Nikon’s Millennium Masterpiece

Like col­lect­ing orig­i­nal retro con­soles(?,) syn­th­wave, and coachel­la(?,) shoot­ing on 35mm film is so 2010. (Yes, I’ve indulged in 2018, but you should know by now that I under­stand cool sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than I embody it, espe­cial­ly in these Jaguar-less, e-scoot­er, and e-cig­a­rette-filled times.) This time last year, I spent $500 devel­op­ing film at Portland’s infa­mous Blue Moon Cam­era, which is stuffed with 5 and 6-fig­ure, metic­u­lous­ly-restored Big Name Cam­eras from every con­ceiv­able point through­out film’s his­to­ry along with a hand­ful of gor­geous portable type­writ­ers that cause one to swoon momen­tar­i­ly and ache for the trust fund hip­pie lifestyle. How­ev­er, the most sur­pris­ing truth demon­strat­ed by Hawthorn — my expert guide in the explo­ration of this hob­by — is that pover­ty in the case of cam­era col­lect­ing is actu­al­ly a tremen­dous pos­i­tive. I’d go so far as to deem it a neces­si­ty if one intends to have any fun.

As loud­ly as my Ger­man blood screams for a Leica M-some­thing, there is not a sin­gle defen­si­ble argu­ment for some­one like me (even plus unlim­it­ed funds) to pur­chase one. Though I con­sid­er myself unusu­al­ly adept at pho­tog­ra­phy, and I could tech­ni­cal­ly cite some very sparse pro­fes­sion­al work with images, I’m still severe­ly lack­ing in the train­ing and expe­ri­ence nec­es­sary to be con­sid­ered an author­i­ty. I could trav­el through Europe with an icon­ic Ger­man 35mm expend­ing tremen­dous effort in arrang­ing and arraign­ing its visu­al cap­ture and the prod­ucts would have very lit­tle innate val­ue to any­one else. The same applies to more orig­i­nal sub­ject mat­ter, as well — no result of my oper­a­tion of such a device could ever be rel­e­vant. An inter­est­ed par­ty would always be bet­ter referred to a “real” photographer’s col­lec­tion, archives from his­toric mag­a­zines, or a god­damned stu­dent project. Frankly, any­thing else is a waste of time.

Sun­rise, a tad under­ex­posed with a green-biased white bal­ance.

In order for my demo­graph­ic (ama­teurs, Lomog­ra­phy cus­tomers, Port­land Insta­gram­mers, etc.) to pro­duce work with artis­tic val­ue, we should almost always begin by toss­ing repro­duc­tion com­plete­ly out of the equa­tion. You’re a hob­by­ist — fuck shit up and make some­thing inter­est­ing. It doesn’t take much reflec­tion at all to rec­og­nize that one’s effort is objec­tive­ly deval­ued by attempts to “con­tribute” to aes­thet­ics which have already been tire­less­ly worn-in by online com­mu­ni­ties. You are lit­er­al­ly assur­ing your work will reli­ably and seam­less­ly dis­ap­pear into my Tum­blr feed and ensur­ing that its great­est pos­si­ble achieve­ment will be frag­ment­ed dis­tri­b­u­tion in the midst of visu­al­ly-iden­ti­cal batch­es shared among ded­i­cat­ed aes­thet­ic-cura­tion accounts. As ama­teurs, we have the priv­i­lege of spend­ing our allo­cat­ed pho­to­graph­ic work explor­ing our sub­jects and our equip­ment. Shoot­ing Fash­ion Week trims a min­i­mum of 8 months off the aver­age pho­to pro’s life expectan­cy each year they attend, and wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phers are the most sui­ci­dal entre­pre­neurs in the West­ern world. Do not aspire to die thank­less­ly behind a cam­era with­out sur­pass­ing a six-fig­ure salary for it.

Of course, my des­ig­na­tion as a hob­by­ist actu­al­ly pre­vents me from mak­ing such argu­ments with author­i­ty, but I can­not pos­si­bly imag­ine a rea­son to use one’s time to fur­ther estab­lished aes­thet­ic cat­e­gories on the inter­net with the excep­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic study. As always, I would be elat­ed to hear any and all relat­ed thoughts you have via com­ment or email, though we’re going to pro­ceed for the moment as if my word is indis­putable. My par­tic­u­lar “spe­cial­ties:” under­ex­po­sure and fool­ing with white bal­ance. Nei­ther of these seem to appeal much to oth­ers, so I’ll save fur­ther opin­ing on these tech­niques for anoth­er time, but I’ll point out now that both are par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to the dig­i­tal process, specif­i­cal­ly.

But isn’t dig­i­tal­iza­tion the end of art?! By its fun­da­men­tal sys­tem­at­ic nature, is it not doomed to be a flawed endeav­or toward inex­is­tent absolutes which leaves its realm in a val­ley between real and unre­al, where all mag­ic and ethe­re­al­i­ty is ulti­mate­ly extract­ed from expres­sion? These ques­tions con­tin­ue to arise in more and more seg­ments of cur­rent dis­course and more than war­rant an essay, them­selves, but for now, let me offer a more spe­cif­ic coun­ter­ar­gu­ment in the form of col­lect­ing cheap dig­i­tal cam­eras from the oughts.

Since Jan­u­ary, digicam.love has been curat­ing a very hip cel­e­bra­tion of cheap dig­i­tal point-and-shoots from most­ly young pho­tog­ra­phers on Insta­gram and Tum­blr. Most of the devices exhib­it­ed in the col­lec­tion can be hap­pened upon in thrift stores for $5 or less, or found on ebay for $15–40, yet their images are over­whelm­ing­ly more beau­ti­ful than you may or may not remem­ber. The tech­ni­cal­ly-enthu­si­as­tic observ­er appre­ci­ates their con­ve­nient reminder of some ele­men­tal truths of pho­tog­ra­phy which we have uni­ver­sal­ly been allowed to for­get. Though smart­phones have long since sur­passed the res­o­lu­tion in which these devices shoot by two, three, and four times, 4 megapix­els still out­sizes 1080p screens by no small mar­gin, and with even the most rudi­men­ta­ry con­sid­er­a­tion of light, the per­spec­tives of the digi­cams are no less whole, yet hun­dreds of times more finan­cial­ly acces­si­ble.

Rare: real punks spot­ted in Port­land. A swap meet at The Elks Lodge.

At the very end of the last cen­tu­ry, dig­i­tal cam­eras were still expen­sive, exper­i­men­tal toys for only the most pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly-invest­ed con­sumer, but the present is almost assured­ly the best time there’ll ever be to buy even the most exclu­sive dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy prod­ucts of the time. Hence, Hawthorn’s recent pur­chase: an exam­ple of “the most antic­i­pat­ed eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed dig­i­tal cam­eras of the year 2000,” accord­ing to Phil Askey, founder of the Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy Review, which could be bought new for 900 USD — $1,345.94, account­ing for infla­tion — yet for this Nikon COOLPIX E990, she paid only $6 to Good­will, where it’d been donat­ed after lit­tle to no use, I’m con­vinced.  I’m still grate­ful she was will­ing to sur­ren­der it to my clum­sy hands because it is fas­ci­nat­ing from the his­toric, hard­ware, and soft­ware per­spec­tives. I’ll out­line some of its most inter­est­ing aspects, but Askey’s near­ly 20-page-long review is (con­ve­nient­ly) the most com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment I’ve ever seen about a sin­gle dig­i­tal cam­era mod­el, and any espe­cial­ly-nerdy read­ers should con­sid­er them­selves referred.

The orig­i­nal dig­i­tal self­ie cam?

I sup­pose we should expect Nikon’s incred­i­bly thor­ough doc­u­men­ta­tion archive from all hard­ware com­pa­nies: search Google for “Nikon COOLPIX 990 Man­u­al,” and the first result is The Nikon Guide to Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy with the COOLPIX 990 Dig­i­tal Cam­era straight from Nikon’s own CDN. Of course, I’ve still mir­rored it for futureproofing’s sake despite their dili­gence because it’s noth­ing less than spec­tac­u­lar in user man­u­al terms with its bespoke bul­lets and rain­bow gra­di­ent ban­ners, and yes, Nikon should be applaud­ed for invest­ing so much care in such an obscure doc­u­ment. Let’s back up, though, and rely on Nikon’s own prod­uct page for some basic spec­i­fi­ca­tions. The device shoots 3.2 mil­lion “Effec­tive Pix­els” — one of many odd­ball phras­ings, as far as my mem­o­ry serves. Trans­lat­ed, the 990 uses a 3.34 megapix­el sen­sor behind an 8–24mm Nikkor lens offer­ing 3X opti­cal zoom. Return­ing to Phil’s review, we find more con­ven­tion­al lan­guage, com­par­isons with pre­ced­ing and com­pet­ing prod­ucts, and the rev­e­la­tion that this cam­era was announced on my 6th birth­day!

In usu­al Nikon fash­ion the 990 was announced in uni­son glob­al­ly on the 27th Jan­u­ary 2000 at 8 AM Tokyo Time. The look was famil­iar if a lit­tle restyled, most sig­nif­i­cant was the increase in res­o­lu­tion to 3.34 megapix­els (2048 x 1536) and the addi­tion of some neat new fea­tures and a sigh of relief from 950 own­ers due to solu­tions to some long term Coolpix gripes. Adding to some con­fu­sion (and still) is the fact that the US mod­els fea­ture a purple/blue insert in the rub­berised hand grip and non-US mod­els (Europe / Asia) fea­ture a red insert.

Phil Askey, Dig­i­tal Pho­tog­ra­phy Review

Nei­ther Hawthorn nor myself had ever seen a device even remote­ly like the 990, which is by far the best rea­son to make a pur­chase in this hob­by. True to its bizarre appear­ance, the incon­gru­en­cies of its oper­a­tion are numer­ous, but it is undoubt­ed­ly the most phys­i­cal­ly-dense image cap­tur­ing device I have ever han­dled. With four AA bat­ter­ies onboard, it weighs exact­ly half a kilo­gram, which I’ve found just below the accept­able lim­it for gen­er­al car­ry on a sin­gle hand. Actu­al­ly snap­ping pho­tographs one-hand­ed yields less motion blur than you’d expect in ade­quate light, but one is not afford­ed enough time by the hard­ware to be so unnec­es­sar­i­ly lack­adaisi­cal — some images can take up to 10 sec­onds to fin­ish sav­ing on its first-gen­er­a­tion Com­pact­Flash card, depend­ing on one’s image Qual­i­ty selec­tion as detailed in page 5 of Phil’s review. Bewil­der­ing­ly, this set­ting is at the mer­cy of the camera’s sen­sors and algo­rithms when shoot­ing in Auto­mat­ic mode — per­haps in the pur­suit of size effi­cien­cy, con­sid­er­ing PC stor­age lim­i­ta­tions of the time.


