Is “True Blood” about anything?

I stopped trying to read the subtext of HBO’s “True Blood” sometime around the middle part of the first season.  It wasn’t for lack of finding anything.  The vampire trope and the situations which compelled the story forward spoke to issues of race, sexuality, health and infection, as well as US history.  But, despite all the potential, there didn’t seem to be a particular focus to the whole thing, other than being a juicy and sometimes suspenseful soap opera, that is.

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Tonight’s episode, however, had me thinking that there’s quite of bit of interesting coalescence around the religion text and subtext.

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Jason Stackhouse, who is well-played by actor Ryan Kwanten–and miraculously wearing a shirt in the picture above–has been in a story arc stretching from the end of Season 1 into 2.  He is being recruited by the Church of the Fellowship of the Sun, a vampire-hating group of Christian Bible-thumpers.  Not too covertly, since the first season they have represented the collection of religious-Conservative movements in the United States who advocate for anything intolerant, from stances against “race-mixing” to actively deplorable positions on same-sex rights and AIDS.

Tonight, we saw two instances of Jason being re-energized in his commitment to the fictional church and its (as yet unknown) “purpose” for him.  In the first scene, Sarah Newlin–wife of the church founder Steve Newlin–tries to stop Jason from leaving.  She does this by convincing him that she knows him and that they are alike.  She then shares how she is vengeful, seeking retribution for the pain vampires have inflicted upon her loved ones and, by extension, herself.  Jason, already seeing himself and Sarah as “alike,” is nudged back into line and in some level of conformity to her chosen direction.

In the second scene, church founder and leader Steve Newlin has dinner with Jason as he explains his theological reasoning behind hate–equating hate of the sinner with the love of “Christ”–while sharing his wife’s banana pudding.

In both scenes, one is drawn in by the calculated and rhetorically careful tactics employed to keep Jason “involved” and moving on the right track.  I suspect Alan Ball is offering us his version of how these kinds of organizations (ones seemingly devoted to love and “Christian fellowship” but, in practical terms, the vanguard of a hate movement directed against any number of “Christ’s children”) function and recruit.

On the surface, we might see this as an accusation against these efforts that they prey on the dumb and weak-minded.  Certainly, Jason isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. But tonight we also see Jason as less the baffoon than as the struggling and questioning young man seeking answers.  When left to his own inclination, and rooted in what he knows to be fact through experience, Jason tends toward tolerance and pragmatism.  However, he is also clearly hindered by his lack of formal education, often deferring to those that “know” more than him as they feed the hungry young lad egg McMuffins posing as health.

Far from an indictment of the recruitment targets of these religious movements, this is a subtle communication of empathy with them.  The knowing leaders of these causes shoulder the blame, not the hapless recruits they convince to do their bidding.

The season has only just begun, and my analysis could fall apart in two weeks when the next episode premieres, but, so far, “True Blood: Season Two” has me hooked.  Or is it glamoured?

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

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Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

For an analysis of Jackson’s iconic status, see my more recent review of his memorial service.

At his height, he was the biggest thing in the world. For a generation of young people–my generation–there will never be another.

Michael Jackson will be remembered for many things–his time with the Jackson 5, Thriller, the worldwide phenomenon he was, as well as the controversies of his molestation trial, financial troubles, and appearance–but to me and millions of others he will always be the “King of Pop.”

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It’s not that I excuse the man’s failings and shortcomings, whatever those were. But he was always more than a person, more than what can be contained within the limitations of a human being.

Michael Jackson was music.  He was dance.  He was, for a time, the biggest thing in popular culture.  He was girls and boys screaming, sweaty crowds reaching, flashes of light and human ecstasy.  In the U.S., in Europe, in Latin America, in the so-called Third World, wherever he went, it was the same spectacle.

The person behind this cultural phenomenon is dead, but that amazingly rare commercial beast that he embodied will never die.  It’s time has passed, but we all did bear witness to it.  We, too, will pass, but future generations will still know the name Michael Jackson.

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“Transformers 2” is, well, dangerous

This is the edited and complete version of an earlier review.

I’ve just walked out of the theater after seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the sequel to the 2007 blockbuster.  In short, it’s not a good movie, not even for fans of science fiction or of the line of products associated with the robotic toys.

But the film is more problematic than not being good. Though it feels odd to make these kinds of extreme measurements, “Transformers 2” is dangerous.  What’s worse, it might not be aware of how dangerous it is.

