Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On Halloween

(I named this blog after the mysterious filmmaker Makinov, director of 2012's Come Out and Play. In addition to the film, there is an interesting YouTube clip of Makinov in the woods by a tent, smashing his, or a, cellphone, and talking about his anti-technology, anti-modern society manifesto. Worth checking out.)

So Halloween 2014 is coming up. I recently read a very moving firsthand account of the Halloween past incident in which a white man dressed as a Boer (khaki uniform, pith hat) and rode Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). A Kenyan man happened to be aboard BART in the same car and took great offense to the man's costume. It turns out the Kenyan man had a grandfather beaten by Boers in the 1950s, and family members forced to work in the mines. Yes, Kenya had its own Holocaust in the 1950s, and to the Kenyan man, a Boer uniform is equivalent to a Nazi uniform. Self-described punk anthropologist Aaron Cometbus has a moving account of being in that very BART car that night, and just happens to be a history buff and knew about Kenya's concentration camp experience (most people don't; I didn't). You can read about it in Cometbus' East Bay Mostly (Cometbus #55 3/4; Pegasus Books special edition). I read it -- on BART -- and found myself moved to tears.

A Boer soldier

It's a "complicated narrative," as we like to say in the social justice/oral history/critical thinking world. We can't ban Halloween on the grounds that a rather coincidental occurrence like happened on BART could happen. There is no possible way to not offend at least someone given the diversity of costumes on Halloween, and their wellspring in historical events, fantasy, and the imitation of known people. Perhaps as a bottom line, Halloween costumes are protected under the First Amendment -- but there are of course grey areas of taste.

Still, I feel for the Kenyan man, who was not expecting to ride BART and have a strong PTSD experience out of the blue. Sensitivity and good taste (or, if you're going for bad taste, at least know your history and what your costume could negatively mean to someone) should at least cross the wearer's mind. Every Halloween without fail someone comes up with a very offensive costume: a Boston bombing marathon victim; a duo dressed as Zimmerman and Trayvon, etc.

Which brings me to my own life and current situation: for many years, I've wanted to dress as a droog from A Clockwork Orange. I never did. But this is the year.

Clockwork Orange's miscreant youth "droogs"

Unlike the Boer costume, a droog is a work of fantasy. However, when A Clockwork Orange the film first came out in England, there were disturbing copycat sexual assaults and violence, mimicking certain parts of the film. England quickly banned, and director Stanley Kubrick agreed with the ban, showings of A Clockwork Orange for decades -- until Stanley Kubrick died. He agreed with the ban because his family received death threats after the movie came out.

I've always liked the idea of the droog costume for Halloween because I really like the source novel and film, attended a midnight showing of Orange that was rowdy, a bit disturbing, and ultimately memorable, and feel that both novel and film are so intelligent and raise so many good points about society, dystopia, social control, deviance, youth, and the enduring traits of sexuality and violence that remain core parts of being human, that it's not just a Halloween costume, but a kind of invitation for people to think critically about what the costume represents. Although I have to pull a postmodern move here and state that I do agree with Derrida (and Nietzsche before him) in that there is no fixed meaning to anything

So, if I rode BART in droog costume and happened to randomly come across someone who had been connected to a victim of the copycat assaults in the early 70s in England, or simply someone who had been sexually assaulted (more bluntly: raped) or beaten in their life, I could understand them wondering what my motivation was for being a droog (one day out of the year). I could understand their having a PTSD or offended reaction. Unlike the Boer-costumed man, who allegedly dismissed the Kenyan as crazy and uptight ("It's Halloween, man"), I would feel bad, and I would express sympathy and compassion, while also trying to explain why the costume appeals to me. Part of the irony of A Clockwork Orange is that the vicious protagonist, Alex (a lex, Latin for "no law"), by the film's end, also becomes a victim, a victim of betrayal, a victim of the state -- and those who know me closely know why I relate to both of those kinds of victimization. 

Amazon.com sells both Boer costumes and droog costumes. Clever people can always make their own potentially offensive costume for attention or infamy based on whatever tragedy in current events they want to choose from. But there is a difference between someone like me, being a droog, and someone like the Boer, who was not open-minded to the effect he had on the Kenyan, and was obviously dressing as a Boer solely for style, without understanding the symbolism and history he unintentionally conveyed. It reminds me of the artist who created concentration camps using LEGOs, as evocative art, versus an insensitive person who made a concentration camp using LEGOs simply to offend or dehumanize or make someone feel crappy. Sure, the end result may be the same, but intention is important, and level of sensitivity and awareness is crucial. Les Claypool dressed as a Boer once when performing with his band, but I've talked with Les on the phone and in person and he's a raging liberal, and also someone who I think would be the first to admit the things he doesn't know about. 
Les Claypool, musician (Primus)

So I offer this: this Halloween, I have no intention of causing PTSD or offense to anyone by my choice of costume. A Clockwork Orange is many things: an exploration of language, of style, of dystopic English culture, of religion, incarceration, rehabilitation, brainwashing, music, drugs, and yes, quite a bit of alarming (although all simulated) acts of sexual assault, mayhem, reckless endangerment, and violence -- mostly against more vulnerable people. (The movie actually tones down the book!) The Boer and Kenyan man incident made me think, which is a good thing. I'm not going to change my costume, but one should know I've put as much thought into what it could mean to someone as I have the actual physical costume. Ultimately, I think it's imporant to have these dialogues, to have these random encounters of an offender and the offended, to think before we speak and act, but also, just as importantly to not get so worried about offending people that we say nothing, suppress how we really feel, or go herdlike into whatever political correctness is reigning at the moment. 

Spoiler: after the BART incident, the Kenyan man asked Aaron C to hold his hand to help him calm down. Aaron did. I read that and my eyes welled with tears of compassion. The two men rode to their respective destinations holding hands. That is one of the most beautiful images I can imagine. But there are all kinds of images in this world: some beautiful, some monstrous, some ugly, some painful, etc. They are all part of things. 

by Matthew Snope. Copyright 2014. Permission to re-transmit, just ask :)

Note: There are a lot of directions this topic could go in -- like: would a "girl droog" costume be empowering? Do some folks use Halloween to express sometimes highly alarming views under the guise that it's "just a Halloween costume"? (A little Googling and that question's easy to find out.) How has Halloween changed from its origins? Etc. Join in the discussion! (And while you're at it, check out Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which has little to do with the first two Halloween films, or witches, but has a so-cheesy-it's-good take on Halloween masks -- and a maddening theme song....)