Elysium: Ugh

March 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some films make racial and class assumptions that can be analyzed. Others openly try to say something meaningful about race and class. Some of the latter fail miserably. Witness Elysium (2013).

In the future of Elysium, 2154, Los Angeles has become an almost entirely Hispanic city (gasp!), and the rich/white (no distinction made) people have escaped this utter chaos (oh the humanity!) by living on a luxurious satellite colony that orbits the earth (white flight much?). The intentional metaphor of the film is one for present-day America and the world- both are segregated in many ways on class and racial lines, sometimes both at the same time. More specific to the film’s intention, there is an obvious disparity between some predominantly immigrant Hispanic communities of L.A. and some predominantly white communities in the same city. Fair point. Despite this seemingly sympathetic allegory for the plight of some Hispanic illegal immigrants, the film takes its premise and polishes it with superficiality from a white perspective that ignores theories and nuances of race and class, and rounds it all out with a comfortable white savior complex.

Enter Matt Damon. Damon plays Max DeCosta. Max’s last name is never mentioned in the film and thus we presume, because we are looking at Matt Damon, that Max is white. It’s quite a lazy and offensive afterthought to make his last name DeCosta. But don’t worry, we don’t know he’s supposed to be Hispanic until the credits roll, which makes it better, I guess? (worse, much worse).

Max is the sole white American man (or apparently sneakily Hispanic man) in a sea of Hispanic faces in futuristic, dirty, dismal Los Angeles. Spanish is identified as having become the lingua franca of L.A. as someone tactlessly says “now everyone speaks Spanish” (press 1 for Spanish, white people!). But thankfully for the illiterate white American contingent in the audience there are hardly any subtiltes, because somehow everyone ends up speaking English ten minutes into the film.

But Max is different. Part of making him the hero and protagonist of the film is his visible racial difference. He is the lone white man amongst the Hispanic citizens on Earth. When he gazes up at the sky and wishes for Elysium, the white audience is supposed to sympathize with him (how did the white guy get stuck on earth while all of the other white people are in the cool space colony?) So Max sticks out like a sore thumb in the landscape of Hispanics, and thus we know that he must be the protagonist of the film.

In many scenes, the Hispanic population serves as background, a United Colors of Benetton ad contrasted against Max’s whiteness. There’s even the classically racist scene of Max walking through the “bazaar” where Hispanic merchants are hawking their wares- the exotic “other” in the background, the white main character in the foreground- that belongs in another offensive movie about the Middle East.

Also, the Hispanic people and other poc aren’t just oppressed and impoverished back on earth- they are portrayed as common stereotypes of “ghetto” people- inspired by violence, gang facial tattoos, and in one scene a woman in a skimpy skirt grinds on a man while he lazes on the couch drinking a beer.

Perhaps the most malignant quality is that the Hispanic and other people of color on earth can’t seem to do anything about their circumstances.

Luckily for the Hispanic people on earth, Max, the white savior, is going to…save them! The ho-hum average white working class American male becomes the hero of the film, a very aggrandizing experience for the white audience. Max eventually saves the day by triggering a computer to give all of the earth people an automatic Elysium citizenship, which rounds out the metaphor for Hispanic immigration to the US and other poc’s immigration to other “white” countries.

At the end of the film, the liberated earth citizens celebrate, and (offensive scene incoming) an African boy (wait, how did this become about Africa? Doesn’t matter, it’s someone of color)  runs shirtless, in slow motion, with a beaming smile to welcome the heroes’ spaceship as it lands back on earth. “Thank you Matt Damon for freeing us.”

So, the people of color (yes, there were no other white people on earth besides Max, which seems to say that all white people were rich enough to escape earth, which is problematic in and of itself) do not liberate themselves. They can only find freedom and Elysium citizenship through Max’s heroism. If we played out the metaphor, it would be tantamount to Matt Damon passing out American green cards to everyone in third world countries. White savior down to a tee.

The film is using a heavy-handed metaphor to say that America is segregated on class and racial lines, and that Hispanic groups immigrating to the country are often persecuted. There is a scene where Max’s Hispanic girlfriend and her daughter make it to Elysium but they are identified by a drone as “illegals” and they come under attack, a clear nod to the persecution of illegal immigrants in the United States.

