Film Review: “Captain Fantastic” (2016)

These days, it somtimes feels like it’s impossible to find a film that doesn’t try to drown you in special effects and just focuses on telling a genuinely good story. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a decent film scene, it is still possible to find that endangered species known as a semi-original film. Fortunately for me, the Syracuse International Film Festival was running this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of seeing Captain Fantastic.

Viggo Mortensen delivers a truly (wait for it) fantastic performance as Ben, a radical who has raised his children in the wild, teaching them how to be self-sufficient and politically radical. However, he soon learns that his wife, who has been suffering from bioplar disorder, has committed suicide and that his in-laws are refusing to honor her wish to be cremated. This precipitates a journey of father and family to civilization, where they have to decide whether to continue on with their way of life or make the switch back to the consumerist world they have left.

Certainly, the dominant strand of the film’s narrative asks us to sympathize with Ben, at least up to a point. All of the points that he makes about the essential corruption and emptiness of contemporary American culture are made manifest when father and company pay a visit to his thoroughly middle-class sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her equally doofy husband Dave (Steve Zahn). They, and their incredibly ignorant and obnoxious sons, are the epitome of everything that the family has steadfastly rejected. Thoroughly immersed in their consumerist world, the sons know nothing of (to take just one example), the Bill of Rights, while Harper and Dave can’t even bring themselves to be honest with their teenage sons about the real cause of their aunt’s death. Their lives are as empty and fatuous as Ben claims, and it’s hard not to see the life he has created for his children as infinitely preferable.

However, Ben is no saint. He can be stubbornly unwilling to budge, and the film contains hints that it is this intrasigence, this inability to see beyond the limits of his own experience and beliefs that may have contributed (however indirectly) to his wife’s death. His father-in-law Jack represents the stolid, traditionally wealthy masculinity, a stifling and demanding atmosphere that, we are led to believe, may have contributed to his daughter’s flight from civilization, while Harper and Dave stand in for the bankrupt emptiness of modern parenting.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on these things), the film ultimately seems to come down somewhere in the middle. The final sequence shows the family has finally settled down on a peaceful farm, where the children have both the stability they need yet also continue to practice the arts of self-reliance. The last frame may be held just a fraction of a second too long, but it is precisely this protracted stillness that gives it its resonance, allowing us to see that they have at last managed to attain a measure of balance between the competing impulses of their lives. To this viewer, it felt like something of an extended allegory of the abrupt uprising of the American Left during the 2016 election, which has ultimately had to settle for a thoroughly moderate candidate who, all things considered, probably preferable to the alternative(s).

While Mortensen deserves a great deal of the credit for the success of the film, no small amount is also due to the supporting cast, both the adults (Frank Langella is particularly unpleasant as Jack), as well as all of the children, each whom brings something unique to the mix. Their responses to their father’s way of life range from celebratory to condemnatory, and each of the young cast brings something unique to the mix. Captain Fantastic is one of those rare (VERY rare, IMO) films that actually manages to make the younger members of the cast as essential as the older ones.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a true gem of a film, in large part because it doesn’t have grand aspirations. It wants to tell a strong, compelling story, and that’s what it does. In today’s blockbuster world, that is no small accomplishment.

Appreciating Space: “Minecraft” and Empowerment

Metathesis

For the last two summers, I’ve worked as an instructor for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Kid College program, which is basically a mix between a summer camp and course series about technology for kids aged 9-14. Most of the classes I taught were about game design, and the most popular courses by far were the ones about Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, it might be described as an infinitely large, semi-randomly-generated world made up of multiple types of blocks that players can use to build structures, craft items, and fight off monsters. I tended to describe it to parents or adults as “digital Legos with fighting and exploration mixed in.” (Avid players might say it is a bit more complicated than that, but let’s work with that for now.)

In the course of teaching, I have occasionally had parents voice the concern that…

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Donald Trump as Terrifying Postmodern Fever-Dream

When I started writing this blog post, I thought, “Do I really need to add another note in the strident cacophony of commentary surrounding Donald Trum?” (Yes, I really do think things like these in my private hours. Sue me). But, after discussing the most recent debate with my students in the context of postmodernism (and the postmodern condition more generally), I decided that yes, indeed, I do have to say something.

If you’ve read your Baudrillard or your Lyotard, you know that we are living in a world of seemingly endless meaning(lessness), where objective truth(s) matter less than the “truthiness” of any particular claim. While one would be excused for thinking that we had reached the apex (or perhaps the nadir) of the postmodern condition of endlessly contingent meaning with the myths and misdirections surrounding both 9/11 and the Iraq War–to say nothing of just the whole Bush Presidency–such a thought seems positively naive in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.

There have been oceans of real and digital ink spilled about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t really care about Trump’s seeming passing acquaintance with the truth. In many cases, they either a.) don’t care that he routinely lies and misrepresents information, since he is so good at saying what he thinks, so that his lack of veracity is always secondary or b.) the followers themselves don’t actually know the truth or the facts. I’m still not entirely sure which of these aspects I find most distressing.

