Thursday, November 21, 2013

Walking Dead: Forget the Math, Close Your Mouth

Dave Stopera at BuzzFeed feels that AMC's The Walking Dead is bad at math.  The zombie apocalypse should be over by his calculation, which he presents in "Here's Why The Walking Dead Doesn't Make Any Damn Sense."

Swinging in the Rain
While he presents an enjoyable puzzle to consider, I think one of his basic assumptions is proven
wrong by the show.  He assumes that 99 percent of the population has become zombies, but the show indicates more than that have become the walking dead. We have seen several episodes where the humans are outnumbered more than 99 to 1.

But I am not worried about the math.  I am more worried by the flying zombie goo.

Watch when the humans attacks zombies with a knife, baseball bat, ax, or some weapon other than a gun.  They do so at close range.  And they do so with a grimace on their faces and their mouths open -- frequently grunting like Monica Seles on the tennis court.

This bugs me for two reasons.

The Fine Art of Fencing
1. By this time each person has killed dozens of zombies. It seems that this would be rather routine, perhaps even tiresome.  Even when they kill zombies through the fence at the prison, when they stand no chance of being bitten or scratched, they grimace and grunt.  Why?

2. More importantly, why are they not concerned about getting zombie goo in their eyes or their mouths?  Not only would the putrid fluids be unpleasant, they would pose the threat of turning the humans into walkers, no?

We know from the group's time spent in the Centers for Disease Control that all living humans are infected.  We know that everyone who dies is reanimated as a walker.  We also know that humans who are bitten will soon die from the bite and turn into walkers -- unless the bite is isolated from the rest of the body, as Rick did for Herschel when he chopped off the bottom portion of the older man's leg after it had been bitten.

Rick's action tells us the zombie virus is something like snake venom.  It travels through the victim's blood stream, perhaps to the brain, where it takes over the host (as we learned from the CDC episode).  Let us assume the introduction of a new infection from a zombie will somehow trigger the pre-existing infection. Since the new infection seems to originate from a zombie bite, we can assume that the zombie virus is transferred through a bodily fluid -- saliva or blood.

So, why does the flying goo from the various zombie battles not cause new infections in the humans?  At that close range, there must be zombie goo spraying into their open mouths and open eyes.  There it can easily get into the blood stream.

And if the zombie goo does not cause the humans to turn, it should at least cause them to turn away.

We should hear complaints of "Ooh, I got some in my mouth!"

And one more thing: anatomy.

I'm fine! Thanks for asking!
Many times the humans dispatch zombies by stabbing them in the eye.  They stab them in the eye and the zombie falls.  But not all such attacks would reach the brain.  The Governor is proof of this.  He was stabbed in the eye, and his brain is fine (relatively speaking).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pop Go the Indians

Holy Trinity by Derek No-Sun Brown
I recently attended the annual American Indian Arts Marketplace at the Autry National Center.  For this event, a giant tent is erected and filled with dozens of American Indian artists. They display works that include jewelry, baskets, clothing, painting, and sculpture.

It is always a great event, and I saw one trend that I especially enjoyed: an increase in popular culture imagery in the work by American Indian artists. You know, Star Wars vehicles running alongside horses.  Sitting Bull in a Versace scarf.  Pixelated portraits of Navajo people.

Three years ago, when I attended my first Arts Marketplace, I saw just one booth that featured this blend of "traditional" arts with popular culture.  This year I saw four.  I know that is not a lot, but it is sign of a trend that is evident elsewhere.
War Songs Circa 1986 by Derek No-Sun Brown

For instance, Derek No-Sun Brown was at the Autry show for the first time.  In fact, it was the first show ever for the recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.  I really liked his big canvasses that featured American Indian men in war bonnets and on horseback, in the midst of the Great Plains -- with one man holding a large, silver boombox on his shoulder. [Update: I added the Holy Trinity image after the original posting.]

Derek also had the large portrait of Sitting Bull that I mentioned.  In it he wears a Versace scarf and has gold chains hanging below that.  Chief Blinging Bull?

The image I have included here is from Derek's website.  It is titled "War Songs Circa 1986." He had it with him at the Autry.  (Out of respect for the artists, I did not take pictures of their work in the booths.)