The camera’s con­trols are its most famil­iar­ly rec­og­niz­able expe­ri­ence in for­mat terms, though their action sur­pass­es that of any oth­er such but­tons and seg­ment­ed rotary selec­tors I can remem­ber using. With­out excep­tion, they’re incred­i­bly robust — one quick­ly notices and appre­ci­ates the com­plete lack of design com­pro­mis­es or mass-mar­ket ide­ol­o­gy in the 990’s inter­face. Unex­pect­ed­ly, its real-world rugged­ness appears to match these tac­tile sen­sa­tions: I dropped my 990 some four feet on rough asphalt last week whilst exit­ing an over­packed C-Class to zero appar­ent effect, and I can’t seem to stop bump­ing its metal­lic body into ver­ti­cal sup­ports on the bus, yet its behav­ior has not appeared to change. That is, trau­ma has not yet changed the fre­quen­cy of the bugs, but they are fair­ly fre­quent, as one should expect from such a unique, ear­ly dig­i­tal lux­u­ry good.

The most imme­di­ate­ly notice­able and severe incon­ve­nience in the use of this 18-year-old device is its rabid con­sump­tion of bat­tery cells. So far, my expe­ri­ence sug­gests that four bar­gain AAs in par­al­lel are con­sumed by snap­ping no more than rough­ly 40 images, though a com­bi­na­tion of CMOS short cir­cuit sus­pi­cions and a few months of idle stor­age have led me to fresh­en the lot at least four times. Hon­est­ly though, it would be absolute­ly flab­ber­gast­ing if such an out-of-seg­ment nov­el­ty man­aged DC pow­er with any sane com­pe­tence, and its user man­u­al does explic­it­ly sug­gest remov­ing the bat­ter­ies before extend­ed stor­age.

It’s no secret that a huge incen­tive for #ishoot­film Insta­gram­mers is being seen using a film cam­era. Bring­ing the Minol­ta Weath­er­mat­ic-A to a house show in Port­land guar­an­teed me the supe­ri­or con­ver­sa­tion piece, but the bear­er of a more tra­di­tion­al SLR or 35mm point-and-shoot is a uni­ver­sal mag­net for intox­i­cat­ed hip­ster curios­i­ty and com­plete­ly unre­al­is­tic future “pho­to­shoot” pro­pos­als. This dynam­ic is an old cliché, but expo­nen­tial­ly-sky­rock­et­ing smart­phone adop­tion has in recent years made just about any ded­i­cat­ed image cap­tur­ing device a sim­i­lar­ly-atten­tion-grab­bing acces­so­ry, so the most super­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers are not exempt from our col­lec­tive oblig­a­tion to fur­ther Digi­cam Love as the final relief from the film obses­sive trend after its obnox­ious­ly-extend­ed rumi­na­tion. Of course, this Nikon was sure­ly received as a vain, dork­i­ly-dis­rup­tive com­pan­ion even amidst its peak pop­u­lar­i­ty, so its expect­ed effect shall for­ev­er remain pri­mar­i­ly reac­tions in vari­a­tions of what the hell is that thing?

What the hell, indeed. I’m not pre­cise­ly sure who was sup­posed to buy this cam­era new (or who actu­al­ly did,) but I can’t imag­ine any­one buy­ing a hypo­thet­i­cal­ly-equiv­a­lent, stur­di­ly built mar­ket-top­ping cam­era with such light­heart­ed nuances ever again, and that’s sad­den­ing. Why, exact­ly, did taste­ful­ly-placed rain­bow-reflec­tive logos and Zenon, Girl of the 21st Cen­tu­ry-esque accents have to dis­ap­pear from top-end con­sumer-mar­ket­ed cam­eras? Was 9/11 real­ly that bad? And what about triple excla­ma­tion points fol­low­ing all-caps are you sure? prompts in the soft­ware, or metic­u­lous­ly-designed user man­u­als? There is absolute­ly no rea­son why this one Nikon prod­uct is the most extreme excep­tion I’ve ever found in this regard instead of a poten­tial pio­neer of a more sin­cere­ly joy­ful norm.

Should the unlike­ly new own­er of a COOLPIX 990 hap­pen to have sought out this piece for actu­al ref­er­ence, I do have at least one essen­tial nugget of advice not found any­where in the afore­linked ref­er­ences: your first task should be to reset all set­tings (Menu 2 ⇥ RESET ALL) and then to imme­di­ate­ly change the AF mode from ‘CONTINUOUS’ to ‘SINGLE (Menu 2 ⇥ FOCUS OPTIONS ⇥ Auto-Focus Mode ⇥ Sin­gle AF,) dis­abling the lens’ default, unset­tling mis­sion to con­stant­ly refo­cus, which has vir­tu­al­ly zero appli­ca­tions for a cam­era of this sort apart from the most elec­tro­mag­net­i­cal­ly-mali­cious (or per­haps masochis­tic) user’s desire to con­sume the world’s bat­ter­ies. In a bizarrely lucky encounter with an out­let mall cam­era store employ­ee, Hawthorn and I were giv­en the cor­rect Com­pact­Flash card for the COOLPIX after spot­ting it sit­ting alone on the counter. What­ev­er deity of elec­tron­ics hard­ware is respon­si­ble for this impos­si­ble event has my thanks, for the search for such a card had returned lit­tle results, up to that point. Find­ing the cor­rect cable to trans­fer pho­tos direct­ly from the 990 to a PC is sim­i­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. Either my repeat­ed search­es relat­ing to this cam­era mod­el were par­tic­u­lar­ly influ­en­tial upon sub­se­quent results, or the UC-E1 stan­dard was used only on this Nikon prod­uct — the first Ama­zon list­ing on Google names the mod­el in its title. How­ev­er, giv­en its reviews, I would instead sug­gest using any CF-read­ing dig­i­tal device you prob­a­bly have around with a more tra­di­tion­al out­put of your choos­ing (audio recorder, DSLR, etc) as a sub­sti­tute card read­er instead of both­er­ing with a direct con­nec­tion. While this requires an addi­tion­al step and your care not to refor­mat the card from your cho­sen device, it’s prob­a­bly safer than indulging the nov­el­ty of a vir­tu­al­ly-unused IO for­mat.

NIKON COOLPIX 990

The COOLPIX is sur­pris­ing­ly capa­ble snap­ping the low-light, low-expo­sure pho­tographs I’ve come to enjoy tak­ing. I’m rel­a­tive­ly alone in treat­ing under­ex­po­sure as a legit­i­mate pho­to­graph­ic tech­nique (as far as I know,) but I’ve exper­i­ment­ed enough to know that coax­ing a mir­ror­less dig­i­tal cam­era to refrain from com­pen­sat­ing for my min­i­mal expo­sure set­tings with post-processed ampli­fi­ca­tion is often a pain in the ass, and point-and-shoots tend to lim­it my abil­i­ty to lie to the camera’s white bal­ance ref­er­ence. Find­ing these set­tings in the 990’s ear­ly menus took way less effort than I’ve expe­ri­enced in the past. Its mal­leable Man­u­al Mode is just as cus­tomiz­able as I’ll ever need and its ful­ly Auto­mat­ic Mode’s nan­nies are far more man­age­able than any I’ve found on mod­ern DSLRs like the Canon 7D.

Con­sid­er­ing these qual­i­ties and the COOLPIX 990’s one-of-a-kind design, I can declare it the ide­al device for me, but digicam.love’s rejec­tion of my two sub­mis­sions tak­en with it may indi­cate that it is 100% unfit and unwel­come from any sort of uni­form move­ment in pho­tog­ra­phy. Then again, my pho­tog­ra­phy could very well just be bad and dumb. Either way, I’m a moth­er­fuck­ing hob­by­ist and I can enjoy embar­rass­ing myself with­out care. I plan to expand upon what I’ve shot so far with a series called Port­land Off­bal­ance.


◎ Appar­ent­ly, I am a “waste­ful per­son” because of my habit of indulging myself in depre­ci­at­ed lux­u­ry goods. The 1980s were wild, sure, but in the late 1990s, we no longer need­ed cocaine for our mania because his­to­ry was over! We were going to shed our bonds with every­thing old (includ­ing our government’s 20th cen­tu­ry atroc­i­ties,) hyper-polar­ize our sum­mer palettes, and entire­ly for­get the Berlin walls of the world so that we’d be free to com­plete­ly reimag­ine our­selves for the enchant­i­ng dream tech­nol­o­gy of the new mil­len­ni­um. Every­thing was going to be dif­fer­ent, and it was def­i­nite­ly the best time to be alive. Then, the Sep­tem­ber 11th attacks and the Bush Era’s reces­sion remind­ed us how depen­dent America’s body had become on its old ways and old addic­tions, and our tem­po­rary blind­ness to our­selves from flash­es of neo­prene green grad­u­al­ly left our vision infi­nite­ly many gra­di­ents of the truth. The cow­ard­ly among us either fled back to the 80s to nurse their van­i­ty, or con­tin­ued on anoth­er route toward that dark­en­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ‘dream’ as a com­plete sub­sti­tute for their very lives. I say, it’s time to stop sulk­ing and start sur­round­ing our­selves with a lot more of that 90s enthu­si­asm for the future (with­out the designed igno­rance of the past, of course.) Again, if not for any rea­son but fru­gal­i­ty. In 2018, you can live like a turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry oli­garch for ten­thed sums: buy your­self a Rolls-Royce lim­ou­sine for $15,000 and a bushel of VHS tapes at 25 cents a pop. Glut­tonize; waste every­thing! There is some sat­is­fac­tion to be had in acquir­ing “lux­u­ry” items cheap­ly because it sus­tains an illu­sion of excess with­in which you are pow­er­ful in your apa­thy toward pos­ses­sions of great pres­tige and crafts­man­ship. Crash the car! Lose the watch! Who cares! It was just six­ty bucks, right?

The Case for Chuck Klosterman

Thanks to an episode of Peter Kafka’s Recode Media, I’ve just now dis­cov­ered that for­mer New York Times Mag­a­zine Ethi­cist, author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and long­time men’s inter­est media-affil­i­at­ed sports and music colum­nist Chuck Kloster­man pro­nounces his sur­name kloa-ster-men instead of klaw-ster-men as I have been, shame­ful­ly – even with­in earshot of oth­er human beings on a hand­ful of occa­sions. I am will­ing to sub­mit myself for pun­ish­ment for these trans­gres­sions under the sin­gle con­di­tion that I be allowed to call him Cuck Klus­ter­fuck the next time he ends a spo­ken sen­tence with “or what­ev­er” in an inter­view – an unfor­tu­nate habit he’s main­tained for years. If my own byline had any pedi­gree in the world of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, I would now col­lect his penance sim­ply by includ­ing those hate­ful, 90s ston­er-kid buzz­words in every quote, unedit­ed, but it most cer­tain­ly does not. I’ve searched mod­er­ate­ly hard for any rea­son to both­er con­tribut­ing any crit­i­cism of books or their authors and returned with very lit­tle. I’ve read The Broom of the Sys­tem and White Girls this year, yes, but I’d have to be a Fuck Boy to write any­thing about David Fos­ter Wal­lace, and Hilton Als’ ele­gant, genre-bust­ing mas­ter­piece is so far beyond both my soci­etal rights and per­cep­tive capac­i­ty that I wouldn’t dare utter a sin­gle edi­to­ri­al­ized peep about it – aside from a log line-length rec­om­men­da­tion – even under imme­di­ate threat of cer­tain death.

