Month: August 2019

Pop culture in review: “Jungle Fever,” “Stranger Things,” and “Once Upon a Tim e…In Hollywood”

This is just for fun, reflecting on some movies and TV shows I’ve watched lately. I’ll start with Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” which is a much more subtle movie than I remember. But it has very little to do with “Stranger Things” and “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” which are actually quite closely aligned aesthetically.


I saw “Jungle Fever” sometime around the time it came out, either in the theater or on video just after I arrived in New York City for college. It was a part of my general acculturation to the city, which is an incredible experience for anyone fortunate enough to have the chance. My first time in New York was in 1989 or 1990, and Times Square was covered in posters for “Mo’ Better Blues” in that New York style of plastering rows and rows of the same poster creating this Warholian pattern of day-glo colors amidst the angular grays and noise of the city. By the time I returned in 1991, the specificity of the posters no longer caught my attention, they were just part of the texture of the city, so I suppose there were “Jungle Fever” posters too, but I don’t recall them.

New York in 1991 was still the New York of the 1970s and 80s. It was changing, and the change was perceptible to locals I imagine, but attitudes had not changed. This was still the “it ain’t Kansas” New York of muggings and graffiti and ghettos. Its rough surface full of foul smells and punchy people held a glorious shock value that screamed New York and brought to furious life all the associations an urban-curious Midwesterner could muster. I remember flying in and seeing the skyline for the first time, and wondering if everything Lou Reed said is true. New Yorkers rode on the subway standing, reading a paper, against the doors, eyes warily on the crowd and their pocketbook lodged in the corner where the door met the bench. In our orientation at the dorm a crusty cop told us that everyone could tell we were new around here, and here’s some survival advice…

Jungle Fever seemed to explain something about Al Sharpton and Bensonhurst and racial violence in New York’s self-contained world. New York was a place where another student in an honors program, who claimed himself as “Persian” asked me: “Hey Paul, you’re a pretty big guy, would you be willing to beat someone up for me? I’ll pay you.” I wasn’t in Minnesota anymore. I was just 20 years old, and a very green 20 at that. I was still a virgin literally and figuratively. Suffice to say, I didn’t really “get” Jungle Fever.

The movie, in my recollection, settled in as a solid Spike Lee movie, and a sensationalist take on interracial dating. It merged in my mind with Al Sharpton’s protests, Tawana Bradley and Yusuf Hawkins and some guy who stabbed Sharpton in Bensonhurst.

Re-watching it I saw something far less political, more subtle and more compassionate. Spike Lee reflects on family, which was and is touted as the cure to all social ills. The families in Jungle Fever are the source of social ills: their abuses and judgmentalism, and yet the escape from family is hardly the cure. His most proximate fear is for the child without family: the light-skinned child born of a long broken union, now a drug addict or a prostitute on the streets…and yet the child of the staid preacher’s family also suffers the same fate. Wesley Snipes’ overachieving and overlooked professional fears for the fate of his daughter who is threatened with a broken family because of his recklessness. And even his shattered marriage has a traumatized root in those who mocked his wife’s light skin. The awareness of skin color is a curse, yet ignorance of skin color is no cure.

Just as important to the movie is how humanely he treats the scandal at its core. Their attraction, its course, and its resolution are not sensationalized at all, except perhaps in certain elements of Spike Lee’s stylized style which comes with any of his movies, and which is such a turn-off to award committees. Their romance is openly acknowledged to take place amidst the “curiosity,” transgression, and exotic fantasy expressed by the openly racist trope of “jungle fever,” it is the generation of difference and its erotic overtones accomplished in American racism that feeds their attraction, and Lee handles those themes with a balanced hand, but more importantly a compassionate one. He judges neither of them, even while allowing for their sin and recklessness. At the very core of their relationship is the unfolding of real love, regardless of race, marriages, families, and children. The most painful moment is when Wesley Snipes’ character has to disavow that love for the sake of a bigger societal responsibility to reestablishing his marriage, and his wife’s tears in the closing scenes signal just how emotionally painful that will be. Race is just one small part of a story about the “malocclusions of love” to turn a relevant Gwendolyn Brooks phrase.

It is amidst all these families that we see that their sin, their recklessness is but one small collision amidst an infinity, and that, in fact, families are built upon such collisions. And Hollywood movies are built on such fantasies. It is not coincidental that the empty apartment that the protagonists share looks a lot like the one in “The Last Tango in Paris”. Spike Lee, like Quentin Tarantino works in the self-referential language of movies. And so does “Stranger Things” which famously reconstructs Spielberg’s suburban Edens pierced by supernatural forces.

