Saturday, March 26, 2016

Why I Love Batman v Superman

What makes this world worth saving?

The ones we love.

Hot off the feels of one of this years biggest releases has been an incredible amount of negative press coming from critics across the internet. To those who know me, and know me well, it's not hard to tell that I'm a DC fanboy. I've been one my entire life. And although I take great joy from many Marvel properties and instances (specifically Spider-Man and Captain America), I simply grew up with DC comics and its respective heroes more present in my life than any others. I'm not sure that was an intentional choice. I just liked them. And my parents let me like them. And to this day I am still very much in love with the DC Universe, despite it getting a bad rap for reasons that seem strange to me as the nature of these entertainment beasts is undeniably cyclical.

I'm writing this because writing helps me process how I feel and how the new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice left me feeling when the credits rolled. I'm also writing because in a world where we are bombarded by nothing but subjective criticism it has become popular to jump on a bandwagon, be it good or bad. When the good press bandwagon cruises through on things like the first Avengers film, I thought, "Finally. We're all on board with something." But when that good press wagon continues on films I thought were not fit for me or particularly very good (based on my subjective point of view) I remained confused when the bad word of mouth didn't seem to crush them quite like it has this film.

By superhero film standards this isn't rocket science. And be warned, there are HEAVY SPOILERS in here because I'd like to review the film critically in an attempt to bring to light what I feel the bandwagon of negative press has turned audiences away from and in turn is furthering the creation of an audience who does not pay attention to what's going on before them, rather they look for a film to fit into their preconceived mold of how it "should be".

When you go in to a film or an otherwise entertaining experience with certain expectations, you often let those expectations inform your opinion be it conscious or not. The amount of cynical attitudes I've seen and heard BEFORE people walked in to not just this film but any film is incredible. And when you go in with either low or high expectations then it's hard to let a film unfold as naturally as it should. We are so bombarded with content prior to a film's release that we feel we already know everything about it. Then the bar is set, and we essentially just try to discern whether or not the final film leaps over that bar or stumbles and falls beneath it.

My expectations were high. I wanted to not just like the film but to love it. And here my own subjectivity comes into play, sure, but I think it's important to know why some people love a film and some people do not. And sometimes the weight of liking something everyone seems to dislike makes you think you're crazy. Granted, taste can be all over the place. But when I watch a film my highest expectation is that it try to grab me not just on an entertainment level but also on an emotional level. This is why I so enjoyed Man of Steel. That's an entirely separate can of worms to discuss, but that film spoke to me. I connected with and related to Superman from the first frame to the last. And when people want to argue about it I'm dumbfounded. I don't need you to validate my subjectivity (opinion) and I certainly won't try to do the same for you. It is okay to disagree. There are so many moments in Batman v Superman that hit home for me. But most informative to my subjectivity is the themes of powerlessness, loss, and love.

I think it's important to know that at many formative moments in my youth I had DC comics to rely on when times turned dark. I had a great relationship with my parents and a pretty charmed upbringing. I was a very blessed kid. We did things together as a family and despite the inevitable family squabbles were happy. We went to church almost every Sunday. My moral and spiritual compasses were created and informed by my loving parents and by the image and faith in a loving God and his loving son.

And then my mom got breast cancer and passed away when I was fifteen.

After many long, hard battles against a disease she'd had in both breasts over a period of ten years, she lost. And I was heart broken. We all were. And I think, looking back on it over my adult years, this was really the first chink in my charmed life armor. Life was not permanent and happiness fades away, sometimes leading to tremendous sadness. And the question why will never truly be answered because God doesn't talk back the way you want God to talk back; in specific words.

The five stages of grief are:

  1. Denial and isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance
I went through none of the first four. Not because I didn't need to, but at the time I was so surrounded by loved ones that acceptance was the only clear choice. I had my father, my siblings, and my church to fall back on. Because of how I was raised and what I believed, my mother had gone to a better place. I accepted that and assumed I had the world all figured out.

Then I became an adult.

Over the past many years I have felt myself surrounded by the ghosts of the family and friends that I have lost over the course of my life since I was fifteen. And in those thirteen years I realize since my initial moment of loss I now realize I never dealt with it truly. And the writing was on the wall when I look back on it. I always had friends but never felt like I belonged in this world. I always sensed some heavenly connection to another kind of life that seemed more appropriate for me than this earthly one. Much as Kal-El feels for his lost Krypton of which he only knows so little about. All he has are the lessons his earthly parents taught him and his inherent moral compass, which is do to good. And I always felt I've had the power to change the world, but feel limited in my ability to do so by people who seek to cause harm to others.

