Taste: can things be good if they are not popular?

I know that sounds like a tacitly stupid question. Of COURSE I can judge something to be good, I can love something, that most people don’t find good. My standards will always be different from other folks’ standards, and what I’m looking for (in a piece of music, a book, a way of entertaining myself, a friendship) will probably be different from what someone else looks for.

That’s not what I mean by asking this.

What I mean has something more to do with “good” as a supposedly value-free and universal standard.

As a humanist, as someone who considers herself an anti-snob [please hear that: not all academics value exclusivity and self-inflation… in fact, MOST of my professor-colleagues don’t (that seems to be the purview of certain anti-intellectual, racist, gold-plating, orange-skinned/toupeed presidential candidates); the one colleague who does value those things is thought, by most of the rest of us, to be rather stupid and kind of an asshole and a terrible professor using snobbish standards to cover up his personal stupidity (sort of like that presidential candidate). I balk a bit at the idea that something might be “good” simply because it adheres to a set of arbitrarily-produced aesthetic standards which don’t appeal to or give pleasure to the majority of people. What do those standards mean, then?

We all take pleasure in different things. An aesthetic standard tells us what we “should” take pleasure in, or what is a superior kind of pleasure. I’ve found myself, on too many occasions, defending something as “junky but really good”–like a certain kind of potato chip; or chocolate without fancy nuts or shenanigans or single-origin cocoa beans; or a trashy, addictive TV show. Or when I find myself singing a Ke$ha song after hearing it over a gas station PA.

I guess my question is: if it doesn’t tend to bring pleasure to most people, can we call it “good”? This, in my mind, is really different from saying “I think it’s good” or “I love it.” I mean, I absolutely adore Brussels sprouts when they are roasted with garlic and olive oil until they get kind of crispy-brown on the outside and start to taste a bit nutty… in my book, they are Superior. But I know there are lots of folks who hate them. Heck, I hated them when I was younger (this may have had something to do with my parents’ tendency to boil them until they were gray and soggy and yell at me until I ate them). And it has nothing to do with them being “good for you” (the way we ate them when I was a kid was probably not “good for” me; since all the nutrients were probably boiled out, it was probably as nutritious as eating wet toilet paper).

The problem with “good,” for me, is that it still makes reference to some universal aesthetic/moral standard, and I don’t tend to believe in those. Even the “do unto others” credo (like “first, do no harm” and my simpler college motto, “don’t hurt people”) isn’t really universal. I mean, what about tough love? What about protecting yourself from a dangerous or toxic person? As a professor, I’ve had to give a bad grade—even fail someone—because that person didn’t meet my standard, even though they met their own (or had other stuff about which they were more concerned); sometimes, as a result of a bad grade from me, a student’s GPA dropped enough that they were unable to play on a sports team, or lost the chance to do something else they wanted to do. What about, on a more mundane note, choosing one person as a bestie instead of another? Aren’t those standards in direct opposition, sometimes, to the needs of the many, or of yourself? Won’t enacting some of those standards hurt someone?

I had a student once who used to say, loudly, in response to almost anything, “Don’t judge!” That used to infuriate me: judgment is what keeps me from walking into traffic or putting my hand into fire; it’s also what keeps me from befriending people who are going to treat me badly, or paying almost $20 to watch a film that will give me no pleasure of any sort but put money in the pockets of someone whose values and behavior are deplorable to me (ahem: Mel Gibson, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).

My point is, those standards don’t always apply, and neither should aesthetic standards, right?

When I make choices as a writer, when I aim for some particular effect or choose to create in a particular way, I’m setting an aesthetic standard that applies to that piece, and I’m trying to stick with it. Then, when it’s finished, I can evaluate (1) if I managed to achieve that aesthetic standard and (2) if the standard produces something I think is good and thus (3) if the standard itself is something I think is good.

