Holy shit they made On Chesil Beach into a movie.
“It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.”
“Have you got a better way?”
In an early scene in Hostiles, Rosamund Pike’s character scrabbles in the dirt with her hands, trying to dig graves for her murdered family. We receive a bunch of closeups of just her hands clawing at the earth, and watching it, I felt this odd visceral familiarity I at first couldn’t place. It’s not as though I’ve struggled to dig graves with my bare hands. Then I remembered an afternoon a year ago, where I clawed madly at the earth with sweat pouring into my eyes, trying to recover flagstones that had been mostly or entirely buried in my backyard for generations, when a new neighbor paused awkwardly on the sidewalk to ask, of all antiquated, misplaced questions, why my husband wasn’t out helping me.
I peered up at the stranger through a haze of sweat and dust and said my husband’s grandmother was currently dying of the same disease I had just committed my mother for the previous weekend, and I couldn’t deal with it, so I had stayed behind when their family gathered to say goodbye. The poor neighbor mumbled something about hard work helping, and couldn’t flee fast enough.
Hostiles is somewhat ham-handed in places, it’s true. I don’t know how it couldn’t be. If the acceptance of any of its apologies could not be called into question through their sheer obliqueness, it would rightly be dismissed as insincere. But Hostiles is anything but insincere.
There is a lot of mumbling in this movie. A lot of speaking through hands pushed against faces and chins, fingers trying to twist the skin beneath into the shape of someone else, or to serve as a kind of filter for the words coming out. You have to pay attention to catch all that is said.
When nothing is said, though, there is the physicality to make up for it. It is the physical intimacy that made me draw back and first realize this was not another gritty John Wayne homage I had been dragged to. Or–to be less sulky about it — another visual call-up to what books like Blood Meridian want to be: a pitiless wallowing in the misery that built this country. That is what I expected, but that is not what Hostiles is. Joe’s (Christian Bale’s) crash to his knees, struggling with whether or not to kill himself rather than take on this last duty requested of him says as much. His frankly jaw-dropping guiding of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) into head-butting him in the chest as she briefly exits shock for what appears to be a kind of panic attack says as much. I cannot remember the last time I was so startled by a character’s non-sexual act of physicality. Nor was it — again thinking of Cormac McCarthy here–explained away by him having “a way with horses,” or dogs, or some animal bullshit meant to disguise a recognition of human suffering as some sort of animalistic shepherding urge. When he shields her from the sight that is undoing her with his body, it’s not because he has done this for his livestock. It’s because he’s a person and he knows what this is doing to her as a person, and he is attempting to make it less horrific.
Hostiles exits the modern day for its study of war-sourced PTSD, but it abandons the fraught politics of today for those equally fraught politics that made today what it is. It does not, as I worried it might, attempt to make equal one man’s loss of everything and multiple cultures’ loss of everything. It is not trying to redeem the cruelty of a nation with the kindness of an individual. It’s not even trying to redeem that individual — that is left up to him. And, as I keep insisting in my defense of the ending, if he didn’t doubt that he deserved anything good in his life, he wouldn’t deserve it. It is that doubt, that hesitation in that long shot of his face, that makes him worthy of some kind of upward turn. If he just gallivanted off into the sunset, fuck him. He’d be a poseur. But he’s still, at the end, the man who howled on his knees in the almost-desert, voice completed muted by the storm bum-rushing the plains, wondering if he should die. That is the man who deserves redemption. The one who isn’t sure, himself, if he should get a chance at it.
That is why I loved this movie.
My only character-based qualm is probably nothing to be proud of. I suppose it was bucking a trope, the bucking of which should be praised. But I disliked, at first, the reining in of Rosalie’s madness. “Let her unravel,” I thought. Don’t tidy her up into someone who once again wears pretty dresses and sits straight and speaks when spoken to. She has lost literally everything. She has a dumb line about faith that fits neither her character nor her circumstances. Let her rage. Let it consume her.
