Horror Thoughts 10.05.2015

The air is cold and someone has hopefully awoken Green Day by now, which of course means that the Internet has positively exploded with fall fever. October has become a bit of a pastime in itself, a reason to change Twitter handles to something Halloween-themed (if you’re wondering, Bogert became Boggart), to get caught up in the so-called “skeleton wars,” and in my case to try in vain to experience that ostensibly strongest of negative affect: fear.

I say in vain because to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever actually been scared by a piece of fiction. Well, not since I was a kid, when my father ill-advisedly quipped, “Oh look, it’s your mom’s favorite movie” and a not-quite-old-enough-to-get-sarcasm me was scarred nigh indefinitely by an ad for Child’s Play.

Chucky notwithstanding, I’ve gotten a little tired of not being scared. So very frequently, I see horror films and novels plastered with promises — often by people I’m wont to trust — that this story will terrify me, that it will raise the hair on the back of my neck, that it will render useless the off position of my light switch at night. And so very frequently, I experience nothing of the sort. To wit: I watched The Exorcist alone in the basement with the lights out, and subsequently slept like a baby.

So this month, in the spirit of the season, I’ve turned myself towards the task of watching a lot of horror, in the hopes that something will live up to the hype and actually unsettle me. I figured if I’m going to watch so many movies I may as well at least also briefly mention my thoughts on them, and so this is the first of what will be four or five posts encapsulating my experience. Stay tuned to see if anything actually scares me.

Also, while I have grown to dislike the idea of rating for quality, I figured I’d toss in an appraisal of enjoyment, a la the Goodreads system. So: 1/5 Didn’t like it, 2/5 Meh, 3/5 Liked it, 4/5 Really liked it, 5/5 Loved it.

The Shining, 1980 (2/5). This is probably a competent flick (Kubrick is known for meticulous film craft, after all), but it is an absolutely awful adaptation of the book. Stephen King’s Overlook is actually pretty creepy. Metaphoric (but all too real) wasp nests and a sinister game of Red Light, Green Light with the hotel’s hedge menagerie are among my favorite things in the novel, but neither made it into the movie. I also think that real fear depends on a degree of subtlety that Jack is really lacking in this film; he pretty much starts off the film as an edgy and unstable-seeming man, which makes his descent into madness too telegraphed and not very tragic.

Funny Games, 1997 (3/5). I’m told the 2007 remake is incredibly faithful to the original, to the point where seeing one is as good as seeing the other. I hadn’t seen either, though a friend (upon seeing I was watching this) told me it’s her favorite in the genre. I can half understand that: this story of a well-to-do family’s nightmare of a home invasion is gripping and meticulously designed. The hopelessness it depicts is uncomfortably nonchalant, and everything that happens feels both inevitable and completely unnecessary. I’m still not sure how I feel about the movie’s approach to audience awareness — it’s either genius or it completely undermines the film, no real room for middle ground — but the movie has permanently changed the way I view the game Hot or Cold, so that’s something.

Rosemary’s Baby, 1968 (3/5). I’m sure this film was scary when it released, but fifty years of social progress render it positively maddening now. It’s fair to say that a great deal of what poor Rosemary goes through in this film would be avoided in a society where her husband did not have such control over her life, and you don’t need to be a critical scholar to understand that this woman is as much the victim of patriarchy as she is of Satan. Indeed, the film’s most frightening moment for me is where it touches upon the one thing that legitimately scares me as a thinking person: the very real power society has to label a sane person as insane, and the subsequent stripping of autonomy (and futility of protest) once one’s mind has been labeled unsound.

It Follows, 2014 (4/5). This movie was making many waves last year as an ostensibly revolutionary take on the genre. I won’t call it scary (though many will), but I do think the filmmakers have hit upon a nicely unsettling idea with the situation plaguing our protagonists. The dauntless pursuit slowly exhausting these unfortunate young people also begins to wear on the viewer — we’re seeking the same kind of escape that the characters are, and the more hopeless they become the more upset we’re wont to be as well. I was disappointed in the movie’s lowbrow moments, though I will say I was impressed by the fact that a movie based on hot coeds with (basically) evil STIs features so little in the way of titillation. It Follows didn’t scare me, but it was at least a good movie, and that’s more than I can often say about this genre.

The Omen, 1976 (4/5). I don’t usually want to slap the priests in movies, but I definitely wanted to slap this one. The guy shows up to warn the ambassador that his son is actually the antichrist, but he does it in the most cryptic and overdramatic way, more or less guaranteeing that he will not be listened to. And so in the back of my mind I spent the movie wondering how much could have been avoided if only he had not spoken in doomsday poetry but had chosen to use regular words and a tempered demeanor. This frustration was usurped by my inability to understand why you would not outright fire your governess if you discovered she was keeping an attack dog in your child’s room even after you explicitly demanded she remove it. That all said, The Omen is really less a horror movie than a supernatural mystery film with a horror veneer. If you can put off wondering how an ambassador has so much free time to go adventuring across southern Europe without so much as a word to any government official, it’s actually pretty fun. Also: much better use of child on tricycle than The Shining.

