Bert and Ernie, Dumbledore, and Lady Macbeth’s children

In 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and thereby legalized same-sex unions, The New Yorker ran a cover that, if I’m perfectly honest, made me a little weepy.

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Speculation on whether or not Bert and Ernie were more than just good friends and roommates has attached to them for years. Most recently, Mark Saltzman, who won  numerous Emmies for his writing on Sesame Street between 1985-1998, said in an interview that “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Saltzman’s comment caused The Sesame Workshop, producers of the show, to issue a statement saying that they are just good friends and, furthermore, that as puppets they have no sexual orientation.

Leaving aside for the moment the obvious refutation about puppet sexuality (i.e. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s longstanding relationship, to say nothing of Gonzo’s veritable harem of chickens), Saltzman’s comments and the responses they evoked are just the most recent in a fairly long history of arguments about the true nature of Bert and Ernie’s relationship, something helpfully detailed in a great rundown by Aja Romano at Vox here. As Romano points out, though “Bert and Ernie seem to have been clearly modeled off Neil Simon’s famous Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix,” they “were loaded with queer subtext from the very beginning” (which seems to suggest that there was no queer subtext in The Odd Couple, but that’s another fox hunt altogether). Whether that subtext was present or not is at least partially besides the point: the lovely thing about Bert and Ernie is not that they have presented an either/or proposition—queer or not?—but that they’ve always been both/and. When they first appeared as original characters on Sesame Street fifty years ago (egad), that ambiguity meant that LGBTQ people who grew up watching the show could see an ordinary, loving same-sex couple fully integrated in their community. Or, conversely, children could see an example of two men who, for all of their differences, had genuine affection and love for one another.

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This last point is why I’m of two minds on the question: while I’d be totally down with Bert and Ernie coming out and getting married and introducing into what is probably the most influential children’s show in the western world a long-standing gay relationship, one of the blights of toxic masculinity in the present moment is the social prohibitions on heterosexual male love and affection. The reflexive need of some men to cry “no homo!” after a hug, or the way in which sentimental expression is characterized as effeminate or gay, implicitly and explicitly, in popular culture, reminds us that patriarchy hurts men, too. The very idea that love and affection is necessarily sexual poisons assumptions informing the relationships we form.

***

Beyond this question, however, is the more literary-critical question of text. Which is to say: we cannot definitively comment upon Bert and Ernie’s sexuality because we have never been given any substantive indications one way or another. Mark Saltzman might say he wrote them as a gay couple modelled on himself and his partner, and Frank Oz might say that, as the creator of Bert, he can definitively declare him hetero, but in the end there has never been anything to confirm either perspective. As I tell my students, all we have to go on is the text: we can talk about suggestive subtexts, metaphors, hints, allusions, and so forth, but any interpretation you essay needs to be grounded in the text.

And that often means ignoring the author. Reading the latest kerfuffle over Bert and Ernie, I was put in mind of J.K. Rowling’s post-facto “revelation” that Dumbledore was gay, and that he and Gellert Grindewald had been lovers. Predictably, this enraged a good number of homophobic Potter fans; but it also enraged a not-insignificant number of Rowling’s LGBTQ readers, who thought her authorial claim rather weak tea. The revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality was a not insignificant gesture (at least in terms of the predictable outrage it inspired), but it came across as cowardly after the fact—how much more powerful would it have been to have had queer and out characters represented in the novels?

The point, however, is that even with Rowling’s post-facto intervention, even if we now read the novels with the awareness that “Dumbledore is gay!” in the front of our minds, there is still nothing in the text that supports the author’s assertion—even less, really, than the evidence for Bert and Ernie’s ostensible congress. It is the sort of speculation that has been typified in the question “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” That was a seriously posed question by readers of Shakespeare for a long time: at one point, Lady Macbeth, to emphasize just how far she’ll go to win the throne, tells her husband:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7: 62-67)

The suggestion here is that the ostensibly childless Macbeths once had at least one baby—which presumably died, or possibly just spends the entire play offstage in the company of a nanny (lucky kid, if that’s the case). But of course there is nothing else in the play that makes reference to Macbeth and his Lady having children. That does not, however, stop people from speculating: how many children? how many still births, crib deaths, and just where is that nanny anyway?

It might seem absurd, but this of course is the stuff of fan fiction. Well before Rowling outed Dumbledore, there were (and still are) endless online iterations, ranging from the modest to the pornographic, imagining the romances and hook-ups between Hogwarts’ usual suspects. I have to imagine there was some Dumbledore slash fiction in that mix. But the thing about fan fiction is that it is extra-textual: which is to say, it is not “canon.” What we have to work with, there, is the text itself … again, something I emphasize to my students.

