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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The order is rapidly fadin'

Tiiiiiime... ain't on my side.

It ain't on anyone's side, not really, not anyone mortal. It wears on, we get older, and so does everything else we love. This is charming and pleasant in infants, of course; nothing I've found is more fulfilling than watching a child you love grow up straight and strong and happy (and, most likely, nothing is more heartbreaking than the converse). Yet it's true that having a young child in your day to day life is like having a death-clock hung around your neck; your perceptions of your own life quickly build their own comfortable filter of seeming immutability, but kids sprout before your very eyes, like seeds in some vastly speeded up educational film from the 1960s. It can be depressing, when that nephew or niece you remember rocking in your arms and babbling baby talk to insists on turning 13 and you start hearing about their boy or girlfriends; how much more depressing, then, is it to contemplate how old you'll be when your 6 year old soon to be stepdaughter graduates from high school.

Grim stuff. However much we may try to con ourselves that our 40s, or even our 50s, are still just 'middle age' and in some important, vital sense that we know full well actually makes no sense at all, we're 'still young', when we start planning the tracks of our lives into our 60s, that illusion quickly crumples. And, as I say, when you're in your 40s and trying to make plans for the care of a 6 year old child, well, that's the destination your careful considerations arrive at pretty quickly.

It is without a doubt depressing. And would be, even if we didn't also have to cope with all the doom and gloom looming on our personal horizons, as a century of petroleum profligacy comes due with a vengeance -- and with the climate change directly caused by releasing all that stored heat back into the atmosphere tacked on as rather usurious interest, too.

But I vastly digress; this entry wasn't meant to be anything like this somber. I started out simply to talk about how the times do change, and how that change can pile up gradually and fool you into thinking that the way things are now is the way they've always been -- until you get forcibly smacked in the chops with what the Wolfman used to like to call 'a blast from the past'.

One such blast went off on me Sunday morning, when SuperFiancee was idly surfing around the cable dial and came up with the opening credits of REAL GENIUS on one of the pay stations that we don't pay for. I asked if she'd seen it and upon her admission that she hadn't, promptly demanded the remote and commanded her to sit there and watch it with me. REAL GENIUS is a fondly remembered favorite film from back in my Cinema Board days; in fact, it was a favorite of nearly my entire college clique, with its reams of emininently quotable and often hilarious dialogue, along with its generally anti-authoritarian, pro-intellectual tone.

SuperFiancee didn't enjoy it much, and even I had to admit that the movie hasn't worn well since I was in my early 20s, or I've been hit in the head too many times since then to really appreciate it as fully as I once did.

Yet one thing I did notice, and it's what I'm blogging about now, is that there's more to this film that marks it as an artifact from a bygone era than simply its presently unheard of embrace of intelligence as a positive attribute. (In the post- GUMP era, we only see smart people in movies if they're safely ensconced in wheelchairs or twirling their mustachios while trying to take over the world. The heroes we'd actually like to be -- or that most of the audience would actually like to be -- are firmly non-analytical, anti-intellectual types who solve all their problems through physical violence, or, at the very least, who quickly learn that any thought process at all is overthinking, and the key to all success is to 'go with your gut', or rely on one's basic human decency to carry one through every crisis into eventual affluence and hot sex with Robin Wright-Penn.)

But I'm not on about that now, or at least, not primarily -- my culture's near constant hatred of anyone smarter than the norm is, admittedly, an obsession I keep returning to, but I'll try not to dwell on it here, although, again, REAL GENIUS' variation from this form is undoubtedly one of the reasons I've always liked the film, silly though it is. But what I'm really talking about here is just how hard I got slapped in the face by the scenes where 15 year old intellectual prodigy Mitch is getting his swerve on with two different older chickie poos -- one of them a rather sexy, mature woman who apparently collects sexual encounters with geniuses and who has, in her words, "been waiting three years" until Mitch was "old enough for this". And after Mitch turns her down, he heads on down the dorm hall to where the nerdy-but-still-sexy 19 year old Jordan stays, and she, of course, welcomes him, in the words of the old Who song, with open arms and open legs.