But wait a minute- they speak English fluently, even though they are in the purely Spanish speaking Los Angeles of the future.  They almost seem like a Hispanic woman and her daughter who live in present-day L.A. So, in this metaphor, are they recent Hispanic immigrants? Legal or illegal? Did their family emigrate from Mexico in the 1950s or Guatemala in the 1990s? What if they are American citizens of Hispanic descent, or rather- Americans? This is where the film’s extended metaphor starts to break down. The Hispanic population of America (53 million) who have been living in Los Angeles and the rest of the U.S. for generations- you know, Americans- where do they fit into this “impoverished Hispanic illegal immigrant” metaphor? The answer is the filmmakers don’t care about these questions. The Hispanics in the film are just assumed to be lower class and illegal by the nature of the metaphor- it’s a fait accompli. So why can’t anyone from the Hispanic population on earth afford to travel to Elysium? Are there any affluent Hispanic people on earth in 2154, and if so, why haven’t they opted for Elysium? We will never know, because understanding the historical, social and economic nuances at play is irrelevant to the filmmakers.

The film could be a lot more relevant to these issues if a Hispanic leader led thes people on Earth to their liberation, but this of course would be too threatening to white audiences. Instead, we get Max, played by white Matt Damon, with a Hispanic name tacked on in the credits.

Nothing about Max is Hispanic. He walks, talks and acts like the actor Matt Damon, who walks, talks and acts like an average  white American male. Oh wait, he occasionally speaks Spanish to the Spanish-speaking people of L.A. in the film, but this seems more about giving Max “street cred” with the “others” on earth than it is about giving him a real Hispanic identity. Oh, and in flashbacks to Max’s childhood the director inserts a nun who tells him the story of Elysium (right? because Hispanics are Catholic?). Face, meet palm.

Max can’t have a Hispanic identity in the film, or be played by a Hispanic actor, because then white audiences wouldn’t be able to sympathize with him. It is egregiously problematic that Max is described as Hispanic in the credits (Spanish last name) but vanilla white in the action onscreen (nothing Max does is culturally Hispanic, or something Hispanic audiences could say is representative of any facet of Hispanic identity).

So, Elysium attempts to say something about race and class, but like another big-budget predecessor which made the same attempt, Crash (2004), it barely scratches the surface of these issues, instead serving up a safe understanding of these problems for white people, with an even safer avenue of analysis through the white savior Matt Damon.

In short: movie tries to say something about class and race, but totally phones it in, offending everyone in the process.

Finally, my favorite scene in the film: Elysium’s secretary of defense (played by Jodie Foster) is shown in a quick shot checking her state-of-the-art watch, which has a large BVLGARI logo on it. So while trying to criticize class stratification, the film also offers a luxury brand the opportunity to enforce its class distinction with a product placement that capitalizes on that very same class stratification going on in the film. If that’s not comedy, I don’t know what is.

October 1- “Alas, will I ever again” by Heinrich von Morungen

October 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alas, will I ever again

 

1.   (he)

 

Alas –

Will I ever again,

See shine through the night,

Whiter even than the snow,

Her body so well created,

It deceived the eyes of mine,

I thought it had to be

The shining moonlight.

Then the day was dawning

 

2.   (she)

Alas-

Will he ever again,

Stay here ’till the morning?

Then maybe as the night goes by,

We do not have to mourn,

Alas, now the day has come

As he mournfully cried,

When he lay by my side for the last time,

Then the day was dawning.

 

3.   (he)

Alas –

She kissed me countless times

In her sleep,

And all the while so many

Tears of hers were falling.

But I comforted her,

To stop her weeping,

And she embraced me in full,

Then the day was dawning.

 

4.   (she)

Alas –

That he so often,

Lost himself looking at me,

As he uncovered me,

He wanted to see without clothes,

My naked arms,

It was a great wonder,

That he never tired doing that

Then the day was dawning.

 

Heinrich von Morungen (1155-1222)

 

Nothing like some medieval German courtly love poetry from Morungen to get your October started the right way.

“Church Clothes” by Lecrae

September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Church Clothes

R.I.P. to Medgar Evers, R.I.P. to Dr. King

I ain’t tryna’ hate on my own kind

But Al and Jesse don’t speak for me

I’m probably gon’ catch some flack mayne

But I’mma swallow this pill like Pacman

Some of these folks won’t tell the truth

Too busy tryna’ get them racks mayne

Church tryna’ rob my paychecks

Choir members probably having gay sex

Pastor manipulatin’ hurtin’ women

I wonder which he’s gon slay next

Bookstore pimpin’ them hope books

Like God don’t know how broke looks

And telling me that I’m gon reap a meal

If I sow into these low crooks

Plus I know ol’ girl a freak

And how she singin’ a solo

I walked in the church wit a snapback

And they tellin’ me that that’s a “nono”?

