Author Archives: scorpion8903@gmail.com

New Fiction Acceptance

Thanks to the small online literary mag THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS for accepting my short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else.” This is one of those stories that is kind of a hard sell, and I’m very grateful someone appreciates it. And thanks, as always, to God, Kalene, my kids, my friends, and my readers.

Mother of Exiles

**NOTE** I wrote this approximately one year ago. I sent it out to two or three of the usual MSM outlets, where it was summarily ignored, and then moved on to other writings. I figured it would just go in my metaphorical trunk, where half-finished and unpublished manuscripts sleep in silence. In the wake of today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding one of Trump’s travel bans, though, I thought I’d post it here, in its original form (I’m not even sure the original links work). Perhaps there is relevance here; perhaps not. Make of it what you will.

***

As the Predator-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, took the oath of office, whitehouse.gov pages for climate change, LGBTQ issues, healthcare, and civil rights vanished, as did Spanish-language content. In the coming weeks and months, Americans of conscience will resist any attempt to roll back or eliminate laws and rights that protect all people, not just the members of the white rich nativist conservative (allegedly) Christian ableist heteropatriarchy. Others will uncritically accept the Predator’s vision.

Recently, one of my old friends, caught in the grip of a patriotism that seemed closer to jingoism or nationalism, conflated my anti-Trump stance with anti-Americanism. This is, of course, an old argument, and a highly problematic one, as measured, thoughtful, researched criticism of one’s nation is much more patriotic than blind devotion. I refused to recount all my reasons and evidence for resisting the Predator’s positions and values—reasons and evidence that I have stated and defended for the better part of two years—but I did summarize a few of the positions that I find unconscionable, including his characterizations of the Mexican people.

“He didn’t call all Mexicans rapists and murderers,” said my friend. “Show me where he did that.”

“Look at his speeches,” I said, “and do your own research, from multiple sources.”

It’s true that Trump did not characterize every Mexican immigrant as a rapist or murderer. But it’s also true that he purposefully, strategically downplayed their humanity. His racist and distorted attacks on Mexicans, and Hispanic people in general, outweigh his disingenuous praise. Parsing all of these comments would take more time and space than I have available here, but an examination of the Predator’s inflammatory comment about rapists and murderers might be useful, especially when juxtaposed with self-serving, thinly veiled advertisements for his own products.

Back in June of 2015, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Like George W. Bush before him, the Predator-in-Chief lacks linguistic sophistication. His use of “bigly” still staggers me. In the above quote, “they’re” is confusing. At first, “they” refers to Mexico, a place—an “it,” or, if you accept traditional gender assignations of objects and places, a “she.” Later, though, “they” refers to immigrants. Sometimes, he uses both in the same sentence; they send people with problems, and they bring those problems to us. Trump seems to conflate the entire country of Mexico with “people that have lots of problems,” and those same people are next characterized as drug-runners and/or mules, criminals, and rapists. He uses Othering language, establishing a victimized us and an evil, corrupt them.

To some people, that might seem like splitting a grammatical hair, so let’s look at his presentation of these ideas.

The quote begins with the idea that Mexico “sends” people across the border, as if the land has a mind of its own and wants to stick it to Americans. This anthropomorphic characterization of a geographical locale seems nonsensical unless Trump is speaking of the Mexican government, which would suggest a series of offices where mustache-twirling bureaucrats interview citizens and assign “bad hombres” to cross the border en masse. Nothing is impossible, I suppose, but one would think such an organized and wide-ranging assault on American stability from a border country might attract the intelligence community’s attention.

Next, look at how Trump organizes his ideas—the generalized “people that have lots of problems,” followed by a general list of what those problems allegedly are, drugs and rape and the much vaguer “crime,” which could mean anything. He states all of this as if it were fact, and he provides no specific support for his assertions. Like so many things he says, he wants us to believe these statements are true because he made them. Only after he spends five sentences denouncing immigrants from Mexico does he tack on the qualification, which is notable not only for its lack of development but for his admitting that their goodness is hypothetical. Trump seems to be saying, “Factually, immigrant criminals rape and run drugs, but because I am so magnanimous, I am willing to assume that some of them don’t.” Gosh, isn’t he nice?

