Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant – A Litany of Reasons Why It Is Just the Worst

Alien: Covenant is the most disappointing thing since my father’s son.

In an ideal universe, I would be able to go to sleep and wake up in a world where Ridley Scott had discretion and gentility enough not to go ahead with its script, a rare breed of prequel/sequel that by its very existence manages to lessen the merits of its titanic forebears. As with Prometheus, its title refers to thinly concealed religious themes, and while Covenant certainly sustains that film’s concern with creation and epistemology, there’s not a single covenant made or broken in the movie aside from the one between Scott and all his viewers who thought his films bore some seal of quality. I would call it an unmitigated disaster if not for the involvement of Michael Fassbender, who plays his unkillable android David with malicious glee but can’t save him from the sheer stupidity or audacity of Oscar-nominee John Logan’s writing.

Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb both currently show Covenant sitting pretty around 70% or 7/10, a figure I expect to plummet in time as the true consensus emerges. Or maybe IQ levels dropped sharply while I was sleeping. With that exigency in mind, the following review will consist more of disparate, jumbled reactions to the film, which were probably shared by a great many people, than of a structured, focused case against it, which would take even longer to write and of which it isn’t really deserving.

* It’s stunning how much one can induce about the evolution of the Alien series, the evolution of film in general, and the downfall of Covenant just from its opening titles. In 1979, the logo slowly faded in over a minute and twenty seconds of mysterious music and a mostly empty shot of outer space. In 2017, the title similarly materializes line by line but in a third of the time, serving as a microcosm for all the rushed, frenetic storytelling and shameless fan service to follow (that Jerry Goldsmith theme, do you recognize it?). Big-budget science-fiction in the 21st century has no patience for the long hallway crawls and purposely restrained reveals that typified Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s classic. Everything in Covenant is accelerated to an absurd degree, from the lettering to the cascade of animalistic bloodletting in the second half.

* The movie opens upon the most chilling and ominous of Alien locales, a sunny, white, and glass-walled room on earth that’s decorated with a piano and Michelangelo’s David, solely in order that David can remember (or determine) that he’s David. This prelude clumsily draws attention to the theme of creation and subcreation that Scott will ram through the rest of the picture, and does so with such devices as Pierro Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and David playing his favorite Wagner piece, “The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla”. Later on, when David escorts one of the marooned crew through his laboratory, the camera passes over a xenomorph miniature crucified on a stick. “What do you believe in, David?” asks the hapless wayfarer. “Creation,” he answers wistfully, and further on poses a question of his own: “The choice is yours, brother. Serve in heaven, or reign in hell?” The message is anything but clear, though if I had to hazard a guess, it might be: Man creates his own gods, but can’t make them benevolent to him. Those “gods” in turn go looking for their own, arrogantly try to duplicate the process of creation, and eventually turn into the demons of their worshippers.

It goes without saying that Covenant’s philosophical pretensions are about as translucent as the alien’s curved dome, and as deep. Prometheus got a lot of flack for its overbearing philosophizing, right down to its mythological title, but at least that movie had something resembling a thesis and didn’t try to force-feed symbolism to audiences. Alien, by contrast, is a pedantic and blustery retelling of Noah’s Ark that’s all flood, no covenant, listlessly dropping references to Biblical, Catholic, and Norse heritage without a care to anything besides fooling gullible, insecure teenagers that Horror is finally an intellectual genre worth taking seriously.

* Apparently James Franco dies in a fire mere seconds after he’s introduced, something my brain didn’t even take note of until several Youtube comments informed me – so crucial was his role to the plot and heroine Daniels’ development. For anyone who mistakenly wandered into the theater expecting a classy horror film, Franco’s incineration sets the standard of treatment for many other victims whom Scott will gift with increasingly gruesome ends but nary a distinguishing line or trait.

* Doing my best to re-watch Alien in a vacuum as people would have in theaters, one of the most suspenseful things I notice about the original is how it withholds a clear protagonist for the first 40 minutes or so. Screen time and lines are divided pretty evenly between all the crew members, and Ripley only comes out as the most collected character later. From the very start of Covenant, Scott tries to recreate his own table banter scenes, but immediately props up Katherine Waterston as a blatant stand-in for Ripley, this time contending with the cheesy chauvinism of Billy Crudup’s interim captain. Feminism, or girl power at least, has always been lightly woven into the series – especially after James Cameron’s involvement –, to the extent that knowing audiences have been trained to look for male-female antagonism and expect the female to triumph over social adversity. Instead of anticipating that, subverting it, and taking advantage of their brand new cast of characters, Scott and his writers play directly into the formula of Ripley facing off against arrogant men.

As a result, the only tension one can feel throughout the entire movie is whether one will be able to stomach the next gore effect. Boring Ripley-lite is secure. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.