I know, I know. Loss-based madness is a kind of fridging, I guess, the avoidance of which should be lauded. But I didn’t think she was allowed the space she should have been to be as angry as she should have been. She has a couple scenes, sure, but she holds herself together too well. The Cheyenne in their party remark on it, saying it denotes strength, which, okay. Still. That thin veil of words (“oh but this has made you so strong,” as if anyone ever wouldn’t have traded that strength in a heartbeat to restore the one who was lost, pithy phrase be damned) was not enough, and would have rung hollowly, if not for one scene in a tent, following the suicide of one of Joe’s long-time companions (again, there is a lotttt of war-sourced PTSD on display here, and I kind of wonder if the pitch for this began from a desire to look at just the effects of it, divorced from the too-nearness of the last 14 years). I’d be curious to know how many takes it took, or what the stage directions were. Because again, were the comfort she offered maternal, it would be bullshit — a dismantling of what was, in fact, one person reaching out to another as an equal. Were it needy and sexual, it would also be bullshit — because if anyone should be past needing a quick pick-me-up fuck, it’s her. But he bows his head into her chin in much the same way she bowed her head into his chest earlier. And in much the same way — though he wouldn’t know this — that she presses her hand against her face, early on, to silence herself against those hunting her in the forest.
Yes, it’s comfort being given, but between equals. Anything else would be unpalatable.
I’ve just blathered about the white people in this movie, I know. That exchange in the beginning — “It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.” “Do you have a better way?” — is telling, in the same way the Joe Henry song Our Song is:
This was my country
And this was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong
It did start badly. Everything about it was brutal and bloody and made what came next. It’s not a justification — just a cause and effect. For there to have been a better way, people would have had to be better than they were. The better way would have been absence, I guess. A not-becoming. Not because, as Hostiles doesn’t hesitate to show, the tribes here were all peace, love and rainbows, but because whatever atrocities they committed upon each other didn’t — so far as anyone knows anyway — erase each other’s way of life, and even the memory of that life, from existence. That annihilation was specific to Joe and the better way he didn’t find.
I expect this is a criticism people might raise with this movie. That he should end as badly as his murdered friends, or the one who shoots himself, or the former comrade who lost it and killed his whole family with an axe — “It could just as easily be you in these chains.” This is, possibly, fair.
But if we would scoff at the idea that the redemption of one man should redeem the atrocities committed by his entire civilization, we should also maybe scoff at the idea that the damning of that same man does anything to help the people he hurt.
Yes, the handshake scene is, to me, ham-handed. The looks are too long; the pan down to the hands way too contrived. But I also recognize that, to me, there is too much forgiveness all around in this movie. And also that were I in any position to dole out that kind of forgiveness, I wouldn’t. I also wouldn’t be healing anything, you understand. People like me don’t fix problems like that, even on an individual, one-on-one basis. We make them worse.
But this movie isn’t about people like me. I wouldn’t have boarded the train. The little old lady in the next row wouldn’t have clapped for me, had I done so. But I didn’t pay to see a story of myself. I paid to see something better:
We’re pushing line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed
As younger and braver and humble and free
The first time I encountered depression, it was in a western. A video game — Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. Like Hostiles, it takes place at the end of the 19th century, when everyone who unfurled their violence out across the plains began to realize even these spaces were no longer appropriate places to become animals. Even here, one was now expected to be put-together. Lawful. Human — despite the inhuman acts committed to
“settle.” In the game, one of the frequenters of the brothel tells you he has been diagnosed with melancholia (“Doesn’t exist,” snaps Christian Bale’s character early on) and that he’s been treating it with whisky and Ruby, one of the girls.
I remember asking my mother what melancholia was, and when she said it was an old term for depression I asked about that. She said it was a disease were you were sad and couldn’t get happy, and I asked if it was contagious, like chickenpox. “Not between people, no,” she said, but then she got into hereditary issues and predispositions — I asked lots of medical questions, when I was a kid, and I was maybe eight or nine at the time — and off the topic of depression itself. But the Western was still where I first encountered it.