It's only recently that I've realized I'm angry. I'm angry more often than I used to be. I get sad more often than I used to. I try to make emotional bargains, mostly for myself, when that was something I never would have dreamed of doing. In short, I wake up a lot more recently feeling haunted by loss. And it makes me feel powerless.

The God of my childhood has since faded away into something more progressive. Still messianic in nature, still a being of love, but unbound from the specifics of organized religion and flourishes in the idea of being boundless. Because that's what God is. Everything.

And this is often why I know I've been so drawn to Batman and Superman my whole life. Both the products of loss and grief, but with a desire to do good and a dream of saving the world. That's what I've always wanted from my life. To do good and to change lives for the better, no matter how many or how few. So when Man of Steel came out and painted Superman as a confused and grieving man unsure of whether or not to accept his true nature and become a hero I immediately related. I love Chris Reeve and so many other renditions of the character, but I also like and try very hard to embrace change as I know it is the only constant. Losing a parent is a big change, but whether or not I wanted it was not something I got to decide. Change happened regardless of what I wanted. And I had to accept it and find a way to make it work for me. And that attitude grew into the way I view a lot of  my art, the way I write, the way I act, and especially when entertainment properties decide to make changes that really don't affect me. I roll with the punches.

And so when Batman v Superman began to germinate the themes of things that have been very personal to me, I listened. I'ts hard for me to grasp this concept of mutual exclusivity when it comes to the way people absorb and take in things like Superhero movies. They demand it be a great film! But they also demand it be tremendously entertaining! And when they inevitably strike an in between a lot of people get upset. Too much story! Not enough story! Too much action! Not enough action! Whatever it is, given how saturated we are with Superhero movies I think it is becoming more and more difficult for people to appreciate what they are getting when they get so much of it already. To me it's a bit like someone having a lot of expensive, fast cars and then someone trying to blow you away with yet another, new, expensive, fast car. We might think it's cool, but it's hard to knock us off our feet when we've been driving fast, expensive cars for ten years now.

I think people would have reacted very differently to Batman v Superman had it come out even three years ago. As time passes and we continue to be over saturated our frame of reference continues to be front loaded with expectations of what we already like. And I think the mind closes a little when we are not open to change.

I wouldn't dream of trying to prove that Batman v Superman is a perfect film, but I think it helps to have your expectations refreshed when you try to view a film as if there was a little influence as possible other than who you are as a human being. How does a film resonate with you, the viewer, on a personal level?

From the onset we have a Batman who is very different from the one we have been familiar with. He seems to have little concern for his enemies, essentially killing or having a general lack of care for the lives of the many who get in his way. He brands them, a mark which is considered a death sentence once sent to prison. Basically, if you come up against the Bat that's the end. This older, more "experienced" version of the Dark Knight is one who now especially under the threat of a seemingly all powerful alien life form like Superman feels afraid and ultimately powerless. And the only way to move past that feeling of powerlessness is to act, no matter how harshly. Justice must be served. And as Bruce begins to mull over the idea of killing Superman to protect the planet from future instances like what happened in Metropolis, it's Alfred who warns him against what happens when good men turn cruel.

"That's how it starts. The fever. The rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel."

Batman's loss of his parents has informed his definition of both justice and injustice but inevitably, just as change is the only constant in his life, even that begins to warp. Bruce's sense of morals and of heroism are clouded by his feeling powerless and afraid, something he has not felt since he was a boy. And because of this he is preparing to commit an act of cruelty.

And Lex Luthor is the perfect other side of Bruce's coin. A young genius, billionaire philanthropist who feels powerful because he has all the money in the world that surely he must be powerful. But there are small instances of dialogue that come from Lex that really made him stand out for me and understand why he so desperately hates both Superman and those that belong to his metahuman theory. Lex's feeling of power was presumably destroyed when an alien arrived on earth and leveled the city he lived in. Thousands dead in a moment. And all the money in the world could not have saved them.

In his hair brained speech he gives while Bruce, Clark, and Diana are in attendance at his home he begins to ramble. Whatever boy genius exterior he once has is crumbling. He suddenly blurts that, "Knowledge without power" is a paradox. That he, an incredibly knowledgeable person has now been rendered powerless because of someone like Superman and that should be an impossibility. And yet it has happened.

As he reveals his master plan to Superman after having made him kneel before him (something Zod was once good at) he launches into something I thought that was very powerful and yet few are discussing it. Much like myself Lex was raised to believe what God was via the eyes of his father. However Lex's father and my father are very different. My father is like Jonathan Kent. Lex's not so much.