One might argue that J.K. Rowling is the first and last authority on her own writing, which, if you make that argument to me, I will laugh and laugh and laugh. Since about the mid-20thcentury, literary critics and scholars have discounted authorial authority, recognizing that, to paraphrase Northrop Frye, writers are often mediocre critics of their own writing; but also that, once something is in print, there is not infrequently a desire on the part of the author for further revision. Sometimes new editions are released with changes, and then it’s in the hands of textual scholars (yet another fox hunt). It somehow seems unlikely that Rowling will issue a revised edition of all the Potter books, in which Dumbledore is out and proud.

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That being said, this might change, given that the Potterverse is expanding; it is possible that in the new Fantastic Beasts film, in which Jude Law plays a young Dumbledore, we might see more concrete evidence: perhaps he’ll have a boyfriend, or perhaps we’ll see unmistakable sexual tension between him and Grindewald (though given the fact that the latter is played by Johnny Depp, I really hope not).

I do rather doubt it, however. Which is unfortunate.

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Project Brevity

I’ve been neglecting my blog all summer, and for many months before that, and for a long time before that … part of my problem, I’ve come to realize, is that I’m not so good at writing short blurbs. Every time I start a new idea for a post, it grows in the telling: this is not helped by the fact that I tend to develop grandiose ideas, like multi-part meditations on topics like expanded universes (for example). And then I write myself into corners, dissatisfied with what I’ve produced (and believe me, I’ve written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20,000 words since April that have never seen the light of day).

So … new project: brevity. I will aim to write one or two posts a week of less than 1000 words, ideally closer to 500, on something germane to this blog’s general theme of narrative (though that has always been something of an elastic category here).

New post coming shortly, on the heels of this one.

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Food, Empathy, and Continuing to Mourn Anthony Bourdain

It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.

As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.

In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.

I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).

The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.

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Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?

As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,

… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.

This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:

It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.

If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.

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Thoughts after a shitty, shitty week

I’ve never been asked why I’m a liberal and a progressive. I’ve had many political and ideological arguments with conservatives, but no one has ever asked me why I hew to a left-of-center viewpoint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, not least because we seem to be bearing witness to the collapse of thoughtful conservatism in both the U.S. and Canada (or Ontario, at any rate). I can deal with thoughtful conservatism and sympathize with its most basic precepts, even when I disagree. Conservatism, the way I understand it, is preoccupied with the individual: personal responsibility and individual freedom are its most basic principles. Anything infringing on the latter is thus a transgression, and if you yourself transgress, fail, or otherwise don’t measure up, you have nobody to blame but yourself (perhaps the most perfect distillation of this principle is Ron Swanson’s characterization of capitalism as “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor”).

Yes, this is a radical oversimplification. But to radically oversimplify my liberalism, I’m to the left of center because I see culture and society as a series of overlapping and interlocking systems, and thus hold that any societal problems—especially the big ones—are systemic, and solutions need to address systemic issues. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was emblematic of this: I burst several blood vessels yelling at liberal pundits on the TV every time they took the bait and argued about whether or not Brown was a thug or an upstanding young man. The moment anyone attempted to ameliorate whatever petty larcenies he committed, they fell into the trap of arguing about whether the police were justified in shooting him as opposed to arguing the real point, which was about systemic police brutality against Black people. From the perspective of Personal Responsibility, if Michael Brown was a criminal, then hey … what do you expect? And by the same token, however, if he wasn’t a criminal, then his death was just the behaviour of a bad actor, and how dare you paint all cops with the same brush.

This same sort of logic has been at work in the arguments over the Trump Administration’s policy of family separation. Leaving aside for a moment the obvious racism and xenophobia animating the Jeff Sessions / Stephen Miller “zero tolerance” policy, the rhetoric suggesting that people crossing the border are criminals, thieves, murders, and rapists—and that such miscreants are cynically using children to pose as asylum seekers—is of a piece with the logic that says Michael Brown got what was coming to him.

Trump’s enablers have been deflecting with the talking point that “the immigration system is broken!” The thing is, I haven’t seen anyone really disputing that. By all means, let’s fix the system. But let’s also recognize the historical context, in which the United States’ frequent military and political meddling in Central and South America has created the circumstances in which people are fleeing the violence of failed states. A border wall and “zero tolerance” policy focuses the fault on individuals fleeing a shitty situation, and takes no responsibility for creating the shitty situation.

