone down my language: I do not hate Harry Potter.  I  intensely dislike Harry Potter.  I don’t really know why.  Maybe I’m just contrary.  Maybe I’m a curmudgeon at the age of 24.  Maybe I should give the books another chance.  Perhaps it would change my mind.  I doubt it.  Good for Rowling for creating a character that so many people seem to love and identify with.  But I just can’t.

That said, I kind of want to see the last film.  I want to see Rickman sneer one more time.  I’m just not certain if it’s worth an 8 pound ticket.

*I thought it was Guillermo del Toro.  Thanks, Jon Morris, for pointing out the error.  Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part.*

Bad Men and Why We Love Them

OK, a little misleading.  I’m not talking about REAL bad men.  Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches.  I’m talking about fake ones.  Bad boys.  Bastards.  Assholes.  Villains.

There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys.  You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds.  Most of the time.  Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end.  And we don’t really want it any other way.

Effing Mice Not Gonna Sing No More.

I have a fascination with villains.  My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella.  He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him.  Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all.  But I enjoyed watching him be bad.  I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care.  He was a jerk, and I loved him.

Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned.  Best Shakespearean character? Iago.   And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’.  Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope.  Just ‘A Villain’.  That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain.  He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself.  He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness.  He’s hateful and cruel.  He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain.  And he’s delightful.  He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me.  He’s defined by his villainy.  At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope.  He refuses to say a word.  He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care.  He just doesn’t give a shit.

So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone).  George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain.  And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.

"In movies I am invariably a son of a bitch. In life, I'm really a dear, dear boy." --Sanders

Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal.  Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t.  The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes.  He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly.  If he has flaws, he must overcome them.  He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero.  We’ve got to root for him.  When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end.  Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.

The villain has no such difficulties.  Shoot innocent people? Done.  Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not.  Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents.  He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department).  He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual.  He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays.  He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does.  The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Why, yes, this beard is natural. Why do you ask?"

Hitchcock understood this.  His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy.  Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.  A duller romantic figure never existed.  The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies.  And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch.  Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld.  The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin.  And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.

The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy.  He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath.  He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero.  We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through.  And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him.  He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.

Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us.  The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves.  Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness.  We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners.  We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day.  Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things.  He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad.  It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell.  But it’s true.

Oh, besides that, villains also look like this: