Monday, October 19, 2015

Taking Lives: an Unconventional Reading of Horror Film 'The Taking of Deborah Logan'

During October, we watch a lot of horror movies in an attempt to scare my almost unscareable gf, Claire. (We succeeded recently by watching Creep.) She isn't scared by supernatural stuff (nor really am I), exorcisms (although she hasn't seen The Exorcism of Emily Rose), or paranormal ghost stuff. We laughed at Paranormal Activity. We watched The Taking of Deborah Logan recently, which is about an old woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease who may have something more sinister going on. (I'll try not to spoil it too much.)

One interesting thing I noticed about Deborah Logan is that, rather unintentionally I believe, it illustrates very plainly the state of race relations in the U.S. In the film, the old white woman (a rather remarkable, physical performance by Jill Larson) gets progressively worse in her disease (or whatever is going on), becoming a danger to herself and others around her. She becomes quite violent and bizarre in her affect. Yes: it's an interesting premise, that someone deteriorating from a disease could be at risk of some kind of possession, or at least be ambiguous in why they are acting the way they are (is it the Alzheimer's or something else?). The film combines two tried-and-true devices: the found footage approach, and having someone we don't normally think of as threatening/scary -- a thin, frail old lady -- be the monster. (This latter approach has been used with everything from leprechauns to Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny.) The film is creepy, fairly original, and despite some minor flaws and camera logic issues, succeeds, I think, in being spooky, thought-provoking, and worthwhile. It does suffer from a classic ailment affecting horror films, which is to slow burn and build up the creepiness for 3/4 of the movie, then get over the top/heavy-handed at the end. I think it would have been a little better if Mrs. Logan's behavior was never fully understood, kind of like the ultimate ambiguity about Emily Rose's behavior that makes The Exorcism of Emily Rose so good (and scary). But Deborah Logan has lots of WTF images and moments that make it effective, right up until the end. 

But the interesting thing is how much the police, who become involved about halfway through the movie when Mrs. Logan really goes off the deep end and stay a presence to the film's end, are hesitant to just put her down or shoot to wound her, even after she demonstrates time and again that she's highly dangerous. They try to reason with her, they try to handcuff her, they draw their gun but don't aim it at her. It made me think: the times we live in are partially defined by the highly questionable deaths of young Black males at the hands of cops -- it's estimated it's averaging one every 28 hours (!), an issue that stirs fiery debate, emotions, and divisive views. But Deborah Logan, although fiction, illustrates something very real going on: there are different Americas depending on what your socio-economic status is, and the police tend to suffer from the same biases -- known and unconscious -- as anyone. In the film, they seem to do everything possible before -- only as a last resort -- shooting an old white lady from the Southern gentry (the film takes place in Virginia), yet our news is filled with cops who, apparently, far too easily make decisions to use lethal force against (often young) Black people. I just couldn't help noticing this watching the film, and I commented about it on twitter, to which the film's director replied simply, "touche." So I think that some of the film's unexpected valuableness comes from its very vividly and entertainingly showing this double standard that exists, which is often called in academia and liberal-progressive circles "white privilege" or "white bias." You can be a batshit crazy violent white lady and almost get away with murder, but being a Black male you need to be careful reaching for your Skittles. The reasons why things have gotten to be like this are of course complex and didn't come out of nowhere, but with such life-and-death power as the police can (and do) wield, it's a sad state of affairs that one's skin color will largely determine one's treatment in American society and even one's safety and mortality.

One can go even deeper and examine how whether slavery was really abolished in the U.S. or just repackaged (as the Prison Industrial Complex), and historical reasons why such an achievement and standard of living gap exists between races today, but it would be a first step if people who deny police bias or white privilege would watch The Taking of Deborah Logan. If it was intentional on the filmmakers' part to make a subtle commentary on double standards in policing, it's rather brilliant, and if it was unintentional, it's still enlightening.