* Why are so many of the personnel aboard this monumental, high-risk colonization vessel with 2000 passengers married to each other? Watching it a second time with a keener eye to the minutia, I gleaned that every single one of the crew members is married to someone else aboard the mission, including two gay men, for reasons of modernizing the series, I guess. For what purpose could Weyland Corp. possibly have approved this as the best arrangement? In the event that unforeseen complications might ensue during space travel, as they do in Covenant, wouldn’t a rational company seek to minimize chances of failure by removing personal attachments from the equation altogether, picking workers who don’t stand to be compromised, as they are in Covenant? I seem to recall another space exploration movie which provided that very rationale for the lack of couples on the ship; alas, the name of it eludes me.

The primal dangers of sexuality or physical invasion have been a subtextual element throughout the series, mostly in the first and third films, so maybe the marital unions here are supposed to extend that. Two of the characters are even punished by the alien for having steamy shower sex, but punishing hot young adults for having sex is a cliché in horror generally, so perhaps I’m giving Scott too much credit. Even if all the couples do add up to some symbolic significance, their presence on a multitrillion dollar expedition doesn’t make much practical sense.

* Billy Crudup’s character, referred to once or twice as Chris, happens to be a man of faith, which doesn’t impact the story whatsoever but gives him the excuse to deliver lines like, “I have to go collect my strayed flock.” In one of the few scenes to illuminate anybody’s personality, he complains to his subordinate Daniels that no one in corporate trusts a believer like him to make rational decisions. No more than five minutes later, he suggests diverting the ship from its current course to go investigate another planet because they heard a transmission of a singing voice and “none of the crew want to get back in the pods”. Heaven forbid they complete their journey to the planet they’ve thoroughly mapped out and prepared for if it means getting back in those damned cryogenic pods!

As Prometheus did with Elizabeth Shaw, Covenant begs the question of why Chris’ religiosity even comes up at all, but even more so, since this crew never aspired to find some cosmic deity who engineered them. Is Scott just trying to voice his disdain for religion by assigning all the dumbest choices to the stubborn religious man who won’t take advice from a woman? Yet the villain of the film is a power-hungry eugenicist who doesn’t seem to believe in God and delights in playing out his godlike fantasies, so what is the point of demonizing the token religious character?

* After 30 minutes or so of uninvolving space scenes that retread the beginning of Alien, the ship finally touches down on the shore of a lake. Detractors of Prometheus will no doubt recall one of the most common complaints against it, namely the scientists’ decision to take off their helmets because the atmosphere seems safe. In Covenant, the scientists see fit to one-up this stupidity by not putting their helmets on at all, either for reasons of saving time or as a giant middle finger to those who hated Prometheus.

* One of the most persistent talking points about Alien: Covenant is how beautiful it is. This is grasping at straws, and not even all that honest. Completely barren of life for some reason, the Engineer homeworld doesn’t look that far removed from real-life valleys, unlike LV-426, which artists on Alien and Aliens painstakingly crafted to look like a craggy, inhospitable, storm-battered moon. Covenant was shot in New Zealand for the sake of redeeming tax credits, and while the setting has certainly been modified to some extent, the effort put into differentiating this world seems dwarfed by the effects work on Prometheus. On top of that, the whole movie is gray and dim and dull except for a few torch-lit scenes in the middle.

Some may argue that the similarity to an earth environment is intentional and a non-issue, but the aesthetics of Covenant’s landscapes still don’t lend themselves functionally to a terrifying Alien film. The original Alien trilogy owed as much of its horror to incredible, claustrophobic set design as it did to the aliens. The series followed the same conventional wisdom that applies to any haunted house movie: the home must look interesting before victims can go wandering around in it, and people tend to feel more dread when they don’t know where the monster’s lurking. The Nostromo corridors, underground hive, and lice-ridden correctional facility of Covenant’s predecessors provided no end of nooks and crannies to conceal the xenomorph, which put the audience in the same heightened state of alertness as the characters. I will never forget the first appearance of the creature in Aliens, when it lunges out of a seemingly natural wall formation, or the lengthy evacuation scene in the original that merely consists of Ripley creeping through a bunch of darkened hallways.

The CG aliens also look really bad, especially the white ones with no articulated jaw. Some of the shots look blatantly unfinished; e.g., one clip that Fox is using to promote the movie shows the aliens’ spinal tubes either vanishing through the floor or bending back at a right angle in a couple frames, an ability none of the prior films established. This shot, it happens, is one of the lesser ways the movie disrespects its source material, but more on that later. The point is that the monster which is the movie’s namesake looks worse than it did 38 years ago, and the most memorable scene in Covenant is a possibly homoerotic flute lesson given by Fassbender to Fassbender. The issue doesn’t lie with computers inherently; Prometheus used CGI to beautiful effect, and the facehugger could conceivably benefit from not being a puppet. The issue lies with laziness or apathy.

What image in Covenant can compare to the holographic star map, crash sequence, or birth of the deacon in Prometheus? I suppose it can boast of having the single bloodiest shot in the entire series, for whatever that matters. So when people say, “Ridley Scott has made yet another gorgeous film,” I have to ask not only, “How?” but also, “How are you letting him get away with this?”

