Thursday, 26 May 2016

Two articles to check out

Good news -- the wonderful folks at Front Porch Republic have published my piece on Growing Up Stoic, about my lessons with my daughter.

Also, the admirable American Conservative magazine will publish my piece on superheroes tomorrow.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Once and Future Superheroes



First of all, you like superheroes.

Sure, you think you’re above that sort of thing. You picture muscle-bound men in Mardis Gras outfits, floating through air shooting eye lasers, fighting people with names like Doctor Atrocity and making little “BLAMMO!” signs when they punch. And yeah, that can happen.  

Here’s the thing, though: As long as humans have existed, we have told legends of people with super-human abilities, and delighted in stories of how they faced danger and out-fought or out-witted enemies. Gilgamesh for the Sumerians, Odysseus and Jason for the Greeks, Samson for the Hebrews, Beowulf for the Saxons – ancient scriptures, barbarian sagas and oral traditions swell with superheroes. In a more modern era the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are all basically super-heroes, doing things real people can’t do. Every culture has stories like this; our forebears told them around campfires or mead-halls, 20th-century kids read them in comic books.

By the end of the century, moreover, comic books had grown up with their audiences, until series like Sandman or Watchmen won literature awards competing against regular fiction. Moving to the silver screen, though, proved a delicate business; men in fluorescent tights look better on newsprint than on a five-metre-tall screen, and the countercultural types in Hollywood weren’t keen on Captain America’s values anyway. The last few decades left a long string of embarrassing failures, painfully campy or painfully dark.

In this century, though, the superhero genre took over Hollywood as thoroughly as musicals and westerns once did, and pitched to adults as much as children. Literally fleshing out a two-dimensional hero, though, means keeping the basic traits and the broad strokes of the mythology, while distilling decades of character development down to a few hours. Do it badly and you keep the juvenile tone and just make it boring or violent. To see both of these choices in action, you can see this spring’s two competing blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War and Superman vs. Batman.

The films came from each of the two rival comic-book franchises that dominated the industry since the Great Depression, DC and Marvel. Both pit two of their central heroes against each other – one a patriotically-coloured, super-powered, idealistic hero from the World War II era (Superman, Captain America), the other a genius playboy billionaire who invents a techno-suit in his cave (Batman, Iron Man). Both sets of characters are orphans in fights that involve their dead parents, both involve superheroes giving testimony to government committees, and both involve ordinary humans who became collateral damage in superhero fights in previous movies now plotting revenge.

More importantly, both films deal – or in Superman/Batman’s case, pretend to deal – with the thoughtful questions that must be answered in any modern, grown-up treatment of superheroes. If we learned that demigods hid in disguise among us, how would that change us? Would we regard them as celebrities? Would we fear them as aliens infiltrating the human race – which, to be fair, Superman is? Would they become the new nuclear weapons, and tip the global balance of power?

More importantly, any one super-battle destroys far more than the September 11 attacks did; how would that change us? Superheroes break laws all the time, from New York’s anti-mask laws to international treaties – to whom do they answer? If they answer to no one, and have power over all of us, how do they represent freedom and democracy? On the other hand, should they answer to governments that we don’t trust ourselves?  Americans increasingly have a problem with the behaviour of regular, non-super-powered police officers, who don’t fire lasers from their eyes.

These questions could launch a great story, in which the moral dilemmas allow decent people with the best intentions to take opposite sides. None of it works, though, unless the superheroes are, on some level, decent people. Both films promised; one delivered. 

Superman/Batman failed with critics and audiences, seeing its mammoth opening weekend collapse after word got out. Much has been made of the lava-pit colour scheme, the incomprehensible plot, Jesse Eisenberg’s grating performance, and director Zac Snyder’s slow-motion action scenes – but a uniformly mediocre film would not have angered audiences as much. This film upset fans because, like Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel, it had a few promising moments early on, only to squander their potential later. 

