Thursday, February 26, 2015

And the misplaced outrage goes to...

The 87th Academy Awards have come and gone, with few surprise winners and no triumph for Boyhood. Yes, I was in that camp: the one that was moved and impressed more by Richard Linklater's 12-years-of-filming look at the quiet moments of life than by Alejandro G.(onzález) Iñárritu's weird and flashy spectacle of actors, cinematography, and dark snark. Alas.

And you know, if Boyhood and Linklater had won then we wouldn't have been able to make Twitter explode with outrage over Sean Penn's "racist" joke, uttered after he opened the envelope while we all waited through a dramatic pause and his one-liner to find out the Best Picture of 2014. Oh, wait, what's that? It wasn't actually racist? Twitter would have found something else about which to explode in outrage instead? How right you are.

For those who live under a rock or, perhaps worse, didn't watch Sunday night's ceremony, Sean Penn saw that Birdman had won and that his buddy Iñárritu would be returning to the stage to collect another statuette having already been up there for his Screenplay and Director wins, and so before announcing the name of the picture, Penn quipped, "Who gave this son-of-a-bitch his green card?" 

Apparently, this "ruined the Oscars" for some people. (Um. Hello?) For others, it was a reminder that the Oscars are so white (I mean: #OscarsSoWhite. Who needs verbs?) that as soon as a Mexican gets an award, there's bound to be a green card joke. Never mind the fact that said joke specifically mocks this very offensive attitude, that attitude being "Who let in all these Mexicans?" where "in" is defined to mean "entering the space that was actually Mexico longer than it has been the United States but was taken by means of a coercive treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and a ruthless, illegal war conducted by James K. Polk and company, from which the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice junta got all its best warmongering ideas."

Right, never mind all that. Time to Tweet. Among the Tweets were some questions as to whether Penn and Iñárritu are friends? They are. They give each other crap all the time. They made 21 Grams together. Iñárritu said Penn's joke was hilarious. He also went on to talk about Mexico, Mexicans and immigrants in his acceptance speech. But this curious "Yikes! I hope they're friends!" response signals to me how weirdly people seem to have lost the ability to read humorous social cues. I can't believe anyone actually thinks or thought that Sean Penn (or anyone -- but least of all Sean Penn) would really mean that green card statement without irony. Or thinks that an Oscar presenter would refer to someone they're not pals with as a "son-of-a-bitch" in that situation. Those would be weird moves even for a celebrity actor.

Now, was the joke necessary? Of course not. Why must these walking egos actors deliver a one-liner upon opening the envelope? I have never forgotten Denzel Washington's "By a nose!" instead of just saying that Nicole Kidman had won Best Actress for The Hours; at the end of a long awards season full of babble about her prosthetic nose that overlooked all the anguish, insight, and emotional nuance of her portrayal of Virginia Woolf, we had to have one more nose joke. What's the point? Why do you have to take one more second for yourself before handing out the award? Then again, why not? It's a big party, we're all here together, why not crack wise with your friends? In other words: is this all much ado about nothing? 

Was the joke funny? Clever? Reasonable minds could disagree.  I mean, first of all, partly no, in the sense that you don't even need a "green card" or to work in the United States to make a film, or be nominated for Best Picture. Like, Iñárritu could have been nominated in all those categories as a Mexican resident for making a film in Mexico, so it doesn't even matter. It's not like, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger governing the state of California. But also, there are layers to it. Gotta love a good joke with layers. The idea that there are authoritative bodies (governments, academies) that can bestow legitimacy on people and their work...the idea that others might resent that...the idea that you can have "too many" people from a certain place in another certain place... it might actually turn out to be more nuanced than it first appears. 

Or, you could just ignore it and move on with your disappointment that Boyhood didn't win Best Picture. It received only one award all night, Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette, who ended her speech with a rousing call for wage equality and equal rights for women, which prompted Meryl Streep to shout "Yes!" and leap to her feet. And you thought that was going to be the political moment of the night! 

People pretend to like sarcasm -- they dutifully watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewering the news and news makers -- but when someone actually does say something sarcastic they don't always know what to do with themselves. They do better if there are a lot of big flashing arrows saying "LOL here" and misusing "literally" to help them understand that someone is joking. 

People also pretend to like those who "say what they think."  Really, you hear that all the time in empty platitudes: "I really respect [PersonX]; s/he speaks her/his mind...says what s/he thinks..tells it like it is.." and so on. Until someone actually does that, and then it's all a horrified, "Wow, you're so opinionated." Or, my favorite, "Never discuss politics with friends."  What?  What kind of friendships do you have?

