The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"The Book of Eli" (2010)

Woke up feeling fine, but then inquired into T's dreams. She countered by asking about mine. I had a misty memory of a conversation with someone...some female movie star, I think. Sigourney Weaver? Maybe. But that triggered a wave of sadness, and I couldn't put my finger on why. Then a song came to me: "I can't make you love me." You know, the one that starts "turn down the lights, turn down the bed. Turn down these voices inside my head..."

Bonnie Raitt, I believe. A sad song about a woman making love to the man she wants, for the last time. And I remembered I'd heard it at Der Weinershnitzel yesterday when I took Jason for a hot dog. And that song triggers the memory of the last time I was in a strip club, some fifteen or twenty years ago, for a bachelor party. There was a very pretty, tiny black girl on the pole there, performing to that song. Afterward, she came up to me at the bar, and I bought her a drink. I couldn't help myself, and asked her how she came to work there. I could see the steel mesh slam down on her eyes as she gave me her canned answer.

Now, I don't have an automatic negative sense about strip clubs, porn, or whatever. Women who can Hoover that much money out of horny men's pockets aren't necessarily being abused or exploited by those men, any more than those men are being exploited for their desperate need to see naked, sexy women.

But what I DO think is that none of those women grew up thinking "I want to dance naked when I grow up. I want to have sex with men I don't care about, for the viewing pleasure of men I've never met." I can't believe that they are behaving in alignment with their deepest dreams. The strippers and porn actresses I've met--and there've been a few--gave me the sense that whatever damage (and yes, I'm assuming that there is some damage there) that occurred occurred long before they walked through the door of the Pussycat Club.

Too often (not always) the sense I got was that the damage had happened in their homes. That men who were supposed to protect them--fathers, stepfathers, brothers, "uncles", whatever--had at the very least not done their job. And at the worst, raped or abused them. And that the women who should have protected them--usually mothers--looked the other way and let it happen. That this precious gift, one of the primary engines driving the human race, had somehow become quantified. Somehow, it began to make sense for them to put a price tag on it.

I don't know a man or woman who would want that for their daughter. I think that something incredibly valuable is lost the day a woman loses the sense that her sexuality is beyond all price. I think that the healthiest of these women differentiate between their sexuality and their hearts, so that they still have something they hold back. Predictably, some men or women will blame the opposite sex for this situation, and you know me well enough by now to know my position is that people who say things like that are childish, not accepting the fact that men and women are creating this world together, with differing horrid results for males and females whereever human beings are treated as objects and not as precious beings, unique and valuable for who they are, rather than what they do.

What an odd string of emotional blips. I think that it was just a little "pop" as I hit a deeper level of clarity within myself, releasing old stuff, processing pain and grief. A little closer to my core female self, I think--letting myself identify with something I'd shut away. I don't tend to feel my negative emotions in a rush. Instead, they tend to get calcified, and then processed at leisure later, when it is "safe." The cost for this is that I don't feel all of my positive emotions instantly either. The positive result is an even keel. The negative result is that I can remain in "observer" mode a little more than is optimal for engagement with life. I'm working on it.


Finally saw "The Book of Eli" Friday. Decided to pretend that Denzel's last movie had him as fully human, as will his next. Armed with that lie, I could ignore the rather obvious "dickless spiritual guide" aspect and enjoy the movie. And I did. Clearly, this is a new "Old Testament" mythological story, about a hero and prophet empowered by divine force to bring the word of God to a lost people. It isn't science fiction at all, although it uses familiar post-Apocolyptic image systems. Actually quite well done, and I liked it fine. Give it a "B." If I was a more traditional Christian, I'd probably give it a "B+."


Now, it is obvious with all the movies made by Will, and Denzel, and so on that they are gaming the system. That they have absorbed the pain of knowing they will not be accepted by white audiences if they are fully human, and are making the best of it. And creating good movies making tens of millions of dollars ain't bad. I don't know where they put their fear and resentment around these issues. The story is that one major black star is quite unpleasant to co-workers, and cheats on his wife like crazy. That would be one explanation. What is obvious is that either:

1) They reject films that would place them in a sexual context.

2) They have pet writers who carefully write the sex out of such films, always leaving a plausible explanation for why the character keeps his pecker in his pants, knowing that most people just aren't as obsessive as I am, and will look at individual films without looking at patterns. (Such people will say that no one is having sex in movies, without actually looking at the boxoffice of "Avatar" or others in the top money-making bracket. There's plenty of sex there, and it fascinates me that people won't let themselves admit it)

3) If they make films with sexual content, these films underperform at the box office comparative to their other movies, or the typical box office of white male stars with/without sexual content.

And Friday, I tried to put that out of my head to just enjoy what I was seeing. And what was my reward? Well...yesterday I spent a lot of time in the house (it was raining) playing various games with Jason, with random movies and television playing in the background. "Diamonds Are Forever," "Silverado", a bunch of other things. Lots of commercials. And I kid you not--about ten times during the day there were interracial sexual interactions either (fairly) explicit or implied. And every single one of them was white males with black or Asian women. In only single case was a single Asian or Black man sexual with anyone, in any way. I put on a DVD of the Korean horror movie "Thirst" (some really twisted stuff, BTW) and there was, yowsa, some great sticky stuff between the vampire priest and his succubus honey. But there was also a coming attraction for a story about a black hitman who was...wait for it...celibate. White women tried to seduce him, but he was just too noble. God DAMN I hate this stuff. It is just everywhere, once you notice it.