All the most memorable stories of it I encountered on my own, unassigned, were set in the West, I believe. From Breaking Clean to Gilead. And I suppose the sadness in all of those stories and people swam on undercurrents of violence. If not in the people themselves, then in the land, and the memory of what people had done upon it.
One of the best scenes in Hostiles is near the end, when Joe has lost everything, and is sitting in a meadow shot through with bars of sunlight slanting through bordering trees, aglow with the floating puffs of some germinating plant. It is striking in the same way Judy Blunt found eastern Montana to be, as she slowly unravelled on its plains: the land is beautiful, and it gives not one damn about whether you live or die, virtuously or in ruin, upon it.
We, however, have to care.
Continuing the theme of Movies Which It Turned Out Had A Much Greater Impact Than I Anticipated, I thought I would rewatch a movie I hadn’t seen in a long time: What Dreams May Come. I’d seen it on our shelves, and was touched that someone else (who? when?) had liked it enough, as I had (back when I saw it in theaters in 1998), to want to keep it around. Also I figured it would be a safe choice, as I knew the kinds of loss discussed therein wouldn’t touch on my own.
“You can say everything you want to. Even goodbye. Even though she can’t understand it. And you’ll have the satisfaction that you didn’t give up. But that has to be enough.”
Setting that aside for a moment though, can we talk about how the art design for this movie is fucking amazing?
Yeah, that’s the paint part. You’re damn right I’m talking about the paint part.
Long story short, it’s easier for the main character to deal with the world as a painting rather than as a reality, so paint it is. I saw this on a big screen as a twelve year old with my painter friend, and we lost our shit. I worried, before we got to this part, that the advance of technology since then would have rendered it crap. But, like Jurassic Park’s animatronic dinosaurs, which still look better than lame CGI concocted a decade later, the paint part of What Dreams May Come is absolutely gorgeous. A quick google informs me that part of this may be due to its use of Fuji Velvia film, which “is known among landscape photographers for its vivid landscape reproduction.” Okay. But there is “good looking landscape” and then there is “my eyes are melting and I’m okay with that.”
Even setting aside the wonders of the painted world early on, the amount of care taken to frame and center things is painstaking, almost to Wes Anderson levels sometimes.
I wasn’t in a position to notice or articulate it, as a twelve year old, but damn. Damn. Yes, the slow-mo and constant tinkling laughter flashbacks can get a little maudlin, but you forget to roll your eyes when another fantastical vista takes your breath away.
Hell, even the hellscapes are impressive.
But, ah…I didn’t rewatch it because it was pretty. I was worried…I always worry when I reengage with things I used to love…that what struck me before, watching it, would come off as hackneyed now. And as that CinemaBlend article earlier makes clear, the path to resentment of emotional button-pushing was clear, if you were an adult watching this move as an adult in 1998. But I wasn’t then, and I still can’t dismiss the whole thing as more hackneyed than not now, for one reason:
I don’t know what Robin Williams meant to adults in 1998. He was their Mork, maybe. Their John Keating. But for the two of us sitting poleaxed in our seats in that theater — and on through to today, for people of that age — he was our Alan Parrish, our Peter Panning, our Genie, our Jack. His was the voice that taught you how to weave between a wisecrack one moment and abrupt earnestness the next, with a nakedness of heart that made my stomach turn over. He could build his characters up to bombastic levels of brashness, but then tear them down immediately, in front of you, where you had to see and hear it happen. Even if it wasn’t even his face you were looking at. That ducking and weaving of his voice, in and out of vulnerability and the transparent attempt to conceal it, was…exhausting? But also, because it was everywhere in 90s kids’ movies, it was a voice you knew. Even if you knew it might pull the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, you knew it.