Race doesn’t really seem to exist in the confectionary world of “Stranger Things”… so strange indeed. And yet, I recognize that place, at least the everyday world that seems to suffer no effects of the profound mind-boggling existential crisis borne by the parallel dimension that inhabits their Twilight Zone town. There is a token black family, but that phrase feels cruel here. Is it merely that cynical? The thing is, there were a thousand such suburbs in the early 1980s where a professional black family quietly moved in and fit in. Perhaps other parents kept them at a distance, perhaps they felt the scorn of property valuations. But few in that era and that place would be so uncouth as to heap that scorn upon the child. He fits in. There were kids like that in my junior high. Let him be, don’t scorn him as a token, nor his first romance as a “fever” of any kind other than the feverish impossibilities present in all first romances. Their social world is brightly lit and not quite realistic, but hasn’t the introverted world of junior high always been thus? That he and his sister are black in that era and in that place are the least of his problems, puberty beckons as a more immediate complication. The trials a young black man might face in such a circumstance will really only start around the time he gets a driver’s license.

“Stranger Things” was pure candy, and the first season went down in a delicious gluttonous gulp, leaving a sugar-rush high adamant for more, and no subsequent hit can quite match the first one. And the show got worse each season. The exquisite conceit of the “upside-down” and the psychic laboratory and the flowery monsters gave way in subsequent seasons to knock-off copies of the same, matched with borrowed clothes of cheap Hollywood monsters. And it is just as well, because by the last season the show’s clever unspoken conceit becomes undeniable and therefore all the most impressive that they kept it credibly hidden that whole time.

The “upside-down” does not exist, not merely in our “real world” but even in their “Stranger” world. The “stranger things” are entirely in the realm of puberty and its parallel dimensions of childhood and adulthood and the incomprehensible world in between. All of the supernatural elements of the show are revealed, in a self-conscious and deliberate way, to be nothing but the projections of the fertile imagination of early adolescence, a predominantly male . There is a reason why the gateway to the “upside-down” was broken open by a pubescent girl. There is a reason why it pulsates in such a pornographic vulvular manner. It is the projection of male fear and fantasy, of a 12-year old whose best knowledge of such things comes from magazines hidden in someone’s father’s closet. And there is a reason why grown men attack it with such ferocity and find such terrors upon crossing its threshold. When, in the final season, the gateway is under assault, it is revealed as rape by bad guys with a giant bionic dildo. The storyline of “Stranger Things” is about the entrance into adolescence, and the way the world seems to take on another magical dimension with the emergence of sexual awareness. Thus the main “girl” of the show is herself magical, all-knowing, and indestructible.

So, this conceit only expands as the seasons pass. By the end we have infused their entire social world with a heroic fantasy, where the mall is not merely the space for a consumer’s coming-of-age, but also an epic Cold War battle. In the end, we are reminded that conspiracies are rarely actual glimpses into secret intrigues, but are almost always paranoid or self-aggrandizing or merely necessary fantasies that make the banality of life bearable.

So, as the series ends with the cataclysm at the mall, the irony of the whole show is that the newspaper headline that it was just a disastrous fire that took the lives of several people is not the “cover-up” that is implied in the structure of the show, but rather the sign of the conspiratorial fantasy that has been the whole premise of “Stranger Things” from the beginning. The “stranger things” are not monsters from another dimension…but 13-year old girls, who for all practical purposes might as well be.

So, I turn now to one more subtly signaled fantasy. As with “Stranger Things,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” never really winks to tell the audience that the whole story is premised upon a fantasy. Well he does wink, once, in the title itself. “Once Upon a Time” just as reliably as his old “Pulp Fiction,” signals both the fairy tale that it is, that all Hollywood movies are, and signals his total immersion in that fantasy world by recalling the great Sergio Leone films “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in New York.” Then he reinforces this hint that he is presenting something that is entirely a fantasy by practically exclaiming “IN HOLLYWOOD” …. Get it???

Italian cinema is given prominent billing in Tarantino’s film, and we are reminded that Sergio Leone’s break-through spaghetti westerns were built upon the monumental male fantasy of Clint Eastwood as “the man with no name,” who was thereby proposed as a universal male archetype. Tarantino plays upon this by presenting the stuntman as another “man with no name” in this case the particular wet dream of manliness, Brad Pitt.