REAL GENIUS was released in 1985 (and was, therefore, most likely shot in 1983 or 1984 and written around 82 or 83) and it's hard to believe, here in these days of Debra LaFave and so many other adult seductresses of teenage boys who are all doing hard time (or sobbing with upheld Bibles in court to escape with mere probation for life and permanent social condemnation as sexual predators), that only two decades or so ago, our society was much cooler with the notion of sexual liaisons between underage males and adult females. And yet, apparently we were; I watched this movie probably four times back in the 80s and early 90s, frequently surrounded by groups of my peers, and I can't recollect any reaction whatsoever besides outright envy, mixed with disbelief that Mitch wouldn't hit the blonde babe before going down the hall to the hot she-nerd. (Of course, the slang phrase 'hit that' hadn't been coined as yet, so we didn't put it that way.)

Now, some of this we can put down to the eternal double standard. Had a handsome late 20s/early 30s male character been depicted running around seducing female geniuses, and had that same character decided to hit on the naive 15 year old female protagonist of such a film, our emotional reactions would have been very different. (When the 15 year old turned the slickster down and went off to get boffed by a 19 year old boyfriend, though, we probably wouldn't have thought much of it.) And it's partly our determination over the past twenty years or so to eliminate all such double standards that has led to the incarceration of most of these sexually predatory women.

Yet it's important to remember that a desire for equal application of law isn't the only thing in play here (and in fact, given the growing intensity of assaults from the right wing on Title XI over the last two decades, such a desire would have to be seen as inconsistently applied, to say the least). What has really changed the filter through which our society regards such incidents over the past few decades is the conservative movement's continuing and increasing obsession with pedophilia. What was once regarded as an illegal but harmless dalliance is now a disgusting moral blight, and there is absolutely no tolerance or perceptual difference seen between true pedophilia (which is a sexual perversion in which adults are attracted to sexually immature children) and relations occurring between sexually mature human beings, where one meets society's arbitrary standard of adulthood and the other does not.

If one wants to really see just how hard and how fast the times they have a changin'ed, one need only to look slightly further back, to 1978 and the release of a movie called Animal House. What most of us remember about this movie is the toga parties, the dead horse in Dean Wormer's office, and the final, climactic parade apocalypse, but it also features a story arc in which our hapless protagonist Larry, who is most likely of adult age, ends up sleeping with a 13 year old girl. Yeah, it's all for laughs, but it's important to remember that nowadays, any such film depicting any such relationship would either never be made, or would be mandated by contemporary morality to end with a grisly denouement for 'Larry the child molester'. Anything else would simply be disgusting and unacceptable... but in 1978, I don't think anyone so much as blinked. (I myself took note of it in passing while watching it with some fellow Cinema Boarders, mentioning that I wondered if good ol' Larry might not have been wiser to tactfully retreat once advised of the girl's true age; the response I got from one fellow a few years older than I was "Nah, but I'd have probably moved her under the bleachers instead of doing her on the 50 yard line". Such was the innocence of the 80s, in this regard, at least.)

That's one odd instance of me being suddenly confronted with how the passage of time can forcibly alter one's perceptions of something. Another occurred to me recently when I was watching a new episode of Deadwood -- geez, people have completely forgotten what an evil sonofabitch Al Swearingen is.

Honestly, it amazes me, mostly as I observe my own emotional responses to the character while watching him of late. I can clearly recall how starkly his utter immorality and unredeemable corruption was portrayed back in the first few episodes of the first season. Lest we forget, this fellow Swearingen was the ultimate boss of a gang of highwaymen who ambushed, robbed, raped, and tortured to death a hapless family of Norwegian immigrants; when Swearingen learned there was a young female survivor to the atrocity who might one day testify as to the identities of her family's tormenters, Al sent a hired knife to kill the girl.