Dallin Maybee was at the Autry too.  His work featured Star Wars imagery, as well as vintage automobiles, and cartoon characters.  One of his paintings blended a popular genre in American Indian art -- ledger art -- with some updating.  Contemporary ledger art revives the style of drawings made by American Indians in the 1800s on ledgers (old accounting books).  Those images continued a Plains tradition of drawing and painting on animal hides.  Artists today take the same kind of paper and create images that build upon that rich tradition.

Image provided by Dallin Maybee.
Maybee's booth featured ledger art that included the usual male warriors riding dashing ponies, but among the horses were cars and motorcycles. And in one work, the procession was being led by an AT-AT, those four-legged assault vehicles used by the Imperial forces against the Rebels in The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, and Spongebob is in the procession too.  Riding a sea horse, of course.

Dallin Maybee playing his Spongebob drum.
Speaking of Spongebob, Dallin also had a hand drum he had made in the shape of that aquatic hero. The arms detach to become the sticks for beating.  (You can see a YouTube video of him playing it.)

Jeremy Singer was the first artist at the Autry show I saw mixing popular culture imagery with his paintings of more widely expected American Indian themes.  (I bought one of his paintings that year; it is a geometric study that blends shapes commonly found in native weaving with the graphics of the old Atari Asteroids game.) This year his work concentrated on portraits made in triplicate, mimicking the way 3D images appear when not viewed through 3D glasses.

I have included the poster of a recent show of Singer's to illustrate the appearance of his portraits.  You can see examples his work at his website.

These artists all stated that the popular culture images and themes were extensions of their lives. The artists had grown up with these images, or their children loved these characters, and they had been important influences. Brown, Maybee, and Singer are part of a growing trend in contemporary American Indian art that combines visual vocabularies from two fields generally thought of as distinct from each other (at least in the art marketplace and mainstream art criticism).  They combine the signs and symbols from American Indian representational traditions that predate contact with Europeans with signs and symbols that came after that contact.  These contemporary signs and symbols almost always originate in the last few decades, when these artists were children or were raising their children.

An entire exhibition of such works was created in Santa Fe in 2012 -- Low-Rez: The Native American Lowbrow.  (FYI: "rez" is slang for reservation.)  You can see an excellent blog entry about this show here.  Jeremy Singer was an artist featured in it.

The Heart of the Indian by America Meredith
One of my favorite images from the Low-Rez show is by America Meredith.  The Heart of the Indian features a drawing from the 1580s, a PowerPuff Girl (I believe this is Buttercup), and, according to Meredith, a Cherokee pottery stamp design.

The words on the painting are from James Mooney, a white anthropologist famous for writing about his experiences in American Indian communities in the late 1800s; this line is from Historical Sketch of the Cherokee.  It reads: "There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own."

On the one hand, one could say the drawing from the 1580s represents the appearance of the American Indian at the time of first contact and Buttercup represents the way a 21st century American Indian might imagine herself as an empowered female.  The Cherokee stamp between the two figures could suggest the native bond that links the two figures, and the Mooney quote could emphasize the similarities between the two images rather than their differences.

On the other hand, one could see the 1580 image (by John White) as among the first images that started a long history of misperception of American Indians by Europeans and misrepresentations of them.  The image is called "The Conjurer," but here the figure looks to be fleeing rather than conjuring -- perhaps he is running away from Buttercup.  (She does look angry, doesn't she?)  This reading would suggest that Buttercup, despite not being readily recognizable as "Indian," has been chosen by an Indian artist for her self-representation, and it is chasing away the image that does deploy the more easily understood signs of "Indian" but which is a representation created by someone else. In this sense the native artist is claiming her own agency.

Regardless of which reading one chooses, the Mooney quote suggests that the image speaks from an American Indian experience no matter the surface appearance of its imagery.  Simon Ortiz, a distinguished poet from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, had something to say about such things.  In his essay, "Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism," Ortiz writes that some people feel that speaking and writing in English, that participating in cultural practices that originated outside of their native communities, are somehow less Indian.  He denies this. American Indian artists have not been forced to "forsake their native selves." Ortiz claims "it is entirely possible for a people retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language." I would add: Whether that language is verbal or visual.