And let me say, right from the start: this is not a movie blog. I write about movies, and TV, and other forms of culture, but I don’ fancy myself a movie reviewer.  I am a person who love popular culture, and who also happens to be a trained specialist in the history of race and ethnicity in the United States.  I can shut the History Professor side of me off to watch movies and TV, and I often do.  But there are times when the content on the screen is so messed up, it activates that other side of my brain and keeps it alert and on guard.  This was one of those times.

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Overview
If you want plot, go somewhere else. And I don’t mean because I don’t want to sum up the movie.  When it comes to plot, “Transformers 2” is a little light.  Good robots fight with humans against bad robots and teens must work with the good to save the world.

Alot of that plot is contrived, that is, it feels unnatural, forced, and made up.  Like when the Decepticons learn where their fallen leader–Megatron–and powerful piece of energy metal (“Allspark”) are being hidden by the US government.  They learn when one of their own hacks into a satellite, just as one of the characters is summing all this information up in a conversation with military leaders.

The forced plot–obviously built by a bunch of “creative” heads who know what a summer blockbuster is supposed to look like–is mirrored in many of the sequences and visual decisions. This film is as derivative as you have ever seen.  In other words, it “steals” from a whole bunch of other cultural products–in almost unconscious ways. It takes from Voltron, The Matrix, Alien, and an assortment of other sci-fi and action sources.  That’s not bad, in and of itself.  But here, it is a reflection of the lack of creativity in the making.  They steal what they think is cool to make a movie they think is also cool.

All of this doesn’t necessarily make the movie “dangerous,” mind you.  But it does reflect the larger problem that does. “Transformers 2” assaults you with a flurry of images laden with unquestioned sexism, racism, and militarism.  Just like it unconsciously takes from other cinematic sources which have formed our expectations of the science fiction world, it also takes the gender, racial, and political constructs that inform the mainstream reality of many (young boys) and packages them in a glorified (and uninterrogated) way.

It does this without thinking, but you feel the effects of it as you watch.  Racial stereotypes (like the guy with bad teeth in the deli) are used for comic fodder, as our men who “act like women” (like the geek who is crying in the car or Shia LaBeouf screaming when the “hot girl” turns out to be something else).  The expectation of what is appropriate and needed in the movie is based on the assumption of white supremacy (like the US having the defend the Third World and the entire planet).  It glorifies war and the military, sexualizing violence as heroic acts of the young.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

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Gender
The film is masculinist.  To say it is sexist would almost miss the point.  It glorifies masculinity as it actively feminizes everything it does not glorify.

Shia LaBeouf’s character–Sam Witwicky–embodies the values of the film.  He isn’t the jock, but he isn’t the geek or nerd either.  He isn’t classically good looking, but he isn’t ugly either.  He is meant to be you, the teenage, male viewer.  He is meant to be the you that doesn’t think you’re good enough but every once in awhile gets glimpse at yourself in the mirror and thinks, yeah, you just might be sexy enough.

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Sexy enough, that is, to get a girlfriend like Megan Fox.  Fox is our stereotypical “girl in need” (like the Earth, the non-western world, and, to an extent, the nerd).  Yes, she is a participant in the trials and tribulations of the group of young people trying to save the world.  But she is more the person being dragged along with Sam than she is an active and necessary player.  When the crisis hits the fan, she takes her direction from Sam.

Sam is the fullest embodiment of the basic conceit of the video game genre.  He is the average kid who can save the entire world (maybe even the galaxy).  He has a destiny, one that is assured even though he is so plain and average.  Just like you, the gamer sitting in his underwear holding a joystick and sitting in front of his computer, he is going to save us all and do the incredible.  (Male fantasy anyone?)

As if to acknowledge what the movie is about on the gender plane, the struggle between the two teenage lovebirds is who will say “I love you” first, in effect, who will open themselves up to weakness first.  Megan Fox’s character–Mikaela Banes–is trying to get Sam to say it, seemingly needing Sam to say it.  She tells him, in an illustrative scene, maybe all girls just want a dangerous man.  Sam, all appearances to the contrary, is that man, leading her on a testosterone-filled adventure on two continents and saving the sun from destruction.

The movie celebrates the values and characteristic most traditionally associated with masculinity.  It values and rewards being tough, necessary, brave, unemotional, and willing to do what is needed when it is unavoidable.  Like the gender stereotypes it portrays, the movie is about war being sexy.  The characters avoid death at every turn, usually by running from a explosive of some sort.  More on that below…

Race
Dear god this movie is colonialist!  White, American men save the day.  They are the ones with technological supremacy.  All others are absent.  Even when China is being attacked, the Chinese army (which is, in reality, big and technologically advanced) is absent.  When Jordanians comes in to help Americans and a Brit, they end up crashing, and becoming another burden for the white man to have to save.