* Alien: Covenant considers itself a successor to the movie that started it all, and won’t let anyone forget it through numerous aural and visual references. The soundtrack frequently tributes the series’ roots, the bobbing bird prop gets a cameo, David recycles the “perfect organism” or “magnificent specimen” canard that drove other Weyland-Yutani villains, and Scott recreates several of his scenes from the original – the first facehugger attack, the snaking of the creature’s tail between a girl’s legs, the discovery of Parker and Lambert’s bodies, etc. The allusions get even more offensive when one goes on Youtube and finds the deleted “Prologue”, wherein a character swallows something down the wrong pipe and starts to reenact Alien’s dinner table disaster to, ahem, hilarious results. Covenant shows as much dedication to milking fans’ memories for unearned commendation as Rogue One obscenely did back in December.

The structure of the plot itself is nothing new, but this isn’t ruinous in itself. I recently listened to Red Letter Media’s commentary on the series, in which Mike and Jay shrewdly pointed out that every Alien movie is virtually identical plot-wise but filtered through another director’s unique vision. Even Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection has an eccentric style entirely its own, if not a good style. Covenant’s undoing is that Scott ambivalently mashes together the gunfire and chases of Aliens, the extravagant gore of Alien 3, and the theological babble of Prometheus, but does none of those things as well as the artists who did them first. To watch the fifth film in the series is to see a 79-year-old Ridley Scott mimicking the work of his younger self in wholly superficial ways and failing miserably to capture the tone that set Alien apart.

* Around the 50-minute mark, two of the crew who aren’t wearing their helmets get infected by airborne black goo, and before long we have ourselves a severely dumbed-down slasher in the vein of Prometheus. The camera dwells on the swirling particles as if to imply that they are visible to the naked eye, but apparently they aren’t, and so the guys are made unwilling hosts. This is also the mark where Covenant devolves from merely derivative and confused into downright farcical and obnoxious.

Every character in the movie is a disposable idiot whose actions beg a barrage of unanswerable questions. First up is the lady who quarantines her friend with a gyrating infected man only to open the door later after a vicious monster has burst out of his back, completely nullifying the purpose of sacrificing her friend in the first place. Then there’s the chick who walks off by herself shortly after being attacked by a ruthless monkey creature because she “needs to wash up”. When the captain told her, “Don’t go too far,” I whispered to my friend, “She’s going to go too far,” which she did, but characters did seldom split up in the original Alien, so I’ll give Scott a pass on that part.

What I’m not willing to forgive, and where the movie backslides into pure comedy, is the egg scene. As stated earlier, Captain Crudup has gone looking for his missing sheep and comes across a sight that would strike any reasonable person as somewhat suspicious: the synthetic which helped rescue them a few hours ago appears to be pacifying the now-gaunt albinomorph, the pair of them locked in an intimate staring match. As the captain raises his firearm to shoot the blasted hellspawn which ripped his pal’s head off, David cautions him, “Don’t shoot,” then protests wildly when he does indeed shoot (the only sensible action that he takes). “It trusted me!” he screams, which doesn’t abate the captain’s desire to know what the hell is happening.

David promptly gives him a tour of his experimentation chamber, monologuing about all the imperfect iterations of the alien he’s engineered over the years, apparently from local fauna, in spite of a character in the trailer making a point of there being “no birds, no animals, nothing”. David confesses that all his efforts have failed by the lack of “one key ingredient”, but declines to name what it is. From there, the two descend into a damp and creepy-looking cave, where the strange and patently untrustworthy robot urges Crudup to stick his head into a creepy-looking egg that clearly encases another wiggling life form. “What are they waiting for, David?” asks the captain skeptically. “Mother,” the sinister android smiles. “Take a look. It’s perfectly safe, I assure you.”

With that, the captain wastes no more time and leans over the egg to take a look.

* And yet Alien: Covenant keeps finding new paths to slide downhill, mainly in its treatment of the xenomorph’s development and behavior, which defies and significantly reverses all past precedent. The rest of this section will probably bore or bemuse anyone who isn’t that avid an Alien fan, but for me this constituted one of the movie’s worst transgressions.

Because the Alien movies aren’t real-time documentaries of the species’ life cycle, it’s impossible to say with certainty how long each phase of the alien is supposed to last, but one can make certain assumptions about the timeline based on the films’ editing. In the original Alien, it took around 20 minutes between Kane falling victim to the egg and the eruption of the chestburster. Over this period, we see the team trek back to the Nostromo, attempt to sever the facehugger from Kane (back in space), run down several levels to observe the dripping acid, look for the missing creature, and do some other things, implying the passage of several hours. Other subtle signs suggest it takes a while for the facehugger to plant its larva and for the alien to gestate. When someone tries to loosen its grasp on the host, the alien wraps its tail tighter around Kane’s neck, which seems like an evolutionary trait designed to prevent premature detachment.

Alien: Covenant takes a torch to all of that by turning the alien, presumably in its first and least perfected generation, into a risible sex machine capable of reproducing at hyper-speed. The film presents at least two types of alien generation, one through black goo infection, the other through the traditional method, and somehow makes a mockery of both. Laying aside the writers’ total disregard for how the black goo works in Prometheus, it takes 2-3 minutes of film time for people who contract the goo to start displaying symptoms of deathly illness and 9-10.5 minutes for the albinomorrphs to burst from them. Later, when David lures the captain to the eggs he’s somehow created without a queen, it takes approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds of film time between the facehugger springing on him and the alien pushing out of his chest. Overall, then, in movie-minutes the monsters of Covenant take anywhere from half to a tenth of the time to materialize as those in Scott’s original, Alien 3, or Resurrection.