Actually, for me they are both equally damaging to the ongoing health and well-being of our democracy and the body politic. When it comes to the point that none of the metanarratives and sources of knowledge upon which we have come to rely–whether that be the democratic process, the free press, or the intelligentsia more broadly–are able to command the loyalty of the people, we are in the midst of a crisis. And believe me, I do not use that word lightly (it gets bandied about a lot in academic circles). It truly does terrify me that no one seems to have faith in the sources of knowledge that we have so far relied on to make sense of our world.

Somehow, then, we’ve come to a crisis point, the seeming telos of the postmodern crisis in knowledge, a crisis that strikes so deeply into the heart of our citizenry that it’s hard to see how we can manage to climb our way out of it. Does it matter that Trump rarely (if ever) has any solid policy proposals? Clearly not, since his supporters continue to follow him even though respected economists, military strategists, intelligence officials, and other policy thinkers have thoroughly debunked almost every single policy or proposal that he has so far made in this campaign.

Just as disturbing, however, is the fact that the real Trump (if such a thing can be said to exist) has begun to blur terrifyingly into the caricature. One need look no further than the third debate to see this, when his frequent interjections of “wrong” caused me to pause and ask, “Am I watching Alec Baldwin on SNL or am I watching the actual Donald Trump?” As Baudrillard would say, it doesn’t really matter, because the simulacrum has replaced the actual lived reality to a degree that Baldwin is Trump and Trump is Baldwin.

Now, of course, the question always occur to me:  so what? What do we do with the idea that Trump represents some sort of telos of the crisis of knowledge and metanarratives that have allowed us to make sense of the political and social landscape at least since the end of World War II? What can one possibly do to turn back this terrible tide that seems to have swept away any and all certainty about the way that we make sense of the terrors of the contemporary world?

It may not, in fact, be possible to do so, but we have a collective duty, both as knowledge producers and knowledge consumers to hold both ourselves and our sources of information accountable. We must get out our knowledge comfort zones and actually start critically thinking about our own ideas and those of others. While we may still end up disagreeing with those on the other side of the political spectrum, this type of meaningful dialogue and engagement, not just the retreat into affect and overblown emotion, may just allow us as a society to move forward.

It may be too late to stop the rise of Trump, but I’m hopeful–and, dare I say it, downright optimistic–that together we can make sure that he, or someone like him, does not rise again. Furthermore, we can, if we give in to the better angels of our natures (pardon the cliché), perhaps build a better world for everyone.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Nice and Easy” (S1, Ep. 17)

It’s become something of a recurring theme in these posts that I discuss the importance of family to so many of the storylines in The Golden Girls, and today’s post is no different. In today’s episode, we get to meet Blanche’s (rather obnoxious) niece Lucy, who quickly shows that she has taken her aunt’s example to hear and has begun her own rather unruly exploration of her burgeoning sexuality. She soon reveals, however, that her attempts to mimic her aunt come from a profound sense of insecurity.

There are some really funny bits in this episode, including the revelation that Rose is a huge fan of Miami Vice. I’ve always been partial to those moments in the series when we get references to other shows running at the same time (there are at least two references from Sophia referring to Designing Women). To me, these references reveal the extent to which The Golden Girls was a very self-conscious show, perfectly aware of its own place in the television landscape of its own time. Indeed, it won’t be the last time that the show will make reference to Miami Vice. (By the way, how funny is it that Rose of all of them is the one obsessed with the show?)

The most compelling moment of the episode, however, is when Blanche takes Lucy to task for her behavior and her bouncing from one relationship to another in the space of a few days. Lucy, and I’m sure most of those watching the episode, rightly takes note of the fact that this criticism rings a bit hypocritical coming from Blanche of all people, who is hardly known for her circumspection in matters of the boudoir. Just as importantly, however, Lucy also reveals how uncertain she is about her own sense of self. While her fate remains somewhat uncertain by the end of the episode, we get the feeling that she will grow up to be as self-aware of her own sexuality and its powerful possibilities as her aunt.

What I find most extraordinary about this episode, however, is the way in which Blanche neatly turns Lucy’s criticism on its head. Rather than acting ashamed of her own sexual proclivities, she proudly tells her niece that her decision to bestow her favors on her gentleman callers is a decision that she undertakes of her own volition, not because she needs them to make her feel validated. This is one of the earliest of Blanche’s forthright reclamations of her sexuality from the jaws of patriarchal prudery, and I always cheer a little when I heard her say this. (Stay tuned for my entry on the episode on Valentine’s Day, when Blanche makes an even more empowered speech).

In our next installment, we move on to a moment of vulnerability for Dorothy, as well as some of the finest dancing the show ever produced. We also get to meet one of the ’80s most iconic sitcom guest stars (I’ll save her name until the post itself).

See you then!

Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

Metathesis

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my…

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Viewing History: “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Museum

I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks:  From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.

I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.

There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.

The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.

At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.

I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.

Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.

Imagining Space: America the Virtual

Metathesis

I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.

I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.

A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it…

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“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

Metathesis

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history…

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