In short, Trump did not say that all Mexicans are rapists or criminals, but he emphasized criminal traits when describing them, a rhetorical strategy meant to make his audience fear immigrants and support whatever Fascist strategy might keep them out or deport them. Even his “I love Hispanics” taco-bowl tweet, so ridiculous and self-aggrandizing, reduces an entire culture to servers of food for rich white men.

To combat this influx of marauding chefs, Trump continues to insist on a border wall. What does he plan to do about the existing barriers or the enormous stretches of land along the Rio Grande—drain the river? Which Goldman Sachs executive will get that job?

Trump wants to make Mexico pay for this wall, but he can’t even manage to pay his own contractors. To be fair, he has said that he would be fine with having a big door in that wall for legal immigration, but then why not just embrace President Obama’s call for an easier path to citizenship? How does Trump factor in the ever-expanding Border Patrol, and why doesn’t he mention that illegal border crossings have already been declining for years? (See the “Unauthorized Immigrants” section here.) Why doesn’t he say much more about the good, desperate people who come to America, which still casts itself as the Biblical/Winthropian “city on a hill,” seeking a better life? Has the light of the world burned out?

Why hasn’t he spent much time discussing unauthorized immigration from other countries, across other borders, including victims of sex trafficking? Why the focus on Mexico, Hispanics, “bad hombres”?

Something is going on here beyond a concern for national security or economics—perhaps blatant racism or a cynical appeal to his base’s xenophobia.

In any case, as of this writing, whitehouse.gov’s new, and rather spare, “Issues” page lists nothing about immigration reform. Instead, the Predator-in-Chief has given us something called (rather problematically, from a grammar perspective) an “America First Foreign Policy.” It’s a blustery statement, vaguely threatening to nations that have the temerity to put their own concerns above America’s. You can read Trump’s pre-election positions on immigration here. As for details about the wall, or immigrants who have lived in America most of their lives without citizenship, well, it’s all anybody’s guess. We can, however, glean more about his conscience, or lack thereof, from his recent executive order banning immigrants, especially Muslims, from certain African and Middle Eastern countries. Trump’s abandonment of those in dire need, such as Syrian refugees, and his anti-Hispanic, nationalist, exceptionalist rhetoric echoes Nazi Germany’s demonization of Jews and the contemporaneous call for a national identity predicated, to a great extent, on destroying this Demonic Other.

Near the Statue of Liberty, a plaque bears Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus.” This sonnet names America the “Mother of Exiles.” Though this romanticized view of the country glosses over our blood-soaked bedrock of Native American genocide and displacement, we cannot ignore that, even before its Declaration of Independence, America as a nation has always consisted of immigrants and their descendants. Yet the Predator-in-Chief rejects our national valuation of embracing those in need. He uses language and imagery that dehumanize the desperate and the destitute. He wants to turn off the lamp and shut the golden door.

We all need to ask ourselves if we can live with that.

Suicide Squad and the Dangers of Critical Consensus

If the critics are to be believed, David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad represents one of cinema’s greatest failures in terms of artistic vision and commercial appeal. Its record-breaking opening and its 6.2-out-of-ten rating on IMDB (as of 19 September 2017) notwithstanding, moviegoers’ discourse about the film often mimics the film’s critical reception—a 40 out of 100 on Metacritic and a rather stunning 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. On the latter site’s sampling of critical quotes, we find gems such as the following:

  • “To say that the movie loses the plot would not be strictly accurate, for that would imply that there was a plot to lose.”—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
  • “This is what happens when the comic book fanboys have taken over the asylum. It is damaged goods from the get-go, the kind of film grown in a petri dish in Hollywood.”— Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Sometimes it’s good to be bad. In Suicide Squad‘s case, bad is just plain bad. It gives villainy a bad name.”— Adam Graham, Detroit News
  • Suicide Squad had the potential to be an awesome superhero summer blockbuster, but feels more like a rushed unification of underwhelming action, a disappointing story, and stale character development.”—Chris Sawin, com
  • “Taken from a popular DC comic series… helmed by a star quality director… peppered with a highly skilled, all-star cast … What could go wrong? Nearly everything.”—Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Picks (All quotes taken from “Suicide Squad (2016), com)