This isn’t just an illusion caused by editing, though, as a second facehugger later attacks another human and finishes its work in 14 real-time seconds. Hence we can deduce by Covenant that the facehugger in Alien had either regressed substantially, liked to take its time, or suffered from erectile dysfunction, none of which are options I am willing to entertain. This second victim, however, doesn’t explode until several hours later, after they’ve returned to the main ship. In other words, even if one is able to pardon Covenant for breaking continuity with the other films, one still must overlook how carelessly it shatters continuity with itself.

But the alien’s problems don’t stop at biological technicalities. On a more fundamental level, Scott has fallen out of touch with what made his monster so monstrous. Alien, it’s no mystery, is teeming with sexual overtones, uncomfortable forced perspective, and implications of rape. Being a parasitical hybrid, the xenomorph endures on a different level than other movie monsters because it represents the most savage and predatory things man is capable of committing. The more I rewatch the film’s most controversial scene, the more convinced I get that Veronica Cartwright’s hyperventilating gasps are meant to evoke more than simply death, especially taking into account the shot of her dangling, bare feet. Nor is Ripley undressing meant to be a bit of exploitive pleasure; rather, it’s a projection of the carnal thoughts rushing through the head of the alien, which seems to be spying on her from the darkness.

The various aliens of Covenant have no such sexual urgings, nor do they act upon the self-preserving hive mentality that took over in Aliens (foreshadowed in a deleted cocoon scene by Scott). They’ve been tragically reduced to the intricacy of dumb animals, senselessly biting and stabbing every organic thing in sight to service the morbid demands of general horror moviegoers who think that better and more abundant gore intrinsically leads to better horror stories.

* In retrospect, I may have been too harsh when I called the alien a dumb animal. It’s really a dumb cartoon. Witness the scene that someone apparently approved where the newly-born xenomorph (which looks like a miniature version of the adult one instead of a snake with tiny T-rex arms) raises its limbs and chirps excitedly in imitation of its creator, David, whom it can somehow see well enough to copy despite not having eyes. Awwhhhh. This is easily the cutest thing the franchise has seen since Newt.

* I used to tell myself that while this movie vastly weakened the later stories, it actually strengthened Prometheus by explaining one of David’s more irrational decisions. Then I revisited Prometheus with the screenwriters’ commentary, realized there was already a perfectly rational reason for David to spike Holloway’s drink with black goo, and lent myself yet another reason to hate Alien: Covenant. While the movie does derive some philosophical tension from David’s creative passion (making him more human, he argues) and Walter’s mechanical sense of duty, Covenant woefully perverts its most interesting and enigmatic character into a mad scientist archetype with a god complex.

The film conveniently ignores dialogue that previously characterized David as subservient or unemotional. “I was designed like this because you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind,” he tells one of the crew before they disembark from the Prometheus. “If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.” Yet the David of the Covenant script appears to take pleasure in making people uncomfortable, viz. the captain, Walter, and Daniels, whom he tries to force himself upon for no reason.

In Prometheus, several people call attention to the robot’s inability to feel emotions, since he has no soul. Talking about the reason for his creation, Holloway tells David, “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.” In Covenant, David walks away from his deactivated younger “brother” whom he met a couple hours ago and murmurs, “You were so disappointing to me.”

In Prometheus, Vickers pushes the android roughly against the wall and he doesn’t resist, because that would contradict his programming. In Covenant, David eventually turns into a superpowered brute who throws people around and has a kung fu punching match with his likeness. All of this asinine, inconsistent stuff occurs so that the film can have a standout antagonist in the absence of intimidating monsters, or perhaps it’s just another gratuitous callback to evil Ian Holm in Alien. Either way, making David a genocidal and oversexed robot gone wild undercuts the mystery and intellect that made him such a powerful force in the first film. Why does David need to physically assault one of his enemies if he can manipulate someone into drinking poison or walking straight into an alien? One of my literature teachers in high-school once criticized a movie I liked for relying so much on violence to advance the plot, essentially describing violence as a tool of lazy storytellers.  If anything good has come of my experience with Alien: Covenant, I think I finally understand what Dr. McMenomy was saying.

* To briefly throw in a good word about this movie, the score is fantastic per usual. Jed Kurzel reincorporates a lot of music from Alien and Prometheus, now stirringly performed on the flute, while providing menacing new themes that rely heavily on otherworldly electronics. It kind of sounds like Johann Johansson’s Sicario score mixed with industrial ambience from the first Alien, and it flows surprisingly well as an album for a soundtrack.

* Now that that’s out of the way, Alien: Covenant closes out on possibly the worst climax I’ve ever seen; making matters worse, it has two of them. What really appalls me about it is how easily a simple rewrite or couple altered shots could have fixed the whole thing.