Man of Steel’s hopeful early moments dealt with a young Clark Kent, discovering as a child that he could see people’s skeletons, or a young Superman just learning to fly. Few premises are as reliably engrossing as a regular kid realising he’s special and having to hide it, as fans of Harry Potter and a million other young-adult books can attest. It also makes a character sympathetic and relatable, particularly vital when portraying a laser-eyed alien.  

Unfortunately, the movie soon descends into giant action sequences that seem to obliterate most of a city, like Superman causing Nagasaki. With its tin ear for humanity, the film treats the end as a happy, romantic embrace between Superman and Lois Lane, apparently unconcerned with the thousands of corpses all around them.  

In the same way, Superman/Batman begins brilliantly, seemingly correcting Man of Steel’s mistakes by showing that same destruction from the perspective of the victims – including Bruce Wayne, running in civilian guise into the disaster to rescue his employees. It gives us something superhero movies have long needed: actual people, not just pointing at the sky and waiting to be saved, but acting to save each other when their ordinary day turns tragic. Yet this, too, quickly falls by the wayside as Snyder’s heroes stop acting heroic, or even sane, after the first few scenes. 

As directors accumulate a filmography, quirks that we forgave in isolation look uglier when exposed as part of a pattern. Woody Allen looked brilliant as the director of Annie Hall, but after thirty movies about neurotic upper-class intellectuals having affairs with younger women in a bizarrely white city, it started to feel creepy. Tim Burton seemed refreshing when he made Beetlejuice, but not after a quarter-century of unnecessarily grotesque films masking thin, inconsequential stories. 

Likewise, Zac Snyder’s heroes look awesome – literally -- on screen-savers and trailers; they come back-lit by halos and spotlights, their violence captured in sensuous detail, not so much filmed as uploaded in computer-generated glory. When they fly, they hurtle through the clouds; when they punch, their fists appear solid as marble, and when they land the shock wave obliterates neighbourhoods.    

But in what sense are any of his heroes … heroic? The Spartans in 300 kill their handicapped babies, but audiences rationalised that as historical accuracy -- even in a film where the Persian army had mutant troll-monsters. The two-fisted protagonists of Sin City and Watchmen largely failed to save anyone, although we could write that off as a “deconstruction of the superhero mythos” or some other English-major phrase. Pa Kent in Man of Steel scolds his teenaged son from rescuing his drowning classmates, but we told ourselves that was simply a creative step away from the clichĂ© of the angelic dead parents. 

This film, though, is the last straw. Snyder’s Batman brands the flesh of criminals with a hot iron, which we’re told condemns them to be killed by other prisoners when incarcerated. It’s a bizarrely sadistic detail for a character defined by his unwillingness to carry a gun or kill, and just raises more questions -- Why would being branded by Batman mean death from other inmates? What difference is there between shooting someone and condemning them to death? How did he suddenly get a hot iron? Then again, this Batman carries a gun and kills people, so perhaps torture is not too much a stretch for him. Ben Affleck turns in a decent performance; the trouble is the script, which puts an actor in the costume and has them act like some other character than Batman.

Superman receives even more disservice. Let’s be blunt: there has never been an interesting story about Superman. Any interesting story is about Clark Kent. He has the power to leave his office job, punish his bullies, and earn the adulation of billions – and every day he must say no. He is Jesus forever tempted by Satan, each moment refusing to turn the stones to bread. He must endure casual disrespect from the woman he loves, knowing secretly that he is the man she loves. That makes for an interesting and sympathetic character, in a way that a man in underwear throwing giant things is not.   

Here, though, the one relatable aspect of Superman’s character is removed; Lois knows he’s Clark Kent from the beginning. They whisper a few Meaningful Conversations, but she has nothing interesting to say; she exists to be rescued as much as Lois did in the 1950s children’s show, but that Lois came across as an intelligent professional with a personality.

The basic conflict, and Batman’s armour for it, seem modelled after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series, which helped redefine comic books and superheroes into their modern incarnation. At the end of Miller’s series, Batman fights Superman for logical reasons – he is an anti-hero fighting crime outside the law, whereas Superman works for the government, and is sent to bring him in.

