Saturday, April 30, 2016

Get on the Bus

Let me tell you about my first day of school.

I - A Matter of Birth-Dates


I started school really young. I was five years old. I know. That’s not an unusual age for a child to enter kindergarten, but what was unusual in my case was my birth-date. July eighteenth is right smack-dab in the middle of the summer. While most kids have their birthday during the school year, I had my birthdays during summer vacation. So, while most of my classmates in Mrs. Woods’ kindergarten class at Klekner Elementary, in Green Township, Ohio were five years old, just like me,… the vast majority of them would celebrate their sixth birthday at some point before kindergarten was over. My summer birthday differentiated me from them in two ways. One; I would not turn six until nearly two full months after the school year ended. And two; when the school year began, I had only been five years old, for about a month.

Think about that. I had been a four-year-old just a few weeks before school began. Most of my classmates started kindergarten having established themselves, so to speak, into the age of five, by several months. In my case it was a few weeks. And so would this age-lag-behind-my-classmates continue in perpetuity throughout my school career.

I realize that this doesn’t seem like that big a deal at first blush. Most people wouldn’t even notice it on paper. But, ask anyone with children about the difference between a four-year-old and a five-year-old, or a seven-year-old and an eight-year-old, and certain aspects of the story I’m about to tell you might make a little more sense.


II - The Move

My family, at that time was still in the process of moving to a new home in Green Township. When my father had initially gotten out of the Air Force, we’d moved in with my grandparents in Stow, Ohio, on the other side of the county for about a year, and that’s where we’d been living. There was some kind of orientation for students and their parents that was held at the school a couple weeks before classes were to begin, and what I remember about it was that it was a really long drive for us, because we hadn’t yet moved-out of Stow.

When the first day of school actually arrived, we’d only been living in the new house through the weekend. It had been a busy weekend, for obvious reasons. The new place was in a housing development of duplexes and quad-plexes. The housing units were connected via a branching tree of dirt-and-gravel drive-paths that converged at the entrance to the development.


III - The Big Day


Monday morning, my Mom got me up before light. I got dressed, had breakfast, got my little tote-bag with all my new school supplies in it, and headed for the bus-stop at the line of mailboxes where the allotment-entrance connected with the road.

We had been instructed to have my name and address written on a note card. At the end of the day, my teacher Mrs. Woods told the class that there would be teachers and staff waiting at the buses, outside. We were each to show our card to any of the adults. They would have clipboards noting the bus routes, and they would tell each of us which bus to get on, in order to get home. They weren’t the same bus-routes as the morning, you see. For the first half of the school year, kindergarten was only a half-day. In practical terms, this meant that while all of the elementary students were being picked up by the morning bus-routes, only the kindergarten class were going home at 1pm.

At one o’clock, at Mrs. Woods’ instruction I got into my coat, packed my belongings into my tote-bag and lined up with the rest of the kids at the classroom door. The bell rung and we all went out to the buses. From the moment I stepped outside, I knew something was wrong. I noticed that none of the teachers actually had any of the “clipboards” Mrs. Woods had been talking about. Regardless of this, all of the other kids were going up to teachers and asking them where to go, showing their address cards and being pointed to a bus. I did likewise. I went up to one of the teachers and handed her my address card. She took it, read it,… and looked very puzzled.

“Both of these buses go to East Nimisila,” she said, taking me by the hand, leading me several steps down the line of buses and gesturing at two of them right next to each other. “Which end of the road do you live on?”

I stared at her for a moment, not sure of what to say. Then, I said; “I don’t know. We just moved in.”

“Um,… okay,” she said. “Wait here for a minute. I’m going to go ask somebody. I’ll be right back.”

With my card in hand, she jogged away, back into the school building…

…and I never saw her again.

To this day, I don’t know what happened to her. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing her again, in the four years that I was a student there. Now, in those days, for reasons I don’t remember, for first and second grade, we all went to Greenwood Elementary, then back to Klekner for third grade. Also, my family moved to Akron over Christmas break of my third-grade year. So admittedly, between Kindergarten and third-grade, I only actually attended Klekner for a year and a half. But, this is all digression. The point is, this teacher, with very little time remaining before the buses were going to leave, had taken the only record of where my new home was and promptly vanished from the face of the earth.

A few minutes went by. The doors to the buses began to close with the squeaky clank of lever-action that had never been introduced to the concept of lubrication. I looked around me and noticed that the teachers had all, apparently gone back inside. I gazed up the little stairwell in front of me to the driver of the bus I was standing next to. She was a woman on the younger side of middle-aged wearing a Green High Bulldogs t-shirt, ball-cap, and sunglasses.

“You gettin’ on?” she asked me.

Not knowing what else to do, as the other East Nimisila-bound bus was already pulling out, I climbed up the stairs into the big, yellow juggernaut and found a seat.

Now,… there was a fifty-fifty chance that this was the correct bus, right? But, your chances, dear reader, are much better, because I’m going to give you the standard three guesses as to whether the bus I’d gotten onto was the correct one.

As chance had it, East Nimisila was at the end of the bus’s route. There were a few different housing allotments on that road. The entrance to each of them was a dirt-and-gravel drive with a big line of a dozen or so mailboxes along the side. These entrances were spaced several hundred feet apart along Nimisila, with several houses in between. All the other kids were getting off at their stops without a hitch, but the big difference between them and myself was that they had all been living in this area longer than a weekend. This difference wouldn’t have been that big an issue, if some infernal imp hadn’t disguised itself as a human adult and swiped my address-card before skittering back to hell with a wink and a cackle.

