The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a Guarded Appreciation

If you grew up in a white, middle-class family in the 50s and 60s, you probably had some gorgeous children’s storybooks with beautifully rendered “color plates”. If the books were a certain vintage, they’d have translucent pages to protect the color illustrations. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very explicitly a take on these books, not a take on the actual history of American expansion westward.

These books could have been fairy tales (as they were in my case) or they could have been historical fiction. Maybe tales of the sea, or of the Wild West, or of the African or Indian jungle, or of exotic “Oriental” places… Whichever they were, they were tales of white dominance over the Other. Not to say that the enemy couldn’t be white also and often was. Foreign white, but white. Or maybe morally Other – those who play by different, worse, rules. While there may have been some diversity among the villains, there was none among the heroes.

And if those books were a wonderful part of your childhood, you might appreciate seeing those stories rendered through a cynical adult lens. This is what Los Bros Coen have brought us with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The actual history of the conquest of the West, filtered through vintage storybooks, filtered again through a nihilistic artistic imagination. What is emphasized in this reimagining is meaningless death, poisonous betrayal, victory and defeat through sheer dumb luck, good intentions defeated or, worse, irrelevant…

Some of it is funny, some of it is horrible. All of it is gorgeous, in the mold of those old color plates, as shot by the amazing cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Even if you have no patience for another take on the comfortable childhood myths of the Whites, you could turn the sound down and let this play on your 4k screen, and your mind will be blown by the beauty and detail and artistry. The scenery, in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska (and, I suppose, processed in New York, because the NY Dept of Film and TV gets a credit at the end), is heart-rendingly beautiful.

It’s telling that Delbonnel also shot films for Julie Taymor and Tim Burton, who also take childhood characters such as Alice, and give them a sort-of grownup (or at least older adolescent) slant.

I was reminded of other takes of childhood stories seen from an adult angle, either made cynical or sexed up or violenced up to a degree not acceptable in those old books. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for instance, is a parade of these (often secondary) characters, such as Mina Harker (from Dracula), to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, to Mycroft Holmes. Another parallel is Warren Ellis’s and John Cassaday’s Planetary, which puts pulp and comic characters through the mangle and mashes them all together into a new comic “universe”. On TV we have the vogue of fairytale series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. In other words, this is a Thing.

Let it be said that, from the point of view of diversity, this movie is a complete disappointment. I suppose you have Methodists and Episcopalians (in The Gal Who Got Rattled). But the first filter mentioned above, taking the actual history of American expansion and filtering it through a 20th century children’s book mentality, got rid of the blacks, Jews, Asians, and even many Hispanos. Native Americans are purely wordless threats. Though they are rendered far more “archeologically correct.”

Anyone who is just dead tired of more White Folk Foundational Mythology, will likely find this movie simply irritating. For them, I suggest turning the sound down and just enjoying the gorgeous images.

Callister and gamers

I don’t know any gamers.

I played only two games: Doom (I’m including all variants under that title; they’re not separate games) and Arkanoid, Revenge of Doh, which is a brick-breaking game. These are both DOS-era games… In fact, I keep a bootable stick with DOS and those games.

I also played Neuromancer (and have it on the stick). So call it three games.

But I haven’t played a game (other than Solitaire or Minesweeper… occasionally Scrabble – but those aren’t “computer games” really, they’re meatspace games on a computer) more than once or twice a year for about 20 years.

Of course, we all know a kind of gamer, the kind that’s a jerk on the web. Those seem to range from stoic, polite, libertarian wannabes who are seriously concerned – Concerned! – about freedom for their white male cohorts… to tantrum-queen manboys (maybe boyboys… who can know) hurling abuse from the safety of their recliners (or Aerons… there are flavors and dialects of this type), who are using the freedom so carefully protected by their stoic, serious cohorts.

What about other kinds of gamers? Fun-loving people who love the game, the game world, the game market; they love the hardware and tweak it continuously. Eke out those extra gigahertz! But that kind? They’re kind of busy, so they’re not all over the various channels and forums.