Giv­en my recent vol­un­tary relo­ca­tion to Port­land, Ore­gon and the word-y pur­suits on which I choose to spend all of my mon­ey and ener­gy, I should adore every­thing about Chuck Kloster­man and in turn he should be com­plete­ly invis­i­ble across the under-30 demo­graph­ic, yet I’ve found a spe­cial orig­i­nal­i­ty in his voice since first explor­ing it and I think it might be worth requal­i­fi­ca­tion. A good friend of mine once dug his first nov­el Down­town Owl out of a bulk box of bar­gain books she’d bought as a pre­teen, long ago and became an enthu­si­as­tic fan of his per­spec­tive and a harsh, but fond crit­ic of his per­sona. It was her copy of his sec­ond that I read first: The Vis­i­ble Man – ulti­mate­ly a sur­pris­ing­ly-orig­i­nal take on the psy­chol­o­gist of a gift­ed out­cast tale that clas­si­cal­ly exem­pli­fies the easy-to-digest yet thought­ful­ly-explorato­ry rep­u­ta­tion of his craft. Thanks to her library card, I was able to fol­low it up imme­di­ate­ly with Chuck’s lat­est, most top­i­cal work – an anthol­o­gy of past essays writ­ten for pub­li­ca­tions like The Guardian, Grant­land, and GQ enti­tled X: A High­ly Spe­cif­ic, Defi­ant­ly Incom­plete His­to­ry of the Ear­ly 21st Cen­tu­ry, which proved an impos­si­bly enter­tain­ing, even more pol­ished exe­cu­tion of The Quaint Chuck’s Expla­na­tions in non-fic­tion form, begin­ning at onset with refresh­ing brevi­ty in its intro­duc­tion.

I’m not ful­ly accred­it­ed by either side of the pro­fes­sion­al equa­tion (sports­writ­ers think I’m too pre­ten­tious and music writ­ers don’t think I’m pre­ten­tious enough,) but I’m able to write about what­ev­er I want, as long as it actu­al­ly hap­pened.”

Using “pre­ten­tious” even when just vague­ly and loose­ly express­ing oth­er read­ers’ thoughts about your work is the first of many minus­cule tech­ni­cal infrac­tions against con­ven­tion laid down in X’s arrange­ment which proves to act toward the ben­e­fit of its expe­ri­ence. If you sub­sti­tute car nerds for sports­writ­ers, I’d per­son­al­ly iden­ti­fy with this picoau­to­bi­og­ra­phy in a big way, but more impor­tant­ly as a read­er I had nev­er encoun­tered any­thing writ­ten about sports which I would describe as pre­ten­tious, per se, and that real­iza­tion could very well have birthed enough curios­i­ty to land the sale, had I been skim­ming in a book­shop, which I would’ve even­tu­al­ly been pleased with.

Now, dur­ing what we should hope to be the first dawn of a new microera of sin­cer­i­ty, we must rec­og­nize how valu­able it is for Kloster­man as an observ­er to be com­fort­ably engaged with his sub­jects, emo­tion­al­ly, and con­fi­dent in the val­ue of his com­men­tary in mid­dleage with­out the need to insist upon his eccen­tric­i­ty, as so many cringey, cul­tur­al­ly-daft Dads do, these days. He uses key­words in his writ­ing and spo­ken pub­lic­i­ty that should dis­miss him imme­di­ate­ly as one of these – a nos­tal­gic, out-of-time dork – but are instead some­how mag­i­cal­ly manip­u­lat­ed to serve him in artic­u­lat­ing rea­son­able, even pro­found­ly-inno­v­a­tive insight. As I have explored his bib­li­og­ra­phy and his pub­licly-expressed thoughts, I have been caught up and hinged on a sin­gle sup­po­si­tion: Chuck Kloster­man is the only white, 46-year-old beard­ed Port­land Dad you should be read­ing. Do mind that I am in no way exempt from this lens, but it’s still my job to deter­mine his via­bil­i­ty as an intel­lec­tu­al – a “thought leader,” even – for those of us who were con­ceived around the same time he was wrap­ping up his col­le­giate sen­tence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Dako­ta.

For a sol­id hunk of the Amer­i­can read­ing audi­ence, a quick, ele­men­tal vec­tor of qual­i­ty and mas­tery we look for in an essay­ist is the abil­i­ty to “tran­scend” their sub­ject mat­ter for even the most pre­sump­tu­ous and con­ceit­ed among us, usu­al­ly to deliv­er a more abstract sen­ti­ment to leave with. Here, Klosterman’s sig­nif­i­cant career expe­ri­ence is irrefutably evi­dent – in X, he achieves this tran­scen­dence organ­i­cal­ly with a flu­id­i­ty unlike any­thing I’ve read before. We can already check a sin­gle box: con­vinc­ing even a young pro­fes­sion­al twen­ty-some­thing to shell out for a phys­i­cal hard­back of con­tem­po­rary non-fic­tion requir­ing any sort of aca­d­e­m­ic effort to con­sume is going to be nigh-impos­si­ble, even though X actu­al­ly hap­pens to be the best-look­ing spec­i­men of print prod­uct design I have ever han­dled across cov­er, type, and lay­out. It’s been dif­fi­cult hav­ing to con­vince myself to give this copy back.

In the inter­est of full dis­clo­sure, I must take spe­cial care to empha­size just how high­ly I regard Peter Kaf­ka as edi­tor and inter­view­er extra­or­di­naire with­in the Media beat – well-proven to be capa­ble of hit­ting con­sis­tent­ly hard on both nov­el and old guard indus­try per­son­al­i­ties with refined, seem­ing­ly unim­peach­able stone-faced skep­ti­cism. How­ev­er, this Chuck Kloster­man inter­view for Recode Media is an unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly dis­armed dis­play of seri­ous admi­ra­tion: he intro­duces X with an out­right con­fes­sion: “It’s great. I bought it. I bought a signed copy,” which is an unex­pect­ed odd­i­ty (though not an unwel­come one – I’m glad Peter enjoys his life.) Their con­ver­sa­tion dips briefly in per­son­al his­to­ry (Chuck and his wife moved to Port­land from Brook­lyn for its prox­im­i­ty to fam­i­ly) before plop­ping down upon the sub­stance of his clear­ly superb and mat­ter-of-fact inter­view tech­nique. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a con­ver­sa­tion between Kaf­ka and any pre­vi­ous guests with whom he was quite so obvi­ous­ly alike in gen­er­al dis­po­si­tion.

The only rea­son I’m able to ask you these ques­tions is because I’m a reporter and I can ask you ques­tions now that I prob­a­bly wouldn’t feel com­fort­able ask­ing you if we were friends, so I’m not going to pre­tend that we are and I’m not going to cre­ate some fake thing where we’re going to have a rela­tion­ship beyond this con­ver­sa­tion. I’m just going to ask you the things I want to know about and I hope that you respect the fact that I’m just being straight with you. I find that that works much bet­ter.”

From the broad­est pos­si­ble pop cul­tur­al lens, Chuck’s most spec­tac­u­lar and wide­ly-cir­cu­lat­ed work, demo­graph­i­cal­ly (I assume) is his 2015 inter­view and cov­er sto­ry for GQ with Tay­lor Swift – then “the most pop­u­lar human alive.” Yes, it real­ly is worth dwelling on the image: this guy… this very Dorky Dad, just hang­ing out with the most high­ly-demand­ed teen idol who’s ever lived, sit­ting awk­ward­ly next to her in the back­seat of her car as she mani­a­cal­ly pan­ics to accept a call from Justin Tim­ber­lake. When one Chucks such a dis­tin­guished con­trast upon such a high-pro­file con­tem­po­rary medi­um, the weight of the poten­tial scruti­ny becomes pal­pa­ble, but Kloster­man antic­i­pates and braces for this (very risky) busi­ness in the only man­ner he can: acknowl­edg­ing it over and over and over again in the sec­ond para­graph of his every inter­view appear­ance.

It doesn’t mat­ter if it was com­pli­men­ta­ry or insult­ing nec­es­sar­i­ly. It would seem as though I wasn’t tak­ing her seri­ous­ly as a musi­cal artist, and the idea is that I do. That’s why I’m writ­ing about her is because I do think she’s a mean­ing­ful, sig­nif­i­cant artist. It’s not worth the risk of hav­ing the sto­ry then get shift­ed by oth­er peo­ple who per­haps just per­ceive them­selves as some­body who’s a watch­dog for cer­tain sig­ni­fiers or cer­tain ele­ments of the cul­ture and that their job is to be on the watch for this. If your sto­ry then gets moved into that silo, that’s all it’s going to be remem­bered for… It’s a touch­i­er thing now. It’s a more dan­ger­ous thing.”

In the print itself, the cov­er sto­ry is pref­aced by a very short but uncom­fort­ably-telling com­plaint about chang­ing expec­ta­tions for cul­ture writ­ers. One might rea­son­ably sug­gest that Kloster­man regards the prac­tice of call­ing out or remark­ing on “creepy misog­y­ny” as “dumb” – noth­ing but the byprod­uct of chang­ing “times.”

Some­thing you may notice in the fol­low­ing 2015 fea­ture on Tay­lor Swift is that I nev­er describe what she looks like or how she was dressed, even though I almost always do that with any celebri­ty I cov­er… If I did, it would be reframed as creepy misog­y­ny and proof that I didn’t take the woman seri­ous­ly as an artist. It would derail every­thing else about the sto­ry. It would become the sto­ry.”

But… is it? Note how des­per­ate­ly close his lan­guage comes to the com­mon white guy whin­ing about fem­i­nism clas­si­fi­ca­tion with­out actu­al­ly fit­ting the bill. Right…? It doesn’t? Sure­ly, it must be cer­ti­fied Awake through some com­bi­na­tion of key­words or for­mat I’m unfa­mil­iar with or unable to visu­al­ly reg­is­ter because Klosterman’s ass would have long been grass, oth­er­wise. These 224 words are X’s most con­tentious, which you could call impres­sive, all things con­sid­ered – he appears to care enough about his pub­lic image to curate it some­what dili­gent­ly. When a moth­er­hood blog­ger pub­lished an open let­ter in 2013 cit­ing three very ableist uses of the R-word in his work, it only took him two days to respond: “I was wrong. You are right.”

More than any oth­er writer of his demo­graph­ic, Chuck Kloster­man has a close, wary rela­tion­ship with the ever­chang­ing con­tex­tu­al bound­aries of pub­lic expres­sion. He knows when to be trans­par­ent with his feel­ings on pro­gres­sion, and he’s care­ful to avoid what could be “prob­lem­at­ic” for the sake of func­tion­ing bet­ter as a writer (I assume.) For Slate’s I Have to Ask pod­cast, he man­aged to speak exten­sive­ly about these mech­a­nisms for near­ly an hour with­out bel­low­ing any­thing defin­i­tive­ly cringey.