After the shlock-tacular robot fistfight, Walter rushes away from the broken corpse of David to board the ship that Danny McBride is piloting, except that Walter isn’t Walter any more. Scott edits this scene to hide the victor of the duel, cutting right after David gets his hand on a knife. The intention, I suppose, is to keep the audience guessing which android really prevailed, but in so doing, it basically communicates to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before that the opposite of what the characters think is true. A real twist in this situation would be that Walter is actually Walter, and David didn’t miraculously manage to change his clothes, cut off his hand, and trim his hair (without a mirror) in less than a minute of film time.

The only purpose that withholding this information could possibly serve is to create a shock “twist ending”, one which every person I’ve talked to about Covenant predicted the moment the camera cut away. How much more suspenseful could Scott have made the finale if he hadn’t taken his audience for cinematic illiterates and just shown David killing Walter? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a viewer who knows Daniels is effectively facing two threats at once would feel more concern than a viewer who only knows about the alien and is scratching his head over the motives of the robot? Moreover, what sense does it make for David to aid the two survivors when his goal is to exterminate the human race and replace it with something he deems superior? Scott has already established that David enjoys godly sway over the aliens, and he’s also a non-organic being, so the xenomorph shouldn’t pose a threat to him. Basically the only reason he does anything heroic in the final act is to throw Katherine Waterston off his scent, so he can then lean over her in the cryo pod and sneer, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite. I’ll tuck in the children.” I can’t emphasize enough how John Logan takes a formerly cryptic, fascinating character and reforms him into a total cornball.

On a secondary level, including two xenomorphs in the climactic showdown adds nothing to the story and just symbolizes reversion to more-is-better sequel ideology. Considering the manifold other parallels this movie forces in to the original, culminating in a woman calling the alien a son of a bitch and blowing it out an airlock, the natural course for Scott would be to terrorize the crew with one alien, which seems to be defeated yet miraculously resurfaces for one last battle. This is the formula set by Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, a formula that works because it makes the hero’s triumph seem greater and the alien more formidable. So why doesn’t Covenant follow this formula, if it’s already making such an effort to ape its source material? On one hand, it would have done away with the 14-second impregnation detailed earlier, on another it would have lessened the absurdity of the alien growing to full size in a couple minutes without the computers detecting it. I know the xenomorphs are essentially giant space bugs with abbreviated lifespans, but Covenant abuses suspension of disbelief the most of any film in the franchise.

Moreover, why do alarms have to sound everywhere in the ship except for the shower, or go off at all? I don’t recall the MUTHER intelligence in Alien or Aliens (both occurring later chronologically) detecting unknown passengers and making a lot of noise to alert the crew, but purely on a storytelling level, how much more intense could the ending have been if Daniels just happened upon the bloodied corpses and had to adapt on the fly, instead of being rudely awoken, finding the guy with his chest exploded, running around with a gun for a while, happening upon two more dead people, and finally finding the alien? In a $97 million film, one would think the easiest and least expensive thing to get right would be the script.

But who am I objecting to nothing in this movie making sense? They don’t let me write these scripts. If Scott had asked Logan to revise the thing until it felt more true to Alien, then he couldn’t have shot a sleazy shower scene or CG alien banging its head against a window. Neither of those things would have made it into the trailer, and Covenant might have crashed with something like $36 mil in its opening weekend.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

A collage of bloggers with better S.E.O. who think Covenant > Prometheus

To tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have come this far if reactions to Covenant had been more tempered. It features some conventionally attractive people and enough intriguing platitudes that I’d normally just let it go. Yet the majority of critics and audiences genuinely seem to believe the film improves upon Prometheus, because it has an alien that murders people and it constantly echoes things they recognize. I don’t want to live in a society that thinks Alien: Covenant is better written, filmed, or conceived than Prometheus. It would be like living in a society that considers Gillian Flynn more important to its literary tradition than Flannery O’Connor, or a society where high-schoolers study Kendrick Lamar and Drake over Beethoven, or a society that spends more time watching Netflix original TV shows than it spends watching political affairs.

In the most intelligent dialogue of the film, Walter reprimands David for misidentifying the poet of “Ozymandias”. “When one note is off,” he warns, “it eventually destroys the whole symphony.” Would that Scott had heeded his character’s wisdom. Watching Alien: Covenant is alike to beholding a magnificent symphony gradually and excruciatingly destroying itself, again and again, into eternity, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes to create, one must first destroy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Over-analyzing Arrested Development in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is one of the worst books I have read to completion, so the essay that follows should not be taken as a recommendation so much as a deconstructive cheat sheet for anyone who is considering or being coerced to read it.  With any luck, this will be the last so-called close-reading I have to do in, like, ever.

The protagonist of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is 44 years old, married, and a father, but continuously exhibits tendencies that suggest he’s trapped in some kind of arrested development. Themes of adolescence, adulthood, and masculinity to a lesser extent all pervade Seize the Day, and Bellow traces most of Wilhelm’s psychological malaise back to a lack of sympathy from his father, Dr. Adler. Instead of giving in to pity, Adler’s apathetic attitude towards his beleaguered son compounds with Wilhelm’s problems, engendering a cycle of passive behavior and unfulfilled dependency on paternal affirmation. The further Wilhelm drifts from his father and his father’s approval, the harder he finds it to attain fulfillment as a grown man, and the more entrenched he gets in a prodigal son inertia of his own making. The final scene depicts the culmination of all Wilhelm’s varied reversions to childhood, rendering Seize the Day an essentially deterministic novel.