So here’s a thought – for every polite, fun, pleasant, rollicking gamer on the web, there are a dozen more who are not on the web.

But for every complete and total jerk, the true villains… it’s them. They’re all on the web all the time. So the number you see on the web? That’s all of them.

It may be a lot, but it’s not that much. They are vastly outnumbered by more decent folk. Because what makes them decent is society, and for that to happen they have to be out there in society.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

But about Callister. It’s a pretty damning portrait of someone from a conqueror culture, who has nothing to conquer… or is simply too cowardly, when in meatspace, to take the risk of conquering. And what even is “conquering” in our society?

Aggressive investment schemes and the destruction of America

In the sentimental vision of America, Main St of a small town, the businesses are locally owned, staffed locally, and local people brought their custom. The businesses and staff reflected the local culture. (For better and for worse, but still.)

A business owner might hire on the local slow kid. They might contribute toward the local smart kid going to college. They might give a break to the local widow. They might notice local environmental damage, and because they hunt or fish or hike, or just live, locally, they might care.

How inefficient! What suckers! Now we have hedge funds who come in and have no local ties, who just see costs and profits. Stakeholders? Pfui. They’ve got to pay executives and shareholders. Period. Employees and staff become human resources. They can charge more for less up until we lose customers, then pull back a tiny bit so the customers feel like they’re getting a deal. They use marketers with psychology degrees to leverage the customers’ biases into sales. They use biologists to figure out how to double the size of our customers’ stomachs so we can sell them more cheap crap. They poison the land because that saves money that can go into executives’ and shareholders’ pockets (in that order), and the local people will be so poor and desperate and unhealthy at that point that they will fight to the death for the right to sell their birthright.

I have no idea how to stop this. Wish I did. You might be able to stop PE by figuring out how to restrict their ability to saddle their purchases with debt whose only purpose is to pay the PE firms. How to stop hedge funds ruining communities is harder. Certainly beyond me.

Feelings about death

I can’t say I’m terrified of death, but I feel I have a lot more work to do. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and I don’t think death will be especially painful. I suspect it will feel like passing out.

My feeling about consciousness is that it is something the brain does. Asking what happens to consciousness after death is like asking what happens to movement after a car is trashed. Nothing happens to it – it just doesn’t … happen any more. Movement is something a car does, and consciousness is something a brain does. When the brain is broken, when the car is cubed, consciousness simply isn’t around, just as movement down the freeway is not a thing that happens any more.

But my family needs me, and while I suppose they’ll figure out how to get on without me, still, it will be hard. There are things I do that make their lives easier. I want to be useful that way.

The importance of the neck

I dreamed last night that I had some kind of callous or skin-thing on my neck, and kept picking at it until I cut all the way through and separated my head from my body. The wound healed over nicely and quickly, and the space between my shoulders was quite bare and smooth, and my head mostly floated where it was supposed to be. I could, if I wanted, hold it in my hands, but I had some trouble pointing where I wanted to look. It was certainly harder to maneuver than it had been, with a traditional neck.

I wanted to ask Ellen to knit me a sweater with no neck hole, but worried about giving her more to do; she’s always so busy. I also wanted to build a kind of metal framework that would serve as a sort of artificial neck, just to hold my head still. I have quite a backlog of DIY projects as it is. Ellen wants a guest coat rack that can be folded up and put away, and an outdoor table. These are all steel pipe plus pipe fittings types of projects – not very hard, but you have to go out and buy the pipe and fittings. Without a neck, these things become tricky. Being able to focus your vision is very important for even a simple DIY project.

I thought I might do a standup routine, about having no neck. I did it, and heard people in the audience say, What is he, 75? And I thought, no, I’m just past 60… I know, my beard is quite white, but I don’t look 75, do I? I’m told I look like Santa’s IT guy. I thought that would be a laugh line, but it wasn’t. I haven’t done standup for many years. Last time, it was when I took that class with Lewis Black. He’s pretty famous now.