In Tarantino’s insular world of Hollywood fantasy, we never are allowed to forget that the actors exist in a strange dimension of continual reincarnation. If Clint Eastwood himself appeared in the movie, as a hospital nurse or a movie exec, we would be disallowed from ever even considering that he was not also the archetypical man with no name, always and forever. That character shapes our experience of Clint Eastwood in every single one of his movies. Likewise Brad Pitt is always and forever the projected millennial male fantasy that he played in “Fight Club.” He is never not that projection, and he is that projection here again. Brad Pitt’s character in the film (whatever his name was) does not exist. He is merely a fantastical psychic projection of Leanardo DiCaprio’s character, a character, we should note, who shares not a little of DiCaprio’s own real life fate. DiCaprio shows again that he is a magnificent actor, and it is the complex conceit of him acting as an actor acting as a cowboy that perfectly captures the hall of mirrors (prominently figured in the closing episodes of “Stranger Things”) that Hollywood is.

It is within this conceit of psychically projected fantasy upon fantasy that the racism of Tarantino’s film resides. It is both acknowledged and indulged, it is both there and not there. The “white man with no name”, the “stuntman” accomplishes illusions of grandeur, superhuman feats of make-believe where no one is ever really hurt and no one ever really dies. Brad Pitt winks at us in a “Fight Club” type line, “don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.” By the same token, in Tarantino’s projection of a fading movie star’s projection of the manliness that he only ever played as an actor, that was only ever accomplished through the magic of film, in that fantasy world the “white stuntman without a name” is allowed to defeat Bruce Li, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar may protest that Bruce Li was the real thing, a real martial arts expert who could not be defeated by a sloppy white guy fighter not unlike Philo Beddoe (the previous generation’s “Fight Club” hero played by Clint Eastwood himself). But then we slap ourselves on the head and realize that, in the end, Bruce Li was nothing but a movie fantasy himself. Yes, he may have been a competitive martial arts fighter, and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed in “Rocky”) was once a professional football player, but once they are on a silver screen, they are no longer anything but dreams.

And yes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar was once one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived, and probably the most thoughtful, but in enter the dragon he plays just another version of the character he played in “Airplane”, a winking reminder that we are in a dream where such people are constantly reincarnated, never fully shedding the aggregated “Mr. Potatohead” fantasy that is every Hollywood star. So his critique of the pregnant racism in the scene where Brad Pitt throws Bruce Li into a car is both fully accurate and at once deconstructed in Tarantino’s conceit, and never absent. Nor for that matter, the sexism, which receives the same winking and violent treatment. And thereby history, wink wink, is defeated. Charles Manson never kills Polanski’s neophyte wife, and so Polanski’s sodomizing assault on a 13-year old, perhaps also never subsequently happened…in Hollywood.

Tarantino’s cannot deconstruct racism, sexism, ageism out of Hollywood’s existence with cleverness. Indeed there is a lesson here. We cannot by winking, by acknowledging, by calling out racism thereby escape our own participation in all of these ills. Indeed the performances, whether of winking, knowing innocence or self-righteous accusation can only perpetuate the conceits of fantasy. And the stickiness of this conundrum makes Spike Lee’s accomplishment in “Jungle Fever” all the more impressive. He reminds us precisely of our post-modern condition of inextricable participation in precisely the injustices that we protest, and illuminates the ways in which society is pregnant with incompatible possibilities.


Do You Think I Came to Bring Peace on Earth?

Luke 12:49-56

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.”

This statement is not about physical violence. The targets of the anger expressed in this statement are precisely those who would take this passage out of context and use it as a justification for violence. But it is about the human potential for violence, and the violence that accompanies the destruction of a social order and its replacement by another. Even if such a transition is accomplished without violent conquest or revolution, the human potential for violence–the way that violence emerges not merely as attack on enemies but as expression of confusion and uncertainty–remains, and Jesus here acknowledges that this tragic potential always accompanies his words in the earthly realm, even his calls to love.

This chapter opens with a description of a rude and unruly crowd: “a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another.” Jesus is with his disciples and speaks to them. The desperate crowd punching each other to hear one of his magical words, some no doubt sent by the Pharisee priests and told to listen and report any scandalous thing he might say. They wanted something they could use to call him out, something they could use the way we latch on to the words of a politician or a movie star and make a big show out of how insulted we are by their scandalous words, and how this proves that such-and-such celebrity is a racist or a homophobe or a liberal elite or a traitor to his country. They were desperate to rend their garments and show everyone how holy they were by how insulted they were by blasphemy.