And there is a ton of voiceover in this movie. Half of it is narration. By him. I didn’t read many words about him when he died because it always seemed unseemly. To pounce on someone real, so recently breathing, whose real loved ones are actively mourning them, as a way to get pageviews or something, I don’t know. Maybe the profundity of memories regurgitated by so many people made it seem tawdry to me. Maybe I’m just bad at mourning — let’s not leave out that possibility. But the fact is that Robin Williams’ voice piloting us and the story through this movie was and remains emotionally arresting in a way, for people who grew up listening to that voice, that is possibly more impactful than anyone planned for. When your go-to extremes, the ones people associate you with, are grandiosity and tentative honesty, and when you slice clean down the middle and settle on desperate assertions made in a wobbly timbre, to someone who should know you and who no longer does, that they are okay and are going to be okay…well, shit. I had forgotten the memory loss component of this plotline, and so was completely unprepared for this scene:
That is his face as he watches his wife ramble mindlessly, not knowing him, not knowing herself, and just, crap. Crap. I did not sign up for this.
Except I did, because I knew that watching this again in my thirties, where I actually knew something of loving people and losing them, was going to be different than watching it two decades prior. I just thought it would be more instructive. Less destructive.
Which is okay — again, I’m not satisfied with a drama unless I am crying, although this means I really should watch all dramas alone — but it’s worth a watch or a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. Even now, when the call to critique seems especially, justifiably, sharp. Look, the movie has problems, okay? I know. Here are some in bullet form:
1.) You should feel bad when your kids take other bodies because they think you’ll respect them more, or because you said something that made them think they’d be more attractive that way
2.) You should not love your spouse so much more than your kids that they demand you try to remember some memory you shared with _just_ them
3.) Women do more than laugh and look pretty
4.) They also do more than get depressed and kill themselves
5.) The flying people look dumb
6.) We are able to locate ourselves solely in the psyches of these people because they have literally no other problems than their loss: plenty of money, a huge house, love. This makes it easier to focus on their pain but it also makes the sheer lavishness of their lives somewhat distracting. While not entirely fair, this is still true. They met while piloting boats they rented for sailing around a lake in Switzerland, for godsake. And at least one of them was wearing a polo shirt and a sweater vest when doing so.
See, that last smarmy jab is where I feel present-day reflection is supposed to stop, right? There were these problems and that’s why the whole thing is shit, moving on. That’s kind of where CinemaBlend stopped, and heaven knows they’re not alone in finding the chink in a cultural artifact’s armor and jabbing it with a fondue fork until there’s nothing left inside but mush. But that does such a disservice to everyone — perhaps most importantly to you, the viewer.
If you turn this movie off fifteen minutes in because their ridiculously posh home says to you that the people in it are undeserving of empathy, then you’re going to miss a flurry of flashbacks whose physicality is frankly stunning. I’ve talked mostly about Robin Williams’ voice here but again — the tenderness in some of his gestures and body language is unnerving. Like you’re intruding by seeing it on film. At one point, fumbling with his wife’s hand, he kisses the side of it, where the index finger connects to the hand. Who even does that, right? No one kisses hands because hi, this isn’t a throne room, and anyway that is a rough part of your hand, that pushes carts and hauls thick backpack straps and gets blisters from shovels. It’s such a workaday part of the body. But he fumbles for it and presses it to his lips like he needs it. Such a sidenote of a body part and it’s his most treasured thing, for a moment. So much so that we almost shouldn’t be seeing it.
And the restraint, over and over again, when he realizes he should pull back and only just manages to do so. The space he gives his wife, who is unraveling beneath his hands, with which he knows better than to touch her. Especially this scene:
As a still, that looks creepy, right? It would be so easy for this to have come off terribly; for him to have seemed intrusive, abusive even in the ferocity of his conviction that she get better. But he doesn’t. Instead of smothering her with comforting hugs, or standing tall and keeping a stiff upper lip because Being Strong Is What You Do For Your Mourning Wife, he keeps his distance, and unravels too.
And that, of course, is was what I missed as a child too entranced by the visuals, and too leery of feelings, and too young by half, to see: she only comes back to herself because every much-lauded version of masculinity trotted out by this admittedly nice guy gets thrown aside, in favor of mutual dissolution. Obviously taken to extremes, this is a terrible example. But what seemed to me at twelve be mythologically simple — “resign yourself to hell to be with her, okay!” — takes on so many more shades now. He’s bidding her farewell but also himself. His knowledge of himself, his life, his children; his values and his friends.