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (5/5). This is one of those movies that has reached nearly mythic status in the American consciousness (kind of like The Shining, come to think of it), but probably for the wrong reasons. I watched this film because I was watching horror films, but I don’t even think this classifies as horror. True, there are some pretty awful moments in the movie, but I have seen much worse in casual episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds. Strip away the shock value, however, and this is still a pretty riveting tale of two incredibly smart people in a bloody intellectual tango. Hopkins is the Joker if the Joker were a genius, and Foster plays both Harley Quinn and Batman, drawn to, repulsed by, but ultimately reliant on the evil on the other side of the glass.

I still have quite a few movies to go on this little self-scaring journey, including some of the grislier entries I’ve heretofore avoided (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Saw, Final Destination, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are on the list). I’m still thinking that the horror genre’s titans are rooted less in terror than in disgust, but I guess we’ll see.

(in) Divisible

I’ve seen various social media attempts to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 today, including #onenationundergod, at which I nodded wryly. That statement is, at best, two different lies.

Sidestepping the religious quagmire for today (you’re welcome), I’ll note that over the past year the part of the Pledge of Allegiance which has struck me as the most farcical is “indivisible.” We as a country seem incredibly ready to divide; true unity among American citizens is both rare and fleeting, predicated on unthinkable tragedy which — after a collective gasp — devolves almost immediately into by now tiresomely predictable squabbling, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing.

At the heart of the debate is a dichotomy, and whether it is false or not does not seem to matter, because we have stretched two ideals away from each other and claimed they are poles toward which (and consequently away from which) one simply must gravitate.

Here is the tension: Do you value FREEDOM or do you value SAFETY?

So that my cards are on the table, you should know that I’ve long fancied and espoused the view best captured in the words (whatever their original intent) of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I like it not for its supposed “patriotic spirit” or even because of who said it (because let us be honest, Franklin was hardly role model material) but because it parsimoniously captures both the premium I feel ought to be placed on freedom and the subsequent aggravation brought about when Feeling A Little Safer is the justification for curtailing that freedom.

Last summer I had the opportunity to teach a course on Media and Terrorism, and while I endeavored as much as possible to avoid focusing on 9/11 or then-ubiquitous al-Qaeda (I say then because ISIS has since usurped the group in the twisted popularity contest we call mainstream news), I nevertheless found that most academic thinking — thinking in general, really — about terrorism is now firmly embedded in the lens of WTC-as-exemplar. I spent the better part of that summer trying to provide some new heuristics to accompany those smoking towers in my students’ minds, but the fact remains that when you say “terrorism” to the average American, September 11th, 2001 is what jumps to mind.

I wanted to reclaim the humanity of terrorists, to underscore what merit there is to the cliché one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I found that distance renders this a far easier task, and empathizing with Tamil Tigers or Basque separatists was easier perhaps because those groups weren’t blowing up our buildings or setting fire to our streets. It’s easier to play devil’s advocate for the person releasing poison gas in someone else’s subway. My point wasn’t to legitimize the violence — far from it — but to get my students to understand that the violence isn’t mindless, that it is perpetrated for the most part by rational human beings, and that often it is the result of losing faith in any legitimate course of action for accomplishing what one perceives to be needed (not wanted, needed).

Eventually things had to make their way back around to the home soil, and it was admittedly uncomfortable. You get people understanding that — wonder of wonders — terrorists are people too, and suddenly the question of what motivated 9/11 becomes a necessary but uncomfortable one. Much of the progress gets flushed at the inevitable recoil, and the way to plunge it back up is to return a kind of sickening balance: okay, those are terrorists you don’t want to think critically about, so what about the freedom fighters you defend? At their most patriotic, I made my students compare their definitions of terrorism — asymmetrical warfare, nonstate entity against established powers, ideological justification, spreading of fear amongst a population — to the actions of the colonists whose revolution founded the country. I put them in the shoes of colonial Loyalists, and the stars and stripes suddenly became a few shades darker.

My point here isn’t that this country that so many of us adore was founded by terrorists (though if you haven’t considered that statement, it is at least a worthwhile thought exercise). And I am definitely not trying to mitigate the atrocity that was September 11th.