“Ok,” the driver said to little Christopher, the last kid still on the bus, as she pulled the lever to open the door. “This is my last stop. You getting off?”

Blank-faced, I stared out the window.

Yup, that was definitely a dirt-road with a long line of mailboxes next to it. It could have been the right one, I guessed.

“I don’t know if this is the right place,” I said, nearly in tears.

“You can’t stay on the bus,” she said, “You’d better get off here. You have to.” She’d spoken in that tone of voice which adults usually reserve for those moments when they see a child about to do something they will certainly regret, like sticking a fork into a wall socket. “You’d better not do that. You’ll get shocked.”

And there it was. Clear as a bell. An adult had said “you have to.” That was that.

The public sector in 1981, folks. What can you say?

When I hopped down that last step off the bus, since I knew the driver couldn’t see my face anymore, I stopped holding the tears back. My head felt hot, flushed. I couldn’t tell if I was angry, scared or both. I remember the air tasting dry and sandy in my throat. It was a sharp contrast to the ten-pound ball of ice in my stomach. But, as I walked up the drive, even before the sound of the bus’s engine had completely faded away into the distance, I could tell that it hadn’t been the right stop. These weren’t the right houses. This wasn’t home. I didn’t know where I was. I knew I was on the right road, but I didn’t know how long the road was, or which way I should go. So, I went back out to the road and started walking.


IV - I Want My Mommy!

I passed another allotment entrance-path, and another, neither of which had been the right one. One of them had had far too many mailboxes. The other had had far too few. For most of this little journey, that lasted somewhere between an hour and a century, I was too scared to cry. After a while, wondering if I was ever going to see Mommy or Daddy again, I began knocking on the doors of the houses along the road.

That was the first time I can remember feeling genuine desperation. It was new. It was utterly alien, and nothing about it was pleasant. I remember thinking, “This is how a nightmare feels. But, I’m not sleeping. I won’t wake up from this.” A memory crept into my head of a time when I’d been out with my Mom and her sister. They were shopping at a JC Penny’s. Bored. As. Hell. I had been playing and hiding in the centers of the four-sided garment-racks. I would duck out of one and into another, as quick as I could, trying to avoid being seen, pretending to spy on the other shoppers. Before I’d known it, I was lost. At some point, I was found by a store clerk, who made an announcement over the p.a. system, so that my Mom and aunt could come pick me up at the checkout counters. This feeling was like that, only a thousand times worse.

There were no store-clerks to ask for help here.

Nobody was answering their doorbells. I started to wonder if the whole town were deserted. I was too young to realize that, being that it was the middle of the day, all of these people were likely at work.

Finally, at the end of a long driveway, a lady answered her door.

“Aw, what’s the matter sweetheart?” she asked, upon seeing this crying little boy on her porch.

“I want my Mommy,” I choked and pleaded. Now that I was no longer alone, the floodgates had broken.

I don’t remember much about this conversation. What I do remember was that it took this poor lady quite a while to get anything other than “I want my Mommy,” out of me. I remember my utter terror growing with each passing moment as, one-by-one I kept openly smashing the rules I’d always been taught about talking to strangers,… Number 1. Don’t. Yeah,… that one was right out the window. It was a full minute after I’d been sitting on her couch while she phoned the school that I realized I’d broken rules 2 and 3; the one about not ever accepting an invitation into a stranger’s house, and the one about never accepting candy from them. For all I knew, there was arsenic in those butterscotches I was sucking on.

Now, the school apparently couldn’t call my Mom. Nor could they tell this lady my address, because they’d gotten the records mixed up, and couldn’t find any of the new information, (remember we’d just moved,) They had my Grandma and Grandpa’s phone number, and had tried calling them, but they weren’t home. So, they asked this lady, good samaritan that she was, if she could bring me back to the school.

“I want all of you to promise, right now,” Mrs. Woods had said to the class, that very day, during the lesson about stranger-danger that had been the entirety of the second-half of the day’s activities. “that you’ll never ever ever get into a stranger’s car.”

“I promise.”

So, here I was getting into a stranger’s car.

I realize that each of these stranger-danger mistakes seems funny in retrospect. Believe me, they didn’t feel that way at the time. Each of them only further concretized the idea that I was never going to see my family again. By the time this lady had buckled me into my seatbelt and we’d pulled out of her driveway, I was absolutely certain that, at any minute she was going to turn really mean, lock the doors and take me away forever. That thought was a hammer pounding through my brain, over and over and over, and it wouldn’t stop. I swear I don’t think I breathed once during that entire drive. The lady kept talking to me, being really friendly, trying to keep me calm. But, I can’t remember anything she said. I was so scared I couldn’t even think straight. When the school appeared on the horizon, and we pulled into the parking lot, confirming for me that that was indeed where we were going, it was the greatest feeling of relief I had ever felt. Warmth spread throughout my entire body, as if my heart had just remembered to beat after a long lapse.

“We couldn’t get through to your grandparents, Christopher,” the lady behind the counter said, as I sat in a kid-sized plastic chair in the Principal’s office. “But, your Mom just called a few minutes before you got here, so we have your address now. One of the ladies back here is just about to go home for the day and she can give you a ride.”

Later that evening, having finally been reunited with Mommy, and after the really, really long hug was over and I’d finally stopped crying, it hit me;…

…Oh my God, I have to go back to that place tomorrow.


V - Found,... But, Still Very Much Lost


I never did particularly well in school. I had attendance problems all my life. My grades were middling or lower for most of my K-12 career. I couldn’t pay attention or stay focused, and I faked being sick as often as I could get away with.

I hated school.