Don’t think I am unaware of the wrongness of this in real-life situations. Remember my fury at Firewatch, which presumed to chastise the main character for “abandoning” his dementia-ridden wife? I was livid. Do not condemn, I seethed, the surviving loved one to a lifetime of seeking recognition and healing in those who will be host to neither. Do not condemn my father to that. Do not condemn my husband to that.
But even retaining that stance, even speaking as one who will quietly walk out of this world rather than put my husband through what my father went through, when the time comes, I still collapse a little, listening to him patiently explaining to this woman who no longer knows him how he will remain, until he no longer knows her, either.
It is I guess, again, the power of fantasy. That chance for winning. I don’t reject it when it is trotted out as a mere fantasy. I reject it when it is used, as it was in Firewatch, to condemn those who truly had no other choice. Dissolution, that choosing the worst, is a noble and beautiful choice in fiction, as in What Dreams May Come. But that’s because it’s fantasy, and “sometimes when you lose, you win.”
In life, it’s less picturesque. You just lose. Your partner, your children, yourself. Or you force them to lose you, bit by bit. And if your voice carried a generation from childhood to adolescence, you force them to lose you, too. To wonder if they have any right to a sense of loss, and to stumble onto your work years later, and be twisted up by it.
Which maybe makes you a little less lost, but it’s still no painted valley.
I love fall! Pumpkins. Cider. Blowing leaves. Non-IPA beer again, finally. Sweaters! Love me some sweaters. Know what I don’t like? Halloween.
Candy is great! Dressing up is fun! But fear sucks. It really sucks. I was never a big fan of it and I like it even less as I grow older and, I suspect, become that stick sinking even deeper into the mud. How did this happen? Let me present Exhibit A:
Topping even Enter the Void as my most-loathed movie ever. Yes, I know, even though it’s something of a cult classic now. Even though people — people my age! — still throw money at shirts and bags and statues and all manner of paraphernalia embracing this movie. This movie made in 1993. It’s that old.
In 1993, I turned seven. My grandmother, possessing a great deal of money but perhaps not a deep understanding of the psyches of kids, showered us with plastic Nightmare Before Christmas figures. Every single one. We went to see the movie together on one of her rare visits out to see us, and afterward she sent us all…all…of the plastic figures from the movie. Maybe as a sort of memento of our brief time together.
Every night I heaped my toy box high with books and hoped the toys wouldn’t murder me in my sleep.
Jack was so skinny he could fit through the plastic Fisher Price handle hole, I figured, so I tied him up with shoelaces first. Then I worried that this might heighten his animus towards me and thus that I was worsening my chances by risking his skeletal wrath. Eventually, though I remember no conversations about it, the toys were removed (double-bagged), placed in a box in the garage, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least until a move years later, when Jack’s skeletal hand ripped through the bags during the moving day fracas, and even my fifth grade self recoiled in horror. We donated the toys to charity shortly thereafter.
The songs, though, never leave you alone. “Making Christmas,” with its maniacial, mechanical dirge that I’m sure was meant as commentary on the materiality of Christmas (oh-so-deep, 90s!) but which comes off to a 7-year-old as just creepy and awful. “This Is Halloween,” which keeps appearing again and again in pop culture, like some sort of chronic disease that can’t be cured. When I hit the Halloweentown world in the first Kingdom Hearts game, I put the controller down and walked out, offering my sister multiple bargains (hours of uninterrupted EverQuest game time? homework assistance?) if she’d just play through it for me. Even the colors of the world, entering it, scream at me to run. Tired orange, rotting purple, that gray-brown wash over everything…that fucking mayor with his twisty head…that is no space I ever want to inhabit. No love story can draw me in; I don’t care about Jack and Sally; I just want out. As someone who always tended to hover on the sidelines of cultural acceptability, this was an awkward hill to die on, popular as the movie was with people who weren’t, well, popular. But as soon as the Jack Skellington handbags come out, I am gone. Peddle your creep factor elsewhere. That uncurling vine ramp can curl right the fuck back up, thanks.