I can’t say it’s bet­ter or worse. It’s just dif­fer­ent, and because it’s dif­fer­ent, it makes me feel uncom­fort­able, but there’s actu­al­ly like an adver­sar­i­al rela­tion­ship with the his­to­ry of any­thing, and that some­how that his­to­ry is seen as oppres­sive. And you shouldn’t even know about it. It’s bet­ter to live in now.”

A quick jaunt from pret­ty hor­ren­dous to almost-ide­al, then. If we are to place our faith in Chuck as our last beard­ed cham­pi­on, we must hope that last sen­tence is sin­cere­ly intend­ed to be his lens to the chang­ing world. Grant­ed – even if it is the truth – it’s not as if per­sis­tent acknowl­edge­ment of one’s posi­tion can mirac­u­lous­ly wash away any sys­tem­at­ic patri­ar­chal dynam­ics involved in author­ing (or read­ing, for that mat­ter) a high-pro­file fea­ture of a young woman on cov­er of a mag­a­zine which explic­it­ly seeks most to speak to “all sides of the male equa­tion,” (are you sure about that, Condé Nast?) espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing how unlike­ly it would’ve been for me to read any­thing about Tay­lor Swift out­side of this very white man’s anthol­o­gy. Fun­da­men­tal themes of pow­er and con­trol are thread­ed through­out both his fic­tion and non-fic­tion, which is espe­cial­ly preva­lent in the Macho Big Boy cul­tures of the ath­let­ics and music indus­tries. In pro­fil­ing Tay­lor Swift – the undis­put­ed apex of the lat­ter in 2015 – Kloster­man pro­vid­ed a first­hand account of the gru­el­ing main­te­nance of a pub­lic and pri­vate per­son­al­i­ty under tremen­dous strain from said fac­tors as they were mag­ni­fied to the max by the most extreme celebri­ty.

Here we see Swift’s cir­cuitous dilem­ma: Any attempt to appear less cal­cu­lat­ing scans as even more cal­cu­lat­ed. Because Swift’s pro­fes­sion­al career has unspooled with such pre­ci­sion, it’s assumed that her social life is no less pre­med­i­tat­ed.”

I’m right there with Chuck: I’ve even found a fun­da­men­tal pil­lar in Pow­er and Con­trol rela­tion­ships sup­port­ing my own fic­tion exper­i­ments: how we attain them, how we lose them, and how best to make use of them – all of which had appar­ent­ly been quite prob­lem­at­ic for Tay­lor Swift for most of her adult life, though we wouldn’t be allowed to real­ly com­pre­hend how deep her inner tur­moil had drilled until it over­whelmed even her expert­ly-designed self-con­trol four years lat­er, boil­ing over entire­ly with such unex­pect­ed vio­lence that all of America’s pseudorur­al glam-pop-coun­try-glossy-chode-hip­sters let out a simul­ta­ne­ous, dan­ger­ous­ly-alarmed holler of OH FOR PETE’S SAKE that was actu­al­ly heard and record­ed from the over­fly­ing orbit of the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion.

It’s some­how dif­fer­ent when the hub of the wheel is Swift. Peo­ple get skep­ti­cal. Her famous friends are mar­gin­al­ized as acqui­si­tions, select­ed to occu­py spe­cif­ic roles, almost like mem­bers of the Jus­tice League (‘the ecto­morph mod­el,’ ‘the inven­tive indie artist,’ ‘the informed third-wave fem­i­nist,’ etc.). Such per­cep­tions per­plex Swift, who is gen­uine­ly obsessed with these attach­ments.”

No, it’s not only worth­while as an exer­cise in superbly ath­let­ic self-aware­ness – the Tay­lor pro­file is pro­found. I’d rec­om­mend read­ing and trea­sur­ing it with or with­out the rest of the anthol­o­gy because bizarre inter­sec­tions like these are rare to come by from any­body else. Short, sharp, and occa­sion­al­ly some­what pet­ty notions are what Chuck Kloster­man does best and most orig­i­nal­ly. Thanks to a digres­sion of Kafka’s begin­ning with “you and I are about the same age…,” he arrives (by way of REM, believe it or not) at a sig­nif­i­cant state­ment about youth and iden­ti­ty.

It seems strange to me to be into music for its cool­ness out­side of high school. That seems like that’s the only time when you’re a young per­son and you’re using art basi­cal­ly to cre­ate a per­son­al­i­ty because you don’t have a real per­son­al­i­ty yet.”

Kloster­man is debat­ably exempt from the tra­di­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic abstract of “objec­tiv­i­ty” for the vast major­i­ty of his notable work because of its stat­ed pri­ma­ry sub­ject: his “inte­ri­or life.” Per­haps the suc­cess of his voice could be at least par­tial­ly attrib­uted to his devel­op­ment of an exis­ten­tial mus­cle – a per­spec­tive unique enough to enter­tain, yet no less rec­og­niz­ably Mid­west­ern with which he’s been able to reflect par­tic­u­lar­ly clear­ly on the pro­fes­sion in tan­dem with the expe­ri­ence he’s accu­mu­lat­ed over the course of his career.

You know, when you’re young, you’re a real emo­tion­al writer if you’re a writer… If I was a young per­son now, I would be incred­i­bly attract­ed to the idea that when you’re 22 you can be a nation­al writer, which was impos­si­ble when I was 22.”

In a way, Kloster­man does sur­mise that it was indeed its objec­tiv­i­ty that media lost, and that writ­ing is no longer a “one-way rela­tion­ship,” but a sort of ridicu­lous dance in which “many peo­ple feel the rea­son they’re con­sum­ing media is to respond to it… that it’s not for the con­tent.” I would remind old Chuck that there are very few func­tion­ing adults out­side of acad­e­mia or retire­ment in the Unit­ed States who spend much of their time read­ing any­thing sole­ly for the sake of absorp­tion, and the dis­par­i­ty between those who were and weren’t was expo­nen­tial­ly greater in the past. The sto­ry of Amer­i­can media is defined by its cycles of wan­ing and wax­ing democ­ra­ti­za­tion, but many of the more tra­di­tion­al avenues in the busi­ness have bet on the “two-way rela­tion­ship” to keep them rel­e­vant.

My own favorite chap­ter of the col­lec­tion is a 2500-word per­son­al essay con­struct­ed for Grant­land to answer a sin­gle incon­gruity: “Why is watch­ing a pre­re­cord­ed sport­ing event less plea­sur­able than watch­ing the same game live?” Some form of this ques­tion has at least mild­ly trou­bled every Amer­i­can since the 1960s, includ­ing myself, and Kloster­man man­ages to pro­vide an enter­tain­ing and con­cise analy­sis of this plight through his own wis­dom. In its short pref­ace in the vol­ume – which was writ­ten “in 2008, in Europe, when [Chuck] was pre­tend depressed” is the sto­ry of his encounter with a house-paint­ing stranger, to whom he explains the meter for suc­cess in his opin­ion-man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­fes­sion, as he sees it: “If a large num­ber of strangers seem to think one of my opin­ions is espe­cial­ly true or wild­ly wrong, there is some­how a per­cep­tion that I am suc­ceed­ing at this voca­tion.”

Last week­end I was in a hashish bar in Ams­ter­dam. It was post-dusk, pre-night. The music was ter­ri­ble (fake reg­gae, late-peri­od Eric Clap­ton, Sub­lime deep cuts.) I was sit­ting next to a British stranger with a shaved head and a speech imped­i­ment. Our con­ver­sa­tion required sub­ti­tles, so I imag­ined them in my mind. He told me he had lost three fam­i­ly mem­bers with­in the past year: his moth­er, who was six­ty-six; his uncle, who was fifty-six; and his sis­ter, who was forty-six. He said he’d just turned thir­ty-six. He asked if I saw a pat­tern devel­op­ing. “Yes,” I said. “But only numer­i­cal­ly.“

I asked what he did for a liv­ing. He said he was a house­painter. He asked me the same ques­tion about myself. “I man­u­fac­ture opin­ions,” I said.

“Real­ly?” he asked. “How do you know if you’re any good at that?”

“By the num­ber of peo­ple who agree or dis­agree,” I said in response. “If a large num­ber of strangers seem to think one of my opin­ions is espe­cial­ly true or wild­ly wrong, there is some­how a per­cep­tion that I am suc­ceed­ing at this voca­tion.”

“That’s inter­est­ing,” said the bald British man who could bare­ly speak. “I guess house paint­ing is a total­ly dif­fer­ent thing.”

Rarely are sit­u­a­tions or dis­cus­sions that begin with back in my day actu­al­ly con­struc­tive in any sense, but Chuck Kloster­man appears to be the excep­tion. If you’re will­ing to indulge him, you may find your­self reas­sured. He now writes from a remote cab­in (with WiFi,) was tor­tured – like all of us – in sift­ing through and com­pil­ing his old work for X, and finds its index to be his favorite part.

Explor­ing the index from a book you cre­at­ed is like hav­ing some­one split your head open with an axe so that you can peruse the con­tents of your brain.”

He is will­ful­ly and com­plete­ly igno­rant of the Har­ry Pot­ter fran­chise, yet able to sin­cere­ly wit­ness and con­vey the nuances of back-to-back Creed and Nick­el­back con­certs in a con­fi­dent, fas­ci­nat­ing tech­nique of which any oth­er music or cul­ture writer would deprive you. He is “almost embar­rassed” by his emo­tion­al attach­ment to the Char­lie Brown peanuts. (See: Chuck Kloster­man on Char­lie Brown.)

I haven’t watched A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas in at least twen­ty-five years, sole­ly because I can’t emo­tion­al­ly rec­on­cile the final scene.”

You’ll notice that his entire answer to the live tele­vi­sion deba­cle is – again – entire­ly about con­trol (or the lack there­of.) In fact, his rela­tion­ship with and desire for con­trol also con­tributed to his choice of pro­fes­sion.

Part of the rea­son I became a writer is because it was this com­plete­ly con­trolled real­i­ty where I could do this thing by myself where you’d go out and you’d do the inter­views and stuff, but then you’re back by your­self, tran­scrib­ing and then writ­ing. Then, when the sto­ry is done and you send it off, that’s the end. Now that’s the mid­dle. Now it’s like, when the sto­ry is pub­lished, it’s the mid­dle of the process very often because the con­sumer feels dif­fer­ent­ly now.”