That’s the very premise of Civil War, and would have made sense for these characters. Instead, they went with a baffling plot full of loose ends and nonsensical developments. Superman is being framed for murder, and the public thinks he shot people … with a gun, even though he’s Superman. When a building is destroyed by a bomb, people believe Superman did it …. with a bomb. When he’s Superman.

Most dispiriting, though, are the scenes with Superman’s parents, when his father (dead, in a dream) implies that there’s no point in helping people, and his mother (alive), tells him that “you don’t owe this world a thing.” If this guy doesn’t feel obligated to help anyone, in what way is he Superman? Comic books already have other costumed, super-powered characters who feel unconstrained by civic duty – they are called villains.

 Of course, the last few decades have seen a darkening of most film protagonists into joyless and amoral anti-heroes, and this just gives bus-throwing protagonists the same treatment. A humanoid alien throwing a bus into the air, that we accept readily – but to have a hero that’s a dutiful, well-adjusted person? That’s too unrealistic for many filmmakers these days.  

In a strange way, Zac Snyder’s films are starting to remind me of the Left Behind books, that wildly popular series in which a group of ostensible Christians ostensibly fight the Antichrist. The Left Behind authors gush over their characters, describing them as Tribulation Saints fighting for God against Evil in the End Times -- but in fact, the characters just come across as Colossal Jerks, disregarding other Human Beings and thinking only of Themselves during Actual Tragedies. They are saints in name, but never show compassion, nobility or even responsibility … kind of like Snyder’s superheroes.

If you want to know how to handle the same premise and issues well, you can look to Marvel’s Civil War film. Marvel did superhero movies intelligently, spending a decade building a world one hero at a time -- Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and finally combining them in The Avengers. Each film built on the last, not just in their trademark teasers and after-credit “cookies” but with genuine character development.  They recruited Shakespearean actors and comedians more than movie stars, people who could take goofy comic-book premises and imbue them with the proper gravitas or cheerful humour.  Most importantly, their films were funny without being silly, dramatic without being dour, and never forgot to have fun.

Thus, this film feels inevitable, as characters who began a journey several films ago have reached a logical conclusion. The mercurial Tony Stark, having spent much of his life irresponsible hedonist, is now burdened by his near-death and the deaths of others he caused in previous movies. Desperate to assuage his guilt, the former rogue commits himself to following the orders of a higher authority, even if it means turning on his colleagues. Captain America’s character arc has taken him on the opposite track; the quintessential patriot has seen his trust betrayed again and again in previous films, until he listens to no one but his own conscience. 

Other characters each rally behind the two leaders, each on their own journey. Most don’t get more than a few lines or camera shots, but we often don’t need a lot more; Spider-Man makes a brief appearance here, and the film gives him more character in his few minutes than Superman gets in Snyder’s two-and-a-half-hour film. Refreshingly, he looks and acts like a real teenager, unlike the 35-year-old bodybuilding models who usually play teenaged boys in American films, and the filmmakers had the intelligence to skip the origin story. He’s Spider-Man; we know who he is.

Most of all, Civil War has the courage to end on a note of tragedy, without the usual neat resolutions. As Norse epics did, it sets up a conflict between loyalties, in which good people betray one oath to keep another, and live with the consequences. Within the confines of a fun summer action movie, it shows its heroes as people – flawed, stubborn and conflicted – yet essentially good-hearted, taking responsibility for their actions, and striving to become better. About time; this is what superheroes were for in the first place.

All human cultures have had superhero tales, and when cultures are at their peak, they write about the heroic ideals to which they strive, as Sophocles did of Ajax or as Vergil did of Aeneas. During the Depression and World War II, the USA’s peak of power and conflict, it began creating superheroes, an image of what we would like to be.

When societies abandon that heroic ideal, when they acquire the “philosophic indifference” of Gibbon’s latter-day Romans, the culture is in deep trouble. As our country slipped away from the post-war glow into an era of escalating hedonism, it abandoned superheroes save as pablum for children.
Yet Generation X-ers and Millennials, children of the counterculture, embraced them even into adulthood, perhaps desperate for the heroes their culture no longer provided. In this century, as the nation grows ever more troubled, we are turning back to stories that give us heroes to believe in – a sign that there is hope for us.