Which brings us to Exhibit B:
It’s a strange thing about millennials at the upper end of the age bracket: we got to sop up a lot of the cultural beats of the 70s, because that’s what had made its way onto TV (and therefore recordable and endlessly-rewatchable VHS tapes), even though more recent cultural moments existed. I know almost none of the TV specials, holiday or otherwise, that aired brand-new in the 80s, for example. I was too young (see: an infant), the shows too new, and anyway my parents didn’t get cable for years. But the 70s? Oh, the 70s, via 90s reruns, gave us a bucketload of feel-good gooey peace and love holiday gems, and The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t was one of the best.
We aren’t talking a big budget here. Judd Hirsch, Mariette Hartley, Henry Gibson, all — at one point — in their disco finery. Rubber masks. Plastic bats on (visible) fishing lines. Go ahead and google it; you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. But if you’re looking for doom, gloom, and gore, you won’t find it, despite the profundity of vampires, werewolves, mummies and every other Halloween horror that typically sets my teeth on edge, for the simple fact that this movie is about being lonely. And about realizing that that needn’t be the case.
“Nobody loves a witch!” Marriete Hartley’s witch snarls through the keyhole in her tower, as she once again refuses to fly over the moon, inaugurating Halloween and allowing it to happen. The pleas of her sometime-boyfriend, Judd Hirsch’s Dracula, matter little. No one in the town dresses up as a witch, and this makes her sad. Everyone just expects her to be sullen and cruel and scary, and she’s sick of it, and she’s not going to do it. Halloween can go to hell, as far as she’s concerned.
But a little girl from the town (nervous, in no small way, given that she has been led by Igor and a werewolf and a Frankenstein monster up into the scary mansion that overlooks the town, in the faint hope that her voice might reach the Witch where no one else’s has) pipes up in the hallway, informing her that no, she loves witches. Has dressed up as one in fact. Because she thinks they are cool and magical, and have great hats, and also they can fly so I mean, bonus points.
The Witch, who has been crying, opens the door and can’t believe her eyes. She has one fan — this kid in her home-sewn pointy hat with a dollar store broom and cape. After confirming that this child is indeed real, she relents and flies over the moon, on one final condition: that she and Dracula go disco dancing like they used to. Which they do.
This is the only Halloween movie I can think of that warms my heart. All the others, even the cute ones made for kids, are scary or sad or both. Casper’s all alone. Linus waits eternally for a great pumpkin that will never come. And I think this is what makes me a Halloween stick in the mud, more so even than my abominably low Tim Burton tolerance or a pronounced distaste for the undead: I want to have my heart warmed. Movie, book, video game, doesn’t matter — let there be something moving at the heart of it. Not because I am particularly fond of Hallmark goop, but because of Exhibit C:
Or, Life is Shit and Short and Messy and Halloween’s fixation on this, on the frailty of our meatbag selves and the minds that pilot them, frequently to do terrible things, doesn’t make any of that feel better. It’s not distracting, it brings no relief, I get no rush of schadenfreude. I don’t need a dark night and a mist-wreathed lake town to remind me there is evil in the world. We kind of get that, in 2017. Big time.
And maybe ultimately my issue with Halloween and horror in general is broader and more selfish still. Maybe I just hate that we don’t win. In fantasy stories, you might win. The emotional stakes might be high, and people might die, but there’s still that chance. The formula demands that possibility of triumph. It’s fantasy, after all. But the formula for horror, while no more complex, is a good deal grimmer. Shit sucks, we pause to reflect on the depth to which shit sucks, and then people stop screaming. The end.
And that’s probably what I dislike most about creepy!Halloween. We lose. We always lose. The killers escape, the ghosts come back; hell, even the bodies of people we love come back, drained of their affection and, worse, even their recognition of us. (Did you think I wouldn’t go there?) Everything is terrible in horror, yes, but everything is terrible already. By adhering to the shitty horror formula, you ensure that even the ghosts (har har) of redemption, or of healing or of hope, never make it across the page or the screen. There’s only the flash of fangs or bones or metal, and then failure. Death and darkness. Over and over and over again.