The movie celebrates the “reluctant imperialist.”  In a way, that is the dominant strain of imperialism in our culture. We are reflexive about war and empire, from our popular conception of the war in Vietnam.  But it doesn’t close us off to “necessary war.”

For example, in the film, we see a politician who is the “bad guy.”  He is a bureaucrat who is standing in the way of the noble men who are trying to do their job.  He complains about not being given access to the robots technology on behalf of the nation, and we know why he hasn’t.  Like the robots, we don’t trust him.  He has none of the nobility of masculinity to shepherd the use of that power.

He then asks if the robots would leave the planet if the president asked, describing Earth as “our planet.”  Of course, it is not.  He is a representative of the United States (and the President of the United States).  The U.S. doesn’t own the world. Well, it might not, but who else can save it?  Though they seem like they are the opposite of the politician, the men of the military who fight with the robots are very much doing the same thing the politician is: they are reflecting an imperialist impulse and acting on it.  They step in when nobody else can (see notes on gender above) and save the day.

Race is most obviously a problem in the robot characters themselves.  In terms of voices, unless I am mistaken, the only times a person of color voices a robot it is either a Decepticon or a comical, racial caricature (like Mudflap and Skids).  Every leader robot, or one with “historical” significance, has an American or European accent.  The colonialist narrative served piping hot!

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The movie’s climax takes place away from the “modern” (“First”) world and takes place in the “pre-modern” world of Eygpt.  For those who don’t know, Eygpt was part of a European colony for years, and an object of colonial desire for many more.  Here, it becomes the site of a contest for the Earth, where Americans and Brits step in and save the day.  They save us with their modern weapons and tactics but, ultimately, with the heart and verve of a young, white teen.

The past is not present, it is all about the future.  As the robots destroy the most famous pyramids in the world (which we learn, of course, were built by aliens) we don’t worry at the destruction.  We know we are safe in a land of the future.  As Optimus Prime rises from his battle, in tact and strong, he stands next to an even more crumbling Sphinx.  Ah, yes, the robot have saved the day.  And, as we see the final scenes, featuring the young Sam and the mighty Optimus standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, we know they have saved the days to come as well.

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The Danger
You might think this makes “Transformers 2” a bad movie, or a “politically incorrect” one, but dangerous?  How is any film dangerous?

Well, let me say, first, I don’t want to ban the film or anything.  I’m fine with it being made, and with people seeing it.  But people shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking it is just mindless entertainment.

Films like this one (and any cultural product like this) help to glorify a host of problematic ideologies and practices, all of which serve as the backbone for real peoples’ pain, abuse, and oppression.  Even worse, it naturalizes them, making them seem common and simply “the way it is,” giving them further fuel for the future.  The young boys (mostly) who see this film and others like it, before they have the critical analytical skills to make sense of it, areslowly but surely being prepped to be supporters of a status quo that is simply f’ed up.

Look at it this way.  By the end of the fiscal year 2008-09, the US military will have trained more unmanned drone pilots than actual bomber and fighter pilots combined.  That’s right!  For the first time in history, we’re training more people to fly war robots than actual planes.  The old argument that kids who play video games are being desensitized to war is kind of moot now.  They are actually and quite literally being trained.  They learn the basics, the foundational skills that it takes to work a robot and kill remotely.

This movie isn’t going to start a war.  But it isn’t going to hurt a war being start either.  By glorifying the most disturbing trends and visions in our social fabric and crafting them as something that is good and noble, it is one other voice in a choir of voices singing the same, tired, oppressive song of violence.

Plus, the dialogue sucked.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Border Blow Back

The Immigration Policy Center recently published the findings of their current study of illegal immigration at the border.

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On the heels of the Department of Homeland Security’s release of figures showing “apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are at their lowest level since 1973,” the IPC findings suggest the scope of the impact the current economic depression is having on immigration.

Most powerfully, they document a “reduced circularity in migration,” that is, a reduction in the return migration of unauthorized immigrants already in the US.  They explain this phenomenon as an “unintended consequence” to present-day border enforcement tactics and strategies.

You can read the full IPC “Fact Check”–“Keeping Migrants Here: The Unintended Consequences of U.S. Border Enforcement”–by clicking here.

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The “Border Beat” (June 24, 2009)

Time for another run-down of some of the Latino-themed stories you might have missed in the last two weeks.  Damas y caballeros, the BORDER BEAT!