Top: "CĂș Chulainn Riding His Chariot into Battle" by J. C. Leyendecker, in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911. 

Bottom: George Reeves as Superman in the U.S. government film "Stamp Day for Superman."
 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Brilliant May



This is the brilliant time of year here, when sunshine floods the countryside, the forest floor erupts with cowslip and bluebells, and the apple trees bud with their first flowers. The petals fall from the sloe trees, forming the hard green fruits that we will pick six months from now, and the hawthorn leaves are in their last days of tenderness before growing tough. Most importantly, we feel just a tiny bit warm, the chill in the air disappearing for the first time in several months.

Predictably, this being Ireland, my co-workers immediately begin lunging for the air conditioning, and the buses begin blasting frosty air over the passengers, to prevent us from enjoying the warm days. It also means they will stagger in from outside, sweat dripping from their flushed faces, panting from having to endure the luke-warmth.

We are also seeing the first of Ireland’s spring crop of nettles and dandelions – nettles for soup and beer, dandelions for fritters and wine.  We also found the first edible mushrooms of the year, which also became my lunch the next day.

Nettles are in their prime for picking now, and I have spent moments here and there down by the river gathering them into giant bags for freezing – and later for making into vegetables, tea, soup, wine, beer and other things. Fat hen, jack-by-the-hedge and Good King Henry should be appearing soon. 

Hawthorn leaves remain somewhat edible, although they are getting tougher and less tasty every day as they get ready to bloom. Dandelions are spreading across the fields, ready to be made into fritters, wine, salad, coffee and many other things.

Lime trees, also called lindens, are just beginning to leaf, and as their leaves come in they can be eaten like lettuce. The cowslips we need to pick for wine this year, along with the related primroses. In short, this is prime foraging season.

During every available moment, we’ve been transforming our garden; The Girl and I have been building a hedgerow along our back property to keep the cows out, and are replanting the apples from our grafting adventure a couple of years ago. We’re also replanting the gooseberry bushes and loganberry vines there, creating our own barbed wire.

The swallows have returned to our shed, which means I have to watch myself when I go in lest I be smacked in the face with an outgoing bird. Most months we have a heron who lives along the canal by us, and he’s been especially busy lately; we saw him with a fish just this afternoon. For a short time, we see two of them, as the usually solitary animals come together to have a family.

May’s sun and warmth offers a good opportunity for green manure crops like comfrey – its deep roots bring nutrients from deep in the soil, and its soft tissues decompose quickly in the compost. We like to take the comfrey that grow wild down the road and cut them, and bring them in wheelbarrows to our compost bin; in six months or so they will give us rich compost that we can add to our soil for free.

Our chickens are producing more eggs, but we’ll need to get more soon – we’ve had them a few years, and their shells are getting thin. We still have our rooster, which we never intended to have and whose noise we can never completely tune out. We’d like to let them out a bit to keep them fit and the grass well mown, but spring also brings mother foxes looking out for their cubs. Then again, perhaps one of these problems will solve the other.

The other problem with letting the chickens out is that they will start laying eggs for us – everywhere. Even when they were confined to the run, the chickens tried to lay in creative places – under the coop, for example – but when they’re free range I will find eggs in the vegetables, in the grass, with the lawnmower, and in the manure composter.   

These are the months that speed by too quickly, when we race against the clock to build, repair, weed, mow, gather … and enjoy, reminded that we don’t have an infinite supply of summers.  

***

Each spring here sees a remarkable sprouting of indigo across the woods: bluebells, which bloom profusely until the overhanging leaves grow back in full, and the forest floor grows dark again. Other places in the world see such an annual blossoming, but few have such uniformity.

As glaciers a mile deep retreated from Ireland and plants and animals migrated up the the exposed land -- tundra, then conifers, then the cold rainforest that remained until humans -- the sea flooded in, cutting off England from the continent and Ireland from England. So England wound up with fewer plants and animals than the continent, and Ireland even less. Surprising as it sounds, rabbits and fallow deer are not native to either island -- they were brought by Normans less than a millennia ago. Red deer and roe deer made it to England, but the latter never reached Ireland. Neither, of course, did snakes.