And not only is that not what I want to hear now, it has never been what I want to hear. Or see, or say, or play. If I wanted — indulge me in my melodrama for a moment — to see a horror story unfold, I’d have myself tested for the APOE e4 gene. But I won’t, and I never will. Because horror stories are a dime a dozen. Hope has value.
Also, fuck Halloweentown forever.
Today was Free Comic Book Day.
I didn’t know that, because I’m not really much of a comics person. I found out via an almost slapstick line-of-sight reveal: from going up the wrong ramp, seeing a fence I couldn’t get past, looking back the way I came, encountering a man in a spacesuit and cape, dismissing him as irrelevant to my escape, then realizing that he was out there advertising the comics shop hidden behind the adobe wall forming one side of my enclosure.
Ta daa. Free Comic Book Day.
I’m not traditionally a comics person, but I do try. I love Batgirl of Burnside, for example. I’ve seen…half…of the big movies? A lot of the reasons I’m turned off by superheroes are pretty cut-and-dried, I know. Nonsensical costumes, gravity-defying boobs, dumb love plotlines. A too-eager reflection of the real world, but tweaked, when what I typically want is a depiction of Anywhere But Here (see: Ferelden! the Shire! Morrowind!) with all the narrative and emotional pull of life as we know it.
But, costumes and gender problems aside, I also always took issue with the portrayal of hero flaws. They seemed far too pronounced. Even in third grade, tasked with writing a super hero story, I chafed at the weakness I was given to write about (we pulled weaknesses, like strengths, from notecards in a basket). “How can she be old enough to be super if she’s afraid of water?” I argued with my teacher [conveniently forgetting my own mandatory, remedial swim class for Kids Who Are Afraid Of the Deep End]. “Real people don’t do this!”
What I meant, or what I’m reinterpreting what was probably a much less nuanced argument to have meant, is that real people’s weaknesses aren’t so clear-cut and laid out there, plain to see. You don’t just fall apart at the exposure of your weakness, whether that’s water or cancer or the discussion of either. Right? I spent decades eschewing superheroes not so much for their superpowers as for their over-pronounced frailties. Everyone has weaknesses, sure, I thought. But you deal with them. They don’t weigh on you for episode after episode, lurking in your subconscious or your body like bombs, waiting for the proper moment to blow your plans to smithereens.
Except, that’s exactly what they do.
**SPOILERS FOR GOTG2**
When Peter Quill’s father tells him he put the tumor in his mother’s head, his reaction was instantaneous and 100% what I screamed for him to do in my head (albeit mostly in profanity): he attempts to blow this guy the fuck away. That the speaker is technically his father matters not one jot: here, personified, is the reason his mom died. Blam. You absofuckinglutely attack that. Thumbs-up, Starlord.
The deep satisfaction I got from Quill’s kneejerk reaction was not lost on me. Coming out of the theater to a confusing barrage of dammed-up texts about my mom’s hospice care, it was not lost on me. Maybe not as a third-grader (let’s be real: the cultural critique game is not that strong in those afraid of the deep end) but definitely as a teenager onward, I had disparaged superheroes for the giant bullseyes they walked around with, glued to their backs. “Hey father issues, over here!” “Oi, Krypton, pick me!” “Enclosed spaces! Come at me bro!” People, I thought, don’t work like that. Everyone’s issues are deeply buried and they only come up in the quiet of your own mind, are dealt with, and then are shelved away, hopefully a little better cataloged than before, but otherwise ignored.
Yeah, um. Nope.
If I someone were standing in front of me who could somehow credibly claim to be responsible for my mother’s illness, I’d beat the everloving fuck out of him. It’s a giant emotional bullseye that I was just too sheltered, or lucky, to realize I’d have to carry around one day. I wouldn’t even pause — as Peter Quill doesn’t even pause — to reflect upon the recriminations, legal or moral or otherwise, of my actions.