"If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. And if God is all good...then he cannot be all powerful." And then he drops a line that I think is lost partly because Eisenberg's performance zips through it, but also because people aren't really listening. He talks about being under the thumb of the false God his father believed in, and that he was at the receiving end of "daddy's fists and abominations." Lex is a victim of child abuse. He was been powerless his entire life.

How much more powerless can one feel as a child when their own parents does not protect or love them and abuses them instead? And so when the inherited empire of billions of dollars represents security for a young victim of abuse, imagine how dangerous that psyche is when someone like Superman is the final crack. What chance there may have been for rehabilitation for the young, abused Lex is now gone. The fever and the rage that began when he was a boy bred this feeling of powerlessness. What chance there was of him being a good man is now solidified. He has been turned cruel.

Clark faces other demons. On the heels of Man of Steel the people are divided on the idea of the Superman. He brings many people hope but, again, he brings a feeling of powerlessness to so many. The beautiful montage of him saving lives backed by the philosophical discussion about what his place is in the world and what our place in the universe is, is a tremendous question to be raised. And to Clark it seems like no matter what he does, no matter how good the deed, he too is powerless against the people of earth. He wants to belong. He wants to claim this earth as his own. But it is nearly impossible.

As he takes some time to get away from the rest of the world and hikes up through the mountains, he is met by a vision of his earthly father Jonathan. Jonathan tells the story of the time the Kent's farm was almost destroyed by a flood. They worked tirelessly to save it, but not at the expense of others. Without realizing it, their actions to save their farm destroyed the nearby Lang's instead. Their horses drowned. And while Jonathan was being called a hero by his mother, the neighbors horses were drowning. For every action there is a reaction. Sometimes there is no action without consequence, and sometimes even a deed done in the moment under the best of intentions can negatively impact someone seemingly unrelated. Jonathan was haunted by the screams of those dead horses, by the reactions their actions caused, for years. Until he met Martha. She saved him. And she was his world.

Clark very early on displays his love for Lois. But it's Lois who shows apprehension toward him when she asks if it's possible to live in this world with Clark being who he is. But of course Clark still loves her and still loves his mother Martha dearly. He might feel alone in the world, but he has two people he truly loves who know who he is in his heart, something the rest of the world will never understand.

So when Superman is pitted against Batman via Lex's nefarious plan, Superman doesn't want to fight. He wants Batman's help. But Batman is blinded by his rage. And prepared with Kryptonite weaponry he wins their battle. But it isn't until he realizes that he's become the very thing he's been fighting against all these years. He is about to kill someone who he once said was "not a man" because men are brave. But when he learns that both Clark and he have mothers with the same name, and that he's about to take the life of a boy who belongs to a mother and in turn cause a mother's death as well, his fear of powerlessness releases as he realizes Clark may not be a perfect man, but he is a man nonetheless. Just like he is. One who has parents, who has experienced loss, and who is capable of love. In Bruce's eyes the most important thing is that he sees him as a man and no longer as a monster.

Their truce inevitably begins quickly and they must team up alongside Wonder Woman to stop Lex's Doomsday creation. Of course the battle is glorious and a lot of fun, but as they all know that only kryptonite can kill Doomsday, Superman makes the sacrifice play. Arguments could be made that Wonder Woman could've done it in his stead, but Clark needed to do it to prove to himself that he belongs in this world and to bring the films themes full circle. And just before he picks up the spear, fully knowing what it will do to him, he tells Lois, "This is my world. You...are my world."

Superman then flies to and drives the spear through Doomsday, who in turn stabs him through the heart and, presumably, both their lives are lost. Superman has sacrificed himself to save the world. And that's important not because he necessarily feels he cares for everyone in the world, but the ones he loves are part of this world and if he doesn't claim it as his own he might lose them forever. And perhaps deep down is the knowledge that the only way to prove to the masses that you stand for your cause is to die for it. Despite the hate you've faced and the mistakes you made in the past. You are still a good person. And as Bruce perfectly puts it to Diana after Clark's funeral, despite all they're capable of, "Men are still good."

Much as Jor-El speaks to his son in Man of Steel, "They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time...they will join you in the sun."

And the words placed beneath Superman's memorial in Metropolis appropriately state, "If you seek his monument, look around you."

General Swanwick put it plainly after a nuclear bomb could not stop Doomsday. He was unkillable. But a sacrifice made by Superman saved, quite literally, the entire world. That is his monument. His decision to accept the world for what it is because he has a desire to do good and to believe in the ones he loved saved humankind.