Although Wilhelm thinks, “Dad never was a pal to my when I was young,” the son’s first major act of straying from his detached father is abandoning his education to chase after a highly dubious career in acting. Wilhelm bears disdain towards academic pursuits, personified by his cousin Artie, an intelligent professor whom his mother casually brings up to avail him against leaving for Los Angeles. Artie is competent in multiple languages, and Wilhelm dislikes him for that very fact, thinking him “boring” or, worse, cynical.
How could anyone bear to know so many languages… Did Artie love his languages, and live for them, or was he also, in his heart, cynical? So many people nowadays were. No one seemed satisfied, and Wilhelm was especially horrified by the cynicism of successful people.

As a child might, Wilhelm strains to see the value of learning in and of itself, and looks down on the elitism he observes in people like Artie or Adler, whom he deems a “vain man”, albeit a respected and medically knowledgeable one. Moreover, he condenses the nearly two years of college he did experience into a set of memories with no educational aspect, and prides himself on eventually taking a different course.
Sometimes he told people, “I was too mature for college. I was a big boy, you see. Well, I thought, when do you start to become a man?” After he had driven a painted flivver and had worn a yellow slicker with slogans on it, and played illegal poker, and gone out on Coke dates, he had had college.

Here, and also later in the book when Margaret admits that college “seemed practical”, Bellow gives a window into Wilhelm’s prevailing, reactionary mindset, and leaves little room to wonder why he finds Tamkin’s carpe diem speech so enticing. Because of his overwhelming inadequacies relative to his father’s accomplishments, Wilhelm reassures himself by diminishing these accomplishments as empty or somehow injurious to him. In the paragraph describing Wilhelm’s fear of Artie’s cynicism, Bellow goes on to write, “Whenever at the end of the day he was unnaturally fatigued he attributed it to cynicism. Too much of the world’s business done.” Wilhelm’s default recourse in his extended adolescence tends to lie in distancing himself as much as possible from the antiquated success models of his parents, hence his “bid for liberty” in choosing the actor name Tommy. As the only person in his family not to complete higher education, he retains a scornful distaste for those who do adhere to that tradition, calling them cynical or selfish, and he mentally justifies his less prudent alternative as more independent or adult. “But Wilhelm had been eager for life to start. College was merely another delay.”

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, Wilhelm chooses to lie about his educational history, perhaps for fear of being rebuked, perhaps because he knows subconsciously he was wrong and doesn’t want to admit it. “Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie and one of the things he lied often about was his education, [saying] he was an alumnus of Penn State.” In fact, the son lies constantly, even to himself sometimes, and when he isn’t lying, he happens to be drawn to habitual liars, viz. Tamkin and Venice. First he lies about his prospects of actually making it in Hollywood, massively inflating the credibility of Venice’s offer when “the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection”. Once his trust in Venice starts to disintegrate, he lies to his parents yet again, saying the scout fully believes in his acting talents. Then he lies to his father about the pills he’s taking and the woman he has been seeing in Roxbury.

On top of these dishonesties, the son willfully indulges Tamkin’s clearly fabricated claims simply because the man makes him feel better than his own father. When Adler ridicules one of the “psychological poet’s” conceptual inventions, Wilhelm excuses it as “just his kind of fantasy”, and later he ponders to himself, “I must be a real jerk to sit and listen to such impossible stories. I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life, even the way he does.”

Wilhelm’s predilection to telling and tolerating lies is closely related to his childlike ego, which is always excusing itself from responsibility and avoiding commitment. As has already been mentioned, “he used to pretend that it [Hollywood] had all been the doing of a certain talent scout,” even though the idea to drop out of college originated with him. In response to his dad reprimanding him over his messy room – another youthful quality –, he places the room’s condition squarely on his wife, or lack thereof. Wilhelm’s conviction of his own helplessness manifests most clearly in his thoughts after meeting with his father. “And not only is death on his mind but through money he forces me to think about it, too. It gives him power over me. He forces me that way, he himself, and then he’s sore.” Wilhelm cannot help but see himself as a victim of others’ cruelty: his company’s, his wife’s, and his father’s. His future in his view is so laid out before him that he is basically enslaved. “The Emancipation Proclamation was only for colored people,” he mopes. “A husband like me is a slave, with an iron collar.”

In puerile fashion, he refuses to take responsibility whenever he is in the wrong, up until the very end, when he tells his pale father, “I should have listened to you,” but not before checking to see if the masseur is paying attention to them. Even after this humble admission, though, he backpedals and hides behind “bad luck”, the perennial cause of his woes. Just so, he reels at the thought of groveling before his former employees and begging them to take him back. “I can’t get on my knees to them,” he exclaims. “Rojax take me back? I’d have to crawl back.” His character is completely passive and determined by his social climate, borne along by forces he dares not oppose. This fact elucidates the meaning of one of the final scenes, in which he walks along Broadway with a great crowd, “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive…” (111) In such a crowd, the motiveless Wilhelm must stand out.