But considering the lengths to which our founders were willing to go in order to secure autonomy and to get foreign powers out of their land, our response to modern acts of insurgency seems painfully un-self-aware. Judging by my students’ attitudes, we would rather try to snuff out those with grievances than even consider they might have grievances (to say nothing of addressing those). And I think a failure to consider the motivations underlying an act of terrorism renders most of how people respond to terrorism moot.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America doubled down on its resolve to Not Let The Terrorists Win, but how can you calculate wins or losses if you don’t even know the parameters of the game? If the goal of terroristic acts is to instill fear in a population and create change in the state’s operation, then the only way to win is to remain resiliently unafraid, and to refuse to change.

But we did change. We were afraid. Most of us still are.

Take the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act: “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” (yeah, that’s what it stands for). When you’re done laughing, let’s sober up and consider how much more unified or strengthened we feel with the N.S.A.’s hand in our cellphone records and the T.S.A.’s hand down our pants. Then there’s the racial profiling, the knee-jerk equating of Islam with Islamist with Extremism, the see something, say something mentality that has sprung up in public places alongside militarized police.

We are a radically different nation than we were before the nation was rocked by an act of international terrorism. For a few days, maybe even weeks, we really did seem “indivisible,” knit together by unspeakable tragedy perpetrated by seemingly (but, remember, not actually) inscrutable evil. But then we cracked. Our strategy for not letting terrorists win was to try to stop them from playing — and in doing so, we have happily surrendered privacy and liberty for a peace of mind that may not even really be justified.

It is echoed in micro each time violence shakes the nation — every shot fired in a school, theater, or other public venue reverberates with cries for less freedom and more safety.

I am not saying we should not think critically about these things. There are legitimate reasons and ways for making our lives safer and better. That tragedy catalyzes these discussions does not mean they are not discussions worth having. Yet I find the zeal on both sides disconcerting; understandable, yes, but disconcerting nonetheless for all the moderation it tends so often to lack. When liberty and safety are treated as mutually exclusive, the valuing of one too frequently leads to the overhasty dismissal of the other.

We are not, despite how loudly or badly we may sing otherwise, the land of the free and the home of the brave. A brave people would not have curtailed its own freedoms out of fear.

Nor would a brave people shy away from a discussion of what constitutes essential liberty when daily living seems to be unnecessarily unsafe. Fear is what makes someone say to hell with liberty, I don’t want to die. Fear is also what makes someone say to hell with you dying, I want my liberty (sorry, Patrick Henry). Fear is refusing to engage with a person of differing values; it is the kindling upon which ideological strawmen burn.

America continues to face threats (and perceive threats) from without and within. This is not newly true since 9/11, but perhaps our awareness of it — bolstered by a 24/7 episodic news cycle — is newer. Yet even in the wake of increasing understanding of how pervasive danger can be, we have a choice as a people in how we respond. Do we stand resilient, declaring ourselves united and strong, brave and free? Or do we continue to panic, uncritically sacrificing freedom out of fear?

And as we seek a path forward, whether proactive or reactive, how do we handle our differences? How do we address foreign ideas? Foreign people? As a presidential election begins to brew, will America seek actual unity? Or will it continue to pay bankrupt lip-service to nonpartisanship that goes no further than a trending hashtag?

I look at a map sprayed red and blue, and I see fifty states, but I don’t see one nation. I sure don’t see indivisible. I don’t see us prioritizing liberty. And justice? If we tore off her blindfold, we’d see tears in her eyes.

I think back fourteen years to what a nation truly standing together looked like, and I am chilled to the bone at the coming sound of partisan punditry parading in a star-spangled media circus.

Can America be indivisible? Do we even want to try?

Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.
~ Matthew 12:25

Straight Outta Ignorance

As four Torrance Police officers towered over the prone members of N.W.A., I bristled with rage in my seat. Jerry Heller was saying all the right things — you can’t come down here and arrest people just because of what they look like! — but that somehow made it worse. His nigh impotence in the moment simply underscored how much worse things would have gotten for the young black men had a wealthy white man not been around to intervene.

In that moment, my anger transcended both the specific officers in the scene and the institution of law enforcement generally, and for the first time in my life I understood how inequality can breed resentment of allies. Jerry Heller was the hero of this scene, and that was precisely why I despised him: not because he had helped, but because his help had been required. The whiteness that made him powerful in that one moment was the same whiteness that made these kids powerless in every moment.

When, back in the studio, Ice Cube subsequently exploded into the opening verse of “Fuck tha Police,” every fiber of my being was behind him. Yet this was the second time I’d heard the track that day. In preparation for the film, I’d opted to spend the afternoon streaming the entire Straight Outta Compton album, and my first listen had elicited a markedly different reaction. Couched in the comfortable safety of my suburban home, Compton made me uncomfortable.