It felt like prison to me. It felt like it was a punishment for something I hadn’t done, and there wasn’t any kind of appeals system to plead my case to. “You’re a kid, and so you have no choice. You have to do this. If you don’t, if you skip out on it too much, we’ll send you somewhere even worse.”

The one thing I knew, above all else was that none of these people had the first clue about what they were doing. To be sure, there were a few teachers over the years that I did like. They were always the ones who seemed to think a bit more outside-the-box than the others. They were often the same ones who would talk to us like we were people and not a burden to them.

My feeling about school was so bad, I actually looked forward to orthodontist appointments, because I knew I’d get out of school for them. You follow that? I actually saw the process of getting metal appliances hammered up into my gums as sweet relief from the horrors of school. From fourth-grade through high-school, I usually didn’t eat lunch. Honestly, my stomach was too upset, and rather than risk not being able to keep anything down, I just saved my lunch-money. I can remember a news-stand in Akron, just a few blocks from Seiberling Elementary, where I would drop all my saved-up lunch money on the first Wednesday of every month. Some of you reading this know the significance of the first Wednesday of the month. I’ll give the rest of you a hint; it rhymes with “New Comic Book Day.”

Apparently, it's a gaming store now.

I had a hard time socializing. I preferred to keep my head down and wait it out.

In fourth grade, my parents took me for testing at a place called Child Guidance in Akron, Ohio. They knew I was smart. I was reading at a college level in the third grade, but no one could figure out why I just couldn’t seem to perform in school. They began to fear that I might be learning-disabled. Well, it turned out from the battery of tests I was subjected to at that place, that I was actually a genius. It came out, to some degree that school made me very anxious, (though why anyone involved in this scenario from my parents to the teachers needed test-results to figure that one out, is still beyond me,) so they signed me up for private tutoring there. I would be one-on-one with a tutor two days a week, working on my weakest subjects, usually math and social studies and one day a week, I’d meet with a child psychologist.

Turns out, I excelled at math in a one-on-one teaching scenario. It went from too difficult to concentrate on, to patently obvious, almost overnight. Social Studies was still a problem. No one could figure out why, at the time. But, I think I know now. I believe that it wasn’t learning the information in Social Studies class that was presenting me with a problem, rather it was my skepticism of said information. I didn’t have the words or the understanding to articulate this at the time, but it was a subject I just couldn’t take seriously. It was information being presented as objective, that was, in any objective analysis, completely subjective in basic-nature. I can remember that any time my tutor and I would read from that book, I just started tuning out. It struck me as absurd. If you doubt me, see if you can get your hands on a social studies text book,… doesn’t matter what grade level it is. You readers with children won’t have a problem with this. It’s not empirical, objective information. It’s an infomercial, in the form of a book. It’s as if Astrology were being taught as Astronomy, if you will, or Homeopathy taught as Medicine. My brain would not respect what was happening, any and every time that book came out in class. If I’d fully grasped what I was feeling at the time, I probably would have said something like,… “Oh God, here comes the sales pitch for the bridge…” at the start of every one of those lessons.

I don’t want to digress too much on this, but just as an aside here, it might interest you to know that originally, there was a class in public schools called “Civics.” Its purpose was to teach the content and legal-implications of the United States Constitution. Then, after the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war protests through the sixties and seventies, suddenly the government decided to stop teaching kids what their guaranteed rights were, and got rid of Civics class. They immediately replaced it with “Social Studies,” which relegated the Constitution to a footnote in Chapter One of a curriculum that may as well have been titled “Why Your Government is Always Right, and Questioning It Makes You a Bad-Person.”


VI - An Education that Money Can't Buy


Anyway, as horrible as that first day sounds,… and it was. It was truly one of the most horrifying ordeals I’ve ever been through, and believe me, that’s saying something. In spite of that, the point of this post is to express to you that, as I relate that story now, I look back on it as probably one of the greatest and most important experiences of my life. I understand that you might find that surprising. It’s odd, I know, to have fond memories of bone-chilling childhood fear, of feeling lost and abandoned, of tripping and falling down, skinning your palms on the scrabble at the side of the road, because your eyes are so full of tears that you can’t see where you’re going. It’s certainly unusual to think back on an experience of mortal terror and smile. But, that’s exactly what I’m doing as I speak to you now.

You see, it was in actuality a very good first-day of school, and a very good start to my education. That's right, the dunce-brigade at the government-indoctrination-camp had, through their perfect storm of incompetencies, and in spite of their best efforts to the contrary, accidentally taught me something of concrete substance and value. Moreover, they instilled in me a perspective that would, in the years to come, allow me to continue learning that lesson in ever more insightful increments as I continued my school career.

Truthfully, when I think back on it now, the thing that I find most frightening,… so frightening that my heart skips a beat,… is the thought of how very easily that whole experience could have never happened.

If that teacher had been a little more on-the-ball about which bus went to which end of East Nimisila road,…
If she hadn’t walked away with my address-card,…
If she had taken me with her to go find out which bus I needed to board,…
If any of the half-dozen other teachers had noticed that there was still one little boy, staring in confusion at the buses, before they all decided to hit the lounge and pass the coffee,...
If the bus-driver hadn’t been a lazy moron who just wanted to get on with her day,…
If the school administrators had figured out the bus-routes in a timely fashion and had informed all of the students’ parents of their children’s bus-numbers by mail a good week or so before-hand,…
If the office-staff had been competent enough to process a simple change-of-address, or… to possibly… I don’t know… have more than one address and phone number on file for a student whom they knew was in the middle of a move,…
You know,… any of the dirt-simple, basic stuff that any higher-primate with a functioning brain should be reliable for. If any one of a dozen basic competencies had been present in any link in the chain at that school, on that particular day,… then I might never have learned what was probably the most important lesson of my entire life, a lesson learned through deep psychological scars that would ache and throb for years, before I would finally begin to understand it;…

…that authority is inherently untrustworthy.