Now, other factors, including other, better characters (take that adjective however you like) intervened, and the 'squarehead kid' survives to this day, mostly as an adorable blonde plot device whose apparent purpose for existence is to further complicate the lives of the former Mrs. Garrett and her current husband, the inestimable Ellsworth. But Sophie remaining alive to possibly tell her tale certainly has nothing to do with any goodness in Al Swearingen's heart. He's a bloody murderer, a rapist, and a ruthless exploiter of all human weakness to his own profit... and it amazes me just how difficult it is for me to remember that, and more, to make it emotionally resonate with me, these days.

The writers on DEADWOOD have accomplished all this through a simple expedient -- after establishing Al as the resident rotter in chief, they brought in other characters who are even more rotten than Al, and set those characters up as opponents to not only Swearingen, but to other factions in the camp we like rather better, like Bullock & Star. This has caused Swearingen to ally himself with more heroic folk, and that alliance has caused him to hide his own tendencies to ruthless evil. We still see him as an amoral schemer, but we've also been subjected relentlessly to sad stories about his terrible childhood in an orphanage, and that, in combination with Al's sudden role as potential savior of the camp from the horrors of Cy Tolliver and/or George Hearst's depredations, seems to have rather convinced the audience in general to forgive Al's earlier sins and to regard him as very nearly a hero.

Of course, everyone on DEADWOOD is flawed in some particular; Al is just, perhaps, the most flamboyantly straightforward in his malevolence. This is most likely why we admire him; he represents everything we somewhat furtively wish we could be -- not only evil and for the most part utterly uncaring about anything except what serves his own selfish agenda, but happy, even proud to be so, and to be regarded as such by everyone around him.

Still, I try hard these days to remind myself, when I'm watching Al scheme and conspire at trickery, blackmail, bloody assault and cutthroat murder, that just because he's doing this all as part of a campaign against a considerably less prepossessing set of villains, it doesn't make Al any less wicked. He's still a very bad man, it's just that somehow or other, somewhere along the line, he's become our bad man, standing as some sort of champion against the imminent oppression and exploitation of the poor by corporate wealth that Hearst and his lackey Tolliver both represent.

Nonetheless, however much I may enjoy watching him, I try hard to remember that he's an evil prick, and as such, is not someone I really want to find myself liking or admiring.

3 Comments:

At 4:24 PM , Blogger Julia said...

I think you are one of the few people who disliked Forrest Gump more than I did.

I never saw Real Genius, but the scene you mentioned is creepy. Creepy because a woman who stalked and had sex with geniuses is very disturbed.

Because a woman like that is not interested in sex. Her thing is control and power. And I think that applies to all these older women/boy relationships (and quite possibly older men/girl relationships too).

The Animal House example shows more what people wanted to think. The girl lied about her age, wanted sex. She was a slut. Our society wants to believe that is a truism. I am shocked at how many women still carry that opinion. Weren't they every 13 and believed they were in love?

I see a big difference between sexually active teenagers (normal, if dangerous), and the power plays in adult/teen relationships. Are those adults pedophiles? No, but they are something else equally as sick.

As for Deadwood, any soap opera fan can tell you that a villian turning good is easy to accept. However, we have trouble forgiving the good guy who turns bad.

I'm not sure why, but it is true.

 
At 4:45 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

Julia,

Nice to see you again here.

Sexual relationships in our pop fiction are, as a general rule, going to have a large element of wish fulfillment in them. But that's true of virtually every other aspect of pop culture fiction. REAL GENIUS also features nerds who inadvertently create an orbital death ray for the military, who then have enough conscience to trick the military into thinking it doesn't work, while simultaneously humiliating the adult professor who led them all astray. That's not going to happen in real life; it's wish fulfillment. But I enjoy watching it.

Real life sexual relationships nearly always involve some sort of power exchange. In fact, nearly every real life relationship, voluntary or otherwise, also involves some kind of power exchange. Sadly, most people simply aren't comfortable in an equal relationship; they need to know where they fit in the pecking order, always, or they get uneasy.