I think we each do that when we consume and evaluate something, too (a meal, a book, a piece of art). Maybe it would be helpful to think about this as we read that book or listen to that song:

1.How is this piece defining “good”? What’s it shooting for?

2.Did the piece achieve its goals?

3.Do I like the piece? Does it bring me some kind of pleasure? (Pleasure can be aesthetic, moral, intellectual; outrage can be a kind of pleasure; so can be perplexity, or feeling conflicted; pain can be pleasure, even watching something painful to the eye (too bright an image, for example, or the too-quick cuts in many films), and  anyone who likes horror films can attest that controlled terror is a kind of pleasure…)

4.Do I agree with the standard? Can the standard be applied to other things? Do I want to adopt it as my own standard?

In other words, perhaps my (and your?) engagement with art, ideas, and other kinds of production is about two things: finding pleasure of some sort AND testing out a standard of “good” in order to add to my own definition.

But back to that initial question: can we call something “good” if most people don’t like it? Can it be called “good” if only certain types of people (white people, or rich people, or Americans, or anti-gun folk) like it?

I’m still dubious about such universal standards, and I’m beginning to convince myself that not only are they improbable, they are also unhelpful. Maybe the better question to ask myself as I write is not “is it good?” but “do I like it?” That may be, for me, at least, more important.

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What a driveway means

I live in Brooklyn, in New York City. Most of the houses here don’t have driveways; anyone who has a car usually parks it on the street. We have to keep the streets clear for the street sweepers that drive through once a week, so we try to keep track of the schedule: no parking on this side of the street on Mondays 11:30-1pm, no parking on that side on Tuesdays, no parking on the next block on Thursdays from 8:30-10am. If you fail at keeping track, you get a ticket usually costing $75. It’s an irritating and ridiculously-complex system that was probably designed to earn the city parking ticket money more than to keep the streets clear for the sweepers. If you have a car and you don’t drive it to work every weekday, you must re-park it (and spend, in the winters, sometimes, an hour surfing for a viable space) at least a couple times a week.

My partner and I own a car for the rare purpose of getting out of town, and because I’m disabled enough that it helps me get to work and make the every-six-weeks trip to the “big” grocery store on the other side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for supplies. It does not feel like a luxury (though I’m well aware that it is), and if I were less disabled, I’d get rid of it in a heartbeat.

In my dreams, the best ones, the ones in which I can fly and I have a million dollars and the perfect ass, I have a driveway.

Finished driveways started to appear fairly commonly around 1900. (I swear, I did a bit of research about driveways. There’s not much, but my Google history is hilarious.) Before that, many homes had dirt paths leading up to their doors built to accommodate a wagon. I remember once hearing one of my colleagues give a lecture in architecture history, and talking about how everything about our world changed as a result of the switch from horse-drawn wagons to cars (wheel width and chassis width were different, so roads were widened, so tunnels and bridges had to be remade… you see where this is going). New York City’s neighborhoods have grown, failed or changed because of the incursion of a highway or where the subway does/doesn’t stop (or, sometimes, where the entrance to a public park is located). Suburbs exist largely because we have cars (and driveways in which to park them).

A driveway is also a buffer between a private property and the rest of the world; it’s eminently upper-middle class. It enforces distance, and it makes the approach to your home a rather ceremonial thing (you pay attention to your approach as if it were a processional; it becomes a careful ritual, and there is only one way to do it without error). People spend time and money working on their driveways (shoveling snow and ice away, or sweeping off leaves and dirt, laying down concrete or paving stones or gravel in aesthetically-pleasing or most-efficient shapes). Your driveway, like your house, like your children, like your personality and intellect, becomes a Thing you Own and, therefore, property that gives you status, but also one which you must maintain and guard.