That it is, in fact fundamentally illegitimate.

To always begin from a position of healthy skepticism and incredulity when dealing with those in positions of supposed power.

To question the acumen, decisions, motives, and actions of such persons, not just persistently, but relentlessly.

Now, again I didn’t know, at the time that this was what that day had set me on a path to learn. It certainly wasn’t that day alone that taught me this lesson. It was a very long course of many such lessons, not all of which quite so severe as that first one, some of which even more severe, that would get me there. That day was, for the ensuing decade and beyond, just a scary and painful memory. The seed of understanding had been planted, but was still years away from taking root, and decades away from blooming. Had I written of this experience prior to say,… age twenty-two,… I wouldn’t be regarding the telling as something positive.

See, as a kid, all I knew was that I hated school. That’s it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that I was right to do so. I just knew, for example that I didn’t trust the teachers because I realized I was smarter than nearly all of them and could see through their constant bullshit as easily as if they were cheap, upstart magicians taking to the stage for the very first time, as cards slipped out of their sleeves and the pigeon hidden under their lapel crapped down their shirt. Actually, that’s a terrible analogy. The stage magician has to compete to keep his job, and so has some incentive to be, at the very least competent. So, my sincere apologies to all you aspiring Criss Angels out there.

As I said before, it wasn’t (and isn’t) all teachers. Just most of them. Easily enough of them to make you feel for the struggle of the ones who genuinely care. Those teachers exist. I know this. They exist, and they hate the system as much as anyone. They just haven’t figured out, for whatever reason, that they can do better. Those teachers deserve the benefits and rewards of private sector education-jobs. But, that's a topic for another post, so I’ll leave it for now.

The majority of school officials, teachers, and counselors from K-12… they saw my bad grades, my piss-poor attendance and my attitude and just labeled me as a bad kid. I knew that. Moreover, I believed and accepted it. Why the hell wouldn’t I? I was a child. If I were a better kid, if I were actually worth something, I’d be better at school, right? I’d get good grades. I certainly had the I.Q. and the comprehension. My bad grades were the objective proof that I was bad. Case closed. Right? I cut class all the time, because I was irresponsible. I talked back, and called teachers out when they abused their authority (read: “always”) because I was a little asshole.

I remember my ninth-grade year. Ours was going to be the first class to take the Standardized Proficiency-Tests. We were to take them once as freshmen, and again as seniors. My English teacher,… we’ll just call her Bored Irritated Teacher of Children she Hates,… or simply B.I.T.C.H. …and since there are lots of those, we'll also give her a number, I dunno… 237.

As class began, #237 started talking about test-prep for later that year, when the SPTs were scheduled. She went on for about five minutes talking about how the prep-sessions would be structured before abruptly stopping mid-sentence, looking over all of us and saying, in a very put-upon tone…

“See,… a class that actually had a chance in hell of passing the Proficiency Tests, would have thought to start taking notes about everything I’m saying, right now.”

So, everybody started taking notes, and most probably believed the little half-hearted dodge that it was somehow our fault that she’d never told us to write any of it down.

Some time later, #237 fired up the overhead projector, laid out a sheet of acetate and began writing out the instructions for a study-assignment that we were to complete by the end of class.

That’s when I raised my hand.

“Yes, Christopher,” she asked, irritated that someone was interrupting her.

“I’m curious,” I began. “How well, in your estimation, would someone perform on the Proficiency Tests, if they were the kind of person who would, say… wait until class was half over to actually write out the instructions for an assignment due that same day?”

She stared at me for a long moment, before replying.

“Get out,” was all she could come up with.

I know. Linguistic magic. A veritable firestorm of scathing reparte.

I did mention she was an English teacher, right?

This was a typical experience for me, in school. Things got better sometimes. Other times they got worse. The point is that, at the time, deep-down in the thick of it all, I didn’t have the perspective that I have now. I didn’t realize until well into my adult years, that it wasn’t me who was the problem. I was in a place that I felt constantly threatened by and unsafe within, under the explicit threat of aggressive force for non-compliance/non-attendance, (in this case, one and the same.)

No. I’m sorry if it’s jarring to hear, but the hostage is not responsible for the hostage-taker’s difficulties in carrying out the directives of the abduction. Just because it’s an abduction carried out on a scale of millions of abductees, and everyone has long ago accepted it as normal, does not change the fact, that you are there, under threat of violence.

“But, didn’t you ever go to the counselors or the principal or your teachers and ask for help? Didn’t you ever explain the problems you were having?”

Of course I did. That is, to the extent that I understood those problems myself, I did. Remember, I was being taught, officially by the people I was required by law to trust to know what they were talking about,… that I was the problem. Is it really the responsibility of a 16, or 13, or 10, or 5 year-old boy to explain to teachers and administrators how to do their jobs?

Should it fall upon him to explain, or even to himself understand that those teachers and administrators are in fact part of an oppressive state-indoctrination-system, funded by extortion, that is designed from the ground up to instill in all children present that any of their peers who fail to conform to the proscribed curriculum are, by definition “deviant” and inherently “bad?”

If you really think so, please explain in the comments-section below. I would Love to hear that argument.

But, I am grateful. I am grateful for all of it.