The protagonist also balks at opportunities to promote himself, letting his father do that work for him. Multiple times Adler is described as a salesman, boasting of his son and daughter to business associates, but Wilhelm considers this inappropriate. “Now God alone can tell me why I have to lay my whole life bare to this blasted herring here. I’m sure nobody else does it.” Repelled by the success of his father, he generally shies from asserting himself in any threatening capacity or even from contradicting other people. Like a typical millennial critic who’s afraid of drawing harsh words from others, he peppers his speech with weasel phrases that downplay his own observations as subjective and undermine the purpose of argument altogether. Bellow writes, “When he was forced to differ he would declare, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really see it that way. I’m of two minds about it.’ He would never willingly hurt any man’s feelings.” He won’t venture even to criticize his sister Catherine’s art, waving away any misgivings he has with it as a matter of personal taste.

Driving home his pessimistic determinism, Wilhelm also has a habit of hugely overstating and dramatizing the plights in which he finds himself, bringing everything back to his literal suffocation and murder. “It would kill me to go back to school now,” he tells Venice at one point. Later in the book, he actually starts choking himself in front of his father to demonstrate his wife’s animosity towards him, and on the phone with her he yet again brings up the topic of her choking him. “You must realize you’re killing me,” he says. “You can’t be as blind as all that. Thou shalt not kill! Don’t you remember that?” When Tamkin elaborately compares money-making to the art of killing, Wilhelm listens, ill at ease, possibly because he connects it to his own life. All these references to or mock enactments of violence serve two purposes: first to emphasize the childish mentality of Wilhelm, second to show how powerless he feels to change his fortunes.

Bellow insinuates the son’s immaturity, and the immaturity of modern society broadly, in many other ways both subtle and patently obvious.  As an example of the former, there is Wilhelm’s heavy reliance on Coca Cola, which Mr. Perls disapprovingly notices him drinking for breakfast.  As for the latter, the point that Wilhelm’s job at Rojax Manufacturing involved selling “kiddie’s furniture” can hardly be dismissed as mere coincidence.  Extended adolescence applies to women too in the world of Seize the Day: inside the cafeteria, Wilhelm observes a crowd of elderly ladies who are heavily made-up and acting in a manner he thinks unbecoming of their age.  “Were there no longer any respectable old ladies who knitted and cooked and looked after their grandchildren?”  At the same time, the sight of the ostentatious women stirs in him a memory of how his grandmother treated him as a small child, implying that he is still mired to some extent in the stage of youth.  In his argument with Margaret on the phone, the wife expresses dedication to her traditional role as mother, saying, “Growing boys need parental authority and a home,” but even this exchange harkens back to the theme of Wilhelm’s arrested development.  Margaret says she has cannot afford to get a job if it means having a couple kids running loose, to which Wilhelm replies, “They’re not babies.  Tommy is fourteen.  Pauline is going to be ten.”  In this aspect, Seize the Day has become even more pertinent with age.  50 years ago, a man might have been shamed and frowned upon for suckling off his parents after college, or even after high school; now, under Obamacare, young Americans can continue to reap some of childhood’s perks until they turn 26.

Wilhelm’s objection to Margaret’s babying of his kids reflects his ongoing struggle to reconcile his true age with his emotional need for validation from his father. At least twice in the book he crosses himself for acting like a little kid with respect to Adler, and characters often reinforce that impression in his mind, Adler scolding him for speaking “nonsense and kid’s talk” and Tamkin arguing with him “dryly, as though he were dealing with a child”. Bellow seems to make the case that Wilhelm’s firmest claim upon adulthood is his ability to regulate his emotional vulnerability in public, viz. by suppressing the urge to cry. In his protracted conversation with Wilhelm, he feels tears welling up at one point but does not let them out. Later, in the brokerage office, he fights the temptation even harder.
His need to cry, like someone in a crowd, pushed and jostled and abused him from behind, and Wilhelm did not dare turn. He said to himself, I will not cry in front of these people. I’ll be damned if I’ll break down in front of them like a kid, even though I never expect to see them again. No! No! And yet his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown.

By the protagonist’s correlation of crying with his own latent childishness, the last scene of Seize of the Day signifies more than just the “consummation of his heart’s ultimate need”. It also shows that Wilhelm has given up on attaining the one thing, his father’s approval, that would make him feel like a mature man, implying also that he’s given up trying to determine his own fate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pepperdine Chaplain Sara Barton Writes Poem For Freedom Wall Denouncing the Freedom Wall

Article written by George Stefano Pallas.  School spirit and lingering optimism practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

On January 25, three print-outs of a poem attributed to Pepperdine University Chaplain Sara Barton were pinned to the Freedom Wall outside the school’s main cafeteria. The poem was written in some kind of free verse and appears to have been addressed to another user of the wall, although the lack of specific details in the text leaves no definite pointers to the context of the poem. In it, Barton voiced disapproval with the way that certain individuals exercised their freedom on the wall, using words and images she deems hurtful, and asserted that freedom of this kind is a form of voluntary slavery or entrapment.