I realize that using the words “ethics” and “Trump Administration” in the same sentence is risible, but the U.S. is, frankly, ethically obligated to deal with the influx of would-be immigrants and refugees, not only because the United States is an immigrant nation, but also because it has been responsible for so many of the circumstances worldwide that make people desperate to emigrate. There’s a great line in a season one episode of The West Wing, in which Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees), tells the president that he’s obliged to insert the U.S. between bellicose India and Pakistan because “That’s the price you pay … for being rich, free, and alive, all at the same time.” Being rich, free, and alive at the expense of others should entail somewhat more nuance in border policing.

***

I started writing this post in part because I was reading this GQ profile of Donald Trump Jr. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever feel sympathy for someone who embodies the worst aspects of frat/bro culture and his father’s sociopathy, but apparently I’m having all the feels today. Money quote:

The source’s impression of Don was that he, like seemingly everyone else in Trump’s orbit, was uselessly trying to impress a man who can only be impressed by himself. “He’s hustling and trying to do what he can to contribute but without knowing where the lines are,” the source said of Don, adding ruefully, “He’s a sad and tragic figure.”

As I was reading this profile, I couldn’t help but think of my own father, and his relationship with his father. My paternal grandfather, from what I know from my parents, was kind of an asshole to my dad when he was young. He loved my dad and was proud of him, but never said so. Once, when my father was in high school, he won a debating contest. My grandfather never acknowledged his accomplishment. My dad only learned of his own father’s pride one day when mowing the lawn, and their next door neighbour called him over and said, “I heard you won a debating contest! Your father is so proud of you.”

My earliest memories are of my father telling me he loved me and that he was proud of me—no matter what I’d done. He has told me many times that his own father’s reticence made him determined to tell his children he loved them every day.

See, here’s where I feel for Don Jr. He is in every way an asshole and a douchebag, but I see where that assholery and douchebaggery is fruit of the asshole tree. From everything I’ve read, Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was also emotionally abusive (and, from what evidence we have, a card-carrying member of the KKK). None of this excuses their egregious behaviour, but one can begin to see how an absence of love deforms the mind. In the process of writing this post, I called my father to make sure he was OK with me citing the story of his conversation with his neighbour. He said yes, absolutely, and also told me that, after I was born and my grandfather would come over for Sunday dinners, he confronted him on the doorstep: “I love you, Dad,” he said. And when my grandfather equivocated, my father said, “No. From now on when you come here, I greet you with ‘I love you, Dad,’ and you say ‘I love you too,’ and we hug. We do that, or you go back home.”

I don’t have children. That’s at least partially by design. I have a niece and nephew, whom I love beyond reason, and I have a brother and sister in law and parents whom I do not see with anything resembling proper frequency, but then, I’m an adult whose career took him to the easternmost fringe of Canada. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have been separated from them, even for a short time, at an early age. Even in my teenage years, when parents are anathema, it would have scarred me.

One of the most decent human beings I have ever known is my high school math teacher, Vincent Delisi. He recently posted the following to Facebook:

I taught math for a very long time and one of the hardest concepts to get across was the notion that infinity isn’t just a really big number. I was reminded today of the example I used when our second child was born. You love your first one so much that sometimes you wonder if you have enough love for another. Then you hold the second (and the third) and realize the measure of infinity. An infinite love for each. Today as I held my 19 day old (third) granddaughter I was reminded of this.

In what is, to my mind, W.H. Auden’s greatest poem, “September 1, 1939,” he offers one of the most profound pieces of wisdom I’ve ever read: “We must love one another or die.” The poem—as is obvious from its title—was written on the occasion of the start of WWII. Of all the dark moments of the 20th century, there are few that are darker. Auden would later amend the line to read “We must love one another and die,” and later still eliminate the line entirely, saying that it was overly sentimental.

It makes me happy that editors today disagree with Auden, and that it’s hard to find a version of the poem with either of his edits. I might be an atheist, but I was raised Catholic, and one of the teachings that stuck with me is that love, while it might not be all you need, is nevertheless the most powerful weapon we have to combat fear and hate.

“September 1, 1939,” is, in my opinion, his greatest poem, but my favourite is “Lullaby,” and I leave you with its first verse:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

 

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Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

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One of the many tributes to Anthony Bourdain I’ve read in the last twenty-four hours said that he was a connoisseur of “authentic” food.

That’s the wrong word. “Authenticity” as it relates to culture is fraught at best, actively misleading at worst: the search for the authentic too often becomes a fetishistic quest that ignores the glorious, protean, evolutionary nature of culture—and, as Anthony Bourdain spent the last twenty years exploring, there is no better exemplar of this principle than food.