As I said before, I did receive a wonderful education. It was not the education that anyone had wished or intended for me, true. But, it was the education that everyone deserves. Granted I paid for it with a lot of stress, fear, anxiety and pain. But, it’s been a mostly voluntary exchange,… at least on the back end of it, as I have searched and studied and contemplated things as an adult. Even during the most coercive and cruel parts of the trip, the choice was still open to me. I could have buried my head in the sand at any point along that journey. It was almost irresistibly tempting at times. But, I didn’t.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I most certainly tried numerous ways of mitigating the pain, very few of which were healthy, (again, topic for another post,) but I never opted for fearful denial of what was causing it. And for that, for keeping my eyes open in spite of the horror and the years of utter incomprehension of it all, I have, as an adult arrived-at and received a clarity and lucidity concerning people, communication, expression, intention, the difference between voluntary and coerced interactions and relationships, production and consumption,… that I don’t believe any curriculum sincerely intended or designed for that purpose could have accomplished. In other words, it was an education of a depth and quality that can only be obtained through experience. It cannot be granted via lessons or books, not even by the greatest teachers on earth.

Knowledge is yours for the taking. Wisdom, on the other hand, must be won.

If it hadn’t been for that heart-wrenching first day of school, if I hadn’t been knocked out of the car and fallen down into the machinery of the carnival-ride, to see the gears and the chains and motors, I might have simply enjoyed the pleasant little trip past the dioramas and the mechanized, animatronic musical numbers, past the smiling otters and the trumpeting elephants and the dancing clowns, and believed, like so many do, that the little narrative, it was all in service of, was real.

I look around now at the kids who were on that same ride. The happy majority of them who had remained safely in their seats, in the garishly painted little coaster-cars for the whole trip. We’re all standing outside now moving about through the fair and looking at the other rides. Most of them are still coughing up ticket money and going on the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Quasar. Me,… I know too much about the rickety, rusty, shoddy underpinnings of it all. I know, for example, that the guy in charge of “maintenance,” is a barely literate meth-addict who bid the lowest salary for the job of painting over the rust-spots on machinery that was bought used before cable-tv existed, and all that keeps going through my mind, is that if I’d never scraped my knees on those cogs and wheels, if I’d never busted my knuckles in the brackets and chains, I might have gone the rest of my life having never realized how it all worked. As terrifying as it was to be down in that hot, smoky, dusty, tetanus-ridden, oil-slicked place, if I hadn’t been put through that scare, particularly as early on as I was, I’d be like them… not realizing that I’m laughing and cheering on a series of death-traps,… and paying for the privilege.

People tend to only realize the stupidity and the basic evil of the state after they’ve fallen victim to its one-two punch of corruption and incompetence. Some,… most… never learn. Even after such an experience, most simply decide that the best solution to their problem is further appeals to authority. “Hey,” they think, “I can use this system too. I’ll just lobby, or vote, or maybe even run for office myself.”

Understand that these experiences in and of themselves, didn’t teach me anything. They only put me in the position to learn. I had to choose at that point. Learning is always a choice. Am I going to trust to reason, logic and empiricism to really figure out what’s happening here and how it all works, or am I going to relax and slide into the comfort of accepting the narrative in the vain belief that I’ll be able to turn it to my advantage, when its sole purpose is to turn us to its advantage?

I hope that you’ve understood what I’m saying here. I’m saying that for having the experience at all, I was lucky. I was Mega-Millions Jackpot -lucky. The state fumbled me into a living hell, that ended-up opening my eyes when I was barely out of diapers, and continued, in one form or another, throughout my school career.

People I relate this story to nowadays are so consoling about it. They tell me how sorry they are that this happened to me. But, they really shouldn’t be.

They should be sorry that it never happened for them.



*****

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice



So, I know this is a bit late. The movie’s been out for a couple weeks now. But, I’ve only just recently seen it, and to be honest, even in the face of all the hype about this movie and the fact that I’m a huge comic book geek,… for whatever reason, I just wasn’t that excited about it, going in. It’s very obvious that Warner Brothers is playing catch-up with these DC properties. They’re scrambling to compete with Marvel Studios. This is pretty much universally a bad thing, and I don’t think they should be so concerned with matching Marvel, beat for beat. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be trying to compete. Competition is always a good thing. I just don't think they should be trying to "get caught up" to Marvel, so to speak. Even this early on in their struggle, the negative effects of this strategy are showing up in force. But, I’m not going to get too far into all of that in this review. We’ll save that for another time. For now, I just want to stay focused on this specific movie; what it did right, what it did wrong and what this might indicate for where the franchise goes next.

:::::Spoilers ahead.:::::

What I Liked About It…

I’m going to start with what I thought the movie did right, because in this case, it’s a really big deal. It’s the absolute last thing I was expecting to be happy with in this film, and it really stepped up and surprised me.


Batman

I’ll just say it; Ben Affleck did a spectacular job. His performance was pitch-perfect for the way this movie was using the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. In fact, in terms of story and character, this was actually my favorite movie-version of the Batman, (with one huge caveat, which I’ll get to later.)

I like the aging version of Batman. Obviously, many elements of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” were influential on the details and design of this movie. This was the graphic novel wherein Batman fought Superman, with the suit of power-armor. However, I don’t believe it had much more of an influence than on some of the visuals and the production design. For example, in the graphic novel in question, Batman is in his seventies. As Warner Bros went forward in the development of this DC Cinematic Universe, they didn’t want to go that old with the character, but they did still want a Batman who would be notably older than the rest of the Justice League, (immortals notwithstanding.) So, a Batman in his late forties fit the bill for the group dynamic they were going for. For the story they’re telling, Batman needs to be a little world-weary, and poised to give his younger and more idealistic companions a (sometimes harsh) lesson in reality. It works.

