Thursday, 09 April 2009

Prelude to a scene analysis of Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (The analysis itself spiraled out of control because Bryan Singer is a lunatic who bobs and weaves and cuts constantly. More on that tomorrow.) It goes without saying that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006) is not a very good film. Or so I thought before hitting up Rotten Tomatoes. Let me put it this way: I think Superman Returns is a mediocre but interesting film. If you look at my chart you can probably guess why: the film mines the imagery of 9/11 in order to address the shit mist of uncertainty Americans fumbled through from 9/12 forward. The Americans in the film had themselves a Superman and the supreme confidence having a Superman entails. Then they lost him. Suddenly and inexplicably. Singer wants his audience to imagine what it would be like to wake up one morning and realize that the truly terrible things that never happen here can now happen here. Not too hard. I remember staring numbly at video of the first Tower smoking when I saw the nose of the second plane enter the frame: I was watching the truly terrible things that never happen here happening here and I felt sick. The sense of security I lost that morning never returned. No amount of anything will ever bring it back . . . with the possible exception of the arrival of Superman. The Americans in the film have learned to live without Superman. Or so they tell themselves. Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for a stiff upper lip of an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman" but the article has all the conviction of an empty gesture. ("I never really loved you either!" says the man whose girlfriend just left him.) When Clark Kent suddenly reappears after five years of being elsewhere, the audience knows what the Americans in the film don't: they can quiet that nagging nothing in the pit of their guts and breathe a little easier because Superman is back. Untangling why actual Americans are happy for their fake brethren is something of a chore, so let me leave it at this: 9/11 so rattled our presumptions that we experience real pleasure at the very thought that someone out there might reclaim some of the gusto they lost that morning even if that someone is an imitation American on a Sydney sound stage. Whatever the circumstances, the film's most powerful moment was always going to be when Superman reappeared. But Singer goes one step further and stages this scene in a manner designed to prime our 9/11 pumps without calling attention to what makes us shit the sheets (terrorism generally and Islamic fundamentalism in particular). All the props are there—the airplanes, the New York City landmarks, the air traffic controllers—but Singer stripped them of their normal significance so they only horrify secondhandedly. The scene I'll analyze tomorrow is equivalent to what the man who lost control over his car and slammed into a ditch in December feels when he starts...
Were I a “Real American,” I would’ve ended this post “It doesn’t help matters any that they all look alike.” Via PostBourgie, I learn that Texas State Representative Betty Brown thinks Asian-Americans should adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with.” When called out on this, a spokesperson compounded Rep. Brown’s idiocy by saying “her comments were only an attempt to overcome problems with identifying Asian names for voting purposes.” Problem the first: if people vote in American elections, they’re Americans, so the notion that they ought to adopt names “easier for Americans to deal with” entails a definition of “American” that excludes “American citizens.” These citizens are Americans who “deal with” their names dandily, so Rep. Brown’s statement makes no sense on its face—unless you assume that she means to exclude certain American citizens from her definition of “American.” Had she been a little clearer, this confusion could’ve been avoided. All she needed to say is that Asian-Americans should adopt names “easier for Real Americans to deal with” and no one would’ve batted an eye at the remarks by the racist old white woman from Texas. Problem the second: I teach at a school where more than half of the students are of East or Southeast Asian descent, and let me tell you: I have never had a class that wasn’t stuffed full of Jennifers and Jessicas. Why? I’m not as qualified to speak to this as I would’ve been had LSU not dismantled the linguistics program my senior year (not that I’m bitter), but as I remember it, about half of the Chinese consonants fall somewhere between what native English speakers would hear as a “j,” so to native Chinese speakers “Jessica” and “Jennifer” sound more like actual names. I could expand this out to the voiceless affricative equivalent of “j,” the English “ch” sound, but suffice to say that if you think about all the different ways you can pronounce “Beijing,” you’ll see my point. So it only makes sense that the most common Chinese-American names have initial consonant sounds that resemble Chinese phonemes. (I could expand it even further and talk about more than Chinese, but the same principle applies.) All of which is only to say that if the Asian-American community wants to make it easier for “Real Americans to deal with” them, they don’t need to simplify their names so much as make them more complex. One quarter I had three students in a class or twenty-three named “Jennifer Hu” and two named “Jessica Quan.” Not that I count as a “Real American,” mind you, but if I did I wouldn’t be advocating for less variety in Asian-American names but much more. (x-posted.)

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