A driveway is built, at least originally, with the assumption that the user owns a vehicle. A vehicle is acquired, usually, with the assumption that the owner needs to travel long distances or carry lots of stuff (or transport kids). We register vehicles now–cars and motorcycles require a license from the state to drive and a registration to own. This roots you to your city government through economic ties, but also through registration and surveillance. A driveway presumes, then, a reproductive family registered as members of a community and wealthy enough to own a car and other stuff and to go places further from their home than they can walk. Nowadays, that means you have a job to which you drive, you go to and from a store to buy food and supplies, you travel far away to visit folks and take a holiday. A driveway, then, usually presumes a typical American middle-class lifestyle.

When I see houses with driveways, I always imagine a particular kind of westernized, middle-class, 2.5-kid-style life occurring at the end of them. Of course that’s not always right, and of course there are many of us (in Brooklyn in particular) who don’t have driveways but live very bourgeois lifestyles. But life in Brooklyn tends to be different from life in most other middle-class suburbs. People here walk a lot more (I’m always shocked when I visit other places at how little walking people actually do), and walking gives you a radically different experience of the world than does driving. I don’t even mean the whole “New Yorkers are more in shape and have better leg muscles and lung capacities than the rest of you lazy slobs” thing I hear many of my cohort say smugly (and, having visited other places, I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong… just smug jerks).

I mean that walking allows you to see things differently; you have a different relationship with people on the street when you actually have to smell them, or pass them and excuse yourself, or help someone who’s about to fall, or simply adjust to the presence and conflicting agendas of others, rather than simply watching them from a car window and do exactly and only as you please. (This makes me sure that certain political candidates are probably more popular where driveways are more common…) When you can smell the grapefruit at the bodega warming in the sun as you pass, when you hear, as you walk, howling babies and arguing couples and the banter and yell of kids on a playground as you pass, when you have to speak directly with the guy on the corner who clearly hasn’t showered in weeks and has a bloody cut still oozing on his neck, it changes your sense of the world. When I spend time outside, I’m very much immersed in the world. A driveway (and the car it affords you) allows a blissfully smug ignorance of everyone and everything else in the world. In short, a driveway allows you to make your world as small as you want it to be, to shut yourself in your own property and keep everyone else at a distance.

(Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that everyone with a driveway lives in the world like this; I’m simply saying that having a driveway makes it easier–and therefore more likely–for people to do so.)

This morning, after walking to re-park the car and detouring through Prospect Park and stopping to chat with Sandra, who runs the bodega at which I prefer to buy my fruits and vegetables, the one with the blue awning (and the one where I met her mother, whose joyful broken English I wound up quoting in my wedding vows to my wife), I’m thinking a lot about driveways, and I’m not entirely sure I want one anymore.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Girls

Review: Ghostbusters 2016 (dir. Paul Feig; stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon)

It’s a summer blockbuster film about which there’s been much enthusiastic writing by viewers excited about a big action film starring four women, and a bunch of cranky “stupid-lady-film-ruined-the-original” bitching about a big action film starring four women. So when I decided to pay NYC movie theater prices to go see the new Ghostbusters in the theater (seriously? $30 for two adults on a Sunday afternoon?), it was with a bit of resistance. I’m a miser, and I am not super fond of being near a lot of people who manage neither their cell phones, nor their screaming kids, nor their own dang bodies very carefully.

But I went anyway, mostly because I wanted to see Kate McKinnon lick a gun. She’s sort of like the 1970s Burt Reynolds for lesbians of today, except she comes across as smarter and funnier and way less hairy.

So I probably went for the wrong reasons, but I got completely sucked in anyway. And folks, I actually got choked up at the end of the film. It wasn’t because of the plot, though, it was because of a really smart, lovely ending image.