That’s backwards, and I lack words

For these actors called pastors

All these folks is hypocrites

And that’s why I ain’t at church

Truthfully I’m just doin’ me

And I don’t wanna face no scrutiny

As long as the church keep wildin’ out

I can justify all my foolish deeds

Smoking weed, pourin’ up

Keep that lean up in my cup

Maybe I could change the world

But this porn on my laptop got me stuck

Yeah I know whats right from wrong

But that there ain’t gon sell a song

I rather sell my soul then save it

If that’s what make my money long

It better not be no real God

With real hope, that heals hearts

That shows me that I ain’t livin’ up

To all the things that He put me here for

It better not be no real church

Real saints, who pray hard

And let me rock my snapback

With the 501s and the J’s on

It better not be no real folk

Who don’t think that they better than you

Straight or gay, drunk and high

They walk through the cold and weather wit chu

Nah we don’t wanna see that

Cause that might mean “life change”

That might mean I’m worth more than money, cars, sex, and pipe dreams

Better not be no real Jesus, real forgiveness, for hurt folks

If God gon’ take me as I am I guess I already got on my church clothes

I love these lyrics by Lecrae.  “Church Clothes” satirizes the arguments of those who don’t go to church, who use faulty logic to justify their non-participation.
Here’s the music video

September 25, 2012- “Come, Holy Spirit” by Czeslaw Milosz

September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.

 

Czeslaw Milosz, 1961

 

Milosz’s poem doubles as a prayer, and it is derived from the sacred hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” attributed to Rabanus Maurus, a 9th century writer.

Here is the original hymn, translated from the Latin:

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
And in our souls take up your rest;
Come with your grace and heavenly aid
To fill the hearts which you have made.

O Comforter, to you we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
And sweet anointing from above.

You in your sevenfold gifts are known;
You, finger of God’s hand we own;
You, promise of the Father, you
Who do the tongue with power imbue.

Kindle our senses from above,
And make our hearts o’erflow with love;
With patience firm and virtue high
The weakness of our flesh supply.

Far from us drive the foe we dread,
And grant us your peace instead;
So shall we not, with you for guide,
Turn from the path of life aside.

Oh, may your grace on us bestow
The Father and the Son to know;
And you, through endless times confessed,
Of both the eternal Spirit blest.

Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
With you, O holy Comforter,
Henceforth by all in earth and heaven. Amen.

 

Milosz struggled with his faith throughout his life. Is his poem, in contrast to the certainty of the hymn, an admission of his agnosticism?

Milosz, in an interview with the Paris Review, discusses his faith’s role in his poetry:

But the trouble is that writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult. We are in a largely postreligious world. I had a conversation with the present Pope, who commented upon some of my work, in particular my “Six Lectures in Verse.” Well, he said, you make one step forward, one step back. I answered, Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?

 

For the full interview, click here

 

September 24, 2012 “In September for a While” by Maurice Sendak

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

In September for a while,

I will ride a crocodile

Down the chicken-soupy Nile,

paddle once, paddle twice

paddle chicken soup with rice

Maurice Sendak, 1991

 

 

The first poem I read on the first day of school in first grade, September 1996. The poetry standard was set.

Poem of the Every Couple of Days

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ok, so I’m not doing a good job managing my blog…

Three days without a poem? “I thought you loved poetry,” I can hear the chorus that is my audience.

Sorry guys. My only excuse is that my life has been really topsy turvy the past few days. Sparing the details, let’s just say it’s pretty amazing given the circumstances that I am even publishing at all these days.
But it’s what keeps me going. When I have time, I post and do some explication. But I need to do a better job of at least putting up a poem a day, even if it’s just the poem.

 

So, to make up for lost time, let’s post some of my favorites for the 17th, 18th and 19th:

 

September 17, 2012- “The Wound-Dresser” by Walt Whitman, which you can find here

September 18, 2012- How about “Epistle 2” from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”? You remember this one from high school, right? It has my favorite couplet ever: “presume not God to scan/ the proper study of mankind is man”

and for September 19, 2012- “The Sparrow” by Ivan Turgenev, my favorite poem about love:

 

THE SPARROW
I was returning from hunting, and walking along an avenue of the garden, my
dog running in front of me.

Suddenly he took shorter steps, and began to steal along as though tracking
game.

I looked along the avenue, and saw a young sparrow, with yellow about its
beak and down on its head. It had fallen out of the nest (the wind was
violently shaking the birch-trees in the avenue) and sat unable to move,
helplessly flapping its half-grown wings.

My dog was slowly approaching it, when, suddenly darting down from a tree
close by, an old dark-throated sparrow fell like a stone right before his
nose, and all ruffled up, terrified, with despairing and pitiful cheeps, it
flung itself twice towards the open jaws of shining teeth.

It sprang to save; it cast itself before its nestling … but all its tiny
body was shaking with terror; its note was harsh and strange. Swooning with
fear, it offered itself up!