Diana Prince of course experiences these feelings of powerlessness as well. Although they're not as glaring. But we know her solo film will take place during the time that photograph was taken of her, 1918. Whatever happened between then and now has turned her away from helping humankind and silenced her. She has been in hiding, likely from the same hardships Bruce and Clark are both going through. And it takes the knowledge that there are more out there like her, who are fighting, to bring her out of hiding. Her feeling of powerlessness comes from feeling alone. Now she knows she is not.

Lois Lane also serves to be a great female lead primarily because she is active. In this day and age, much as been the standard for so long, so many female characters continue to be either reactive or passive damsels in distress. But ever since Man of Steel they have intentionally written Lois to be intelligent, confident, and active. Something that a lot of reviewers for some reason think is silly. "Why would she..." fill in the blank. "How could she..." fill in the blank. We live in a world where everyone can accept that glasses would conceal Clark's identity, or a mask Bruce's, but a woman running around thinking for herself and pursuing leads as a good journalist? Hogwash! That's unlikely!

Yes Superman saves her. But Lois saved Superman first and I think that's very important to realize as one of the myriad reasons this film worked for me. Lois is his world. The nightmares Jonathan talked about, the ones that undoubtedly haunt Clark after Metropolis' destruction in Man of Steel? Lois is the only thing that makes them go away. Because he loves her. And she is worth his life. And if she is, then everyone else is too. Because somewhere out there, there must be more like her.

This "review" if you can even call it that is so based in personal bias and influence that it is impossible to say it doesn't inform my opinion. Which is why I think it's so important to inform you how and why this film works for me on a personal level before we even analyze its themes. I have always felt deep and emotional connections to both Batman and Superman because they are both children of loss just like me. They have strong moral codes and believe in justice and have the will to do the right thing, just like me. They may be fictional but I have always looked up to them to provide insight on how I should live my life. That's what good material can do to you. And because of Clark's strong relationship to his father in both Man of Steel and now Batman v Superman, I connect with them both because of that. Jonathan tried to hide Clark's secrets because he wanted to protect him. My father isn't necessarily like that but I draw so many similarities in that Jonathan and my father taught Clark and I life's most important lessons. Not how to hunt, how to fight, or how to survive by force, but how to love. My father, just like Superman's (and just like Jor-El did as an act of love by sending his son to earth), taught me how to be a good man. If ever I were a Superman it would not be because of my actions alone, but because of him, and because of the ones that I love. I don't try to be a good person because it's what I NEED to do, I try to be a good person because it's what I WANT to do. Because I want to protect the people I love. That's what makes the world worth saving.

I stumbled upon this piece by artist Mauricio Abril at Wondercon yesterday and it just knocked me off my feet. I was looking for that one extra thing that made me understand why I liked Batman v Superman, and this was it.*

When people say there's no story in Batman v Superman, or too much story, it feels strange. I'm not entirely sure what was expected. There's a lot of story in Avengers: Age of Ultron too. And a lot in Star Wars The Force Awakens. I don't feel that Batman v Superman egregiously stands out as having more or less than either of those two franchise films. Especially when each Marvel movie spends a good ten minutes each film setting up the next two. And Star Wars is much the same. That's why they exists in the first place. Superhero films are inherently franchise machines. They are there to make money so they can make more movies in order to make more money. Some of the metahuman info and Justice League set up feels jackknifed in, but it does not take away from the central themes of the film itself and of course will lead to future realizations for them as a team and as people.

My greatest intention with something like this is to convey the subjectivity of film reviews and also the danger of just becoming one of the masses chiming in on the hate train because it's popular. I'm not saying this is Bonnie and Clyde but when that film first came out every critic panned it except Roger Ebert. And on seemingly his word alone, people changed their minds. And that's the most important thing I think when watching film. I'm by no means Roger Ebert. But I am an informed film goer who has studied and received a degree in critique and the craft of film making, not to mention a working actor and writer out here in LA whose entire life has been formed around comic books and these characters specifically. My opinion is not the gold standard, but it is not uninformed. And it is certainly not without its subjectivity, which has to be admitted.

But I see this happening more and more these days and it feels overwhelming at times. Do not go in rigid, cynical, or with pre-conceived notions to dislike something because that's how people tell you to feel. I've gone in to a lot of movies expecting to love them and hating them instead and vice versa. No one is innocent. But we have a perfectly qualified, thought provoking example of a Superhero film trying to communicate more to an audience than just explosions and muscles and it seems the general public feels the film was made by firmly pressing a crayon down onto celluloid. Or that the production team and executives were simply a room full of monkeys pushing buttons who knew nothing about comics.

I love the film and will see it again and again because it works for me. I genuinely believe it was made with the intention of being good. I find it hard to believe people set out to make bad movies, especially something of this caliber. The most important thing about films and about opinions is that we can all like what we want and dislike what we want. If you didn't like it, that's great! Just know that I don't need it to work for you in order for it to work for me.