Plants did the same: only some of the Continent's variety worked its way across the warming land before an ocean rushed in. The bluebells were one of the ones that made it.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

What elections should be

For a year now, most of the news I see, the e-mails I get, and the social media I follow have mostly been about one thing: The US presidential election. I haven't talked about it on this blog, and don't plan to much, as it's outside what I usually write about. 

Most of my friends know that I have strong beliefs, and have campaigned for various candidates and causes, though, so people have asked me to talk about it. Until now, I disappoint them by telling them that I have been working hard to avoid hearing about the US election campaign.

It's not that I don't care. It's that voting, for me, is a sacred but simple duty. I make a list of the issues I care most about, pick the positions I most favour on those issues, and research the votes and statements made regarding that issue by each of the political candidates. If the issue is electric rail systems for cities, most likely no candidate will have spoken in favour of it -- but if one has, they rise a bit in my assessment. Most will likely be far away from me on most issues, but I will vote for whoever is closest.

I will do that the week before the election -- not just for president, but for every office I can vote for. Until then, I have donated to the campaign of someone I respect, but other than that I'm not wasting time worrying about it. And after the election, I will also not spend time worrying about it.

That's all voting needs to be for me. I don't need to care about every speech or talk show interview the candidates do. I don't need to know what they sound like; I can read transcripts of their words. I don't need to know their spouse's name, or how funny they can be. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know, because I don't need to know -- and I have been avoiding most of the news and "un-following" most of my social-media "friends" until the election season is over.

Friends of mine consider that shockingly naive, and tell me that I can't just assign scores of their qualifications, like I'm rating candidates for a job interview. But here's the thing: This is how voting is supposed to work. For that matter, it's how job interviews are supposed to work. You have a list of imperfect people applying for a job, and you pick the one who will do the best.

If they're not charming, that could be a liability if their main job is meeting the public - say, a salesman. If they are working as a civil engineer, it might not matter much. Selecting a representative for an office is the same -- and remember, you are the employer.

Some friends of mine object to being so dispassionate about politics, saying that we have to rally together to stop the next Hitler. Thing is, I hear that every four years -- that this election is the turning point of human history, our last chance to turn the country around, and the other side's candidate is the next Hitler, and you will be forced to flee the country if the wrong person is elected. I hear that from my Democratic friends about the Republican, and from my Republican friends about the Democrat -- whoever I'm talking to, the other side's candidate is the next Hitler. None of my friends ever flee the country, though, yet they are never put in concentration camps as they predicted.

I did make one exception recently, though; the newspaper I write for here was curious about the US election, and I offered to write a piece about it. I read transcripts of a few speeches and compared their positions early, so that I could explain my native country to people here. This is an expanded version of the piece I wrote for the Kildare Nationalist.

***




Twelve years on this side of the Atlantic, yet I still sound American enough that everyone wants to talk to me about politics. You’d think that would mean the Brexit, or the historic Irish upset, or the Iranian results, but no. Of course they want to tell me all about Donald Trump.

My native USA sits in an interesting position these days. We remain influential enough that people everywhere talk about our news as though it were their own, yet our increasing poverty and internal conflicts mean that we are one of the last socially acceptable groups for everyone here to mock. Hence media here often treat American news with a kind of reality-freak-show prurience, letting European audience feel better about themselves. If one idiot, in a country of a third of a billion people, decides to burn a Koran or hold an inflammatory sign, you can bet the European news will cover it.

Moreover, the media – here and around the world -- treat our elections with the same apocalyptic hysteria every election cycle, without realising how much they contribute to the result. Every single time I pass a television or look at a news site, it has Mr. Trump’s face on it – many people here seem unaware that the nominees also included actual Republicans, actual Democrats -- and Bernie Sanders, a socialist who’s still extremely well. None of those people received much media attention, and Trump did – and then reporters ask, with no sense of irony, why Trump is doing so well.