To be sure, some of this criticism is warranted. When graded on the scale of truly great films to truly awful ones—say, Citizen Kane to The Room, or Casablanca to The Castle of Fu Manchu—Ayer’s movie falls squarely in the mediocre range. If we grade it on a sliding scale in which summer popcorn entertainment gets more of a pass for “not pretending to be any more than what it is,” the film scores a bit higher. Entertainment Weekly’s grade of B- (well above average, far from perfect) seems fairer than, say, Maltin’s claim that nearly everything goes wrong. Many things in the film go right, especially for its comics-fan target audience. Having read John Ostrander’s run on the comics title in the late 80s and early 90s, I felt more excited for this movie than I did for any other summer movie this year, even the superior Captain America: Civil War and the Ghostbusters reboot. This pre-fab investment in the film biases me; I probably came more prepared to like the movie more than the general audience or younger comics fans who have had less time to pine for an adaptation. It should therefore come as no surprise that I enjoyed Suicide Squad.

That does not mean that I am blind to its flaws, of which there are many. Nor am I taking issue with thoughtful critics who provide strong reasoning and textual evidence in their negative reviews. Honest, robust, and passionate criticism is essential to art and entertainment.

I admit to wishing, though, that so much of published criticism didn’t seem petty and mean-spirited, as if some critics are looking for any excuse to excoriate an artist’s work in snappy soundbites aimed more at entertaining than in improving the substance of the art. I am, in fact, unsure of how such criticism, masturbatory and self-important as it seems, differs from the very audience-baiting, cash-grab cynicism that these same critics often bemoan. An article written by Eve Peyser for Gizmodo is titled, “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” The only criticism of the film in this short post consists of linking to a Deadspin article about the movie and a claim that Suicide Squad is a “deeply mediocre film” (Peyser par. 2) Fair enough, but I would have been much more interested in reading Ms. Peyser’s thoughtful critique of the movie, rather than a simple statement that she hated it and that others probably did, too. Her thesis, as noted in the title, seems to be that we are to blame for bad movies because we keep paying to see them. That is an idea worth exploring, though to do so, we need to establish a commonly accepted definition of “bad movie” and prove that Suicide Squad fits the definition. Such an essay would require more time and space than was devoted to Peyser’s short post, but it would have been a much more interesting and substantive addition to our discourse about the film, its quality or lack thereof, and what our gravitating to it says about us.

To be clear, I am not taking issue with Peyser’s post, which also doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—a short opinion piece making a provocative statement in order to increase site traffic and generate discussion about a major pop culture moment. What distresses me about American discourse on art and popular culture is that whenever critics overwhelmingly love or hate a film and then phrase their admiration or displeasure in language that is less than measured or thoughtful, their opinions take on the power of fact through sheer force. In simpler terms, once enough critics have passionately declared that Suicide Squad is bad, their opinions become our discourse. We all talk about the film as if it is factually bad to the extent that many fans and writers feel no need to justify their opinion—this in spite of the actual facts that critical consensus often changes over time and that one person’s waste of talent and budget is another person’s fun, thought-provoking entertainment.

The Big Lebowski was a critical and box office bomb, but it has since become a beloved touchstone for its own subculture, and not in the ironic, we’re-in-on-the-joke way that Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room has become a cult favorite. Citizen Kane, often called the greatest film ever made, received mixed critical reviews upon its release. Conversely, Oscar winners like The English Patient and Crash have lost both critical and popular momentum over time. Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, even though it did woeful box office and puzzled many critics. Often, it is only with time and consideration that we can recognize a formerly overlooked classic or a work we initially rated too highly.