Every truth started as a blasphemy. According to most of America's critical opinion, I'll let this one be mine for now.

*Mauricio Abril's work can be found at his website,

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas: The Benevolent Delusion

Off the bat just to be clear, I love Christmas. This is not a disparaging or cynical blog about it. The notion of calling it a benevolent delusion is simply because, over the years, my beliefs have evolved (much as everyone’s should) and though my love of Christmas will always be tremendous I see the holidays a little differently each year. And as I re-watch many of my favorite Christmas movies each season I often take new meaning from them, despite having seen those dozens of times. If there’s spoilers in here for some of you I do apologize. But I assume you’ve seen the film I’ll be focusing on, the classic 1947 Miracle on 34th Street. We’ll also be focusing mostly on the American representation of both Christmas and Santa Claus since they are and can be vastly different between countries. There may be historical and contextual mention of Saint Nick in his various forms and the celebration of the holiday across the centuries and continents but since this is a fairly personal study done for myself it all ties back to what I and many of my peers know best and what we grew up with, Christmas in the States.

My views on this beautiful film have shifted over the years. As a child, a young adult, and even until 3 or 4 years ago, I always came to the inevitable conclusion that Kris, the delightful old man in the film, WAS in fact the real Santa Claus. His lawyer and friend Mr. Gailey even proves it in court and according to US Law to boot! Of course along the way millions of people share that idea including the fairly disillusioned Mrs. Doris Walker and her impressionable yet open minded daughter Susan. But something that struck me recently, as every year there always remains that shred of doubt, is the idea that it absolutely does not matter. So long as no one gets hurt, what difference does it make whether or not the man is or is not the real Santa Claus.

Perhaps Kris, from the Brooks Maplewood Home for the Aged, really is the big man himself. Perhaps, a bit like a western hero, he wanders into different towns each year like a ghost, arriving to change its populations for the better before disappearing off into the sunset (or the snow in this case). He flies under the radar in order to better understand the people he loves and why the human race is so deserving of gifts each and every year despite some of those who seek to bring him down.

But on the flip side, perhaps he really is an elderly man who suffers from a very powerful delusion, one in which people have conceded to and allowed him to double down on precisely because it’s harmless and benevolent. Whoever this man is, whether or not his birth name is Kris Kringle or John Smith, he is a kind and loving man who suffered, at some point, from a break in his personality. And the new personality that resulted is Santa Claus, the most positive possible outcome. Dr. Pierce, from the Brooks home, in a brief scene even acknowledges that he had a feeling they’d be asking questions about Kris soon. But Kris’ delusions are not harmful to himself or his peers, rather he only wants to help people. “He has no latent maniacal tendencies.”

And so Kris’ character traits follow suit in that he is kind, loving, considerate, giving, a good listener, and most of all a person who exists outside the norm of what society expects of him. And that last trait is what inherently causes a schism in the public view of him. Is he or is he not Santa Claus? And that concept is where this writing is basing its title. Christmas is a benevolent delusion. The real and the fake aside, what Christmas is to us in December 2015 is hardly the sum of its historical parts.

To any common sense possessing adult there is no such thing as Santa Claus, at least not in the modern Coca Cola-esque depiction of him. It’s a story we tell our children for myriad reasons, the foremost of which is to help them behave by threatening the absence of presents and the presence of coal in their stead. However, Saint Nicholas (or Nikolaos in his original Greek) was a real 4th century bishop, and later named Saint, who had a reputation for secret gift giving. (His history as a real man is quite extensive so I encourage you to do some research for those interested.) Obviously this aspect of his personality, among a few others, contributes to the modern notion of the American Santa Claus.

Christmas is overall an incredibly complex and strange holiday. Historically many of the traditions we practice today either in the States or overseas are the result of the inevitable change that occurs in our cultures. For instance in the 17th Century in many places cross dressing between couples was a Christmas tradition. As was wassailing. What is now seen as the delightful spirited holiday beverage or sometimes as singing door to door, wassailing was once a tradition practiced at Christmas time when the rich or middle class would be obligated to allow the poor, or “wassailers”, many of them young aggressive men and underage boys, into their homes and provide them food and drink. If they were refused they might vandalize the home or practice a number of tricks to taunt the homeowners and families. The lyrics, “now bring us some figgy pudding…we won’t go until we got some” harkens back to this. So traditionally wassailing was an incredibly drunken and oftentimes violent tradition that many people dreaded and hated. Christmas, therefore, was not always cause for merriment and good will but cause for contempt and fear.