I had a little more trouble breathing than before, especially when I thought about it. I could feel my chest breathing, but pulling air through the skin that had grown over the wound was a little more difficult. I thought briefly about how strange it was that I could still speak and breathe with my mouth, but it seemed to work, so I decided not to worry.

All in all, given that it featured some pretty massive self-mutilation, the dream was refreshingly free of anxiety. I’ve had much more frightening dreams where I am completely healthy, but perhaps experiencing social anxiety.

I wondered if there would be a movie about that saint who is pictured holding his head. Turns out it is St. Denis, the bishop of Paris. Then I thought, no, they would use an established actor and CGI. It’s that kind of defeatist thinking that limited my acting career.

So I put some St Denis references into the comedy routine, but hagiographic references are a little obscure for most audiences. Same goes for heraldic references. Most people just don’t get heraldry. Or hagiography. Even though I discovered that there are two saints who are represented as holding their heads in their hands: St Denis and St Firmin. And there’s a word for that: cephalophore. I like finding cool words.

I was experiencing some regret, toward the end of the dream, for having removed my neck. The upsides, it seemed were few.

Promethea vs Watchmen

I just finished re-reading the entire Promethea opus (thanks Hoopla!), and it is simply amazing. I love Watchmen as much as anybody, but this is a greater work, with more depth, better art, and truly touching. I can’t speak to the metaphysics, but this is clearly closer to Alan Moore’s heart. I read his (incredibly long) novel, Jerusalem, and he deals with similar issues of time, the soul, human destiny, angels, demons, Christianity’s place in humanity’s collected mythology, and, above all, the crucial role of storytelling at the core of being human.

I would say there’s no comparison in the art, but there is: J.H. Williams III is by far the greater artist than Dave Gibbons. Gibbons is a wonderful comics artist. J.H. Williams III is a wonderful artist who works in comics. To me, there’s a difference. His virtuosity in different media and styles, the varied characterizations… To be fair, Gibbons, too, is capable of presenting people of different shapes and ages and kinds. But Williams III is just more like a window onto humanity.

One last fanboy note. Especially now, looking at the imbroglio of the 5 Swell Guys, doesn’t the conflict between Stan and Marv seem like a classic case of white rage? It’s not stated that way explicitly, but Stan sees Marv as being in competition with him, and this is utterly unacceptable for him. You could also, of course, take Stan at his word, that it is simply that his and Marv’s roles have some overlap (genius vs. builder), and that is the cause of his hatred and jealousy. But I don’t think Marv’s being “the black guy” has nothing to do with it.

Toughness Signalling

I’m continually amazed at people’s hunger for toughness signaling. I’m going to hazard that the modern American form of it started with professional wrestlers, who are basically anger clowns, like Ann Coulter. They have these pretend rivalries, and the villains are so very villainous. Also see comic books, where villains are “bad guys” and heroes are “good guys.” And Westerns.

Toughness signaling has to do with strict gender dimorphism. Those who feel that the blurring of gender boundaries threatens their very identity, engage in toughness signaling to confirm their manhood.

Of course, toughness in a vacuum is idiotic. You need a threat. That’s why Trump needed to claim that there was “carnage,” and why some folk claim there is “white genocide” or “lynching.” It has to be a very dramatic threat, after all, to justify the level of toughness signaling they feel they need to perform.

Here is a UN document on atrocity crimes. Heavy reading.

I am reminded of a domestic situation (let’s leave it at that level of detail) in which one party is irritated at what the other party does, and reacts angrily. It just feels right to be angry. And that seductive feeling ramps up to even more operatic, greater expression of anger. Then the reasoning brain kicks in, and says, “you need a bigger threat to justify all that yelling.” So the angry person decides that what the other person did was not merely irritating but truly mean and horrible. Then the anger is totally justified! A post-hoc rationalization. They retroactively redefine (or “retcon”, to use comic book jargon) what the other person did, so that they’d be doormats if they didn’t express that much anger, and more, even! Because not only was the other person terrible and mean, but that is evidence of their total contempt for, not just you, but whatever class of people you belong to!