Bourdain didn’t care about authenticity, he cared about honesty. Or perhaps more accurately, he loathed bullshit, whether it took the form of political pieties, pretentious or corporatized food, or, not infrequently, his own fulminations. Aside from his enormous intelligence, talent, and insight, his death comprises the loss of that rarest of commodities in the present moment: an open mind. Though he was never shy about his political leanings, he was always willing to break bread and find common ground with just about anybody, and was always brutally honest about his own blind spots. He started his public career celebrating the brutal and caustic masculinity of the professional kitchen; he ended it apologizing for his part in valorizing such meathead attitudes and embracing #MeToo. He made great hay in the early days ridiculing celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, but would later acknowledge their culinary talents, befriend them, and speak in a more nuanced way about the complexities of food and celebrity. And through it all, he never claimed for himself the mantle of brilliant chef, though many people tended unthinkingly to make that assumption: he was, he was always very clear to assert, a journeyman cook who lucked out.

The stars might have aligned for him when he got an article published in The New Yorker, but from that point on he made his bones on his talent as a writer, critic, and observer. My first encounter with Bourdain’s work was when I read Kitchen Confidential twelve years ago. By then, I knew his name, but only vaguely. Reading that book was a revelation, not just for his exposé of the life of a professional cook, but for his narrative voice: though he matured beyond the punk aesthetic of that career-making book, he never lost his caustic, no-bullshit approach. I envied his verbal dexterity and ability to be at once pithy and eloquent. Television might have become his medium of choice, but he was first and foremost a writer of enormous talent.

His death by his own hand reminds us that no outward appearance of success or happiness necessarily reflects what is inside.

His life reminds us that there is always more to learn, and the best way to learn is from other people. Food was how Anthony Bourdain entered the world; it’s eminently appropriate that his television career took him increasingly farther away from food as his focus while it also remained the anchor of his explorations. Parts Unknown was far more about culture and history and the specifics of a given locality than about the vagaries of cuisine, but it remained the basis of his interactions with people: his interviews almost always took place over food and drink, and whether he was talking to gun-loving Trump voters in West Virginia, survivors of America’s illegal war in Cambodia, or (recently) Newfoundlanders in a Big R restaurant in St. John’s, food wasn’t just a symbol of common humanity but the literal, material thing that connects us.

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Thoughts on expanded universes, part two: Solo and the whole Star Wars thing

I’ve been working on part two of my thoughts on expanded universes series, and it keeps getting away from me—which is perhaps only appropriate. “It grew in the telling,” Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, a sentiment echoed by George R.R. Martin. Which is not to compare my modest blogging project here to their work, but to observe that even writing about world-building is, well, an ever-expanding project, never mind actually engaging in the process.

I have a lot written, and the problem is that the subject wants to run off madly in all directions. And given that this problem was exacerbated when, a few days ago, I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, I figured that perhaps a few words about Star Wars in general, and Solo in particular might help things out.

So just to be clear: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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First, a Review

Meh.

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What gravity the Star Wars films possess—which is to say, the establishment of high stakes (the fate of the galaxy, e.g.) and a certain amount of dramatic tension—is pretty much absent here for reasons more pithily summed up by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “We already know what will happen—Han will meet Chewbacca, make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, win the Millenium [sic] Falcon in a card game, and end up a rakish bachelor—and this puts any genuine suspense out of reach.” I’d say that this is the inherent problem with some prequels, i.e. knowing where the story ends up, if it also wasn’t an inherent aspect of most genre fiction. The more important question is how we get there. Solo lacks the aforementioned narrative stakes we find in, say, Rogue One, and this film telegraphs its end point(s) even more obviously. There’s little in the way of character-based tension, and nothing in the way of difficult or problematic choices that lead us to where we know Han ends up. It would have made for a more nuanced evolution if Han were even a little bit morally compromised. But no: he begins with altruistic intent (keen to escape his bondage with the girl he loves), and ends with an altruistic act (giving up a fortune for a revolutionary cause), and at every point in the story he makes the choices he does in the name of the former. His betrayal at the end by both Beckett and Qi’Ra is such an obvious plot twist that it doesn’t deserve the name. (Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra is, indeed, the most interesting character in the film. Beckett not so much, for reasons I’ll get into below).

qi'ra

The point is that this Han Solo is so very … Disney. When we meet Han in A New Hope, he is a familiar generic character: the Byronic gunslinger modeled on every such character in a western not played by Gary Cooper. Such characters are fascinating because we know, without knowing the particulars, that they have tortured, morally compromised pasts (which is why Lucas’ much-vilified change to the Greedo scene is as much a sin against genre as against Han’s character)—but that they will ultimately use their talent for lawless violence in the service of capital-G Good, and thus find redemption.