While Klosterman’s voice is pleas­ant to some­one like me, nei­ther it nor him­self nec­es­sar­i­ly belong to The Peo­ple. In his X review for Paste Mag­a­zine, B. David Zar­ley pro­claims essays to be “a love let­ter to a moment,” con­clud­ing that Chuck is “’effec­tive­ly nar­cis­sis­tic,’ prov­ing that cul­ture essays can teach us some­thing about our­selves and the peo­ple around us.” For The Wash­ing­ton Post, Justin Wm. Moy­er notes “it’s hard to think of anoth­er writer who could make a 30-page, deeply report­ed essay about a North Dako­ta junior-col­lege bas­ket­ball game inter­est­ing,” sug­gest­ing that this new col­lec­tion marks Klosterman’s ascen­dance from crit­ic to philoso­pher. From what I’ve read to date, I would counter that he has always ful­filled the term to the extent of its use­ful­ness in the 21st cen­tu­ry and is even now begin­ning to rede­fine it. Last Jan­u­ary, he braved the “dystopic” Google Gates to speak crit­i­cal­ly for a crowd of Googlers, describ­ing them as “an umbrel­la over the entire cul­ture,” and urg­ing cau­tion and reflec­tion in the com­ing future to keep them from doing “some­thing bad.” His engage­ment with them – espe­cial­ly dur­ing the Q&A – is a fas­ci­nat­ing insight into the Greater Google Mind, and I would encour­age any invest­ed par­ties in Chuck Klosterman’s role as a philoso­pher to watch the talk in full. I was unfa­mil­iar with “the boat-sails-wind anal­o­gy” before I read James Murphy’s inter­view for LCD Soundsystem’s “last album.”

Your life is a boat, the sails are your emo­tions, and drugs are the wind. When you’re a kid, your boat is small and your sail is huge, and drugs are like a hur­ri­cane.”

Con­trol x Time = the Kloster­man beat. I sup­pose this must be what oth­er enter­tain­ment writ­ers are refer­ring to when they accuse Chuck of nos­tal­gia traf­fick­ing, but I can’t be so sure. Though I’d like to think my own snout for the stuff is espe­cial­ly well-tuned, I am unde­ni­ably from a dif­fer­ent plan­et – even audi­to­ri­ly. All but one or two of the musi­cians inter­viewed through­out X were entire­ly unknown to me by name, which Klosterman’s voice man­aged to make even more com­pelling – not to men­tion the includ­ed sto­ries of ath­letes and the sports indus­try, which include sto­ries of the human ego, para­noia, and com­plex dra­ma that always man­age to tran­scend their set­ting when artic­u­lat­ed with such dex­ter­i­ty.

I’ve nev­er before writ­ten a book review of any sort – nor am I defen­si­bly qual­i­fied to com­pare cul­ture writ­ers – but with good ole’ Chuck, I dove much fur­ther in order to tack­le one very impor­tant ques­tion: should Kloster­man be rec­om­mend­ed read­ing for any­one under 30 above or along­side best­sellers like George Saun­ders or ground­break­ing essay­ists of col­or like Hilton Als? In many a case, I must con­clude by say­ing, sim­ply, that some­thing of val­ue would be for­gone if we shunned Chuck, even if his insight is old news to all but the most rudi­men­ta­ry yokels. I have lit­tle to offer women or peo­ple of col­or, but I’d bet X would prove itself worth a library trip for any idiot white guys in their lives who may be falling far behind. I don’t know of any oth­er voic­es who are in a bet­ter posi­tion to intro­duce these issues, nor any who are quite so prac­ticed at han­dling them del­i­cate­ly. While Jen­na Wortham-lev­el read­ers will gain lit­tle to noth­ing from this exam­i­na­tion or the ecol­o­gy of its sub­ject (and will like­ly find them­selves paus­ing momen­tar­i­ly for a deserved jest before mov­ing on and return­ing to their high-lev­el plane of com­plex neolib­er­al com­men­tary,) but most of their less-aWok­en fathers should find in Chuck a man they can tru­ly trust, who man­ages to con­sis­tent­ly dis­till and artic­u­late the need-to-knows of the most com­plex pop cul­ture and pop sci­ence con­ver­sa­tions with­out using any of the aca­d­e­m­ic lan­guage found in most insti­tu­tion­al dis­course which dad­dy finds too con­de­scend­ing and super­flu­ous to bear. Those read­ers who’ve absolute­ly fuck­ing despised my voice so far in this essay should give Kloster­man a go – I take as much time as I can muster to fid­dle with and sea­son the words in con­text like this work because I basi­cal­ly enjoy the bull­shit, yet I’ve found both X and But What If We’re Wrong? remark­ably refresh­ing and impres­sive exer­cis­es.

[These are] the cul­tur­al con­di­tions in which I was raised under and which I pur­sued jour­nal­ism under. That was part of the thing that drew me to the idea of being a reporter was I was like, this is some­thing I can do, I think. My abil­i­ty to detach my per­son­al emo­tions from what I am inves­ti­gat­ing, while not per­fect, I can do this. And now it turns out that the oppo­site is what’s desir­able. I think it’s real­ly going to change the kind of per­son who goes into media going for­ward.”

Read­ing Chuck Kloster­man is going to be per­turb­ing, but true sin­cer­i­ty is almost always uncom­fort­able. Com­pre­hen­sive­ly, his non­fic­tion rep­re­sents per­haps the most impor­tant pos­si­ble behav­ior to encour­age from both the crit­ic and his read­er­ship because it incu­bates and exudes sin­cere curios­i­ty and a gen­uine inter­est in learn­ing to lis­ten. From the per­spec­tive of quan­ti­fied soci­etal con­tri­bu­tion, I’d argue that Klosterman’s craft is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly more hon­or­able and worth­while pur­suit than greater aca­d­e­m­ic lit­er­a­ture in its unique and enter­tain­ing treat­ment of sub­jects the estab­lish­ment tends to pul­ver­ize into minu­tia. Unless he’s broke and/or book­ish, buy X as a gift for your Dad and have a go when he’s done. If noth­ing else, at least read the Tay­lor Swift inter­view, okay? If he doesn’t enjoy the book, I’m always avail­able if one or both of you need to blow off some steam: give me a call at (573) 823‑4380. (Nor­mal text mes­sag­ing / talk­time rates will apply.)


Further Reading

The Good Guy, Han Solo

It’s open­ing night at the Bag­dad The­ater on Hawthorne in South­east Port­land and hard­ly anybody’s both­ered to show up. Less than 20% of the venue’s 500 seats are occu­pied by the time the host takes the stage to intro­duce Solo, but those who are here for the last Thurs­day show­ing have been shout­ing, whoop­ing, and gur­gling bad approx­i­ma­tions of wook­iee nois­es since the screen cut to black from its ad slideshow. If my mid­dle row can be assumed an accu­rate sam­ple, only a hand­ful of these are “fans” enough to feel com­pelled to wear a Star Wars t-shirt. As I grab my last cock­tail, the bar­tender tells me that only 300 folks showed up for the evening mati­nee, though he him­self was “excit­ed” to see the movie — one of a minor­i­ty among Port­landers, appar­ent­ly, who still give a shit about Star Wars.

By design, Solo: A Star Wars Sto­ry is a slight­ly more com­plex film than The Episodes in the same way Rogue One was, if a bit bet­ter exe­cut­ed, nar­ra­tive­ly. First, please rest assured that Alden Ehren­re­ich assumes the Han Solo per­sona as tru­ly as any­one could — he tri­umphed through a ridicu­lous­ly exten­sive cast­ing process, and is cer­tain­ly hand­some enough (if not more con­ven­tion­al­ly so than his pre­de­ces­sor) to con­sis­tent­ly look the part. He actu­al­ly bears an unset­tling resem­blance in fea­tures and man­ner­isms to one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and that through-and-through boy­ish­ness par­tic­u­lar­ly makes sense here, set in Han’s for­ma­tive, earnest youth — the stat­ed pur­pose of the film’s exis­tence. Fran­chise fanat­ics, then, should be con­tent. (It’s a good thing CGI-ing the main char­ac­ter in a live action film isn’t quite a low-risk option yet.) And yes, Don­ald Glover com­plete­ly steals the vain, infi­nite­ly styl­ish Lan­do Cal­riss­ian and inevitably makes one wish to see him cast again. Per­son­al­ly, I am very tired of see­ing Woody Har­rel­son, though all the com­po­nents of his pub­lic per­sona should all but ensure his lik­a­bil­i­ty. From what I saw in Three Bill­boards, I’d con­cede that he is as tal­ent­ed of an actor as I am capa­ble of appre­ci­at­ing, but his role as Tobias Beck­ett in Solo couldn’t pos­si­bly be sub­stan­tial enough to actu­al­ly make use of his craft.

Though I don’t believe in “spoil­ers,” or use of the term to bait read­ers, it’s worth stat­ing for the record what every­one should know by now: there sim­ply aren’t spoil­ers in a Star Wars movie — every human being on Earth knows too much about the for­mu­la to ever have any of these films’ com­par­a­tive­ly irrel­e­vant plots “ruined.” The most sur­pris­ing, his­tor­i­cal­ly-sig­nif­i­cant deci­sion of this whole pro­duc­tion was the omis­sion of the tra­di­tion­al yel­low type open­ing crawl over a back­drop of dis­tant stars, which I gen­uine­ly found myself miss­ing. (Appar­ent­ly it wasn’t present in Rogue One, either — I just failed to catch it.) I was very pleased to see my own num­ber one favorite device of the fran­chise used with­in this film’s first ten min­utes: crimelords and gang lead­ers as huge­ly mag­ni­fied vari­a­tions of the creep­ing and crawl­ing crea­tures our instincts are planned to abhor. Solo’s first vil­lain — the gigan­tic, worm­like boss Lady Prox­i­ma (Lin­da Hunt) — is com­plete­ly incon­se­quen­tial, and only appears in a sin­gle scene, but the prac­tice of gross­ly over­sized mon­strosi­ties leav­ing absolute­ly noth­ing of a baddie’s essence to be extrap­o­lat­ed by the audi­ence from nuance is one of very few ways these films are let loose, and it open­ly shits on the more pre­ten­tious viewer’s assump­tions about good writ­ing, which I think big mon­ey movies should feel more com­fort­able doing, gen­er­al­ly.

This first act begins on Han’s home plan­et Corel­lia — the bleak­er urban, indus­tri­al, work­ing-class coun­ter­part to the clean capi­tol city­world Cor­us­cant — with his rather pre­dictable mis­sion to escape Lady Proxima’s sphere of con­trol with his girl, Qi-ra (Emil­ia Clarke,) who could and should have been more cre­ative­ly named, giv­en her impor­tance not as her own char­ac­ter with depth to devel­op (a no-no for a female role, Gourd help us,) but as Han’s mir­ror image to grow dark­ly apart, prov­ing that he — The Good Guy - is unques­tion­ably more moral­ly for­ti­fied than any­one else in the whole god­damned uni­verse. After hav­ing been drug through so very many, I couldn’t tell you at this point how to make the intro­duc­to­ry escape action of this sort of pro­duc­tion more excit­ing and less for­mu­la­ic. Big sur­prise — their plan goes awry, and Qi-ra is pre­vent­ed from leav­ing the plan­et with Han, who’s imme­di­ate (and I mean imme­di­ate)solu­tion is his enlist­ment in the Impe­r­i­al Navy via the recruit­ing sta­tion right there in the damned space­port (dur­ing which the film takes the lib­er­ty of seiz­ing his surname’s expla­na­tion) to serve the Eng­lish in their grand con­quest of the uni­verse. Bizarrely, he man­ages to serve as a grunt for three whole years of com­plic­i­ty in unmen­tioned atroc­i­ties until he encoun­ters the dis­guised crim­i­nal Wise Old Woody in the mid­dle of pulling a job with his two-per­son crew. The team doesn’t agree to bring Solo along until he meets an asset in Chew­bac­ca for the first time as he briefly inhab­its anoth­er of the clas­sic Star Wars trap: the hun­gry mon­ster in a shad­ow-filled mud pit, but is spared the wrath because of his intro­duc­to­ry grasp on Chewie’s shriek­ing lan­guage (called Shyri­i­wook) in which he man­ages to suf­fi­cient­ly pitch the advan­tages of his sur­vival, and the two escape, chained togeth­er. Observ­ing the addi­tion of Wook­iee to the deal, the crew briefly debates the prospect’s new val­ue in pro­vid­ing “need­ed mus­cle,” which con­vinces Woody to return for them and kicks off a series of case stud­ies in this film’s bizarre atti­tude toward the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the oppressed.