• “Sotomayor & Identity Politics” (The Nation)
Just a taste, really, of the buffet that is the blogosphere and the chatter about Sonia Sotomayor and “identity politics.” Along with the frequent discussions about Sotomayor and affirmative action, they generally help us to see the chronic ignorance of the mainstream on issues of race and power.  Here, we get some links to an alternative and the proof bearing pudding, so to speak.

• “Third year of fewer illegal immigrants caught” (Houston Chronicle)
For you “data queens” out there: some figures on the declination in the immigrant flow measured by border apprehensions. For you humanists, the comments offer proof that “border-militia radicals” are not “data queens.”

• “Border Companies Thrive on Mexican-Americans” (NY Times)
A rabid form of racial nationalism (like we have here in the U.S.) is not very compatible with free-market capitalism (like we have here in the U.S.).  Oh, irony!

• “Payments for Injuries to Workers Here Illegally” (NY Times)
Unauthorized immigrants face a host of legal barriers which discourage the protection of the rights they do have.  As workers, for example, they are more prone to abuse, physical injury, discrimination, and a violation of labor laws.  This story, from New York, describes the successful defense of the rights of “illegal” workers using the U.S. Courts as a tool for justice.

• “Utah Latinos learn details of new immigration law, SB81” (Salt Lake Tribune)
I’m prone to posting articles dealing with Latinos in Utah. Someday, when they takeover the state and overcome the minor theocracy they’ve established there, I want to be remembered as one of those visionaries who saw it coming. Right now, fodder for the future takeover as Utah decides to racially profile Latinos.

• “Sotomayor Shaped By Her ‘Nuyorican’ Roots” (NPR)
Well, it’s a bit strange to me, but a lot of people still don’t see Latinos as “people.” Stories like this background piece on Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor help with that, to be sure. Of course, I’m more interested in the word ‘Nuyorican’ becoming part of the mainstream.

• “Court backs LAPD immigration policy” (SF Chronicle)
A recent court decision defends the practices within local law enforcement agencies which do not comply with federal laws on immigration as part of their law enforcement duties. This has the potential to translate into precedent defending the right of cities to declare themselves “sanctuary cities.”

SPOTLIGHT STORY:


• “In the Coachella Valley, hope withers on the vine” (LA Times)

And the “can’t miss” story of the week comes from the Los Angeles Times and details the continued injustice in the fields of the Coachella Valley.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Nixon the Racist

More tape recordings of President Richard M. Nixon’s private office discussions were made public today.  Covering Januaury and February 1973, these tapes reveal what the former President thought of the Supreme Court decision making abortions legal.

“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white. Or a rape.”

Nixon secretly taped all business in the Oval Office during his Presidency.  The tapes reveal him to have been a suspicious man, confused and often bewildered by the difficulties of the Vietnam War which dominated his two terms.  They also contain more than a few episodes where he and his advisers are discussing the events relating to the break-in at the Watergate, the cover-up of which eventually caused his demise.

These audio peaks give us a fuller picture of the man, including his view that there should be hotter women in the GOP and that abortion would be useful for those women who were about to give birth to an interracial baby.

Ah! White supremacy!!

You can read the news on these releases at the LA Times and the NY Times. You can listen to the audio tapes yourself here.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.

Villaraigosa and the CA Gov Race

News came today from the LA Times of Antonio Villaraigosa’s decision not to run for Governor of California.

If you had asked me a year ago–even a few months ago–I would have said Antonio’s run was a “sure thing.”  Polling aside, the largest measure of the State’s Democratic machine was ready to line up behind him.  On top of that, he was running in a State that would likely be leaning anti-Republican and he–the potential first Mexican American Governor in the State’s history–could help push that along with a “mini-me” version of the Obama effect.

So why did he decide not to run?

His people are talking about his dedication to the City of Los Angeles, and his devotion to his family, both as motivating causes.  Behind the scenes, they are talking about low polling numbers and a possible Senate run in 2012.

But a big part of their decision was a recognition that CA is a sinking ship.  The current crisis in the State speaks to the structural problems we are facing, ones that require a true and meaningful structural overhaul to cure.  Stepping up to be “captain” at this time is a no-win situation politically.  If you have vision of a political career beyond the Governorship, it is a death knell.  While there is movement in CA to form a Constitutional Convention next year, that movement still possesses a flurry of unknowns.  The simple truth of the matter is, things are bad.  And we don’t know if there is going to be any clear and immediate way to fix them.

Villaraigosa isn’t a superstar in the political arena when it comes to his skills.  Frankly, I think of him as more of a brown face who has been as lucky as he has been deliberate in attaining the positions he has.  He and his team knew they weren’t up to the challenges facing California.  Frankly, who is?  Furthermore, they knew that fact would spell the end to a promising career.

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