And someone asked me if I've seen "Precious." I will. One day. Maybe one day soon. But I simply can't get it out of my head that that movie, which apparently represents black sexuality in a completely perverse light, has been embraced whole-heartedly by America. And a pair of black mega-celebrities, neither of whom seem to be all that hot on black heterosexual relationships, if you know what I mean.

I really do want to put this stuff behind me. Clearly, it is a major chunk of damage in my psyche, going all the way back to childhood. But I'm not sure I can until more white people, and black women, see what is going on and spontaneously talk about it. Don't try to tell me that it's "Just Hollywood." Or say "why don't you write something, then?" As if the problem is that no one tries, or some tiny clutch of savage Liberal racists is damming the flow of black male images. What a sick joke. Until then, I fear that silence on this topic is submission to the unconscious sociobiological "Tribalism" machine that causes so much damage to those distinguishable from but outnumbered by the majority, from mortality, education and prison statistics to the lack of male Asian newscasters when I see Asian females in every market in the country. I wish I could shut up about it. I'm not sure I can.


Ernessa the Happy Feminist said...

Re "Precious." I don't necessarily think this film should be dismissed b/c it presents black incest. After all, white incest has been depicted way more in literature and films. Also, I think there's an issue of women coming out in droves to see male-driven films but men not returning the favor. Precious is gripping and heartbreaking stuff. It is an amazing story and it deserves to be embraced. Sapphire put her heart and soul into PUSH.

I would argue that there's room for both "Precious" and "Book of Eli." In fact my main problem is that I want MORE of every kind of black film. I want more black rom-coms, more black sci-fi, more black comedy. What do you think of this upcoming black remake of the English film "Death at a Funeral?" -- I think it actually might be funy with low humor and sophisticated laughs coming together for good time:

Anonymous said...

"I wish I could shut up about it. I'm not sure I can."

I hope you don't *ever* shut up about it.

Professor Timonin said...

"I wish I could shut up about it. I'm not sure I can."

I hope you don't *ever* shut up about it.

I hope that, one day, you'll be able to shut up about it, because the problem will have gone away.

Anonymous said...

Mr Barnes - "Precious" made me squirm, particularly being a Black female survivor, but it reached me in the place where some of that pain still lives, and was thereby a valuble experience for me. That and the masterful performances by Gaby Sidibe and Monique! Also mad props to Lee Daniels who cast them and made this impossible movie. Am looking forward to his next project.

Anonymous said...

PS - Don't shut up!

Lorenzo said...

Now, about being a gay man (or gay woman) and ...

That's why gay and lesbian cinema exists. So we can watch ourselves in movies being sexual.

Outside porn, of course. On which point, there is quite a niche in multiracial porn. I wonder how much of mainstream cinema's issues on this are unwarranted fear? Or is it just that films are such a chancy-cascade issue in selling, that any potential block to the good vibes networking is shied away from.

Lorenzo said...

I have just looked up Precious on IMDB, since I knew nothing about it. (It has not made a noticeable splash down here in Oz.)

My initial thoughts are that it touches on a hot-button emotional issue (sexual abuse of children/minors) but picking story in a black family gives it a comforting social distancing and thus insulation (if you are not black).

Telling such a story about a white middle class family would be waaaayyy too confronting. Which has long been true. When Diana Wynne Jones fictionalised her own upbringing of appalling parental neglect, she had great trouble getting the novel published (even though it was written as a fantasy) because the publishers would not believe that nice middle class folk would behave like that.

And yes, all this stuff--leading men whose sexiness is boxed in, abuse cordoned off in a black family, etc--is about having layers of the "properly" human and so noxious and insulting.

Steven Barnes said...

I do NOT think "Precious" should be dismissed because it presents black incest. I avoid it because there are no healthy images of black sexuality. Yes, white incest has been presented many times--but it is FAR outnumbered by images of healthy sex between loving white people. It is the ABSENCE of healthy black sexual images that makes me gag at yet another negative image. I have said this many, many times, and it fascinates me how hard it seems to be to grasp what I'm saying.

Shady_Grady said...

I didn't have a lot interest in seeing "Precious" anyway. It just wasn't my thing. From what I've heard about it, it appeared that it was a pretty ugly movie.

The writer Ishamel Reed wrote a NYT piece on it here which harsh as it was was a much tighter/edited version of his original piece, here

I like Reed. You always know where he stands.

Armond White wrote that "..Full of racist cliches it is a sociological horror show".

I have no problem with "Precious" being made, someone thinking it's a good movie or what have you. I just don't think "Precious" has as much to say about black life as it does about the people who created it. I don't have the book in front of me now but I seem to remember that Percival Everett wrote Erasure as a satirical response to Push and the sort of acclaim those sorts of artistic creations can get.

La Reyna said...

Hello Steven Barnes,

I know about the systematic denial of Black male sexuality by mainstream society. Even today, Whites cringe at Black people showing affection to one another, which spills out in Hollywood. Let's face it, Whites don't want to see healthy Black love period, whether on and off.

Blogger Abagond sometimes talked about it. Won't you check out his website:

La Reyna

Russell said...

Truthfully in most recent action films, the male hero is celibate. In the 'Die Hard' films did Bruce Willis have a love interest? Jackie Chan has had girlfriends in his movies, but the best he ever seemed to get was a kiss. The action heroes of the 70's & 80's were the ones that got laid on film.