Many countries, the pilgrims included (the ones who celebrated the first Thanksgiving), outlawed it. It was illegal to celebrate something that had nothing to do with their spirituality but had more to do with public drunkenness and gross misconduct. It also got in the way of being productive. William Bradford, probably the most notable Pilgrim of those who landed on Plymouth rock in 1621, found 3 men celebrating Christmas by taking the day off work. He ordered them back to work otherwise they would face penalty.

So the easy, breezy way in which we see Christmas (both presently and classically) is the furthest from the holiday’s nearly 2,000 year history. But my goal is not to set fire to the good ol’ American Christmas by dropping casual historical notes and wagging my finger, quite the opposite in fact. As time has gone on the holiday has become representative of many things. Sure materialism and black Friday shopping may be among them, but so is the desire to spread peace on earth and good will toward humankind. And that is something that has existed since the beginning of the human race.

The internet and our infinite connectivity and access to any and all information we desire has made it very easy for us to only see the dark side of the holidays, to see people “for what they really are”. The quotes meaning that I know many folks who believe that at our core we are a sick species, a bit of a plague really, that exists only to consume and not to contribute, and is, over time, systematically destroying itself by emphasizing self-importance, money, taking and receiving, purposefully remaining ignorant and prejudiced, and nurturing a lust for guns and subsequently war.

But I think that’s all hogwash. And I think that’s the kind of thing that Kris in Miracle on 34th Street looks to make us aware of. Doris (Mrs. Walker) is, by 1947’s standards, representative of the cultural mindset that it’s more important we not believe in “fairy tales” because they are more harmful than the truth. And the truth is plain and simple. There is no Santa and people are simply good or bad and that’s the end of it. Arguing the notions of faith and spirituality and belief is childish nonsense because it isn’t tangible. But in a beautiful moment, Mr. Gailey points out:

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see it’s not just Kris that’s on trial? It’s everything he stands for. Its kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

Christmas is presently (and even 68 years ago) a time in which believing in things that are not classified as common sense is okay to do. For children it’s okay to believe in Santa. Even if we approach it from a biblical perspective as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, that kind of faith requires much the same. Historically we know there was a man, a great rabbi, who inspired the Jesus we believe in today. But to make the argument that his birth, life, death, and resurrection occurred exactly the way the bible says it did and exactly the way we celebrate and believe today is highly unlikely. (And let’s not forget I myself am Christian, although a very different kind of Christian.) To many I’ve just uttered a very blasphemous statement. But history has proved that Christmas traditions have so evolved over the centuries that to say it was always about peace, love and understanding is equally blasphemous. Sometimes people respect history only and do not embrace the spirit. Sometimes people focus only on the spirit and turn a blind eye to history. But Christmas, and many other holidays, are the in between frame of mind. We sometimes give more credit to intangibles and sometimes more credit to common sense when at the end of the day it should be an endeavor to find a balance between the two.

“Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. And that’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it.”

Kris’ quote above encapsulates both his character and the importance of allowing and encouraging a benevolent delusion. What we believe in, in 2015 that is supposedly based upon history or actual events is a far cry from “the truth”. And that “truth” is something we will never know with 100% certainty. Without the aid of time travel and being physically present for certain events, the resulting belief based on those events is stood up on a fair amount of supposition. But what rings true for us is what we feel in our hearts. Why else would the notion of peace on earth and good will toward humankind remain so prevalent for thousands of years?

And so we the word delusion becomes almost as a representation for “belief”, believing in things when common sense tells you not to. But as Kris’ first doctor points out, some delusions are harmless and are in fact helpful to those who believe in them and the people who are affected by their delusions. Once the delusion becomes harmful, then it becomes something dangerous. We see this in both strictly religious groups and those who are not, whose definition of what things are “supposed to be” is incredibly rigid and unwavering. “The truth” requires shutting out non-believers and those who disagree with you because they are different from you or believe different things than you.

The grand point is that while to some “Jesus is the reason for the season”, to many others good will and gift giving is their reason. And all of these reasons are okay. Christmas has become an amalgamation of so many different things that to isolate it as one thing is to do it a great disservice. And oftentimes this isolation is backed by incredible hypocrisy. Many of our present day traditions are hijacked from other religions and walks of life, like the pagans. So to steal from history then turn your back on it and say it’s about Jesus is blatant ignorance. Jesus doesn’t care what decorations are in your house, he cares how you decorate your heart. And to the many others who find Christmas as just a day and nothing more with a bit of a Scrooge-like attitude, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s okay not to celebrate. But don’t foster a sort of contempt for those who do like to buy the occasional peppermint mocha or imbibe in a little shopping because that’s all okay too. Because Christmas is not just a day, it is a frame of mind. It is believing in peace on earth and good will toward humankind when all other signs point toward it not. It’s giving from the heart when your peers say it’s simply about materialism. It’s finding rest at the end of a weary year, or finding a little spirit in your glass at the end of a long day. So long as no one gets hurt, what’s the harm in believing in Christmas? What difference does it make whether or not Kris is or is not the real Santa?