So, if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters yet and don’t want to be spoiled (and you haven’t already stopped reading), I suggest you quit while you’re ahead. As the kids today say, SPOILER ALERT! (You’ve been warned… scroll down if you want to continue reading.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, now that it’s just us, let me tell you all about the film. This isn’t just a remake of Ghostbusters with a bunch of women slotted into the male roles. Well, I mean, they’ve re-gendered the Hollywood archetypes from the first film, sure (Lead White Guy, Lead White Guy’s Best White Pal Who’s a Bit Unhinged, White Brainiac and Excitable Black Guy We Threw in So You Can’t Call Us Racist). But the Lead White Guy is now Melissa McCarthy (let’s call her Leader for simplicity’s sake) who, while sexy and admirable in this lesbo’s eyes, is probably not the embodiment of the Hollywood Ideal for a lady on film. The Bestie (played by Kristen Wiig) is not a gal-pal huggy sort of person nor a frenemy in competition for boy attention (the two choices generally available for gal-pals), but a smart and caring person who, yes, has a checkered history with Leader (and THANK you for not including some tearful come-to-Jebus moment of reconciliation between them!) and her own motivations, but finds a way to work with Leader and even care about her because of reasons greater than her own (Science… since when do women care about science? That’s like, hard, as Barbie once said about math). The Brainiac is now played rather…dyke-like (and this dyke do like, yep) by a pretty conventionally-attractive woman and Lesbian Star.

And the Black Guy is… well, still kind of a Black Guy stereotype IMHO (working class job and take-no-crap sensibility and the only person of color among the 4 leads). My wife disagrees about the stereotype, and points out that Patty Tolan (jones)  is shown as vital and intelligent, and the film even makes a meta-commentary on the commonness of racism when some of the characters crowd-surf and, while the largely-white crowd catches and surfs McCarthy, they drop Jones on her ass (because while an audience will accept even a fat white woman before they accept a woman of color…that just pushes the demand for recognition too damn far). What’s more, my girl tells me, Patty is also a stereotype of Take-No-Crap New Yorkers of every ethnicity (which is, I grant her, true). But there’s something in me that still revolts against a Black woman being portrayed as the “Oh, HELL no!” Character (at least THIS Black person isn’t afraid of the ghosts?); maybe we’re past that, and my knee-jerking is just being a jerk? Not entirely sure on this one.

The arc of the characters here is toward legitimization and recognition for their work, which the Authorities require them to keep a lid on (and for which the Authorities then take credit) for the ostensible good of everybody. The resolution comes when the four women, despite fighting against the machine that wants to hide their abilities and achievements, literally see their name in lights all across the city. That moment, at film’s end, is when I choked up and tried not to cry like a big ole crazy person. It’s just that I saw the original Ghostbusters in the theater, and I saw lots of popular films before that, and I cannot believe I have lived to see a film in which women are celebrated and thanked for their bad-assery without terrible consequences. The win here is not when one or more of the main female characters scores a legitimating boyfriend (that’s not even in the plot), but when they are recognized as capable and important people.

Add to this the fact that all the main cast members of the original film appear in this one, as if they are blessing the new version, and you’ve got a film about (mostly white) women finally getting their recognition.

This brings me to another point I appreciated about this film: it’s highly citational. There were myriad references to the original Ghostbusters franchise (cameos of all its stars and the original headquarters, for instance) and to the fact that this is a film (like the inclusion of a sign for the now-defunct Woolworth’s (which is hard to see and NOT think about the civil rights sit-ins at those segregated lunch counters… and then to start thinking about all the institutions we cling to that segregate by race, gender, sexuality… like, um, blockbuster action films) among other store signs, some of which were fake and some of which were probably paid product placements). It’s PoMo 101 (which I actually teach, come to think of it, though we don’t put the “101” in the course title): citation used as winking commentary to remind you that (1) this is a mediated piece of art and not reality and (2) it has things to say and should therefore be interpreted for its meanings/motivations. The film won’t let you watch without consciousness; you’re never fully allowed to suspend your disbelief. That, to me, at least in this case, is a really good thing.