But, that’s not what really sold me on this version.

Here’s what did. If you’ve read any Batman titles over the years, you know that there are a lot of aspects to this character. He is as multifaceted as a superhero gets. Batman is a barely-seen boogeyman lurking in the shadows, an avenging phantom. He is a peerless martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, capable of engaging wave after wave of opponents. He is a modern-day super-sleuth detective on par with a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot. He is also an experimental, high-tech gadgeteer and inventor. He is a highly-skilled computer hacker and cryptographer. There’s just very little this guy can’t do. Well, prior to this film, every movie-Batman we’ve seen has showcased one or two of these aspects while de-emphasizing the others. This is where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice differs from every other movie that has featured the character.

It’s understandable why filmmakers have been so gun-shy about taking Batman to that level. There’s an old saying that goes “Jack of all trades, but master of none.” In the mathematics of dramatic-narrative, it’s difficult to tell an engaging story about such a capable persona. How do you believably challenge a character who’s just so damned good at everything? Batman is the guy who spent decades of grueling training to break the rule that the old saying suggests. Imagine James Bond in a cape, and you still won’t have the over-the-top acumen in multiple disciplines that we’re talking about with Batman. Batman can improvise in action, like Bond… but, he can also plan and strategize like Alan Moore’s “V.” It runs the risk of seeming entirely too over the top, even for a superhero, and it ends up being one of those things that works a lot better in the pages of a book, than on the silver screen.

So, why did it work this time?

Well, because this time Batman is sharing the screen with a couple of almost literal gods walking the earth; Superman and Wonder Woman. This changes the challenge from; “We’d better not make Batman seem too great,” to “How can we make him seem equal to the challenge?” None of the prior, cinematic Batmen, from Adam West to Christian Bale would have been either feasible or believable taking on the last son of Krypton in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. For that, a writer needs the full, comic book version of the character. Hence, for all of the numerous representations of the Dark Knight in film over the last 80+ years, this is the first time we’ve seen a complete rendering of the character on the big screen. That’s a milestone. It’s a milestone that comic book fans have been waiting for, for so long that I feel like most of us have forgotten it was even something we were waiting to see… or maybe we just gave up on ever actually seeing it.

Well, someone finally did it, and it worked. It worked because Ben Affleck worked.

Like everyone else in America, I groaned in frustration when I heard that Affleck had been cast as Batman. However, I am willing to admit that I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, here. Affleck is not one of my favorite actors and it’s unlikely that he ever will be. He’s a fine director and an even better writer, but when it comes to his acting, you’re flipping a coin.

If the coin comes up “heads”: He’s great. He delivers a powerful and convincing performance that may even move you, (see Gone Girl.)

But, if it comes up “tails”: He is entirely too self-aware and delivers a performance that leaves you feeling like he was almost winking at the camera the whole time, as if to say;… “Hey, this is cool right? I’m in a movie! Check it out!”

Think of Jimmy Fallon back in his SNL days. You know what I’m talking about here. Don’t lie. I know you Love him now, on the Tonight Show. But, think back to SNL. Remember how he just couldn’t ever get through a single sketch without breaking character and laughing? Affleck is like the dramatic-roles version of that. Only, instead of laughing or giggling, it’s the knowing half-smile while delivering a 100% not-funny, serious line. Where Fallon would be turning his head to hide his face from the camera, while chuckling… Affleck will have eyes filled with mirth while the rest of his face is almost painfully forcing a scowl in line with the performance he’s being paid for.

In all fairness to those of us who doubted him, comic book movies are easily the most likely place for someone to come across as too self-aware on screen. In spite of the dramatic nature of the storytelling in superhero properties, the subject matter hits a level of audacity usually reserved for comedy. So, when presented with the actor who’s more guilty of the “What do you want from me? It’s a paycheck.” -pitfall than any other actor in Hollywood, and he’s acting in the genre that is the most ripe for it, our skepticism should have been completely understandable.

Having said all of that, there is a lot wrong with this movie, but Ben Affleck is not one of those things. A lot of reviewers are blaming him for the final product, but they’re mistaken. It’s not his fault. He did a great job. In fact, he is easily the best part of this movie. He’s the only character in the whole thing with an actual arc. He’s the only character that receives insight from the journey. He’s the only character who is a different person by the end of the film. Affleck takes us right along with him on that trip, and we’re completely engaged by his performance from beginning to end.

I’ll say it point blank; He carries this film.


What I didn’t like…

Let’s get this out of the way, right off the bat here; this is not a Justice League movie. This is a Superman movie that features Batman prominently in the story, and also features Wonder Woman in a little series of glorified cameos.

It’s being marketed by Warner Bros as something more than that, but this is just another of those symptoms of the studio playing catch-up, and trying to do things as close to the way Marvel did them, as possible. Again, this is a mistake, and again it’s a tangent I don’t want to go off on, in this review. I’ll get to all of that in a future post.

For right now, suffice it to say that this movie is obviously “Man of Steel 2,” and in order to appraise the film, you’ve got to accept that, right up front. The movie is not what its marketing and title would have you believe. It is a sequel to Man of Steel.

Moving on.

So, what didn’t I like? I’m going to break it down into chunks to avoid rambling too much, because pretty much everything else in the movie, other than Batman, is wrong. So, let me just get to these one at a time.


Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot comes off as utterly tone-deaf. She has no idea who Wonder Woman is or how to portray her in a performance. She could literally be playing any female action-movie lead. I can’t really blame her because it’s also clear that neither the writers (headed up by Chris Terrio and David Goyer,) nor the director have any idea how to portray the character, either.