But the Han Solo at the end of Solo needs no redemption, for he has not transgressed, except against a totalitarian regime and organized crime bosses. I suppose it remains to be seen whether we’ll get a bunch of other films in which we see Han develop his more cynical mien, but as an “origin” story, we don’t hit the closing credits with much more than a knowledge that Han Solo has always had a snarky and roguish sense of humour, but no sense that these aspects run deep. As I said, this is the Disney Han, with more in common—unlike Harrison Ford’s version—with such handsome rogues as Aladdin than with any of his western genre precursors.

In fact, the contrast I found myself making was between Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly—first, because Nathan Fillion as Mal did cynical self-interest even better than Ford did (though to be fair, he had twice as many hours as a principal character to develop it, and a much better team of writers). But also because the brief glimpses we get of Mal’s origin story do an exceptional job of explicating just why he’s now such a cynical bastard with occasional gleams of altruism. We really don’t need that with Han Solo, because he comes to us in A New Hope as a fully formed trope, but if you’re going to rip of Firefly, you might as well take a lesson from its narrative nuances.

Second, the whole train heist sequence, to say nothing of Beckett’s original crew, felt totally lifted from Joss Whedon’s space western. The second episode of Firefly, which was aired first (because, as we know, Fox execs have the critical acumen God gave walnuts), featured a train robbery by spaceship that goes badly. In and of itself, this isn’t cause to suspect plagiarism; what is, is the parallel between crews: the gunslinging cynical wisecracker in a long coat, the no-nonsense Black woman as first officer, and the glib, cheerful pilot (respectively, Mal, Zoe, and Wash in Firefly, Beckett, Val, and Rio in Solo); and once Chewbacca is on board, we have a very tall dude to act as muscle, Solo’s analogue to Firefly’s Jayne Cobb.

mal et al

solo - crew

Philosophers talk about epistemic closure, but this feels a lot like generic closure: Firefly owes its existence to Star Wars generally, and the character of Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo specifically. Which isn’t to say that what Whedon did with the series wasn’t new and interesting, but that it wore its homage (ironic and otherwise) on its sleeve. That we’ve come full circle here—in which an entry in the new Star Wars canon apes tropes from a television series that was aping tropes from the original films—is perhaps unsurprising in a mass entertainment context in which recycling and rebooting is a much safer financial bet that creating new material.

Unfortunately, the whole “expanded universe” trend of the moment does seem to be at least as motivated by an aversion to novelty as any genuine interest in the exercise of world-building. And on that note …

 

Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Yup, Lando was one of the best parts of the film, which is why he doesn’t come in for any kvetching in my comments.

Solo and the (Revamped) Star Wars Expanded Universe

In Solo’s penultimate scene, we discover who the Big Bad behind the Crimson Dawn and all the other cartels is. And the threatening hooded figure in the hologram is … Darth Maul! Whom we last saw falling down an airshaft in The Phantom Menace, bisected by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber (well, technically by Qui-Gon Jin’s, but … well, nevermind).

Because I tend to follow links down the nerd-hole, my response to this was less “WTF?” than “Really … you’re going there?”

See, in Rogue One, we met a character played by Forest Whitaker named Saw Gerrera—a former member of the Rebellion who had been ousted because he was considered an extremist. Because I read a bunch of online reviews of the film and clicked on the aforementioned links, I learned that Saw was a character from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, and that his appearance in Rogue One evoked something resembling geekgasms among the most dedicated Star Wars fandom.

Why this is interesting to me beyond simple trivia is a question that brings us back to something I alluded to in my Infinity War post—namely, that we (so far as I’ve been able to figure it) get the phrase “expanded universe” from Star Wars, specifically from all of the stories (novels, comics, video games) embroidering the narrative of the original trilogy and the prequels. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and commissioned J.J. Abrams to launch the new Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens, a decision was made to basically invalidate the entirety of the “expanded universe.” Which, all things being equal, was somehow unsurprising, considering that doing otherwise meant Disney and Abrams would have been obliged to adapt a rather involved series of novels (starting with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire) that detailed the lives of Luke, Han, Leia, et al after The Return of the Jedi.

Instead, they chose to ignore them, and in the process render them “non-canon.” Though I’ve never been a follower of the expanded universe, it was quite obvious that this decision—to coin an expression—caused a great disturbance in the Force.

I’m less concerned by this disturbance (not least because I was not personally disturbed) than by the debates that emerged about what, then, was considered “canon” in the Star Wars expanded universe. And again, I’m less interested in the details of this debate than the significance of the word canon.

In my next post I’ll get into the ways in which terms such as “mythology” and “universe” have come to be used in relation to the popular culture phenomena, but here “canon” seems as good a place as any to start. For myself, as a professor of English, the most significant definition of canon is what we might otherwise designate as “the great works”—that it to say, works of literature that define a given tradition. The English Canon traditionally starts in the Middle Ages with Chaucer (though might also include earlier works like Beowulf), and includes Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, the Romantics, up through such modernists as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The problem with the idea of literary canons is that, like the list I just gave, is that they are by definition exclusionary and tend to privilege certain voices—every single author on that list is white, and only a single one is a woman.