BART is having issues with overcrowding on its train cars. It's good of course that so many people are taking public transit, which keeps cars off the roads and carbon out of the atmosphere. But it makes for a pretty unpleasant riding experience sometimes, even though however crammed and uncomfortable it is, it's only temporary until people eventually get off at their respective stops.
Today I was crammed next to a woman I found incredible annoying on a crowded Monday morning train. She was a drab white lady in her fifties, no makeup, gray straight hair, with that unfortunate attire of a business casual dress, top, and...running shoes. I'm not a fashionista and am often accused of personal sartorial neglect or apathy, but I find that look of the urban female office worker, with the utter mismatch of running shoes to office attire, just really ugly. But it was what she talked about, in a nasally midwestern accent, that really grated on me. She kept talking about her husband, Bob, who works for Chevron, is retiring soon, has a great team, is working out his retirement health plan, but oh -- and this is where she dropped her voice to conspiratorial whispering to the woman she was talking to (at) -- Bab drank too much recently, and it was really surprising and ugly. The dinner party was only 11 people, but the bill -- from all the wine ordered -- was $1,600! Can you believe that?! She just kept going on and on about Bab. Ah, white Baby Boomers, such an interesting lot. I had to remind myself to do deep cleansing breaths. This drab woman had seemingly infinite energy to talk about the most mind-numbingly quotidian and maddeningly conventional stuff: people, of course, people, people, people. This person is pursuing an ambitious nursing degree. This person blah blah blah. This person woo woo woo. Bab. Bab's daughter in rehab. Bab. It was a reminder of the best thing Sartre probably ever said: Hell is other people. It's also a good reminder to do some metta meditation next time I meditate.

Friday, October 16, 2015

How Jean-Paul Sartre Got Me a (Non-Philosophy) Job

I had an interview at a nonprofit that focuses on helping people affected by incarceration. It was for a case manager position: helping people get jobs, giving them support, helping fund them to get further education and training, etc. Nothing very academic or philosophical -- even though, academically at least, my background is in philosophy and humanities. (Vocationally, I have mainly spent my career so far at nonprofits and in academia; more of the former than the latter.) I interviewed with a very tall, dark Black man, and a spunky white woman. The man would be the supervisor and the woman a colleague/coworker.

The interview was pretty prosaic until Gerald, the man, dispensed with the formality and replied to one of my interview answers, "That's a FUCKING good answer." Things loosened up a bit and Gerald continued, "You're not some kinda nutty professor, are you?" I assured him I wasn't. Gerald scanned my resume. After a pause, he said, "Name your favorite existential philosopher." I was a bit thrown by this. As I found out later, Gerald thought I was thrown by this because, as he describes himself, he is "not your average Negro." But it wasn't so much that, as I don't think as much about western philosophy on a daily basis as I used to, so the question was intriguing. (I think more about Buddhism these days, with a little western philosophy sprinkled in.) I answered "Jean-Paul Sartre," but stated I had some reservations about existentialism that was too Republican/bootstrappy/cold/Darwinian. I rambled a bit about Martha Nussbaum's reaction to existentialism. The interview wrapped up.

I got a phone call shortly after and got the job. Gerald was still talking excitedly about Sartre and especially a book about dying by Sartre's open-relationship ladyfriend, Simone de Beauvoir. See, Gerald, like many of the people at the nonprofit, had been through the criminal justice system at one point (natch), and had spent his time reading up on the great philosophers. He was (is) also proud that, though he spent some of his life going down the wrong path with drugs and incarceration, he is not your average Negro (his words). (As I settled into the job, I noticed Gerald wearing Gil Scott Heron t shirts and using words like "detente." He would hum Pet Shop Boys songs and sardonically express support for Donald Trump: "I am a BLACK TRUMPSTER.")

At one point in my life I did have an academic job using my degree: I spent five years as part of a philosophy department (later merged with humanities and interdisciplinary studies) as a reader/tutor. They were great but financially lean times. I like helping people, thus the nonprofit jobs, and I like academia, but I never thought that the two would come together like they did in the job interview I described above. So, thanks, JP. And thanks, too, Gerald. I owe you guys one.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Sentence Unseen

If you're in the Bay Area, consider checking out The Sentence Unseen, an arts project that focuses on how incarceration of people affects far more people than just those who get locked up. Incarceration, however justified and in some cases necessary, has a collateral damage kind of wave effect that is worth examining.
You can register for it (it's free) here. This exhibition started, aptly enough, on former prison island Alcatraz, and is now going to be shown at the African-American Museum & Library in Oakland.