She’s gorgeous, sure, but there are lots of gorgeous actresses in Hollywood. I can’t see any reason why they had to have her, for this part. That’s bad. Superheroes are the very definition of singular characters. This is particularly true in the case of the “Big 6” characters at DC, those being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern. These characters are more icon than person. Many fictional characters can be said to be “larger-than-life” but nowhere is this more true than in the case of DC Comics’ A-List. As such, whomever you cast for one of those six parts, they’d better really “pop,” so to speak. Gal Gadot doesn’t.

Don’t put too much blame on the actress, though. The problems with Wonder Woman in this film began way up the chain from her. This is observable as she spends the entire movie falling victim to the all-too-common,… “had to give the character something to do,” –syndrome. She’s there because having Wonder Woman in the script was on the checklist. They put her in the movie, gave her exactly one little side-job to get done in each of the three acts of the script, and checked “Put Wonder Woman in the movie,” off the list.

She ultimately has no effect on anything happening in the movie. Everything she discovers on the stolen data files from Lexcorp,… Batman had already discovered. In the final fight against Doomsday at the end of the movie, she blocks the heat-vision shot from killing Batman. This was obviously an action beat that was surgically inserted to give her a part to play in the fight. All of the plot-elements required for Doomsday’s defeat were already there. Batman gets the weaponized, kryptonite-gas round and fires it at Doomsday and Superman drives the kryptonite spear into the creature’s heart. Now, you want more action beats in your big, final-battle scene than just that, of course. But, if all Wonder Woman is there for is to be part of the padding of that fight scene, then she doesn’t need to be in this movie. Give that extra time and those extra beats to Batman and Superman and save Wonder Woman for a future film, when her presence could potentially drive the plot, rather than just being along for the ride.

Ironically, when Superman and Batman look at each other in that “I thought she was with you,” –moment, it’s funny for all the wrong reasons. They’re giving voice to what the audience is thinking at that point; “Why is she here?”


Lex Luthor

I know what they were going for. They brought in Jesse Eisenberg to do a very Zuckerberg-ian take on the Ultra-Rich Industrialist/Criminal Mastermind Lex Luthor. At some point, I assure you, Zack Snyder went to Jesse Eisenberg and said; “I want you to do what you did in ‘The Social Network,’ only bigger!”

I can understand that thought-process, even if I don’t personally agree with it. Honestly, it could have worked. But, it doesn’t in this case. For starters, they fail to ever once define the character’s motivation as something nefarious. We’re supposed to just know his intentions are bad because of who he is. They never actually show us. This is especially misguided considering that this is such a unique new take on the character. You have to show us who, precisely this new Lex Luthor is.

They also fail to impress upon us why anyone else in the film thinks that what Lex is doing is a bad thing. Why would anyone in this story be opposed to having a Kryptonian-deterrent in case things ever go south? Correction: ...in case things ever go south, again! Keep in mind that, just a year prior to the events of this movie, everyone on Earth was looking on in horror as all of downtown Metropolis was reduced to slag and brickdust by a Kryptonian brawl. Think back to 9/11. Now imagine that, instead of three buildings, the entire island of Manhattan had been pancaked by a bunch of rowdy aliens. Now imagine, the next day, everyone just shrugged and said; "Meh. Not like we need to do anything about this."

Even canonically in the mythology of the Justice League, Batman keeps a supply of kryptonite secreted away somewhere with Superman’s full knowledge and blessing, just in case there’s ever a need for it, whether it be against newfound Kryptonian villains or the Man of Steel himself, should he ever cross over to the dark-side. But, Senator Finch (played by Holly Hunter) stands in root-and-branch opposition to this. Why? Apparently because Lex Luthor is a meanie-head. End of story.

You and I know he's up to no good. But, how does she know that? There is likely a good reason, but the filmmakers never so much as hint at what that might be.

Putting aside the plot problems, the biggest issue with Lex Luthor in this film is the performance. He comes across twitchy, sporadic and suffering from a barely controlled case of ADHD. There have been various versions of Luthor over the years, from the silly to the sinister, but this is the first time Superman’s arch-nemesis has ever come across as simply irritating. There is nothing at all redeeming about this version. He’s a rich kid with a magnifying glass sputtering out quips and taunts over the ants as he twitchingly burns them. It’s just a mistake all the way around the board.


The Tone

For reasons I understand, (again, even though I don’t agree with them,) Warner Bros has decided to render this DC cinematic universe as dark, gritty and at times even somber. The whole world, it seems, is now Gotham City. Meanwhile, Gotham-proper is Gotham-squared.

Henry Cavill is a fine actor and he certainly looks the part of Superman. But, the Superman he’s given us is depressing. I’m not only referring to the fact that he is now willing to kill, (which is a major problem because it is a fundamental shift to perhaps the most iconic character in the history of the genre.) But, he does not embody the hope that we’ve come to know the character for. “This symbol,” he says, gesturing to the crest of the house of El on his chest, “means ‘hope.’” Which is ironic, considering that the guy walking around sporting said symbol, has none.

This Superman is reluctant in the best of times, and occasionally even sullen.

I point all of this out, because he is the embodiment of the tone of the whole story, from Man of Steel through this sequel. One of the really cool dynamics of the founding members of the Justice League is the contrast between Superman and Batman. Hope vs Justice. Light vs Dark. But, even though every single trailer for this film intones this contrast via Jesse Eisenberg voiceover, it doesn't actually exist in this new DC Cinematic Universe. Disposition-wise every Superhero, is now Batman. Brooding is the new "hopeful," ...somehow.