McKinnon, I’ve read, was not allowed to discuss her character’s sexuality during press for the film, ostensibly so that she could be read as straight OR queer and thus be an object for everyone and offensive to no one. I don’t know if this is the truth, but it sounds like something agents or producers would ask of an out queer in Hollywood. Either way, her performance produces a kind of gender/sexuality double-consciousness for those of us queers watching—everything she does on screen is read through the lens of Out Dyke Performing a Role with a Wink at the Rest of Us Queers at the same time it plays nice for the str8s and could–if you’re willfully blind–fly under the un-gaydar. Her performance is resistant to the clear limitations of the film; so very much of how Holzman’s sexuality is delivered is done through the performance, in excess of the scripted dialogue.

I’d say McKinnon’s performance produced queer subtext, but it’s not subtle enough, thank god; it’s kind of a queer ubertext readable to anyone who is willing to read it. Though her sexuality, it’s true, is never stated in the film, she eye-bangs the women and ignores the male sex object (Chris Hemsworth), and her performance comes across as so resistant that when she licks her gun, it looks less like a blowjob and more like… preparation… of a device… many lesbians (who are we kidding? many PEOPLE) like to use… that can be attached to any body… you know to what I refer here, friends, don’t make me spell it out where kids might read. Given that one of the most influential theories about film viewership once proposed that film-viewing pleasure comes from identifying with the lead character and the camera (whose gazes coincide) and that the lead and the camera (director/writer) are conceived of as male, and hence The Gaze is almost always male (I’m talking Laura Mulvey, folks), this changes the game for the rest of us.

While we’re on the sexual politics of Ghostbusters, let’s talk about Chris Hemsworth, who’s made his bones as a film star/sex symbol trading on his masculinity (cf Thor). Ghostbusters objectifies him, but not in a simplistic “turnabout is fair play, now shake that booty while us ladies watch, fella” kind of way. One of the main characters actively drools over the dude, one scolds her for being a pig, and the other two roll their eyes at Hemsworth’s character’s stupidity. He’s a stereotypical bimbo, but he’s never shirtless (except in his own hysterically hyperbolized headshots for his acting career). The closest the camera comes to objectifying him is in the b-roll during the credits, when he’s shown dancing and, through his booty-wiggling and arm-flexing, commanding a whole army of hypnotized men in the street to do the same (I could make a comment here about the apparent meta-commentary on everyone’s willingness to follow and imitate sex symbols, but I won’t beat that horse). The sexist treatment of Hemsworth by a camera and one of the main characters, in other words, is the object of laughter and criticism.

Plus, the film was fun. It was at least as fun as the original, and even more so for those of us who left the original feeling demoralized by the way women were portrayed. (it still has a way to go on the portrayal of race, but it’s a pretty big step beyond the original). It had explosions, ghosts, a few jump-scares, some good one-liners, and a pretty crisp pace, but no Sigourney Weaver rolling around in negligee while a (male) devil uses her body to seduce one of the male heroes for the pleasure of the (mostly white, adolescent male) viewers (I get it, that was intended as a “humorous” take on The Exorcist, but the original Ghostbusters happily reproduced the problematic gender politics of The Exorcist).

So I take back all my resistance and skepticism. The new Ghostbusters was fun, it wasn’t mean, and it had eye candy for most of us (even those who fetishize giant blobby white ghosts… like Chris Hemsworth… JK, kids, jk. Hemsworth seems lovely and decidedly not blobby).

Everything’s jake, kid. (But not.)

So, as part of the writing I’m working on, I’m doing a bunch of hither-thither, catch-as-catch-can research into early 20C U.S. customs, clothing, slang, etc. And I’ve just, today, happened upon what may be my favorite piece of slang… or at least the most situationally a propos: jake.

Jake! All cool, copacetic, alright.

As in, “Be cool, everything’s jake now that we got our money.”

As in, “If that dingbat would give me a raise, life would be jake.”

As in, “Everything was jake until that fascist, bitter-faced, rather pea-brained former reality TV creep got the elephants’ nom, and now that he’s stuck his beezer in our business, the future looks pug-ugly. What a crumb. What a louse. Time to skidoo for Canada.”