Where hip-hop is concerned, I’m not so much moist behind the ears as dripping. Yesterday wasn’t only my first time listening to N.W.A., it was also my first time listening to real, historic rap. My typical listening choices tend towards overproduction and sanitization, and even my “edgier” modern choices eschew the kind of raw brutality with which Straight Outta Compton bursts. If N.W.A. was born from dissatisfaction with candy-coated popular music, it’s safe to say that the sugary veneer is as fertile for shattering now as it was in 1988.

Of course the reality depicted in Compton is not my reality, and therein lies the discomfort. Part of it stems from the alien nature of a life foregrounded by drugs, sex, and violence; the discomfort of the foreign and unknown from out here in middle class suburbia. But the simple fact of ignorance breeds its own discomfort: the nagging sense that my isolation from this reality is part of the problem, the idea that the othering and subsequent quarantining of terrible conditions is the reason those conditions exist. A major contributor to the situation Black Americans find themselves in is that White Americans view it as a Black problem — and thus not a White responsibility.

Perhaps the greatest horror of Straight Outta Compton is that by the end of the movie I was exhausted, exasperated by the fact that Rodney King, unpunished police brutality, calls for minority censorship under guise of peacekeeping, and finger-pointing at minority art as responsible for the violence it reflects — all featured heavily in the film — could so effortlessly be replaced with this year’s YouTube or CNN footage. In so many ways, Selma is Compton is Detroit is Ferguson is Baltimore, and the only thing worse than how long this has gone on is how easy it would be for me to shrug it off and go back to living like it doesn’t affect me.

In the wake of over a year’s worth of racial tension, I frequently see the expression “Stay Woke.” White America’s ability to fall back asleep — an unexamined luxury — and its well-documented tendency to do precisely that are what make the simultaneous dependence on White action so frustrating. I’ve spent years not understanding that simple truth, rubbing my eyes and whining, “just five more minutes.”

Straight Outta Compton is one hell of an alarm clock. It’s on audience members to stop hitting snooze.

This is the End

It occurred to me yesterday, as I walked across campus on my way to the evening’s classes, that I am soon going to have to shut this down. The thought rolled off my back and may as well have fallen on the sidewalk behind me for how much credence I gave it then, but tonight my retraced steps have brought me back to pick it up, dust it off, and appreciate what that means.

Right now, the blog I’m typing will be published on adambogert.com. Up until six months ago, that was fine: this site represented the best of me, or at least the most of me. The words across the top — Writer. Reader. Gamer. Scholar. — were arranged in a way that made sense at the time. And for the most part there was nothing more to my self-presentation than that. Since I started The Forge back in December 2006, I have always had a “blog,” a site to vent my thoughts, whine about my life, reflect on things that had struck me, review the movie I saw over the weekend, etc. I’ve always been intentional about being straightforward and being honest, about wearing my heart on my sleeve. After all, the only people who were looking for me were people who, ostensibly, cared about me or knew me personally.

But much has changed in the last six months and even as I still take the notion of independence and honesty seriously, I recognize that this isn’t the best way to achieve it. Starting in June, I will be a teacher. I already have seven students enrolled in my course and the push for registration hasn’t even gotten into full swing. Those students have my name. And perhaps they are curious enough to find their way here. Heck, perhaps one of you is one of my students. That’s a crazy thought.

And it’s a realistic one. The kind that says for better or worse you can’t have a blog in which you post about your personal struggles and anxieties and experiences with peers and teachers and students — a blog anything remotely like what I’ve written over the past seven and a half years — attached to the official website with your name attached to it. Such a site may be permitted to exist (and indeed, I’ve not ruled it out), but it can’t be here, it can’t be this.

On the other side of the coin, it’s high time that I took advantage of having a website with my name attached to it and got used to the fact that going forward, people entering “Adam Bogert” into Google will be looking for a professor, a graduate student, a researcher, or a colleague — not an introspective dude bleeding melodrama into cyberspace.

I have forged some great relationships through this kind of blogging over the years. I’ve also lost some relationships because of it. I’ve grown in some ways and regressed in others. I have made some people laugh, and I know for a fact I’ve made some people cry. And it has been good. Not always enjoyable, but good.

But it’s ending. Disengaging from social media was the first step, but it was not enough. This all has to go, pocketed away in the annals of my childhood, boxed up and stored in a basement where I will look back at it fondly and with all the proper embarrassment of reading one’s adolescent diary.

This will be a process, for sure. I do not know for sure how long it will take, or when it will be finalized. But, as it were, this is the beginning of the end, and I want to thank anyone who has been along for any part of the ride. Keep in touch, if you can.

-Adam K. Bogert, February 26th, 2014