No Locks by April Holder
An artist from the Low-Rez show, April Holder, said it well: "If Native Americans live in two worlds, then Native Pop is the bridge between those two worlds. Native pop art is the combination of the essence of traditional identity and the embrace of the ever changing world around us."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Some suggestions for Esquire's list of books for men

Esquire recently posted an item on its website: "The 80 Books Every Man Should Read."

One thing I have to give the staff credit for is its honesty about the nature of the list: "An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published."

That confession leaves them free from the standard response to such lists -- How could you leave off [insert personal favorite here]?!?!

For instance, I could complain that they include Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums rather than On the Road.  I am not arguing quality, just the perceived essentialness to American masculinity.  If read at the right age, On the Road can send young men off into fantasies of hitting the highway and seeing the country and having adventures.  If read at a later point in life, the novel can make men grateful they got rid of friends like those a long time ago.

But I cannot really make that complaint because the producers of the list did not make claims of objective quality or worth.  They simply made a list of books they think men should read.

However, I did notice a couple of peculiarities.  There is just one book by a woman.  It is a collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor.  It seems that men, heterosexual or homosexual, should want to read about the world from a female perspective, since they make up about half the population.  I would venture a couple of suggestions. Perhaps Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.  For something less grim or stark, the list could include a personal favorite, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, which is a funny, bi-curious coming-of-age romp set in the 1960s and 1970s.  (I could say Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, but then everyone has heard of that one. Alther's book is funnier and less well-known.)

The other peculiarity: The absence of a book by an American Indian. I say this because three of the books have Indians in them: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall. [Correction: Five books have American Indian characters.  The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien features one American Indian soldier. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is narrated by an American Indian character.]  I have not read Harrison's book, so I cannot comment on its depiction of American Indians.  But McMurtry's most famous novel has the problematic character of Blue Duck, a psychotic killer who is a mixed-blood Comanche man who is a major obstacle for the novel's protagonists.  Blood Meridian has no major Indian characters, and their depiction is no worse than that of the murdering, soulless leaders of our band of "heroes."  But the creators of the Esquire list produced an odd blurb with which to praise the novel and suggest its tone:

Just try sleeping after the scene in which the Apaches thunder over the hills wearing the dresses of the brides they have killed.

Every page of that novel drips with blood, it seems, but of all the scenes of terror and butchery perpetrated by the band of Americans making their way across the West to the Pacific Ocean, the list-makers chose a scene that suggests the Apaches are the scary ones.  I would say, try sleeping after reading any page of that novel, which is one of the grimmest, most nihilistic exercises of naturalism I have read in American literature.  In my Goodreads review of it I said this:

This is an exercise in nihilistic naturalism with prose that is sometimes poetic and other times a rambling trainwreck of sentences pretending to profundity. If Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Sam Peckinpah had congress in some kind of demonic three-way, this novel would be their child.

The events are sometimes engaging and compelling, but just as often they are predictable. Just about any thing (human or animal) introduced will be shot, stabbed, scalped, or hanged within a few pages. It has some memorable characters, but it offers too little insight to the workings of their minds (at least for me).

In the theater of masculinity that Esquire presents with this list of novels, the American Indian plays the role of savage.  But American Indian men have experienced trials and triumphs that are worthy of inclusion in this list.  They have had experiences other men, regardless of race, could relate to.  If I could add one novel that would match the general tone of other titles in this list -- the titles tend toward alienation, moral struggle, and conflicted relationships with wives and fathers -- I would add James Welch's Winter in the Blood.  Published in 1974 it is the story of an American Indian man fighting his way through the grief over the separate deaths of his father and brother years before, struggling
against the alcoholism in himself and his family, and regaining his sense of worth after the failure of his love relationship.  And it manages to be funny at times.  Coincidentally, there is a film version of the novel now playing the festival circuit.  Learn more about it here.

If I could add, instead, my favorite James Welch novel, that would be Fools Crow.  One thing I like most about it is its setting: Its events take place before the Crow Indians have been overwhelmed by the Americans.  There is no major white character in it. This is a story about an Indian world -- it is being invaded by another world, granted, but the natives are the center of the story. It is the story of two young men who choose different paths: one who chooses life, love, and family; and one chooses pride, anger, and revenge. It is filled with sex, violence, comedy, tragedy, hope, and history.