And for that matter what’s the harm in believing in the spirit of whatever you want to? Though I’ve always celebrated Christmas I’ve never understood the sort of contempt some believers have for others. The “this is a Christian nation” mentality has hurt us tremendously, because we are not just a Christian nation. We are a melting pop of beautiful differences. And to not respect someone else’s beliefs, especially at Christmas time, is to do the exact opposite of what your belief is about.

Whether it’s celebrating Santa or Yule, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus (for the rest of us), these are all frames of mind and all born from humankind’s inherent inclination toward goodness and light. Despite our beliefs and holidays having spun out of history and found a new identity in the 21st century, we should love one another during the holidays and all year through. And if at the end of the day, the year, or our lives we find that there’s little more to this life than the present, then that’s the greatest present of all. If technically speaking peace on earth, goodwill toward humankind, and love for your neighbor is simply a frame of mind, then God bless us everyone for embracing those things. Who are they hurting? Christmas is, after all, simply a benevolent delusion.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all!


Friday, September 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts (For What They're Worth)

*Note. I originally began the bulk of this review about a week after the book's release. For whatever reason I fell away from it. (Perhaps that's telling of the impact the novel has had on our psyches and it's importance in our libraries?) For whatever reason, I've decided to finish the final few sentences and publish it only because I didn't want my reading to have gone in vain. This is 2015 after all and I need all of social media to know just how hard it was to read an entire book.*

Harper Lee's new (and only second) novel "Go Set a Watchman" has certainly set a lot of fires recently. And rightfully so. If you follow the novel's history it's quite clear it was never meant to be published. Well, Lee never intended it to be published. There's quite an extensive back and forth about her being "trilled" that it is "finally" seeing the light of day but the general consensus is...that isn't true. There are a lot of suits and, ironically, lawyers behind the book being released. After suffering from a stroke years ago, Lee has had trouble seeing and hearing and it has been reported that she'd sign pretty much anything put in front of her and told to sign by people she trusted.

Needless to say, the rocky back and forth about whether the novel should or should not have been published should be laid to rest. It happened. It upsets and excites considerable amounts of people. But the novel is now available and that's the end of that story. Is the world a better place because it is now available to us? No. But is the world now a worse place because it is available? Certainly not. Quite honestly, it isn't a terrible book but it also isn't terribly good. It's content is a bit mired in the same mud that the conversations about the novel are: What do we do with this?

I was never particularly attached to "To Kill a Mockingbird" as so many are. I haven't revisited that story in many, many years but when I saw "Go Set a Watchman" on the shelf at my local supermarket, I stopped dead in my tracks. For whatever reason, to me, there is electricity in the notion that the author of one of the greatest pieces of American literature has published, at 89 years old, her second book. To me it was an opportunity to further explore her psyche, to add more context to her legacy, her craft, and her previous book. And with that book, as with life, context is the key to everything. Many people have a difficult time reading this new novel and remembering when it was written and why it ended up in Lee's scrap pile. Many also find it impossible to set apart the Atticus Finch they know and love from "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Atticus Finch of "Go Set a Watchman". They are distinctly different and that difference does hit like a punch to the gut. However, "Go Set a Watchman" was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird" and it's clear why she shelved the project. It feels like an early draft and when the back cover is closed it doesn't feel like a complete novel. But it isn't entirely bad. And although the controversy around it stems mainly from Atticus being a racist 72 year old man, it doesn't mean it isn't without its merits. And, to me, it more greatly empowers the current interpretation of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Essentially, this is the sequel/prequel we didn't ask for. We had a perfect novel, so naturally what do we do with perfect things? Make imperfect sequels and/or reboots. However this "sequel" was already written and, in a sub-textual way, serves as a prequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" considering it was written prior. I think if there was less pomp and circumstance surrounding its release it would've caused less of a stir. If it were released via the internet as a manuscript or a leak or an unreleased, unpublished draft, we'd all look at it through the prism of "NEAT!" And then the finer details would have us saying, "I can see why she chose not to publish this." Or, "She definitely cut her teeth on this and that more refined style and prose is greater reflected in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." Also, "I'm glad she chose not to make Atticus a racist."