Moreover, most discussion about the presidential race deeply misunderstands the American political process, and the USA in general; most people here grew up with American television and visited the country, and feel like they know more than they actually do. A country isn’t an actors’ set or a few tourist traps, and I find most people here carry a lot of misconceptions.

Take, for example, the matter of scale. Countries on this side of the Atlantic all have small-to-medium areas, social-democratic systems, parliamentary governments and densely packed, secular populations. Even honorary European countries like Canada and Australia have European-sized populated areas -- they just have a lot of sparely-populated space attached.

Most people here don’t realise, though, that the USA is not a country at all in that sense. It is not just vaster – although it is, covering more than twice as much area as all EU countries put together. It is also the third most populous nation on Earth, behind China and India, with a third of a billion people. Most importantly, its states are not counties or provinces; they remain, to some extent, independent countries, with their own laws, voting systems and armies.

In other words, don’t compare the USA to any European country; compare it to the EU. In fact, the states vary even more than European countries; some are more socialist, agnostic and urban like EU nations, while others are poor, rural and religious like Middle Eastern nations.

Understanding this makes the conflicts clearer. Most people here believe that the USA has a death penalty, for example, but it’s actually just certain states – others made it illegal as far back as the 19th century. When people ask me if Mr. Obama will end the death penalty in America, I explain that those are state laws; the federal government does not control them.

Some recent reforms in US policy, from national health care to gay marriage, were opposed by people who didn’t oppose such policies in principle, but didn’t want the central government to have too much power. One person asked me why the federal government doesn’t just force the states to do what it wants, and I responded, “Why doesn’t the EU just force the UK to do whatever it wants?” In other words, the president – whether named Obama or Trump – just isn’t as powerful as people imagine.

Take another common misconception: Trump is calling himself a Republican candidate, yet the party isn’t in favour of him, and is attacking him at every turn. The same is true of Sanders for the Democrats – both are nominally running under a party banner, yet both are actually independents, and both are doing unexpectedly well compared to the parties’ chosen candidates.

Why they are doing well is no mystery; across the USA – an area larger than 43 Britains – lie small factory towns that used to be prosperous and are now desperately poor, as trade agreements allowed the factories to move to the Third World. Those deals, endorsed by mainstream Republicans and Democrats, were deeply unpopular with most Americans, and mainstream candidates have done very badly this election.

Meanwhile, the two basically independent candidates who promised to bring the jobs back – Trump on the right and Sanders on the left – have garnered a massive following of working-class people who do not ordinarily participate in politics. Trump’s followers are not the mobs of screaming, hate-filled morons they are portrayed as, but increasingly desperate people with genuine grievances.

In Ireland something similar happened, as the two major parties mishandled the 1990s boom and 2008 crash, and were punished in the last election. The difference is that in Ireland, as in most other democracies these days, voters can turn instead to third parties. The USA used to have vibrant third parties, who occasionally elected great leaders – Abraham Lincoln was one. In the 20th century, though, Republicans and Democrats conspired to pass laws that made third parties effectively illegal.

Thus, when voters think the mainstream parties have driven most Americans into poverty – as they have for some years -- they have no other option but to vote for the two major parties anyway … until two independents, a television personality and a socialist, run as a nominal Republican and Democrat, and their followers stage a coup inside the mainstream parties. This almost worked for Sanders in the Democratic Party, and has certainly worked for Trump.

None of this is meant to express admiration for Trump himself; I’m merely explaining why some support him, and why the party he claims to represent opposes him. It’s easy to watch the news or social media and sneer at people from a distance; understanding what’s actually happening is a lot less fun in the moment, but more rewarding in the long term.

One thing to remember, in case Donald Trump wins the presidency: As I mentioned before, the president has a lot less power than people imagine. The Republicans did everything they could to stop Mr. Obama’s plans, and the Democrats do the same to Republicans. With Trump, both parties are likely to oppose him at every turn. This isn’t to say that he can’t surprise us – the man is resourceful --- but it does mean that a Trump presidency might bring Americans together as never before.  

Photo: Kennedy meeting coal miners.