Although it was initially instituted as an open bulletin board for expressing their opinions, most Pepperdine students utilize the so-called “Freedom Wall” as another advertising place for fraternity recruitment, club events, off-campus apartments, and other illicit materials that can be displayed in no shortage of other locations. The Freedom Wall typically goes many weeks without receiving new student-authored content, and when someone does pin something of an unpopular or conservative bent to the Wall, it’s often torn down within a matter of hours.

In the short time preceding the poem, two articles were posted to the Freedom Wall that may have inspired Barton’s response. One was a meme posted on January 20, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which depicted Pepperdine’s since-banished Christopher Columbus statue wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “White Lives Matter Too.”

A crude and disgusting meme posted to Pepperdine's Freedom Wall

The other potentially offending target of Barton’s criticism was a set of posters created by the conservative group Turning Point USA that used quotes from TV figures to promote free-market capitalism and freedom of speech. Although the Files’ staff arrived at the scene too late to examine the materials in question, the Pepperdine Graphic newspaper reported afterwards that someone had scrawled obscenities, presumably of the hateful variety, over the posters and removed them within a day of their being posted on January 12.

On the same day that the posters were removed, a sign was taped to the upper-left corner of the Freedom Wall, presumably aimed to address the Turning Points situation. The sign read, “The Freedom Wall is a venue for individual members of the community to express themselves. The wall is governed by the principle that when we speak freely in our participatory democracy, we must do so responsibly. Therefore, personal attacks, profanity or indecency of any kind is prohibited. When posting an item, you are encouraged to sign and date it.”

A positive note of encouragement left on the Pepperdine Friendly Wall

The warning is taken almost verbatim from the Student Activities handbook, excepting the part about the types of speech prohibited, but the print-out doesn’t identify whether a student representative, a staff member, or some other actor posted it.

According to Turning Points USA’s website, the mission of the group is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government.”  None of the posters distributed on the Freedom Wall expressed animosity towards any group based on non-political attributes.

With this in mind, it remains uncertain to what exactly the Pepperdine chaplain was referring when she wrote, “So to the persons who disgraced / our community freedom wall / with words and images designed / to wound sisters and brothers who are not you, / heed not my words or views, / but that of natural law.” To date Barton has made no other public remarks about the systemic suppression of conservative articles on the Freedom Wall.

Barton’s poem advances an interpretation of freedom as a zero-sum economy in which claiming more freedom for oneself necessarily involves seizing freedom from some other person, unless one “exhale[es] compassion for another.” At the same time, Barton argues that the amount of freedom one wields in self-interest directly relates to how socially isolated and enslaved one is.

Freedom, in a sense, only threatens to put us all back in chains, a word Barton herself employs to describe the plight of the unnamed person who utilized the Wall. “This is neither sentiment nor drivel,” she says, preemptively implying that someone would find the poetry to be sentimental and also drivel.

Barton began working as the university chaplain in July of 2014. Before rising to her stewardship over the spiritual development and faith of Pepperdine’s youth, she was a vocal proponent of women in church ministry, authoring a book on the subject. Barton’s tweets reflect her ongoing interest in this and other Feminist causes.

In addition to endorsing the much-reported “Women’s March”, the Black Lives Matter movement, egalitarian T-shirts, and husbands submitting to their wives, Barton has been especially active on the social media platform since the election of President Donald Trump. The chaplain’s preferred method of Resistance has entailed issuing a series of #mypresident pound signs in support of President Barack Obama, defending migrant rights on the basis of Jesus being a refugee of King Herod, and retweeting a profile posing as a character invented by J.K. Rowling, who subsequently clarified that the oldest, wisest character in the popular children’s series was a closeted homosexual.

Over the last year, Pepperdine swapped DirecTV service for Rokus in all living areas, destroyed a parking lot and stripped out 84 beds, got rid of a Bank of America ATM in the main plaza, shipped the aforementioned Columbus statue to Europe, and removed both a frozen yogurt machine and mural artwork from the main cafeteria so as to free up more white space on the wall. Pepperdine also fired resident directors Michael Harri and BrittneyPatag for setting off a fire alarm in an unoccupied building that the schoolhad already planned to demolish before anyone would enter it again. None of the student advisors under the authority of the directors were alerted to the firing until well after the decision had been made.

The base tuition rate set by Pepperdine for the last academic year was $49,770 and will rise by 3.96% to $51,740 for 2017-2018. Dean of Seaver College Michael Feltner said, “In determining the tuition rate, Pepperdine considers numerous factors including the external economic environment, the tuition rates at peer institutions, and the needs of the university.”

With all that said, as the needs of the university continue to rise by a paltry 4% each year, here is a joyous and fast-paced video documenting a year in the life at Pepperdine that the Author unconsciously edited to LCD Soundsystem’s resounding and beautiful “Someone Great,” a seemingly cheery, dance-inducing single which, much like Pepperdine, is actually really sad when examined and pondered more deeply.