REVIEW: With or Without You by Zane Riley

With or Without You by Zane Riley (July 21, 2016); 348 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

So, ever since I reviewed Go Your Own Way by Zane Riley (here), I have been waiting for the release of the sequel, With or Without You, and guess what? It’s here!

If you’ve not read my review of GYOW, pop over there and do that first, or be, at least, forewarned: I’m going to talk about this like a sequel, as if these characters and this situation are familiar because, to me, they are. And I’m happy to see them get more book space.

(Oh, and probably: spoiler alert for book 1.)

With or Without You picks up where Go Your Own Way left off: Lennox McAvoy—a nominally homeless, rather crass high school senior—is living with (and falling for) the relatively-privileged Will Osborne. Lennox was living in a residence motel after being dumped there by an uncaring grandfather and The System (which, after releasing him from a pretty abusive juvie situation, slapped an ankle monitor on him and told him to go be successful… without going too far). Will’s family has taken him in, but they discover that keeping him safe and well-behaved and at “home” is a bit like trying to hold on to a wisp of smoke with nothing but a tissue and a rubber band; Lennox just won’t be contained that way.

Lennox has a dirty mouth and no filter, and absolutely no tolerance for folks (like Will’s dad) who neither trust nor particularly like him. Like a good Harvard Business School grad, he’s proactive: when he senses someone’s not going to treat him with the respect or understanding he needs, he acts like a jerk and pushes them away before they get the chance to hurt him.

Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, not the Alanis Morissette sense), the people Lennox trusts least (Will, Will’s dad and Will’s stepmom) are the most likely to help him stay safe and get him through high school and into college. Ironically (in the O. Henry sense, but maybe a little in the Morissette sense here, too), those folks are so wrapped up in their own ideas of what’s right and good that they do a bit of metaphorical foot-shooting and end up suffocating the kid with their good intentions.

Will pushes Lennox to apply for college at a very expensive, very exclusive music school (Lennox plays several instruments and composes music and is an incredible musician, after all, and Will… really, really isn’t), and it brings out the fear that underlies Lennox’s bravado. What if he bombs the interview or the audition? What if he doesn’t even get that far? What if Will goes away to college in New York as planned, and Lennox is left alone with nothing, holding his… gonads… and has to join the army?

Or what if he gets in after all, but can’t afford to go?

While Will’s in this up to his eyeballs, and has a lot of figuring out to do (how do you support someone without imposing your own values on them?), this book feels like Lennox’s story. Lennox has to learn to trust everything: Will’s dad, his stepmom Karen, Will, and even himself and his own abilities. He also has to learn to let go (his best friend Lucy is leaving him behind, moving to Boston with her new girlfriend). Finally, he has to learn to settle down into happiness and not screw it up just because he’s afraid and wants to ruin stuff before something or someone else does it for him. He is, in the classic sense of irony (and, okay, in Morisette’s sense, too) his own worst enemy.

Not that there aren’t enough really bad enemies out there for him anyway. His own grandparents reject him and keep him from seeing his little sister (his grandparents are white and he’s the child of a Black woman and a white man); the authorities don’t really care who or what he is, as long as his ankle monitor doesn’t indicate he’s gone outside his permitted zone; the racist homophobes at the motel where he was living just want to beat on somebody (he’ll do); Will’s dad kind of thinks he’s a punk, an opinion which may or may not be driven by some privileged racism.

This is a smart and compelling follow-up to Go Your Own Way. (It’s great as a sequel, but can also be read on its own, without having read the first book.) Lennox is tough to love; Will, though his motivations are probably more familiar to most middle-class readers than those of Lennox, is also tough to love much of the time. In fact, almost everybody in this novel (I’m giving Karen a pass) is a well-meaning jerk of one sort or another. (Okay, and the racist homophobes don’t get passes, but they also don’t get to be included here… they’re just jerks, not at all well-meaning.) All of them are interesting and compelling, complex enough as characters to pull you in and make you care what happens to them.