I don’t want to get into an argument on this particular topic (I’d say that’s a whole other series of blog posts, but really it’s a library in and of itself), but rather bring up this definition of “canon” as one that is (or has been for about three decades or more) constantly under negotiation (when not, as is more common of late, being challenged outright). In its religious definition, “canon” denotes something transcendent or immutable, as in the Catholic church’s canon law. It also, and this is its relation to the literary understanding, designates those works of scripture which are accepted and considered the proper word of God (as opposed to the Apocrypha).

So on one hand we have the absolutism of religious doctrine, and on the other the more nebulous and negotiable conception of what works define a tradition. The analogues here to the Star Wars expanded universe should perhaps be obvious, though obviously irksome to theologians and literary snobs. (I’m sure there’s a down side to it all, though).

What I’m interested in here and the next few posts are the ways we engage with such fictional worlds, and the way they’re created and delineated. Last post, I talked about paratext as something that circumscribed and defined texts proper. The whole question of what we call “canon” is a large-scale example, whether in terms of what counts as biblical scripture or what narrative elements define the Star Wars universe, versus what we count as “apocryphal.” (When Disney and Abrams eliminated the extant expanded universe at a stroke, they made the glib suggestion that fans could consider those stories as “legends” in the context of the new canon—something that undoubtedly infuriated many, but raised the interesting prospect of seeing an expanded universe within an expanded universe).

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But to return to the question of what is “canon”: the appearance of Darth Maul at the end of Solo, replete with robotic legs to replace those removed by Obi-Wan, would seem to confirm what many fans speculated after Rogue One—namely, that the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels were included in the new canon. Apparently, Rebels resurrected Darth Maul (who managed to stay alive through the sheer force of his hate and, presumably, the sheer force of the Force), and made him the head of a criminal underworld conglomerate. Eventually, he had showdowns with both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine himself; which leads one to surmise that we’ll be seeing more of him in the Star Wars spinoffs to come. And given that there’s been the suggestion of more “Star Wars stories” dedicated to Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it would seem that these “stories” will not quite be the one-offs that were originally hinted at, but something more resembling Marvel’s universe-building: it becomes easy to see how Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Qi’Ra, as well as Boba Fett and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul may all find themselves crossing paths in a series of underworld vs. tyranny vs. rebellion films. Which, after all my kvetching about Solo, might redeem that film if in hindsight it proves just to be some elaborate throat-clearing to get the necessities of parsecs and rakish bachelorhood out of the way.

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OK, I had some more thoughts on canonicity, but I will save them for what is now part three of my thoughts on expanded universes series. Until then, work hard and be good, my friends.

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Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
—Monty Python, “The Galaxy Song”

Someone recently added me to the Facebook group “Genre Writers of Atlantic Canada,” and given that I don’t have much to say about the writing of genre fiction but a lot to say about genre fiction (and film, and television), I shared my previous post about my Fall grad course; since then I’ve had about a dozen people sign up to follow this blog. To those of you now following, welcome! Hopefully the next few months will see me being somewhat more prolific here than I have been in the past year or so.

Also, you should be warned: I tend to post fairly lengthy meditations on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and this entry is no exception. I started thinking about the nature of what we call “expanded universes” in popular culture, and this rumination has itself quickly expanded into what will have to be a series of posts (probably four of them, but possibly more).

This blog is basically a space for me to think out loud and work through ideas and arguments. That it’s a public forum forces me to try and be more coherent than I am when I argue with myself in the car or scribble notes in my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to brevity, alas …

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The various expanded universes of fandom, from DC and Marvel to Star Wars and Doctor Who, might not quite be whizzing in all directions at the speed of light, but one could be forgiven for assuming so. It seems impossible these days to create an alternative universe that doesn’t get expanded: aside from the obvious examples above, there are now a handful of Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works; the adventures of Newt Scamander keep the Harry Potter Muggleverse alive; and there’s even plans at Amazon to create a Lord of the Rings prequel series. And all of this is just the most recent stuff.

From what I’ve been able to glean, the term “expanded universe” first came to be applied to Star Wars, to the constellations of TV specials, comic books, video games, and novels that accompanied and followed the original trilogy. However much the prequel films were generally loathed, they gave the expanded universe a lot of traction to expand even further, until finally the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent production of The Force Awakens deemed, at a stroke, that all of the prior expanded universe creations were emphatically not canon.