How­ev­er, in a rare depic­tion of his voli­tion, Chew­bac­ca is briefly con­sult­ed before the two seek to be for­mal­ly includ­ed on the job, and is even asked around a camp­fire, lat­er, what he’s shoot­ing for in life at the moment, to which he responds“finding my family/tribe.” Despite hav­ing spent a whole three hell­ish years in the trench­es with the British, the roman­tic Han Solo declares his pri­ma­ry moti­va­tion for all of it still lies in his desire to return to Corel­lia and res­cue Qi’ra. In their stolen Impe­r­i­al ship, the lot descend on a snowy moun­tain-tra­vers­ing Maglev to steal the Ura­ni­um it’s trans­port­ing in a scene that’s straight up jacked from ani­mat­ed fam­i­ly clas­sic The Polar Express, but… oh no!… A gag­gle of “marauders”called the Cloud Rid­ers (yet anoth­er throw­away prop­er noun) roll up on those speed­er bikes from Endor (except these can fly,) and screw up every­thing so bad­ly that both of Woody’s crew end up dead and the booty scut­tled. After the fact, Woody reveals to Han that the job was con­tract­ed by yet anoth­er care­less­ly-named crime syn­di­cate — Crim­son Dawn, and that his only pos­si­ble course of action is now vig­or­ous brown nos­ing to its leader, Dry­den Vos (Paul Bettany)((aka Scarred Jarvis,)) in the wan­ing hope he’ll spare his life to make anoth­er attempt. Fol­low­ing this infor­ma­tion, he firm­ly sug­gests that Han and Chewie fuck off, lest their faces become known in the under­world, doom­ing them to serv­ing it for­ev­er, appar­ent­ly. Already, this vague pre­sump­tion of Han’s puri­ty which all of the pro­tag­o­nists must con­stant­ly ven­er­ate in mar­tyr­dom is get­ting tire­some, as is the dynam­ic of his insis­tence against them.

Nat­u­ral­ly, both Chewie and Han end up along for a vis­it to Scarred Jarvis’ tow­er yacht, where the lat­ter very con­ve­nient­ly stum­bles upon none oth­er than his long lost love, Qi-ra in the bar. Despite hav­ing spent the past three years at war in unspeak­able con­di­tions think­ing only of how to lib­er­ate and be reunit­ed with her, he isn’t both­ered to express more than the mod­er­ate­ly-excit­ed and sur­prised hug you’d expect of some­one who’s just run into the kid down the cul-de-sac from their child­hood home who used to ride her bike over for pop­si­cles on Sun­day after­noons. While he does rehearse for her the tale of their reuni­fi­ca­tion as his one moti­va­tion for every­thing since they were sep­a­rat­ed — includ­ing his pres­ence there, “right now,” he fol­lows the pro­fes­sion up quite abrupt­ly with the sly sug­ges­tion that they fuck as soon as pos­si­ble. True to trope, she is jad­ed and indef­i­nite as she dis­tant­ly implies her binds of servi­tude while flash­ing the tat­too of the extreme­ly-for­get­table and innocu­ous Crim­son Dawn logo on her right wrist. (The total lame­ness of the brands in this movie must be inten­tion­al. I can think of no oth­er expla­na­tion.)

The evil Scarred Jarvis is then intro­duced, quick­ly steal­ing the crown for Best Host of all Star Wars Antag­o­nists before polite­ly ask­ing Woody why he shouldn’t kill the lot of them. As per his infi­nite luck, Han pulls the idea of steal­ing unre­fined Ura­ni­um out of his ass, which has some­how nev­er occurred to any­one else in the room, despite their unan­i­mous top-of-the-head knowl­edge of the sin­gle loca­tion where it is mined. Short­ly, the mer­ry three plus Qi-ra con­ve­nient­ly in tow are off to a casi­no-esque estab­lish­ment to find Lan­do, who Qi-ra describes as “attrac­tive, styl­ish, charm­ing,” and like adjec­tives, to Han’s obvi­ous sex­u­al cha­grin, which is fur­thered by his sub­se­quent loss of a card game with Lando’s ship — the Mil­len­ni­um Fal­con, of course — in the stakes. Of course, the attrac­tive, beau­ti­ful­ly-dressed black man only bests Solo — the earnest, sim­ple­ton, Good Guy white dude who wears the same out­fit for decades — in front of Qi-ra, the female prize by way of sleight-of-hand, the film shame­less­ly play­ing on that strange inse­cu­ri­ty white guys have about their part­ners’ secret­ly ever­p­re­sent and very pow­er­ful temp­ta­tion to dump them with­out warn­ing for black cock. Fur­ther emas­cu­la­tion is inflict­ed on poor lit­tle Han when Lan­do turns his oh-so-crafty(actu­al­ly just very charis­mat­ic) charm upon Qi-ra, who reveals that she’s the boss of the gig. The final blow to Han’s dick­i­tude is cast when he tries to enter the nego­ti­a­tion between thEEEEEEe two and Lan­do chides “the adults are speak­ing,” but even­tu­al­ly agrees to pro­vide them a lift for a 25% cut, so the lot make prepa­ra­tions to leave.

Enter my new favorite char­ac­ter of the fran­chise, Lan­do Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,) or “L3,” the proud­ly sen­tient, vio­lent­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro-rights droid who is intro­duced as she is plead­ing with two fight­ing droids in a square cage sur­round­ed by scream­ing spec­ta­tors (easy does it on that the­mat­ic slav­ery) to cir­cum­vent their “fight­ing pro­grams” because they “don’t have to do this.” Though Lan­do and the crew behave like her duress is fool­ish and unim­por­tant — pulling her away to the Fal­con — she is allowed anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to free droids very soon, but not before Solo’s sin­gle short pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion between two female char­ac­ters.

On the way to Kessel, Qi-ra stops by the cock­pit and con­vers­es with L3. Until recent­ly, I was unaware of what’s large­ly regard­ed as the worst habit of male writ­ers with female char­ac­ters: if and when they have a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion between anoth­er female char­ac­ter, it’s only about oth­er male char­ac­ters. Sure enough, L3 begins by insist­ing to Qi-ra that Han is in love with her, insist­ing by the objec­tive find­ings of her sen­sors — which Qi-ra unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly denies like a bash­ful lit­tle girl before L3 con­tiues on about Lando’s long­time love for her, and why it must remain unre­quit­ed, which we are encour­aged to laugh at by the doubt Qi-ra voic­es with­out much hes­i­ta­tion regard­ing the hypo­thet­i­cal union’s sex­u­al mechan­ics because it’s so pre­pos­ter­ous.(I’ll get back to that in a moment.)

When the team arrives on Kessel and infil­trates the mine, L3 cre­ates a “dis­trac­tion” when she begins remov­ing the restrain­ing bolts from droids in the con­trol room, call­ing the prac­tice sav­age, or unciv­i­lized, or maybe bar­bar­ian — I don’t quite remem­ber. As she frees them with­out any notice­able detrac­tion from her duties as Seth Green of the heist — hack­ing con­trols, remote­ly open­ing doors, and all that — the droids begin to help free oth­ers in an expo­nen­tial­ly mul­ti­ply­ing cir­cle of lib­er­a­tion until they become a row­dy mob who’s cute acts of rebel­lion are spaced through­out a few min­utes of screen­time in short jump­cuts off the oth­er crew as they fight deep­er into the mine. With the most sig­nif­i­cant empha­sis ever placed upon Chew­bac­ca in Star Wars his­to­ry, he halts when he spies slave Wook­iees strug­gling to find off enforcers and informs Han that he’s going to break off and assist them. Since Chewie’s only allowed to speak to the audi­ence through Han’s retorts and nev­er direct­ly, it’s impos­si­ble to know how he phrased it, exact­ly, but from my per­spec­tive, his appeared to be the expres­sion of a wish to do what Han had to agree to release him to do, as would a mas­ter, not a “part­ner.” Of course, Solo does agree, albeit hes­i­tant­ly, because he’s The Good Guy, while quite incon­sid­er­ate­ly express­ing his desire to see Chewie again soon instead of wish­ing him suc­cess. How­ev­er, releas­ing him to free his peo­ple (as per his pri­ma­ry life goal, expressed before,) means that Han has to load twelve of the super heavy unre­fined Ura­ni­um tubes onto the cart all by him­self and push it ful­ly loaded at least 50 whole yards with­out the assis­tance of his big strong slave. Boy, what a pain in the ass! He’s spared his labor­ing, though, when Chew­bac­ca returns after no time at all with the enslaved Wook­iees he’s just hero­ical­ly res­cued, who he then imme­di­ate­ly asks to assist his mas­ter in push­ing the cart — per­form­ing the same labor they were forced to do under the enslave­ment they were sup­pos­ed­ly lib­er­at­ed from, sec­onds before.

The heist has inad­ver­tent­ly (nice, huge empha­sis on inad­ver­tent­ly) ignit­ed a slave rebel­lion through­out the mine, which serves the crew only as a dis­trac­tion for the guards. The chaos is inter­rupt­ed a half dozen times or so by those jump­cuts back to the con­trol room of adorable lit­tle droids enact­ing their piti­ful­ly amus­ing revenge on the equip­ment — slap­ping a key­board with a cook­ie sheet-like pan, stomp­ing on a con­trol pan­el, etc. — while L3 shouts par­o­d­i­cal qua­si-Marx­ist bat­tle­cries, which… yes… include refer­ring to the freed droids as “com­rades.” She even radios Lan­do at one point and tri­umphant­ly pro­claims that she’s “found her true call­ing.”

If and when a female char­ac­ter has a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion with anoth­er female char­ac­ter, it’s only about oth­er male char­ac­ters.