I have acquired my bullseye. I pick up an issue of Runner’s World magazine, see an article on one man’s doomed attempt to keep running in the face of Alzheimer’s and bam, slap that sucker right back down on the shelf, unwilling to bring that freshly energized sadness into my day. (Still haven’t read the article.) I walk into a movie theater with a bunch of friends to see X-Men, knowing zero things about X-Men, and suddenly I’m burrowing nine miles back into the depths of my hoodie, fleeing Patrick Stewart’s all too accurate portrayal of dementia’s viciousness.
It’s not that I didn’t think people had (and I’ve tried not to use this word, because it has been co-opted by too many people to mean too many different things, and not with the best of intentions) triggers. I grew up in the nineties and aughts. From What About Bob to What Dreams May Come, we knew shit went down. That people got fucked up. But I always thought it would be…well. Other people, I guess. Not me.
The level of fuckery required for superhero-level bullseyes, I thought, didn’t apply to me. Unlike families I’ve since come to know intimately, no one in my house screamed at each other or threw things at each other, or starved themselves or drove their cars into trees on purpose, and I thought well, good. Bases covered. I’m safe from bad things. I knew the disease was coming, had seen it take my grandmother, and figured I was as ready as one can be.
I was wrong.
In a movie rife with enjoyable comedic and emotional beats, Guardians‘ portrayal of Quill’s reaction there is still my favorite moment. Because it is so true. (And, I guess, a little forgiving, if I think of it as true.) No one presses pause there to make judgmental Instagram reposts of Pinterest quotes in Lucida Handwriting pontificating that they would have shown compassion to their mother’s killer. No one chastises Peter for having feelings. They just do their best to help him mow down the fucker who killed his mom. And who also, okay, will kill everyone else if left to his own devices, but that, for me (if not for Quill — this is why he’s the superhero and I’m not) is beside the point.
Maybe, then, the unrealistic thing about superheroes isn’t their giant bullseye weaknesses just waiting to be exploited.
It’s that they get to overcome them.
For the record, I massively love in Moana how the guy who presents as a cocky jerk is broken apart so visibly. Obviously there’s the fem main character too (plus her sexuality not being part of the plot), but I knew about that going in and I was already on board for it. But I didn’t expect to see some self-aggrandizing jock torn up, not just via implication but verbally and openly. He places all his self-worth in this tool outside himself, and without it he sees himself as nothing, and he says it. That’s the sort of thing you usually surmise about people after they die and you try to put together the pieces of their life in a way that makes sense to you. And we are just out and told it, in dialogue and in song. It twists up my stomach, the way I first remember the shrinking episode of Lois and Clark (yeah I know, of all things!) doing. That kind of vulnerability (its exposure?) makes me a little nauseous, but it’s so worth portraying. Self-awareness, people! Self-awareness. Even if it turns you a little green.
“Chasing the love of these humans
Who made you feel wanted
You tried to be tough
But your armour’s just not hard enough”
Degree to which I can deal with Patrick Stewart’s performance in Logan: NEGATIVE NINE THOUSAND.
ME: This is fine.
BRAIN: No it’s not that’s Mom up there
ME: He’s just doing a great job is all.
BRAIN: YES OF PORTRAYING YOUR PAST PRESENT AND FUTURE
ME: The frail cruelty switching unexpectedly to tenderness and back is particularly true to–
BRAIN: THIS HOODIE IS NOT DEEP ENOUGH TO HIDE ALL YOUR TEARS MAKE IT STAHHHHHHP
Seriously. I have zero stakes in the X-men — I know little about them; they’re not a fandom of mine. But criminy. I cannot deal. After the movie over drinks and dinner I did elaborate pirouettes around the subject of Patrick Stewart, desperate not to have to discuss it or return there emotionally because oh my god. No. I can’t. There are no hoodies deep enough to hide the tears. Most of the feels for that movie were supposed to be elsewhere but I spent every scene with Patrick Stewart on-screen sitting there poleaxed, one supportive shoulder squeeze away from complete meltdown.