In the previous chapter Jesus tore into the holier-than-thou Pharisees for their hypocrisies, for burdening people with a judgmental religion full of meaningless ritual and sacrifice. Jesus had been preaching the day before, and a Pharisee priest invited him to a meal, seeking, I suppose, to talk him down a little, make friends, and get him to preach their message and become part of their power structure. Jesus copped a rock star pose, he walked in, looking them in the eye, and reclined onto one elbow at the table on the floor, and very deliberately had not even washed his hands, let alone done any of the ritual washing that the Pharisees were so uptight about. Entertained by their horror, Jesus launched right into them: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” So the Pharisees then began to show up at all his events and ask him questions to trip him up, to embarrass him, to bait him into saying something that would offend the crowds so that they could mark him as a blasphemer.

So, the next day Jesus is with his followers surrounded by this unruly crowd, and is telling a series of meandering stories and admonitions. His mood is gentle one moment and annoyed the next. And then it turns downright violent. “I come to bring fire on the earth, and I wish it were already kindled.” In his angry mood, annoyed by the petty questions of the desperate crowd, he want to light the world on fire. He says he’s frustrated by a higher calling, as he awaits what he calls here “my baptism.” He’s already been baptized by John, and we should remember that John said that “I baptize with water but the one who comes after me will baptize with fire.” So that seems to be the reference here. And Jesus then clarifies what he means by “fire on earth,” in stark and surprising terms. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

For those who look to Jesus for precisely that high-minded dream of “peace on earth,” Jesus here is cruel in his mockery of them. For those war-mongers who like to defend all manner of atrocities and attacks as defenses of religion, they find here their justification.

So, what in the world? What is this all about? Why would Jesus say such a thing? Clearly he is trying to upset the self-centered crowd, who are asking him stupid things like, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” It is because of this attitude that Jesus tells the crowd that his teachings can only bring division. And that is his message for us today as well. It is, at its core, a message that has been with us since Cain and Abel. When we treat religion and ethics as a mere legal dispute to be won or lost, then we have no place in God’s kingdom. Such were the Pharisees, and if his preaching against them, then it had to bring war of some kind. The alliance of the Pharisees and the Jewish royal house was more or less the same as that between the Saudi royal family and the legalistic Wahhabi preachers who provide their profligate lifestyle with theological cover. And a large segment of “Conservative Christian” theologians today bend towards this same habit, where theology is not a means of guiding the faithful towards the mysteries of God, but rather of guiding them towards enslavement rather than servitude.

Jesus condemns that order, which had cost his friend John his head, very literally. Jesus proclaims the end of that order. That is the fire, and it will not be peaceful. (Many years later, centuries, millennia in fact, James Baldwin took note of what the end of an order means by quoting an another iteration of this same symbolic phrase. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, but the fire next time.”) And Jesus knows full well that if the Pharisaical order collapses, so does the delicate balance of indirect rule in Roman Palestine. Within a generation Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the temple destroyed.

The hypocrisy, at its most literal, was simply this: The Pharisees preached purity. But Roman food, Roman vessels, Roman soldiers were not pure in this ritual sense, and people tried to avoid Roman things and interactions, and the Pharisees defended the corrupt alliance of the royal family with Roman authorities. And then washed their hands in public view depending of the ritual of sanctity while the money lenders and tax collectors enriched themselves at the Roman manger.

And it should go without saying, but needs to be said this Pharisaical age today in America, the hypocrisy of which Jesus speaks is not, in the end, the specific details of ancient Palestinian politics or pre-talmudic treatises, but of the congenital hypocrisy of the human soul, its vulnerability to corruption. It is not about Pharisees or Jews or Romans, but about the original separation from God, the premature knowledge of good and evil, and the inability to act upon that knowledge. As Paul later put it, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” The sword that Jesus brings is the one that divides the soul from itself, the one that destroys the Pharisaical order within each one of us, the hypocritical construction of the self. In its place Jesus offers a grace that can only happen via the confession that destroys all respectability. The confession is not a price, but simply a prerequisite. It must happen for grace to be possible, because grace happens through an interaction with God. It is free gift, but must be accepted as such, and any exchange that happens prior to confession is a transaction rather than a gift. It bears a price that turns the gift into a commodity and the price is never sufficient for the gift of life. For the Pharisees, Jerusalem is destroyed and abominated. For the followers of Jesus, Jerusalem is established anew as permanent community of all who believe, not the city on the ground, but the city of God. And when even Rome is destroyed, the City of God lives.