Monday, April 27, 2015

at the 1/3 mark, reflections on my new year's resolution

Now that we are 1/3 of the way through 2015, I'd like to reflect on how my New Year's Resolution for this year is going so far.

I have indeed stuck to my New Year's Resolution, by and large. To remind you, that resolution was to engage this year solely with the art of people who have been historically marginalized or are currently marginalized. In other words, to watch movies made by black directors, to read books written by lesbians, to look at visual art made by transgendered people, etc. Straight, wealthy, white men have had the dominant cultural voice for a reeeeeeeeeally long time, and consequently the majority of art and writing that I myself have been exposed to has been made by straight, wealthy, white men. So this New Year's Resolution grew out of a desire to engage with the creations of everyone else in the world (which is, in fact, the vast majority of people in the world; straight, wealthy, white men are by far in the minority!).

In these four months, I've stuck with my resolution for the most part. I've watched movies by Spike Lee, movies about women and black people and Albanian people, read books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Emma Donoghue, articles by Ta Nehisi Coates and Meghan O'Gieblyn, and listened to soul. There've been a few times when I've slipped, most notably to watch "Lawrence of Arabia," but mostly I've stuck to my resolution.

And it's been affecting me in ways I hadn't quite expected. It's to those affects and effects that I now turn. One thing that I hadn't quite realized that I'd have to think about so much is marginalization itself. I've been realizing that who gets silenced, and who gets heard, is a complicated matter in our society. For example, on Saturday I watched the movie "Citizen Four," a powerful documentary about Edward Snowden that I highly recommend. I may be an intellectual, but I'm not really drawn to documentaries, because most of them are boring. But "Citizen Four" isn't boring. It's surprisingly moving, and it's riveting, and it's about something that affects your personal and private life.

But here's the thing. When Edward Snowden decided to reveal that the United States government is spying on its own people, he was a rich, straight, white man with a lot of power. And yet, by choosing to do what he felt was the right thing to do, he became an extremely marginalized person, arguably one of the most targeted and scapegoated and ostracized people in the world.

So I've had to re-think marginalization. There are reasons that power wants to marginalize some people and not others, and those reasons tend to have to do with keeping those in power in power. Sometimes, engaging with the art of marginalized people is a radical act of resistance. But sometimes it's not really an act of resistance at all. The art of a gay man can be happily upholding the power status quo. The art of a black man can be misogynist. The art of a woman can be classist. The art of a poor, white man can be racist. It turns out that I've had to admit that being thoughtful about power and marginalization is a lot more complicated than just shunning books written by straight, white men. Although, I think that's a good start, because it's what got me thinking about all this stuff.

Speaking of straight, white men, hoo-boy am I tired of hearing the voices of white men who dominate speech or dominate physical space or dominate anything at all. Now that I've got these matters at the forefront of my mind all the time--because I'm trying to be extra-thoughtful about what I do and don't engage--I'm just so aware of how many straight, white men assume that it's Normal and Super Awesome for them to talk more, more loudly, and take up more space than women, people of color, gay people, and everyone else on the planet. Not all straight, white men are like this. But a lot of them are. And I notice it way more than I ever have before. And I have much less tolerance for it than I ever have before.

But then with marginalization on my mind, I also think more about ways that being straight and white doesn't guarantee you won't be harmed. But what I think that men should realize is that gender guarantees a whole lot more than men are usually aware of. And what white people should realize is that skin color guarantees way more than white people are usually aware of. And Americans should realize that that sweet blue passport still has so much power.

So that's my reflection here a third of the way in. Books and movies I recommend are over there at the right. I just watched "Kandahar" and it joins "Before the Rain" and "Ida" in being a fantastic war movie. In my book, the formula for a fantastic war movie = a movie that makes you feel sick at the very thought of war, and makes you never, never, never want to be anywhere near a war. Bad war movies are movies that make you feel a little jealous of people who get to be in war, or feel a little jazzed at the thought that maybe someday you might be in one. Disgusting war movies are movies that make you want to go join the nearest war. So, according to those formulas, the three movies I just listed are really great war movies. They will make you feel hopeless and absolutely despairing at the wars they portray. At the end of the movies, no hope at all will be felt. And that is exactly how war movies should be.

Not all the art I've engaged has been this bleak, certainly. Americanah was a delightful read, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was beautiful in addition to being sad, and "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" was inspiring. So far, I highly recommend making this resolution for a year.

P.S. Something about me--and I don't know if this happens to anyone else--is that I feel less depressed about life when I engage art that feels true. There's something about truth that gives me way more courage than sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap. So when I watch movies like "Kandahar" or "Before the Rain," I don't finish the movies and want to give up on life. I finish the movies knowing that they portray what is really happening in the world, and so I want to rally and fight for life. I feel like, "Terrible things are happening. All hands on deck! This is no time to sit around eating potato chips! Let's all figure out a way to help those who are truly powerless!" Whereas when I watch sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap, I feel very depressed and lethargic because it just seems like Distraction Method #792 in a very, very long list of distraction methods Americans have invented for themselves. Does anyone else ever feel this way? However, I think there's a difference between a movie like "Before the Rain" and self-reflective indie films that revel in artistically portraying pain and making suffering look compelling and interesting. Frankly, I think those movies might possibly be just as bad as sentimental Hollywood cheerful crap. Maybe even worse.


  1. Cale has been responsible for getting me into some amazing documentaries. A couple amazing ones: "The Imposter" and "Searching for Sugar Man". Those moved me in pretty profound ways. Another recent one: "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst". "Damnation" and "Virunga" get honourable mentions.

    Yes, the subjects of the first three are male, but what interests me are the psychological responses of all involved. In "The Imposter", the psyches of the mother and sister in particular absolutely FLOOR me. Also, "The Imposter" is one of the most well-made films I have ever seen.

    1. I just watched "The Imposter." Holy COW. Holy freaking cow. I don't even know what else to say!

    2. That was pretty much my exact reaction. :) The psychology of wanting something SO BADLY, that they would overlook such obvious and glaring inconsistencies is profound. (referring of course to the mom and sister).

    3. Yeah. I feel like people do that all the time in life, but this is just such a dramatic and extreme example.

      The question is whether they had something to do with the real Nicholas' disappearance? What do you think?

    4. I'm not sure what I think about that. The sister's sadness and emotion seemed legit for the most part. I was shocked that the mother was so unemotional. I don't know if she's just not very bright and/or numbed by the pain she has experienced and/or is complicit in her son's disappearance. I had a really hard time telling, and basically came to the conclusion that I really don't have enough information to decide one way or the other. Argh, that drives me crazy! :D

  2. Also, I think your resolution is a very good one. When I realized that in my literature degree I was reading the work of mostly dudes, I switched my focus to Black Literature and Queer Literature. Such a great move.

  3. Yay! Thank you so much for the recommendations! They're going on the list right now!!!

  4. Question: Is the "Damnation" you mention the one from 1988 or 2014?