The paroxysms of rage this arbitrary decision sent through the fan universe are, at best, incidental to my discussion here, which is more concerned with the broader concept of the “expanded universe” and the significant role it has come to play in popular culture. What was once the provenance of devoted fans has become a financial juggernaut for production studios and publishers, and (often to the annoyance of the devoted nerd community) has spread its appeal to general audiences.

Though I count myself a member of the aforementioned nerd community, my interest here is more academic: in anticipation of my graduate seminar this fall, I find myself thinking rather a lot about world-building and the relationship between such “expanded universes” as Marvel’s and the long tradition of alternative realities and worlds from medieval romance to Middle-Earth to contemporary fantasy. One way or another, this post and the ones following were precipitated by thoughts I had after watching Avengers: Infinity War. So, without further ado …

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Avengers: Infinite Cast

For a variety of reasons, it took me a week until I was able to see Avengers: Infinity War. By the time my girlfriend and I plunked our arses down in the theater seats, I had become very nearly frantic. Any longer not seeing the film, it seemed, and I would inevitably have the big reveals inadvertently spoiled. As it was, I knew there were going to be HUGE SURPRISES, as all of social media (seriously, it felt like all of it was mobilized to taunt me about Infinity War) alluded portentously to MAJOR PLOT POINTS and a certain HUGE THING THAT HAPPENS.

It is perhaps now that I should warn readers that there will in fact be SPOILERS in this post, both for Infinity War and a bunch of other stuff (well, for Game of Thrones, anyway).

Before I get to all of that, however, I should not bury the lede (as I tend to do on this blog), and point out that my interest in this particular film is incidental. I don’t have anything to say about Infinity War that hasn’t already been said, so here’s my tl;dr review: loved the story, was deeply impressed by how the directors and writers didn’t let the ever-expanding cast turn the narrative into an exercise in pulling taffy, laughed my aforementioned arse off (honestly, Thor calling Rocket and Groot “rabbit” and “tree” should not have cracked me up as much as it did, but here we are). Favourite moments: Cap appearing as a shadowy figure at the train station, Peter Dinklage as a huge dwarf, Rocket’s man-crush on Thor, Bruce Banner’s ongoing argument with a Hulk who, having had his ass handed to him by Thanos, has obviously turned timid. There are more, but that will do for the moment.

As much as I loved the film, the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Considering that the worst comes to pass and Thanos accomplishes his goal of wiping out half the sentient universe with a snap of his fingers, that cosmic genocide lacks the kind of gravity it should have had—mainly because we know that most of the characters will not remain dead for long. Tom Holland’s Spiderman had one of the more poignant departures (both because of Tony Stark’s protectiveness, and because his final seconds were reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go!”), but given the success of Spiderman: Homecoming ($880M worldwide), it’s highly unlikely that Disney/Marvel is going to let him stay dead. That goes doubly for T’Challa: though it was heartbreaking to see Danai Gurira as Okoye’s expression of abject loss as her king disintegrates, it is even less likely that Disney will let Black Panther and its $1.3B box office go at a single movie.

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Wakanda Forever!

All of this was in my head upon leaving the theater; when I got home and finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding all week, I found my thinking crystallized by John Scalzi:

What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.

This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.

I recommend reading the entire post—Scalzi pretty much hits the nail on the head and puts into words the inchoate thoughts rattling about my head after the movie.

So I’m not going to go on in this vein—suffice to say that the movie is great on its own terms, but the biggest spoilers aren’t what you might accidentally stumble across online so much as just knowing that huge Hollywood studios will always behave with a predictability that talented writers won’t … and that in a showdown between the former and the latter, the former always wins.

There is built into this “expanded universe,” however, something of an irony, given that, on reflection, Marvel’s long game has been hellishly impressive. The Marvel Universe has genuinely earned the modifier “expanded,” as each film has been carefully planned and slotted into a grand narrative, occasionally in ways that sabotaged the individual films (Age of Ultron being the prime example). Each new film that merged extant storylines and characters, such as Avengers and Civil War, was potentially satisfying but perilous for the reasons all crossover stories are: we’re eager to see our favourite characters meet and interact, but anything less than at least competent storytelling is going to at best annoy and at worst alienate devoted fans. That Infinity War with its near-infinite cast of characters not only does not disappoint, but emphatically delivers, is particularly impressive.

But as I said above, there is an irony to this meticulous world-building within the context of multimillion-dollar franchises, which is that success breeds success, and that means that successful stories and characters (i.e. profitable stories and characters) will be milked for all they are worth, or until their key actors’ contracts expire. None of which would be an issue if audiences existed inside a bubble of ignorance, cheerfully oblivious to box office takes and trade news about actors’ contracts and planned future productions. But of course we do not exist in such a bubble, especially not in this era of fan participation by way of social media on one hand,* and studios’ massive investment in long-term, big-budget franchises on the other.