And the spiral continues until the anger burns itself out all on its own.

Everything wrong with America, in light of Amazon buying WF

So, maybe Amazon’s growing ubiquity will be great! Big Box stores will suffer, which might be good, we won’t spend as much time driving, which is certainly good, and we won’t even see each other in the soulless, fluorescent-lit, ad-choked Gehenna that is a mall store. Is that good?

Maybe this is part of what will make America Great. I don’t know. But here’s a different story, one of cultural dissolution and etiolation (hey, it’s my blog which nobody reads; I can use Buckley verbiage).

Due to investors’ and Wall St’s inexorable downward pressure on wages since the 70s, facilitated by cultural changes in the white community which caused them to abandon unionization, people abandoned their neighbors’ businesses (and thus their neighbors’ welfare) for vast publicly-owned “big box” enterprises (not just stores; megachurches are big-box phenomena), thereby erasing whatever small-town local culture they had.

The resulting anomie and soullessness of their community fed into the dissolution of any sense of togetherness or combined destiny. Initially innocent celebrations of ethnic identity (Kiss Me, I’m Irish, or even claiming to be German-American, as I do) led to other, more marginalized citizens claiming and brandishing their ethnic identities, leading those who imagine themselves as ethnically “American” (a meaningless designation, unless you’re of the First People) to panic further. This results in balkanization, segregation, and fantasies about walls and safety.

Small town, white working class and suburban America has shed its wholesome post WWII identity, under the financial pressure exerted by the investor community, embodied in Wall St. Because our politicians have to protect their clients from anti-trust, regulation, and taxation, private unelected entities now control many aspects of our society.

The Slants copyright case and reclaiming slurs

Saw a comment on Slashdot, about SCOTUS permitting the band The Slants to copyright their name, that it’s great to take ownership of a slur, to defang it. But if you do that (the commenter wrote) you have to permit anyone to use it. The example they gave was “nerd”, which I think is charming. So, basically, they want to lose “intent” as a consideration.

I’m inclined to argue, based on that most-hated-by-people-with-social-power argument, that there are people with social power who should have more restrictions on them than those with less social power. By that logic, nerds could use the words, but jocks (for ex) ought not.

Of course, people with social power deny that any such thing as social power exists; that they are treated any differently by gov’tal agencies, police, or institutions such as banking, for instance. This is coupled with the myth that, until Obama, we lived in a “color-blind” society. That myth enabled whites to maintain privilege while preventing non-whites from complaining about it, because then they were playing the “race card.”

Emboldened by Obama’s presidency, non-whites began to be more vociferous about negative treatment, including, say, being shot to death for being scary to white cops. This began to be called “identity politics,” and frowned upon. After all, the rule under the “color blind” regime was one ought not discuss racial things, and if you just said “please and thank you” enough, everything would be fine.

I am often reminded that for many Americans, this is a nation of a proud defiant white people, and a careful, patient, endlessly polite, obsequious brown people. White people with foreign accents will be taken on a case-by-case basis and they should watch their step.

My position on abortion (should I ever run for office)

  1. If it doesn’t have a brain, it isn’t a person
  2. Anybody should be able to terminate a pregnancy at any time
  3. Let the abortions be done in such a way that the issue of the abortion (be it a blastocyst, fetus or anything in between) be saved, and be brought to term. And let the science to make that happen be paid for by those in the pro-life movement who care the most.

Surely there are enough pro-life billionaires out there who can do this.

Further… In any of the debates about at which point personhood begins, be it when it “feels pain” or whatever, (let’s call that point T0, or T sub zero) let it be made explicit that whenever T0 is chosen to be, before that time, all bets are off and women’s right to end pregnancies shall have no hindrance whatsoever. I never hear that part of the conversation.

One more thing… if it so happens that an artificial womb is created and any babies can be brought to term, adopters should have no choice in which ones they adopt. First-come-first-served, and randomly. They don’t get to pick the white, healthy ones. They get what they asked for – life.