If you are really concerned about how "offensive" it was for Sean Penn to pretend he was indignant that Alejandro G. Iñárritu (who, yes, has officially approved the Anglicizing of how he uses his last name[s]) has a green card even though he doesn't need a green card to be nominated for or win Oscars, maybe you should take it up with your representatives in Congress who let the morass of idiocy that is U.S. immigration law persist in its unfair state year after year. Or maybe you should watch a previous Iñárritu nominee, Babel, which ably depicts actual human life at the U.S./Mexican border and the actual misunderstandings that swirl around lives there. Or maybe you should read up on the blatantly illegal and dishonest maneuvering Polk used to kick off the Mexican-American war that make Dubya and Company look -- well, if not better, than at least like they weren't the first to have the idea that they could just use the military to do whatever they want, no matter how many innocents were murdered in the process. Maybe you could even spare a thought or two for the entirely overlooked sexism in the fact that "son-of-a-bitch" is a go-to insult in the first place, in many languages. could just go on Twitter and ascribe the world's problems to Sean Penn. Sean Penn

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Calling 'Dibs!' on Dibs

You might have heard that Chicago experienced a huge snowstorm the first weekend in February, on Super Bowl Sunday, in fact. Some hungover people even got a snow day Monday! It was the fifth largest snowstorm on record (inches in a certain period of time), such-and-such amount fell at O'Hare, there were train delays, reporters checking out the commute, and so on..snow, snow, snow. And when the Chicago Tribune ran out of things to write about (because actually, the post-storm recovery was going pretty smoothly), they started writing daily about "Dibs."

"Dibs on parking spaces after snow is the Chicago Way," said one editorial headline. It's a "quaint custom" and a "Chicago winter tradition" whereby vehicle owners shovel out their street parking spot, drive off somewhere (assuredly it must be to work, what with the Chicago Midwest work ethic that undoubtedly is behind all things that happen here in the land of friendly earnest Midwesterners) (did we mention we're in the Midwest?), and leave in the newly shoveled-out spot a chair, or a plastic stool, or maybe some crates from the porch, even an ironing board. Thus, "Dibs!" has been called, and no pesky driver who didn't shovel the spot can violate the code of Dibs and park there. Is it legal? Is it libertarian? Is it great? These and other questions have been discussed for more than a week now in the opinion pages of the Tribune, and now we're in the public-weighing-in phase of the discourse with letters to the editor extolling the lovely communal spirit of Dibs that is just a "quirky Chicago attribute" and a symbol of the ever-great neighborly Midwest. And a cursory internet search reveals that this same self-congratulatory discussion has launched itself in the news pages in previous winters as well. 

One small problem, Chicago: Dibs is not unique to you.

What?! Sputter, gasp, the friendly Midwesterners of the neighborly vibe, earnest work ethic, and pathetic NFL team spit out their coffee (often Dunkin' Donuts, it must be said -- they do have that good sense) and choke on their deep dish "pizza" and ketchup-free hot dogs. But it's true. Citizens of other cities respond to their own snowy deluges by digging out their cars and then claiming the space with a folding lawn chair that would otherwise go unused for another few months. Dibs. I, for one,  learned about the practice when I witnessed it in Medford, Massachusetts. (Boston, another city that is proud of itself from time to time, also experiences a fair amount of snow, as you may know.)

I was passing over most of the Dibs talk with no more than mild interest for a few days but this morning the bit I read in a letter published in the Trib was over-the-top in its delight about this so very Chicago tradition, and this one was from someone who isn't even from here. The letter didn't specify the writer's original home; it just cakcled with delight about moving to Chicago a year ago and discovering Dibs.

Chicago, you're on thin ice here (<--- see what I did there?). I moved to the "Second" City (sort of) to get away from this attitude of specialness, or, as I like to call it, New York. I am forever telling anyone who will listen (all three of them) that Chicago gives New York a run for its money in offering up art, music, literature, theater, dance, people, crowds, liveliness, and anything else a city dweller could want, sometimes at half the rent. (And almost twice the rats.) I am forever reveling in the experience of life in this big, famous city that isn't so full of, well, New Yorkers...the annoying ones, I mean. The ones who have never been anywhere else, the ones who can't really distinguish between Colorado and California, the ones who are entirely convinced that New York is the one and only place in the world worth living. It's not, those people are dumb, and the attitude of specialness threatens to undo the specialness. Don't let this happen to you, Chicago.

So I commented about this particular letter to the editor and its effusive praise for the quirky Chicago attribute (which is not that at all), and Brian's response, besides just disagreeing with me that this is a problem or issue to be noted, was along the lines of, well, how can the Chicagoans be expected to know what goes on in other cities?

Gaaaaaahh! This! This!!! THIS is what I hate the most about the specialness. If you don't know what goes on in other cities, then now is not the time to talk about how quaint and quirky and special yours is.

I love bemused, self-deprecating geographical humor. I loved reading the "Only in L.A." columns as much as the next person. I re-Tweet all the great "10 Things Arizona Natives Have to Explain to the New People" pieces. It's all a good time. But in order to make the comparisons, you're going to have to know about the other place, too. "How can they be expected to know?" Nuh-uh. But if you don't know, then you can be expected not to talk.

You can't get dibs on "Dibs!" by calling Dibs!-dibs. That's like a giant, living Möbius strip or something. It's like trying to mail yourself to the post office. The world just doesn't work that way.