I understand not wanting to mimick Marvel’s light-hearted approach. But, there are lots of ways the DC properties could distinguish themselves. You don't have to turn the DCU into a decade-spanning Nine Inch Nails video.


The Writing and Direction

Now we arrive at the real core of the problem. Everything else wrong with this movie, stems from the failings at the top of the chain. So I don’t blame Gadot, Cavill, or Eisenberg. They were doing exactly what they were directed to do. It’s just that what they were directed to do… was garbage.

I mentioned earlier that this movie plays out like they were just checking items off a list. You can really see this when you consider the editing and progression of the story. The scenes that comprise this movie could literally have been cut together in any order and the movie would still make sense. I don’t know that this is really a condemnation. I would almost believe that it was experimental, if I thought that Zack Snyder were capable of high-concept thinking at that level. But, he’s not. He's really really not.

It speaks to a lack of inspiration as far as story goes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Snyder and company were inspired for all the cool visual effects they were going to set up in this film. But, the story took a backseat. What this movie had, in the writing stage was, as I said before, a bunch of bullet-points. A big list of “Things that Have to Happen.”

Now, keep in mind that every single one of these comic book movies has such a list. However, there’s usually a stage in the writing process, at which those bullet-points are worked into an inspired story. A procession of events takes shape on the page, incorporating the directives of their list organically, if not at least coherently.

That stage was skipped entirely in the composition of this script.

I hate to beat a drum I’ve just about worn through, at this point, but this is what happens when you elevate a gifted special effects designer into the director’s chair. Zack Snyder is the second coming of Michael Bay in this regard. He is on record saying that, while they did borrow visual elements from well-known comic book storylines, most notably Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ the story for this film is one that they came up with, themselves. Well,… I’m sorry but, with Zack Snyder at the helm, that has always been a recipe for disaster.

Snyder’s visuals are not the problem. He has a very distinct visual style that, I admit is perfect for comic book properties. I’ll give him that. But, if you look at his litany of films, and you separate the hits (300, Watchmen,) from the flops, (Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians,) you see very clearly that what distinguishes hit from flop in Snyder’s filmography is a simple matter of whether he had a good story in hand, or if he had to compose a story himself. 300 and Watchmen, for example were stories he was basically transcribing directly to film. There was very little to be done on either film in terms of writing. But, when you look at Sucker Punch, where he was trusted with weaving the story from scratch,… the result is an incoherent mess that plays like Action Porn. The story is just a pretext to go from one big action set-piece to the next.

The end result is that you’re left clinging to Batman as the only thing about this movie that carried any kind of meaningful arc from beginning to end. Ironically, this is a Superman sequel that ends up being a better Batman story than a Superman story. Everything else they were trying to do here, the Justice League set-ups, Wonder Woman, etc. was all just filler schlock as they were checking the last few items off the list.

This doesn’t give me a great deal of hope for the future of the DCU in film. While I’ve always been more of a Marvel reader, than a DC reader,… that doesn’t mean I don’t like the DCU. Just because I usually prefer the one over the other, doesn’t mean I really have to pick. What would have been best for all of us ticket-buying fans would be if Warner Brothers could have provided some meaningful competition to drive Marvel to keep pushing and improving. I don’t think WB is going to be presenting much in the way of competition or challenge to the Marvel films, unless there is some kind of major course-correction going forward.

One final note. I mentioned in the beginning that there was one big exception to the mostly great way that Batman was presented in this movie, and it is a big one. It's damning.


Yep. Those are two human beings. One standing next to the truck and one sitting in the bed, right before Batman blows it to hell.

He kills now. Not just one superhuman megalomaniac in a desperate, last-ditch effort to save innocent lives, either. We're talking the wholesale slaughter of those standing between the Dark Knight and his goals. Batman straight-up murders at least a dozen people in this movie. As a corollary to this, he now also apparently has no compunctions about using guns.

This is unforgivable, in my opinion. On the pure level of pathos; he saw his parents murdered with a gun and so has always had an aversion to their use. It's true that the Batmobile has had twin machine-guns mounted on the hood before. But, never before has he used them on live targets. They've only been used as a way to overcome non-living obstacles. I don't mind the gun he was using to fire the kryptonite-gas rounds, either. That made sense. But, we've got Batman, in this film, both with handguns and vehicle mounted turrets, firing round after round into living human targets.

Moreover, we see later on in the same scene depicted in the above .gif, that Batman has devices that can be launched and even scattered in a wide arc that seek out and magnetize themselves to enemy firearms, that he can then detonate to disable said firearms without fatally wounding those holding them. So, it's not a matter of opportunity, either.


I had a major problem with Superman's killing of Zod in Man of Steel. But, even that wasn't nearly as out-of-character as what Batman was getting up to in the third act of this film.

Now, don't get me wrong here, re-imagining a popular character is fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But, if you're going to alter something so fundamental to a long-standing character, then you've got to do something with that change. You've got to use those changes to inform the narrative.

But, they don't. They don't explore these altered aspects to Batman or Superman. They don't even address them. It seems as if Zack Snyder and company don't appreciate, or even realize the gravity of the character choices they're making. They're clearly not making those choices in the interest of crafting a compelling story. Rather these changes seem to only be in service of darkening the particular version of the DC Universe they're presenting. We're going to turn Batman into a mass-murderer just so we can say; "Boom! Edgier than Marvel?" Really?

This stuff is worse than Greedo shooting first, or Jabba being chummy and diplomatic with Han. It suggests that the filmmakers don't even understand the characters they've been entrusted to work with. This is Zack Snyder straight up shredding the essence of two of the most widely beloved characters in the history of fiction, and I don't see how any serious comic book fan is supposed to look past that.


*****

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