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Can someone please tell me: is it in keeping with comic book/superhero conventions that Thanos, with all of the mystical power of the infinity stones, still feels the need to resort to punching things all the time?

All of which goes to the broader point that we can’t feel too much dismay for the death of T’Challa—and by extension, everyone else extinguished by Thanos—when we know that there are hundreds of millions of reasons for the studio to resurrect him.

Which, oddly, is where I get interested, at least in terms of the theoretical implications for world-building. Normally we would be inclined to deal with such a storyline on its own terms, which is to say, according to the internal narrative and thematic logic it establishes. But the longer-running and larger-scale—i.e., the more “expanded”—a given “universe” becomes, the more it is subject to such external logic as economic considerations, actors’ contracts, internecine squabbles, and so forth. In the case of the Marvel EU, the external logic has come to inflect the internal. By contrast, even though most of us were all 90% certain Jon Snow wouldn’t stay dead after being stabbed at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, we weren’t 100% certain … and that 10% of doubt proceeded from the show’s internal logic, i.e. five seasons worth the show pitilessly killing characters we assumed to be central, from the execution of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding. There were a lot of reasons to assume that Jon Snow would be resurrected in season six, but none of them involved Kit Harrington carrying a billion-dollar Jon Snow franchise on his brooding, fur-clad shoulders. The question of just how deep his grave was dug had rather to be considered against George R.R. Martin’s gleefully murderous storytelling.

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Further, however, it is instructive to recall the misdirection in which Kit Harrington and HBO engaged during the months between seasons five and six, in an effort to convince fans that Harrington and therefore Jon Snow would not be coming back. Such extracurricular considerations, like our certainty that Disney/Marvel will be making Black Panther 2, play a role comparable to what in other circumstances we might call “paratext”—which is to say, ancillary texts that define and circumscribe the text proper: title pages, epigraphs, indices, forewords, footnotes, and so forth … or in the case of a film and television, the opening and closing credits. Other paratexts include such considerations as the author or editor or translator, or in film the director(s) and producer(s), or anyone else whose name connotes certain qualities (think, for example, of True Romance, which was directed by Tony Scott, but which was written by Quentin Tarantino, and is almost invariably associated with the latter rather than the former).

Paratexts serve to define a text, and provide tools for understanding and interpretation.

On an individual basis, we probably think nothing of them unless they are unusually invasive or self-reflexive; but every time you purchase a book because it has an intriguing cover (which, despite the cliché injunction not to, happens all the time), or, conversely, buy it specifically because of the author, paratext affected or inflected your reading and understanding of the text proper.

But in an expanded universe like that of Marvel’s films, we experience something like a cumulative effect, simply by dint of the small army of writers and directors involved; When we consider that many of the names attached—Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler et al**—come with certain specific stylistic and thematic connotations, that cannot help but affect our expectations going into the various films. And while the Marvel films have attempted—mostly successfully—to attain a consistent aesthetic and tone, they nevertheless comprise an aggregate of directorial styles and varying quality of story that makes an entry like Thor: The Dark World seem dramatically out of place with Black Panther (or for that matter with Thor: Ragnarok). And while Infinity War certainly counts as one of the best installments, the contrast between the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic (faithfully rendered by the Russo brothers) was something of a jarring juxtaposition with the earthbound sequences.

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To be fair, I’m stretching the strict definition of paratext somewhat, but then the “expanded universe” as concept and practice invites a certain amount of boundary-stretching on any number of fronts—which is one of the aspects that fascinates me.

That being said, I realize I’ve now written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 words and I haven’t actually attempted to define what we mean by “expanded universe.” Oops. Well, that will be installment the second: what determines an expanded universe? What differentiates it from a merely expansive universe? How does the Marvel or Star Wars EUs compare to those of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

Stay tuned.

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FOOTNOTES

*Social media is of course just one aspect of a broader participatory current that has always been present in fan culture, with fan fiction and slash fiction having long been key methods of creative and imaginative interaction. The internet has of course multiplied and disseminated fan creations, as have the various wiki pages that compile and catalogue arcane details of given universes. This participatory dimension is something I’ll look at more closely in my second installment.

**This list of prominent dudes serves to highlight Marvel’s need to introduce some estrogen into the mix. On that note, it should also be pointed out—as frequently and loudly as possible—that the best three films arguably to emerge from both the MCU and DCU in the past year, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman were directed by an indigenous man, an African-American man, and a woman (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Patty Jenkins), respectively.

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