I'm afraid I can't subscribe to your view that anyone who engages in a relationship with a power dynamic is sick or perverse. Certainly, it's not what I'd call a fully healthy relationship, but in my experience and perception, it's a far more common relationship dynamic than otherwise, and thus, far more 'normal'.

I deliberately attempted to stay away from personal judgement statements in regard to such relationships; that would be a whole 'nother post, and a very controversial one. I was simply pointing out, twenty years ago, they could put something like this in a junk pop culture film without thinking twice about it; my, look how much things have changed. I did not in any way indicate whether or not I thought they had changed for the better, although, if I have to say so, I think I prefer living in a less judgemental culture than otherwise. Laws that prohibit consentual behavior between physically mature adults trouble me... and that's all I'm going to say about that.

I will say, however, that your use of the word 'stalked' to describe the behavior of the female character in the movie is another interesting artifact of our times. Back then, I don't think anyone knew what 'stalked' was. I'm not saying that stalking isn't a legitimate crime (although, again, criminalizing essentially non criminal behavior like being in the same place as someone else at the same time... troubles... me), but I am saying that when we start looking at the world through the rather condemning and confrontational filter of the word 'stalking', a lot of stuff starts to look pretty questionable. Take a listen to the lyrics of the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from a fresh, post modern viewpoint sometime. It's a love song, but if you turn on the stalker filter, it sounds pretty scary.

All of which is to say, words like 'slut' and 'stalking' and even 'sick' are highly subjective. All human communication is, of course, but still, sometimes it's useful to step back and realize that the things that seem to us to be objective truth (and that we state in exactly that way) are, in fact, just the way things seem to us, from where we stand.

Which may well have been the point of my post, now that I think of it.

As to Al Swearingen, my point there is, he's not a bad man turned good. He's still a bad man, we're just being made to see him as more likable and even admirable... which I find to be dangerous slippage, and something I'm trying to keep a handle on in myself. That's all.

Again, nice to see you here again.

 
At 1:13 AM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

I'm right with you in all of the response material, H.

I haven't sat through REAL GENIUS in a long time, but while I enjoyed it well enough the first and second time I saw it it soon wore out its welcome for me after that. Some scenes still work for me, but I'd be far too impatient to wait for them. That was always much more one of Ari's favroites than mine.

Look at the bulk of the romantic comedies produced in the 20th century and apply a "stalker" filter to them and we'd see even the likes of Cary Grant as someone to be led away in handcuffs.

On the other topic, Becoming accustomed to an evil character to the point of forgetting he's evil is something that comes up often for me. It's something of a staple for several of the most successful HBO series, come to think of it.

Tony Soprano of The Sopranos is a vicious, bullying prick, but he's a center of attention and we also get to see other sides of him, including the more vulnerable ones. Like Al Swearingen (though a very different and differently nuanced character) he's an interesting character, too, and generally speaking we spend more time with them than we do with any of their victims, so they become more human - more real - to us. Besides, they're the people who Make Things Happen, and in each case there are other characters who essentially orbit them lending them importance.

On the other hand, in the case of Al, we can't tell how much the character is actually evolving. Oh, we don't have any good reason to say Al wouldn't engineer exactly the same sort of family massacre and put a hit out on a pre-school age survivor, but we haven't seen him try to orchestrate anything quite that evil since. Part of it's because he's become more deely invested in the power structure of Deadwood, and so has more at stake in the status quo. He's within reach of being someone better served by the law than needing to be fearful of it.

In the meantime we've seen him at an extremely vulnerable ebb -- and witnessed the devotion he'd engendered in various underlings and associates. We've also gained more insights into the sad childhood that formed the man. All of this has made him far more human for us.

Sure, we've recently seen him kill a man up close with a knife, but the one he killed was a cypher to us -- not much more than a plot element. We're too invested in Al not merely as a character but as a person.

It would be an interesting experiment to see how vile they'd have to make him -- make his actions -- in order to turn the audience against him.

 

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