This phenomenon is not limited to cinema. Moby-Dick was a failure it its day and is now considered one of the great American novels. The most popular poets of the American nineteenth century have given way to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. John Donne has gone in and out of style over the centuries. In spite of all this, we—both professional critics and audience members—often speak about a film as if its fate has been decided definitively, for all time. And for every thoughtful critic like a Leonard Maltin or Peter Travers or Lisa Schwarzbaum, there are a thousand trolls filling comments sections and Twitter feeds with recycled criticism and pure human ugliness instead of original thought.

For those who believe that Suicide Squad is flawed or just plain awful, all I ask is that you show your work. I ask the same of the film’s defenders. I ask that we wait until we experience a text for ourselves before we decide with whom we agree. And for the love of all that’s good and true, let us leave behind the flame wars and the name-calling and just talk to each other.

I’ll start. I’ve said that I enjoyed the movie as a biased comics fan, though I am not blind to its flaws. I loved the performances by Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Will Smith, and Jay Hernandez. Jai Courtney disappeared into his role of Captain Boomerang. I found the characterizations and development of Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Deadshot to be intriguing and fun. The movie had the best soundtrack you could ask for, and many of the visual effects were strong. I appreciate Ayer’s decision to scrap King Shark for Killer Croc, a character who could be rendered by a living actor and makeup. And what we saw of Leto’s Joker whetted my appetite for more.

As for some flaws, here, in what I hope is conciliatory and thoughtful language, are some problems I had the picture. These points contain spoilers, so if you have not seen the film, beware.