However it's the race issue that actually, at the end of the day, makes "Go Set a Watchman" important. There are 3 days in your life that are specifically the worst.

3. When you learn there is no Santa Claus.
2. When you outrun your dog.
1. When you learn that your world view mustn't mirror your father's (or parent's).

"Go Set a Watchman" is certainly the third. And those are simply my perspective. I am very close to my Dad. He is absolutely my hero and if I grow up to be even a tenth of the man he is, I'll consider myself a good person. Thankfully he hasn't surprisingly turned out to be a racist. But I vividly recall the moment I realized that he and I disagreed. What the issue was I honestly don't know, but that the moment happened is what's burned into my brain. There's a feeling of helplessness, of being lost, and of knowing that at the exact moment I had become my own man. I was free to act, think, and believe as I pleased. And a great burden comes along with that. I am now responsible for my own actions and decisions. But until that moment everything I learned about life had come from my Dad. As soon as you realize you're free to draw your own conclusions it is both freeing and terrifying.

Scout learns that her father, despite being the pillar of justice and equality she remembers him as being, has a problem with the black population of Maycomb, Alabama and an even greater issue with the NAACP trying to help empower them. To a person living in 2015 (well, to some people living in 2015 I should unfortunately say) race should be a non-issue. So when reading the book through those eyes the initial reaction is a modern one. That people speak about other races in such a way is disgusting and deplorable. I will say, every time the "N word" is used it stings with venom. It feels unclean and inappropriate. There has been some desensitization of it over the years but it's context in "Go Set a Watchman" is vulgar and harsh. And very effective because of that. This is a 60+ year old book. It will not conform to the standards of 2015.

But for all the hate the book has received for turning Atticus, white people's former champion and greatest literary hero, into a racist, the book shines the new (and temporarily positive) spotlight on Scout. She is the hero. And how is that so bad? She was our narrator in "To Kill a Mockingbird" but not necessarily our hero. Here we, heaven forbid, find strength in a female protagonist who stands for something so strongly that she is willing to stand up for it. So strongly that she is willing to sever ties with her father, the great Atticus Finch. Now I know what you're thinking, "But I thought only men could do important things!" And the strength of Scout comes from, you guessed it, her father. The notion of that world crumbling down (seeing your father as God) plays a large role in the book and an important one. But because the book offers up important conversations on race is why, in my opinion, it should be read. It is both enlightening and heartbreaking that a book written over half a century ago still offers relevant commentary on racism and race related issues. That isn't to say that we expect these things to look and feel dated, but that maybe we haven't come as far as we believe we have.

When you turn on the news what do you see? White on black violence, black on black violence, police on black violence. And it never ends. The campaign "Black Lives Matter" is so important because it's true. Perhaps, as a reviewer, I'm writing from Scout's perspective and from that of an idealist. But I assumed that come the year 2015 we'd all be treated equally. But we are not. And it is soul crushing. Racism still runs rampant throughout the world and, sadly, I do not see an end. It's so twisted in some circles that after the devastating shootings in Charleston, SC I saw articles blaming women for men like Dylann Roof. If only we as a society hadn't repressed masculinity and perpetuated the notion that masculinity is "rape culture" then guys like this wouldn't need to do things like this.

The article also mentioned the notion of over medicating kids with mental health issues, but once the preposterous claim that women were ultimately to blame came along I checked out of anything sensible they might'be said (if even by accident).

But finally "Go Set a Watchman" becomes an unfortunate reminder that even the greatest authors are fallible. Or at least shouldn't have every word they've uttered become publish worthy material. However, that fallibility was not one we were meant to witness had Harper Lee been of sound mind when she was approached with the possible publication of her "lost" manuscript. Even towards the book's conclusion Scout makes a half-hearted acknowledgement that (essentially), well of course blacks aren't the same as whites, but still...we shouldn't be treating them so poorly because they're people...kind of?

When it finishes it is much less of a book than it is a manuscript, the very thing we knew it was if we'd done our research, all along. And now we have it and we must find something to do with it, like that fairly thoughtless gift you receive from an absent minded relative at Christmas time and are too embarrassed to return or dispose of for fear of hurting their feelings.

Finally, just like that "gift" it ends up buried on a shelf in between more important volumes or even worse, depending on your reverence for "To Kill a Mockingbird", it finds its way into the closet. Only to be rediscovered and reflected upon poorly when you're cleaning it out due to a move or a spring cleaning. And just like those items it will find its way into a thrift shop or a donation pile, and the cycle perpetuates, and its presence does not fade unless it is destroyed. Sadly Harper Lee did not have the foresight to destroy it decades years ago.