By the time the Ura­ni­um cart is with­in its last few yards of the await­ing Fal­con, the riot has reached the land­ing bay and the guards around its perime­ter have read­just­ed their pri­or­i­ties to dis­abling the ship’s land­ing gear. This inter­rupts Lan­do in the cock­pit, who has cho­sen this time to work on dic­tat­ing his auto­bi­og­ra­phy because he’s a man who both­ers to dress­es him­self well and is there­fore oh so mani­a­cal­ly, com­i­cal­ly, and unrea­son­ably vain! How berserk! Still look­ing good as hell, he emerges and stands on the ramp to cov­er the rest of the crew’s return and load­ing of the dan­ger­ous Ura­ni­um with blaster fire, shout­ing the oblig­a­tory inter­mit­tent “come on, hur­ry up,” until L3appears, also fir­ing a blaster and shout­ing until she arrives in front of Lan­do, before notic­ing some com­mo­tion(?) with droids behind her and turn­ing around, again fer­vent­ly shout­ing more lib­er­a­tion cries. Lan­do doesn’t budge from the Fal­con’s side, but yells after her, until he watch­es as she is shot repeat­ed­ly and falls, prompt­ing him to run to her side. Filmed unnec­es­sar­i­ly grue­some­ly, her head and shoul­ders sep­a­rate from what’s left of her low­er body when he first tries to hoist her up. Of course, his reck­less­ness gets him shot in the arm, so Chewie returns to car­ry them both to the safe­ty of the ship, where the injured Lan­do holds her head lov­ing­ly in his arms for her last moments, repeat­ing “I can fix you, I can fix you.”

Now, I under­stand that Star Wars movies (or their reviews, for that mat­ter) are not the sort of enter­tain­ment one seeks out in order to exam­ine the dynam­ics of pow­er struc­tures or elab­o­rate cul­tur­al sym­bol­ism, but they all con­tain a sig­nif­i­cant amount of both. The ster­ile, cold, and bureau­crat­ic Galac­tic Empire is the British Empire, the Rebel­lion and the Repub­lic are the Unit­ed States or its colo­nial pre­cur­sors, the Jedi are vague­ly Native Amer­i­can, and the Death Star is the Boston Tea Par­ty. You’ve rec­og­nized this, I’m sure because it’s shoved in your ears most explic­it­ly by their accents, and less so in your face by aes­thet­ic influ­ences, tac­ti­cal philoso­phies, com­mand eti­quette, and pos­ture, even. Solo’s main char­ac­ter is soak­ing in Amer­i­can Old West­ness, which may or may not have led to its lib­er­al sat­u­ra­tion with the themes of indi­vid­ual rights, slav­ery, and lib­er­a­tion. Regard­less, they’re cer­tain­ly present, and most of them dis­turbing­ly for comedic effect.

As a silent char­ac­ter to the audi­ence, it’s under­stand­able that Chew­bac­ca had too many lim­i­ta­tions to occu­py a strong sec­ond to Han Solo’s lead in the narrative’s eye, and per­haps the rela­tion­ship between the two as por­trayed in the pre­vi­ous films reeked so strong­ly of servi­tude that it was an inevitable ele­ment when the time came to write them their very own movie. In direct con­trast to the firm place of all droids in the social hier­ar­chy of the last 9 movies — address­ing humans as “Mas­ter,” unapolo­get­i­cal­ly spo­ken of as prop­er­ty, and trad­ed and/or gift­ed as such by both pro­tag­o­nists and antag­o­nists, etc. — what we see of Lan­do and L3 togeth­er is a gen­uine­ly and com­plex­ly affec­tion­ate part­ner­ship between equals, which Solo makes an effort to empha­size, if only to laugh at.

In response to the forced vio­lence between two drones for spec­ta­tor sport, L3 is com­plete­ly enraged, and she cries (among oth­er things) “we are sen­tient!,” but her dis­tress is triv­i­al­ized as hys­ter­i­cal dis­trac­tion (see: Djan­go Unchained.) When she sug­gests to Qi-ra that Lan­do (who is already ille­git­imized as a cheat­ing nar­cis­sist, and there­fore effem­i­nate) is attract­ed to her, it’s a joke (which­many in my audi­ence laughed at) at the expense of her triv­i­al­ized sex­u­al­i­ty. After she tri­umphs and declares the lib­er­a­tion of her kind to be her true cause, she is imme­di­ate­ly destroyed fight­ing for its sake, yet her ide­ol­o­gy is not once acknowl­edged by her fleshy com­pan­ions, and her body is quick­ly gut­ted for the data on her “cen­tral pro­cess­ing unit” as it’s inter­faced with the Fal­con. Grant­ed, Lan­do does thought­ful­ly muse “she’s part of the ship now” short­ly after­ward, which would be nice, if you’d for­got­ten his last words were an out­right lie. Last­ly, it’s worth not­ing how apa­thet­ic the main char­ac­ters them­selves are toward the Kessel min­ers, espe­cial­ly as they are pack­ing up to leave, when the cam­era pans over the chaot­ic strug­gle between the lib­er­at­ed and their guards in very close prox­im­i­ty to the await­ing Fal­con, yet there was not a sug­ges­tion that they would even con­sid­erlet­ting them take refuge from the vio­lence in their very spa­cious freighter. Aside from Han’s or Qi-ra’s, Solo treats lib­er­a­tion as charm­ing or amus­ing, noth­ing more.

Any­way, the crown jew­el of Solo for many fans will prob­a­bly be the scene of the infa­mous Kessel Run, when Han Solo and Chew­bac­ca first take the helm(?) of the Mil­len­ni­um Fal­con with Lan­do injured and L3 dis­sect­ed, using her “nav­i­ga­tion­al data­base” to plot a very risky short­cut around the scary space cloud by the scary space squid and the scary space hole in order to make it to the site of the refin­ery before the volatile Ura­ni­um explodes. Once there, darn old flakey Lan­do fucks the hell of in the Fal­con right as the Cloud Rid­ers roll up, but whoa! their leader is actu­al­ly a very young woman with freck­les! She describes the atroc­i­ties of Crim­son Dawn and sug­gests that Han (who’snow the estab­lished deci­sion­mak­er for what­ev­er rea­son) give them the Ura­ni­um in order to estab­lish “the begin­ning of a rebel­lion,” which we can safe­ly assume is The Rebel­lion, which does beg one to won­der why Solo nev­er once bragged among the lat­er rebel­lion about hav­ing start­ed the whole thing in the oth­er films, con­sid­er­ing that — whad­dya know — he says yes!

Woody, how­ev­er, says he’s going to retire upon the news of this deci­sion before imme­di­ate­ly reap­pear­ing again on Scarred Jarvis’ yacht after he’s revealed to have betrayed the Ura­ni­um ruse to him. Qi-ra ends up killing Scarred Jarvis, sav­ing Han, but after promis­ing to fol­low him and escape, she rings up the late Scarred Jarvis’ boss — a Sith Zabrak who, I would argue, is not nec­es­sar­i­ly Darth Maul, though he prob­a­bly is — and informs him that her boss is dead and she’s assumed his post. As Han and Woody meet again in an Old West stand­off (com­plete with sand,) the lat­ter insists one more time that Qi-ra is not who Han thinks she is (as Jarvis and Qi-ra her­self have also said repeat­ed­ly,) describ­ing her as “a sur­vivor,” before Han kills him in self-defense.

Final­ly, after see­ing the Cloud Rid­ers off with the Ura­ni­um, Han finds Lan­do once again in a card game — this time tak­ing care to dis­able his sleight-of-hand device before­hand so that he wins the Mil­len­ni­um Fal­con, “fair and square,” and we cut to Solo (who seems remark­ably upbeat con­sid­er­ing the recent betray­al of the lover he’d longed years to reunite with) and Chewie in her cock­pit as they tie in that one last knot by declar­ing their des­ti­na­tion, Tatooine, before roar­ing off into hyper­space, leav­ing the cred­it roll in their wake.

Solo treats lib­er­a­tion as charm­ing or amus­ing, noth­ing more.

Over two years ago, I con­clud­ed my first work for Extra­tone about The Force Awak­ens by argu­ing that Star Wars on the big screen should be allowed to die in favor of invest­ing the time, ener­gy, and fund­ing they require in the pur­suit of some­thing new, but the indus­try still appears to believe that nos­tal­gia is a sur­er bet where prof­its are con­cerned, at least, even after two whole decades of mind-numb­ing rean­i­mat­ed prop­er­ties. I didn’t catch The Last Jedi until recent­ly, which was remark­ably well-done mea­sured against the oth­ers as a Star Wars movie, but cer­tain­ly didn’t aim to achieve much more. Clear­ly, there must be some truth in Hollywood’s cow­ardice about orig­i­nal prop­er­ties- espe­cial­ly when it comes to the sort of fan­ta­sy armed with potent but unguid­ed emo­tion­al bombs that define the Star Wars uni­verse, so it wouldn’t make much sense to revive my old dia­tribe, here. (Though I can assure you that I will be relent­less if this horse­shit con­tin­ues for much longer.) The Force Awak­ens and The Last Jedi, though, were episod­ic titles for the fam­i­ly, and these spin­offs that began with Rogue One are sup­posed to be for… well, I’m not entire­ly sure. In real­i­ty, they’ve only moved the prover­bial bar up a very wee bit to the fam­i­ly who occa­sion­al­ly says “shit,” because they’re not intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing enough to jus­ti­fy them­selves as Big Boy-only pro­duc­tions. Or, they wouldn’t be, were they not part of this fran­chise.

The truth is, the fans have grown up, and they… I… will still buy a tick­et for the small­est crumb of hope that a prod­uct of this huge machine will be capa­ble of mak­ing us feel even a frac­tion of what we felt as chil­dren watch­ing the orig­i­nal films. For me, The Force Awak­ens actu­al­ly did, once, in that blast of horns before the open­ing crawl, but it hasn’t hap­pened since, and I should cer­tain­ly stop expect­ing or want­i­ng to expect that it will. For oth­ers, it’s still work­ing. Though there was a frac­tion of who I expect­ed to be in atten­dance with me, they did laugh at a hand­ful of (most­ly fas­cist) moments, and whooped, hollered, and even clapped for a few sec­onds at the end. I’m sur­prised open­ing night wasn’t packed because Port­land is the sin­gle most nos­tal­gia-addict­ed cul­ture I’ve ever seen any­where in the Unit­ed States. Then again, there are a bil­lion the­aters here, so per­haps the sam­ple is just lousy. We’ll see how tomor­row and Sun­day go, but I’d be sur­prised if any box­of­fice records were bro­ken.

In the past, when film enthu­si­asts and­fans have described Han Solo as “the best char­ac­ter in Star Wars,” they’ve actu­al­ly been prais­ing his poten­tial as a char­ac­ter, not his mate­r­i­al itself, and Solo’s most effec­tive func­tion as a fran­chise film was to shut that praise down. Han was not at all denied his movie — this is his movie — and it pro­vid­ed him the screen­time to show us who he tru­ly is and why we real­ly like him so much: he doesn’t fuck­ing change. The secret to Han Solo’s moral and emo­tion­al resilien­cy is noth­ing more than halt­ed devel­op­ment. The same old inner con­flict between the tough, ruth­less­ly self-inter­est­ed per­sona he does his best to project for every­one around him and the con­sis­tent real­i­ty of his soft insides was pre­sent­ed in his first scene way back in 1977, and we’re now sure that he was unable to make any progress toward its res­o­lu­tion despite open­ly and obvi­ous­ly brood­ing over it for an entire life­time: from at least as ear­ly as his young adult­hood in this film until his death at the hands of his lit­tle Sith son. There is 0 vari­a­tion. He always comes back for the cause at the cru­cial moment after declar­ing him­self through with it. With­out fail, he’ll sac­ri­fice the entire­ty of any self-mak­ing enter­prise for just about any under­dog with a prob­lem who cross­es his path. (Which prob­a­bly explains his con­stant­ly-fleet­ing suc­cess as a smug­gler well into gray hair and jowls.) Solo is abun­dant­ly clear about Han’s true nature and very will­ing to expose how unin­ter­est­ing it is. When he first pro­claims to Qi-ra that he’s become “an out­law,” she shuts him down with the film’s ulti­mate quote, insist­ing that she “knows who [he] real­ly is: the good guy.

If the video game-despis­ing fans will bear with me for a moment, it’s worth not­ing that Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Repub­lic MMORPG is the most inter­est­ing and exten­sive source of nuanced nar­ra­tive in the IP (it holds the world record for the largest voiceover project ever pro­duced,) and most of it can now be expe­ri­enced with­out actu­al­ly play­ing the game. Like Solo, it’s set pre-saga, but con­sid­er­ably before — a few cen­turies, if I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, which gave the writ­ers a gigan­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty to both expand and pre­des­tine the uni­verse. There are eight dif­fer­ent class sto­ries with around 50 cumu­la­tive hours of dia­log, each. A few are rel­a­tive­ly unimag­i­na­tive, but the major­i­ty are com­plex, excit­ing, emo­tion­al­ly-involved tales that cre­ate very rich char­ac­ters, and all of them can be streamed in their entire­ty on YouTube. If you are will­ing to see the poten­tial of a Han Solo-like char­ac­ter ful­filled in a dif­fer­ent medi­um, the Smug­gler class sto­ry is a pret­ty damned engag­ing explo­ration of the kind out­law with con­flict­ed iden­ti­ty issues angle.

From my per­spec­tive, Solo’s fre­quent less-than-sub­tle mal­treat­ment of some very bru­tal and sen­si­tive pow­er rela­tion­ships makes it the most tox­ic of the Star Wars films yet, and I assume it end­ed up that way, unnec­es­sar­i­ly because Ron Howard is an all-Amer­i­can son of a bitch. If these titles are going to con­tin­ue to be passed around between big­whig direc­tors, future unpleas­antries are inevitable. Notably, I’ve yet to see any men­tion of these dis­turb­ing themes from the respectable author­i­ties of the film crit­i­cism estab­lish­ment, who’ve been over­whelm­ing­ly charmed by Solo’s nos­tal­gia. Take from that what­ev­er you will.

If we con­tin­ue to love the char­ac­ter Han Solo, it’ll be in the same way we love our earnest, fool­ish, emo­tion­al­ly-stunt­ed man­child fathers who’s devel­op­men­tal inad­e­qua­cies are often embar­rass­ing, some­times abu­sive, and thor­ough­ly piti­ful. Solo leaves no more room for an ide­al­ized, ele­gant per­cep­tion of this char­ac­ter — he’s no more than a pret­ty good guy with a life­long addic­tion to thrill-seek­ing and a shit­load of luck.

To declare unequiv­o­cal­ly whether or not Solo: A Star Wars Sto­ry is worth a trip the cin­e­ma with your date, your chil­dren, or just your own damned con­science would require me to dis­re­gard a whole host of com­pli­cat­ing fac­tors, but if you’ve stuck it this far with me, you’d have a lot to dis­re­gard your­self to jump in. I’d advise that par­ents watch it them­selves before decid­ing whether or not it’s some­thing worth adding to your child’s life. Of those of you like me who’ll tow the line despite what you know and watch a Star Wars film alone on open­ing night in delir­i­um hop­ing for just a drop from the Foun­tain of Youth, I would ask: how long are we real­ly going to keep kid­ding our­selves?

Mom and Dad

The Earth will reach its max­i­mum occu­pan­cy load (12 bil­lion) when I am in my mid-fifi­ties, mean­ing there’ll be more than twice as many gorg­ing, shit­ting, shoot­ing, com­plain­ing, and lying human beings than there were when I start­ed, and per­haps Bri­an Taylor’s Mom and Dad is in fact a rea­soned argu­ment for a par­tic­u­lar solu­tion to our inevitable plight. I’m still not sure what a “cult” movie is, pre­cise­ly, but I can’t imag­ine what sort of cult could pos­si­bly sus­tain itself around the ethos of this film alone, despite its con­cise, agi­tat­ing, at once light­heart­ed, yet gen­uine­ly-dis­turb­ing trip. No, it is prob­a­bly not pro­pa­gan­da. From the experts, you’ll get pre­cise­ly the same review, vary­ing only in length. The New York Times’ Glenn Ken­ny couldn’t be both­ered with more than 250 words, but RogerE­bert dot com’s Simon Abrams shelled out a whole 1000. They are sus­pi­cious­ly close to these big round num­bers — per­haps each was writ­ten to respec­tive quo­tas, and per­haps you could say all that could rea­son­ably be said in 10, but I don’t care.

The tropes here are pol­ished to a mirac­u­lous sheen — two emo­tion­al­ly-stunt­ed, mid­dleaged, over­ly pre­oc­cu­pied-with-their-lost-youth sub­ur­ban par­ents (Nico­las Cage and Sel­ma Blair) who’s exist­ing envies & irri­ta­tions regard­ing their own clas­si­cal­ly brat­ty teenage girl (Anne Win­ters) and her mis­chie­vous lit­tle broth­er (Zackary Arthur) is mere­ly agi­tat­ed by a sud­den TV sta­t­ic-bound killer instinct into blood­lust, not orig­i­nat­ed. I’m not sure any pill deal­er would actu­al­ly flip off their cus­tomers after a fair buy — even in high school, but drugs, a black boyfriend, and a stinkbomb? in the old Trans Am!? I’m going to kill you!

Some­body, some­where knew all the best sources on sub­ur­bia and how to put them to good use. The Cam­ry, the golf bag, ping pong smash­ing, sweat-stained Big Sur tee, and Dr. Oz, for Christ’s sake! Grant­ed, talk­ing to your girlfriend/boyfriend on the phone at all is a bit dat­ed — espe­cial­ly while rid­ing a BMX — and I don’t think Froot Loops are gen­er­al­ly accept­ed mid­dle-class chow any­more. These are sta­ples from my youth, and I am very old. Tech­ni­cal­ly, the iMes­sage bub­ble graph­ics are more chrono­graph­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate, but with great con­se­quence, I fear — if we’re going to accept them once and for all as authen­tic mech­a­nisms for telling sto­ries set in the present, they are going to age faster than Nick’s new jowls (unless we’re all soon killed by our par­ents.) It’s been two years since I knew any­thing about music, but I seri­ous­ly doubt even the gothest fifteen?-year-old girls are lis­ten­ing to Father-esque post-Mem­phis hor­ror­core in class — there’s some­thing about Sound­Cloud that real­ly clash­es with chok­ers.

If there was ever a film in which to use grimy dub­step-influ­enced elec­tron­ic slaps, buzzes, chirps, and great grat­ing clank­ing, it’s this one. It’s a ter­rif­ic dis­ap­point­ment that Hol­ly­wood feels so timid­ly about their use of the most inti­mate medi­um. One for­gets its poten­tial to con­trol the nuances of an audience’s fear, anger, dis­com­fort, and pan­ic beyond cheap jump scares until they expe­ri­ence an irri­tat­ing, dis­tress­ing, ghast­ly gross, all-pos­sess­ing feat of accen­tu­at­ing audio pro­duc­tion such as that of Mom and Dad. If you want to judge Aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly the effec­tive­ness of a nominee’s work for an award with a title like Best Sound Edit­ing (as opposed to what­ev­er the hell cri­te­ria was met most ful­ly by Sky­fall,) you must give the lit­tle gold­en man to these folks, who­ev­er they are.

When’s the last time you saw a tru­ly, believ­ably shit­ty mod­ern parental pair on a big screen? I real­ly can’t remem­ber, myself. Brent and Kendall Ryan are mas­ter­pieces of char­ac­ter craft — both a per­fect pré­cis and thor­ough­ly-defined explo­ration of mis­er­able white sub­ur­ban­ites. They’re even namedunim­prov­ably, which reflects a qual­i­ty in care and atten­tion to detail that I very much appre­ci­ate. They are vain, vul­gar, impa­tient, self­ish­ly afraid, and care­less, freely feel­ing and say­ing it all direct­ly in front of their chil­dren. I love being told explic­it­ly which char­ac­ters to hate (no joke,) and in this case it’s the whole damned lot. Bri­an Tay­lor and Nico­las Cage scream it over and over (as I’d like to imag­ine) a sin­gle after­noon of one-take film­ing, con­sid­er­ing that the lat­ter took it upon him­self to first mem­o­rize the entire screen­play and its prose, vanil­la to per­fec­tion, before pho­tog­ra­phy began, and I hope it all stays with him for­ev­er, espe­cial­ly “my mom is such a penis.”

Mom and Dad could con­ceiv­ably be Nico­las Cage’s I Am Leg­end if for no oth­er rea­son than the total lack of pos­si­ble stand-ins for Brent Ryan — even the stan­dard by which all white sub­ur­ban Dad per­for­mances have been mea­sured in the 21st cen­tu­ry, Jason Bate­man. Nick him­self described it as “punk rock, rebel­lious, irrev­er­ent, orig­i­nal, badass,” and the “num­ber one” movie he’s made in the past ten years (dis­qual­i­fy­ing Nation­al Trea­sure, in case you were wor­ried.) No sur­prise, I must agree — this one is a won­der­ful­ly rau­cous and fer­al thing, but the scene involv­ing the attempt­ed mur­der of a new­born by her moth­er (Kendall’s sis­ter) came very close to cross­ing the line. How­ev­er, I am old and the inten­si­ty of my pater­nal instincts has prob­a­bly out­paced my under­stand­ing of them. You could also argue, of course, that push­ing such bound­aries is a core func­tion of a film like Mom and Dad. Nobody end­ed up vom­it­ing or any­thing.

This fun thing shouldn’t feel as for­eign as it does in cin­e­ma, but you already knew that. With all its implic­it grap­ples with over­pop­u­la­tion, kids and gun vio­lence, class, and racism — tru­ly, this is a film charged elec­tri­cal­ly with cur­rent issues. Or maybe not. Ulti­mate­ly, I can at least tell you for cer­tain that Bri­an Tay­lor made expo­nen­tial­ly bet­ter use of his resources (I couldn’t find a sol­id num­ber for its pro­duc­tion bud­get) than the Fuck­ing Spierig Broth­ers did with Win­ches­ter (just so you know what a dis­as­ter looks like,) and man­aged to be refresh­ing­ly orig­i­nal (aston­ish­ing that nobody’s had this spe­cif­ic idea before.) A spec­tac­u­lar riot, Mom and Dad does all you could pos­si­bly want it to do. With just eighty-three min­utes to lose, it’s worth the com­mit­ment just to hear Nico­las Cage whim­per and say “anal beads.”