  • Other than the aforementioned Harley, Diablo, and Deadshot, most of the major characters were underdeveloped. Much of this problem can likely be attributed to having so many major players in one film—eight or nine Squad members, plus Rick Flag’s SEAL team, plus Amanda Waller and her flunkies, plus various military personnel and prison guards, plus the Joker and his henchmen. That’s a bunch, folks. This leads to several other problems, noted below.
  • One major plot point we’re supposed to buy is that Rick Flag is in love with June Moone, a.k.a. the Enchantress, and his love for her is what keeps him under Waller’s thumb. However, we don’t see that love develop on screen, and the characters share so little screen time together that it’s tough to buy even after the fact. Ayer chooses to address this point by having Waller say, “We put the two of them together, and they fell in love just like we hoped, and now I own Flag.” The logic behind this plan makes no sense, and we are given nothing on which to base an investment in this relationship, even though many of the film’s attempts to connect with the audience’s emotions hinge on said investment.
  • Speaking of Waller, those unfamiliar with the comics will likely find her to be, as Deadshot describes her, a gangsta, but as for her methods and motivation, we don’t have a clue. We know she’s worried about the threat of metahumans—that the “next Superman” will be a villain—but we have no idea why she believes that only other villains can fight such a threat. Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that she believes only bad guys can be controlled, but if so, this film’s plot pretty much scraps that notion, since the antagonist comes straight from the team itself. In fact, as the credits’ Easter Egg shows, she already had files on heroes—files that she gives to Bruce Wayne. If she knew of trustworthy good guys, why depend so much on bad ones that you have to threaten and bribe? Why couldn’t she try to form the Justice League, other than the fact that such an act would ruin the plot of the upcoming film?
  • Killer Croc is given almost nothing to do until the end of the film and has no scenes that would require an actor of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s caliber. He is unrecognizable under the makeup. Croc’s lack of both development and necessity makes the waste of a good actor almost as awful as what the film does with Adam Beach. It’s fine to kill a character to establish that, yes, the neck bombs keeping the Squad in line are real, and Waller or Flag are willing to use them. But why bother with hiring such a strong actor to do so little?
  • Katana is criminally underdeveloped, which makes her big emotional scene fall flat. It’s hard to care about the fate of a character we have spent no time with and know very little about.
  • Why does Deadshot almost never wear his trademark helmet and glowing eyepiece—except that it would rob us seeing Will Smith’s face?
  • Much has been made of how the lead-up to the movie spent so much time on the Joker and Leto’s method-acting craziness, only to give us very little of what was shot. Even Leto has spoken out against how much of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. I would not want to see the Joker overshadow the main storyline, but it seems unfair to both fans and Leto to give us so little footage, most of which is only marginally connected to the plot.
  • Speaking of the plot, there are holes. Waller and Flag talk about how fighting the Enchantress’s transformed lackeys is useless, but then the Squad fights them and takes them out handily. What was Waller and Flag’s conversation based on, and why were they so wrong, and how did they feel about it? Why did June Moone bring forth the Enchantress in that hotel room, which allowed the villain to escape? Why does it take the Enchantress days to build her machine, and how is destroying military hardware the same thing as destroying all humanity? How does an ancient witch know how to make an intricate machine, anyway? Why didn’t Waller just have her retrieve all the secret information from every country instead of just Iran’s, and what were the generals going to do with that information? Why wasn’t the Enchantress’s big bad brother released at the same time she was? Flag kills the Enchantress by crushing her heart; why didn’t Waller do that in the first place, especially after just poking holes in it didn’t work? Why does Killer Croc never seem to get rattled? Why does finding out that Flag hid letters from his daughter cause Deadshot to complete the mission instead of just, you know, shooting Flag in the head? And so forth and so on.
  • Sound editing—when the Enchantress is speaking English in the final scenes, I could barely understand a word she said. Since these are the climactic scenes, it seems kind of important.
  • Many critics have said that the movie becomes too conventional in the last two acts. I think part of what they mean is that these unrepentant, scum-of-the-Earth bad guys start acting like good guys and doing good-guy stuff. The Captain Boomerang of the comics would never have come back to the team after being given an out; Jai Courtney’s character does, with no real explanation except that he’s apparently been affected by team spirit, the sense of which is then undercut when we learn that he is serving three consecutive life sentences and is therefore unlikely to get any benefits from his work. (For that matter, his trick boomerangs are so underused here that the audience might be forgiven for thinking they are ordinary.) Deadshot, Diablo, Harley, and even Captain Boomerang seem to form genuine bonds and become invested in each other’s fates, just as good guys would, even though they constantly talk about how awful they are. Complications and complexities are fine, even necessary and desirable, but you probably shouldn’t talk constantly about how you’re a vicious killer without a conscience and then undercut that concept with your every act. It would have been better if the Squad had continued as an anti-team, one that worked together out of mutual selfishness instead of an increasing sense of duty to each other. In the absence of that, what separates them from the Justice League, other than their criminal pasts?
  • We are never really certain about the nature of the Enchantress’s henchmen—what they can do, why they look the way they do, what purpose they serve other than distraction.
  • Why does the Joker look like a pimp?

Again, if you’re a comics fan, you might overlook some of these flaws. You know about Waller’s motivation and personality, and so when the film doesn’t show us, you can fill in the blanks yourself. As a stand-alone movie, though, Suicide Squad should have done better than that, especially since so many of the characters and events have been altered.

Given all of that, I can understand why many critics and viewers found the film to be mediocre or worse. And if you overlook the film’s flaws because all you want from it is to turn off your brain and go along for the ride, well, fine. What we should not do is let an apparent critical consensus at one moment in time take on the characteristics of fact, so that we ignore why a film might be good or bad and simply yell at each other about how good/bad it is. We cannot let unsupported statements of opinion stand in for substantive criticism. To do so teaches us nothing about the text or ourselves; it only widens the divide between camps, until, like the Suicide Squad itself often does, we turn our slings and arrows inward and leave each other bloody and battered but not enlightened.

Works Cited

Peyser, Eve. “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” Gizmodo.com, Gizmodo Media Group, 7 August 2016. http://io9.gizmodo.com/suicide-squad-sets-box-office-record-because-we-dont-de-1784950994. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” IMDB.com, IMDB, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1386697/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” RottenTomatoes.com, Fandango, 2016, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suicide_squad_2016/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

New #CNF Publication

I’m happy to announce that my personal essay entitled “Past, Present, Popcorn” is forthcoming in Wild Violet. Thanks to God, Kalene, the editors, and all my friends and readers.