What a huge monster must the dog have seemed to it! And yet it could not
stay on its high branch out of danger…. A force stronger than its will
flung it down.

My Trésor stood still, drew back…. Clearly he too recognised this force.

I hastened to call off the disconcerted dog, and went away, full of
reverence.

Yes; do not laugh. I felt reverence for that tiny heroic bird, for its
impulse of love.

Love, I thought, is stronger than death or the fear of death. Only by it,
by love, life holds together and advances.

Ivan Turgenev, 1878

September 20, 2012- “All Kinds of Time” by Fountains of Wayne

September 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

All Kinds of Time

The clock’s running down
The team’s losing ground
To the opposing defense
The young quarterback
Waits for the snap
When suddenly it all starts to make sense

He’s got all kinds of time
He’s got all kinds of time
All kinds of time
He’s got all kinds of time
All kinds of time

He takes a step back
He’s under attack
But he knows that no one can touch him now
He seems so at ease
A strange inner peace
Is all that he’s feeling somehow

He’s got all kinds of time
He’s got all kinds of time
All kinds of time
He’s got all kinds of time
All kinds of time

[Bridge]
He thinks of his mother
He thinks of his bride-to-be
He thinks of his father
His two younger brothers
Gathered around the widescreen TV

He looks to the left
He looks to the right
And there in a golden ray of light
Is his open man
Just as he planned
The whole world is his tonight

Yes, these are song lyrics. About football. By the random aughts band “Fountains of Wayne.”
But that doesn’t mean these lyrics aren’t poetry.

I chose this poem set to music because, firstly, it’s fall, which means for every American, football is everywhere. It’s the national pastime. I don’t know when football replaced baseball as the national pastime, but this change was well-established by the 2000’s, when this clever ditty was written.

“All Kinds of Time” comes to us from the album Welcome Interstate Managers, which I would consider to be a concept album that perfectly satirizes mainstream American society.

So of course, one song needed to be devoted to the American obsession with football.

The poem is completely tongue in cheek. It plays off of the classic football commentator phrase “all kinds of time,” said when a quarterback can sit in the pocket during a pass play and is not hurried by the defense.

But it’s a silly phrase when you think about it. What would it mean outside of the context of a football game? And what’s really going on in the mind of the quarterback when he has all of this time?

Fountains of Wayne imagines the quarterback thinking of his fiance and his family and finding an inner peace in that moment.

Football is a sport so concerned with time. The game is allotted a certain amount of time, and not only is there a clock marking the scope of the game’s time, but there is a play clock as well, giving the offense a mere 30 seconds for each play. Football is rooted in time.

Another phrase commentators like to attribute to quarterbacks is that a good quarterback has “control of the clock,” meaning he can speed up the offense or slow it down. But again, outside of football, what would it mean to “control the clock?” To own time? Do we worship quarterbacks because they “control the clock,” linear time, that we are so obsessed with in American society? Wouldn’t the ultimate American hero be able to “control the clock?”

There is something majestic and magical about when a quarterback can sit in the pocket for what seems to be an eternity and wait for the perfect pass. He is surrounded by people looking to pulverize him, outside of his peripheral vision, and yet all he is concerned with is letting a perfect spiral sail across the sky into the arms of one of his teammates. We see poetry in our quarterbacks.

There are so many metaphors in sports that, when applied to life, can be kind of silly. It’s funny to think that announcers, who are doing their job of simply describing the action on a football field, can produce something that becomes somewhat poetic, and then the phrase takes on a life of its own and, because of its transcendent nature, becomes part of common usage. Somewhere along the line, some announcer said “he’s got all kinds of time,” rather than “the quarterback has been sitting in the pocket for seven full seconds, which have seemed like an eternity.” The poetic phrase, unintentionally, stuck.

Each play in football has a carefully designed role for each player- often down to the number of steps certain players must take. There is an intricate choreography to each and every football play. When a play is successful, it is often because the choreography was executed perfectly. As an audience, we triumph in the ballet of football and love to see perfection in action- when something goes exactly according to plan. Football is a relief from real life, when most often things don’t go according to plan.

We have a tendency in American culture to worship our sports heroes, particularly our quarterbacks. If anything can touch that ancient hero worship nature of old, you can find it within the realm of football. All of the phrases of football have permeated our everyday language. But what would having “all kinds of time” be like in real life- to capture that moment of perfect harmony with the football universe. Do we have a real instance of “transcending time” in something as simple as football? Can something so transcendent be found in something so quotidian?

Either way, the fact that Fountains of Wayne jumped on this phrase and ran with it is so clever. Welcome Interstate Managers should be required listening for every American. Here’s the poem set to music: