Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Smoking in the Ruins

 Now then: in the fall of 1992, my then-fiancĂ© and I bought a house together. We fell in total and complete love with this wrong-side-of-the-tracks, falling-down-around-itself 1867 farmhouse. Because that's the sort of thing you do when you don't have kids. Oh and also, I was 22. (He was not.)

The first thing that happened was simple: a knock on the door. Don and I were curled up in the back bedroom, in the TV room, when we heard a knock on our front door one night. Sewanee is a small town, and people take walks at night, and there was some curiosity about what we'd done to the old farmhouse, so it didn't seem all that strange. So we struggled up and righted our clothing (ahem) and made it to the front door. And. . . no one was there. Kind of weird, because there was no one on the road either — no sign of anyone, for a long way in either direction. Well, maybe it had taken us longer to get our pants back on that we had thought. But I stood there kind of confounded, and a little irritated at whoever had just knocked and ran, and while I was standing there, all of a sudden there was a knock at the back door, off the kitchen. The knock was REALLY loud. Oh! I thought. They just went around to the side of the house! So I raced back there and opened the door, and. . . no one there.

Looking back, it's scarier than it was at the time. It will sound ridiculous, but it didn't occur to me that anything was amiss other than some prankful neighbors.

I can remember one night, before the house was fully renovated. We were sort of camping out in the back of the house, and every morning at dawn the contractors would arrive, whistling cheerfully and asking if we wanted some of their coffee. It was a blissfully happy time. Anyway, one night Don had gone back over to his old apartment, because we were sort of living in three different places at the time, and it was just me at the house for a bit, and I realized hey, this was the first time I had really been alone there, just free to wander around. So I wandered into the oldest part of the house, which we were stripping down to the studs to re-plaster according to 19th-century methods. And I ran my hand over those sturdy, beloved old boards; I wandered from room to room, looking at the noble bones of this house, thinking of all the life it had seen, and all the life it had yet to see. You've been through a lot, I said aloud. But I can promise you it gets better from here on out. We're going to take such good care of you. We're here now. We're here, and we're never going anywhere, I promise. I felt such peace, such warmth.

I should never, never have said that.

The things we experienced in the house were minor — never large, overwhelming things, always things it was easy to rationalize and ignore. The knockings, for instance. I look back and think I should never have opened the door that night. I am an insomniac at all times, and I would hear footsteps at night, particularly down the hall in the kitchen. Once, a friend was going to stay with us when he was in town for a wedding, and I heard him open the front door around 1 AM and come in. Oh good, I thought, Alex is here, and we can have breakfast together in the morning. I stayed awake for a while, listening to the homey sounds of Alex rummaging in the kitchen — opening and closing cabinet doors, walking with heavy tread, all the things a man does when he thinks he is being quiet. In the morning I got up and couldn't find him anywhere. He had never been there, of course.

That was about the time we started finding it impossible to keep housesitters.

We traveled down to see my mother in Florida quite a bit, and most of the time we would leave our coonhound and beagle and calico kitty in Sewanee, with a student as housesitter. They never said yes to a second gig, however, which we thought was strange — we paid well, and the house was pretty damn nice. Once, a student confessed and told us it was because he was afraid — he had woken in the night to hear my cello being played in the living room, just the strings idly plucked, up and down, up and down. I'm sure there were worse things, things we were never told. It was as though the house kept things fairly restrained while we were around, but when we weren't — well, then the tantrums would start.

Evil is childish. It isn't rational. It is a spoiled, illogical child.

Through events we never planned on, we ended up having to leave Sewanee. It wasn't financially feasible to hold onto the house and rent it, so we decided to sell. We knew we would make good money on it, having renovated it so well and with such attention to historic detail, and housing on the mountain is always at a premium anyway. So we made an agreement with a local realtor, and had our very first house showing, to a woman who was so eager she all but made us an offer on the spot.

That night, my house burned.

The official story is, the fireplace exploded. Now, this was a Rumford box fireplace, designed by me and crafted by local stonemasons. The fire in it that had been banked and ashed before we left was made by Don, who had been using fires as the main source of heat for 25 years. My point is, he didn't make a mistake. The fire department that saved what they could of our house, and that investigated the fire, knew that he didn't make a mistake. But when you have a fire department staffed by your students, and run by your friends and colleagues, they help you out. I can tell you what happened, the fire investigator told us. The down sofa was the ignition point. Someone would have had to have taken live coals and scatter them all over the sofa, which is all the way across the room from the fireplace. The only way is if someone did that. But your house was locked when we arrived, and there is no sign there was an intruder here. So we're going to put down 'explosion,' and say that's how the fire ignited the sofa.

There was no trace of an explosion in the completely unharmed and intact Rumford box, of course. But people help you out, in a small town. For insurance purposes, we needed an easily explicable fire.

We were heartbroken, of course. Our cat died in the fire; our dogs barely survived. That house was tight as a drum — flawlessly plastered, with Pella windows. It burned hot as the hinges. When they opened the front door, the backdraft would have killed inexperienced firefighters.

We called our contractor and told him to do it all again. We would pay for it with the insurance money. We just didn't want to have any part of it. The pain of the fire, of losing our cat, of having to leave Sewanee on top of everything — it was just too much. We trusted our contractor, who was a good friend, to know what to do, and he did.

Once, during the rebuild, I stopped by to see how things were progressing. I had our goofy coonhound with us, and as I came up the walk I turned her loose and let her do what she loved to do, which was run through the front door at the speed of light, slide on her long legs all the way down the long shotgun hall, then crash into the back wall like a stupid baby giraffe. I am grinning now thinking about her doing that, and how much she loved it. It made me happy that day to see enough of the house restored for her to do that, just like old times. Only the house was full of contractors that day, and when Mariah (that was our coonhound) clattered down the hall like a freight train, they all screamed. Screamed. Not even kidding — a big burly crew of local workmen, and they screamed like second-grade girls.

What's wrong? I said. They were clearly freaked out.

Just before I had arrived, the house had started to shake. Every part of it, like it was an earthquake. They couldn't figure out what was happening — they were yelling and screaming. And then, bang! the door to the back bedroom slammed shut on the workman who was painting in there. He tried the knob, but it wouldn't turn. He was locked in. He started yelling and banging on the door. The house's shaking intensified. Hearing these men tell this story, I can't describe how cold my blood ran. These were sturdy local men, and they had no interest in making anything up. Their hands were shaking.

And then, just like that, everything had stopped. The door had opened, the house had stilled, and that had been the moment when Mariah had burst through the door and I had arrived.

That crew quit, and our contractor had to find new guys. I didn't go back to the house again.

What's worse — a house full of evil that wants to hurt you, or a house full of evil that loves you and longs for you?

The hell of it is, I love that house still. It will always be home for me, in a way no other place ever will. If someone said, you can have it back, I would say yes in a red hot minute. In my dreams, it is always my home; in dreams, I walk through it again, and everything is just where I last laid it down, the last afternoon I lived there, and we are home again. I suspect that when I die, that will be the door I walk through. Some things you can't undo, inside you.

We've had trouble since then, off and on. Maybe it was never the house; maybe it's just me. We live in a house now that's almost as old, with just as fraught a history. When we moved in, we had trouble. The kids would say they heard me calling them from another room; once our daughter's picture was smashed. Once a toothbrush flew across the room. Fuck that, we said. I left with the kids and Don stayed, and a priest came to bless the house. An Orthodox priest, so we are talking holy oil and incense and blessed candles and the whole thing. That night Don spent in the house alone, the night before we had scheduled the priest, he said things got wild. He said he could hardly sleep because of all the noise in the attic, like someone throwing furniture.

I know those noises, because I have heard them lots in my life, in other places too. Like I said, maybe it was never the house. Maybe something's wrong with me, inside of me.

Anyway, when we got our house here blessed, the back door blew open and slammed shut in the middle of it.

Good fucking riddance, I thought. But the priest stopped, obviously scared out of his mind. What, I wanted to say. Did you think what you were doing wasn't real? Now get back to saying those prayers.

Yeah, you bet your ass I believe in house blessings. I believe in the ontological power of the priesthood to scare the shit out of evil. And I believe that we cajole ourselves into thinking about "good ghosts" and "benign presences" because we want to think that evil isn't real, and that surely our own presence is a kind of blessing. 

There isn't any moral to this story, or any resolution, or even any climactic scare. There's only this thing that happened to us once, and that I carry in me always. Thank you for letting me share it here, and for this space in which I can share this most intimate, painful thing. I will share this one last story about 328 Bobtown Road: the morning after the fire, I was sitting stunned on our front porch, surrounded by the charred wreckage of our house and furniture. My friend Lisa drove up, and she came and sat on the edge of the porch with me, because that's what you do when there are no words. After a while she offered me a cigarette, and we sat there and smoked, and I thought about the irony of that, but it still tasted good. And then Lisa looked around at all the whitish bits of fluff floating everywhere on the breeze.

Is that, she said, and stopped. Is that. . .  the cat?

I looked at her, incredulous. And then I remember lying back on the porch, and the feel of the cool stone against my back, and laughing. Just laughing my fool head off until I cried. No Lisa, I said. That is not my fucking CAT, that's the down SOFA, you idiot! And she laughed too, and we were both laughing and smoking and lying there in the wreckage, but everything was going to be okay.

In my dreams, I am home again.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Man of Feels

So I’ve finally watched Man of Steel all the way through, and I’m puzzled at all the visceral dislike I’ve read and seen in the past year. I thought there were parts of it that were just beautifully done, and parts that were a bit eye-rolly (though no more eye-rolly than your average superhero movie, that’s for sure.)
I am most puzzled by two criticisms I’ve heard leveled at the film: a) Clark would never let his father die like that, and b) Clark would never kill somebody. I confess I’m stumped as to why people grimace at those perfectly reasonable actions — actions which the script actually underpinned and provided answers for — and yet are okay with bizarre editing choices like, now we shall suddenly be standing in the middle of a field holding hands.
First off, Clark didn’t let his father die. He obeyed his father’s wishes, even at the price of his own grief and agony. Every instinct in him demanded that he rush to his father and save him, but what stopped him? His father’s single raised hand. The most powerful being on the planet, and a middle-aged farmer stopped him—froze him to the spot, actually—with a single gesture. And that, as Mako Mori has reminded us, is called respect. 
Secondly, what? What the hell is up with the “Superman doesn’t kill” bullshit? Oh, okay, I guess since Batman doesn’t use guns, he doesn’t glorify violence at all, either. Come on. In any realistic narrative, that kind of absolutist pacifism allows the main character to preserve his cherished principles at the expense of actual human lives. He tried to avoid killing Zod. He begged him to stop. And it wasn’t until Zod’s own avowal of “Never" that Clark grasped the reality of what Zod’s resistance meant: an all-powerful homicidal maniac who would never stop until he had killed as many as possible. And even then—even then—Clark does not take the action in cold blood, on some sort of vague principle, but in order to save these four specific human lives. It’s the triumph of specificity over abstraction, of flesh and blood over thought and brain. And it’s an agonizing choice, one that he realizes may well damn him, and he screams at having to do it. 
I think this characterization is entirely in keeping with the Superman of the reboot I have come to enjoy—a vastly more complex character, in many ways, than pre-boot Supes. I think the re-worked origin story, the one of hiding and lurking, is brilliant. It allows us to see a Clark who grows into the knowledge and use of his powers, who slowly acquires comfort with them, who begins with the small and the specific — I will save this one person, defend this one woman — and eventually comes to see the full scope of his responsibility. I can believe in that Clark, and trust him more. His own distrust of himself, his own wariness, makes me trust him. So yeah, I think the Clark who hides was a brilliant re-write, and a way of adding fascinating depth and complexity to a character whose chief problem has always been his relative lack of complexity. 
Undoing the narrative about the necessity of lying to women, that was another good thing. Hurray for a Lois Lane who did not require a gasp-inducing reveal, but who figured things out on her own and tracked him to his home turf, and hurray for a Superman who does not find it necessary to build his love life on a deception. I’m still never going to be a Lois Lane fan, because I’m always going to be profoundly bothered by a character who was created for the sole and only purpose of being a love object for the male main character. But this Lois made an engaging point-of-view character, and Amy Adams overcame more than a few awkward lines (“I’m a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter!”) to deliver a likable performance. I did not hate this Lois, let’s put it that way, and that’s progress, for me. 
What could I have lived without? The cynical decision to market this movie to American evangelical Christians, who were frequently pandered to. I wasn’t that bothered by the cruciform Clark floating in the water (that is kind of how people float, after all, and to the degree that the shot evoked anything it successfully evoked death, surrender, and suffering) but I was bothered by the ham-handed Gethsemane moment, when Clark, uncertain what to do, stumbles into a church and bares his soul to a priest while backgrounded by a stained glass window of Gethsemane. Yes, we get it. On this earth for thirty-three years. Yes, we got that too. You said it twice. 
(As a side note, I’m fascinated that the religious landscape in this country has shifted so dramatically that evangelicals can watch and sympathize with a scene where a Catholic church stands for American religion — just more evidence of the growing coziness between evangelicals and Catholics, both politically and theologically. But that’s just my particular interest showing.)
I could also have lived without the flags snapping in the distance. That’s another reason I enjoy the rebooted Superman, and not just because nobody looks good in red granny panties. If Superman is being re-imagined as a hero for the entire planet, and if the days of “truth, justice, and the American way” are truly behind us, then maybe a little less with the flag-waving as Clark and the Colonel finally make their peace. It was another example of a pandering visual that this story did not need, and the background image-wedding of religion and patriotism is one that any American alive to what is going on in our country right now ought to cringe at.
But finally, there are too many things to love about this movie to be off-put by the minor visual irritants. Laurence Fishburne, for cryin out Christmas. Richard Schiff! Christopher Meloni! I have no idea who should actually orchestrate our defense in the event of a galactic supervillain invasion, but I say we could do worse than elect Toby Zeigler and Detective Stabler. Stabler can hold him down and cuff the son of a bitch while Toby rants at him in an impassioned speech about how we can do better, dammit. (I would totally watch that movie, so read this review bearing that in mind.)
But in all honesty, I was sold on the movie in the first fifteen minutes when RUSSELL CROWE RODE A FUCKING DRAGON. I’m serious, what the hell else are you looking for in a cinematic experience? You tell me what you are fucking looking for, you tell me what your goddamn needs are that are not fulfilled by that.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Switching on all the Lights

My mother believes her body is out to get her.

In fairness, her body has been trying to kill her since she was 23 years old, when she was first diagnosed with lupus. Systemic lupus erythematosus turns the body against itself. If AIDS can be explained as the massive failure of the body's immune responses, lupus is the equally massive overachievement of the immune system, in which the body's own defenses recognize internal organs as intruders, and start to eat them. There isn't a cure.

Back in the 40s, when Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed, they sent you home to die. In the 70s, when my mother was diagnosed, they gave you choking doses of steroids that could slow the disease's progress, if they didn't kill you first. The steroids didn't manage to kill her, and neither did the lupus; for some reason best known to God, the killing machine in her body ground to a halt after it had eaten her kidneys and just as its maw was stretched wide for the final bloody chomp. It was like that moment in the Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston stops the terrible machinery of the pyramid-building just in time to save Martha Scott from being crushed to powder beneath the huge stones.

I watched this scene in the Ten Commandments a lot when I
was a kid. I'm sure that doesn't explain anything.
The narrative of the almost-death, the almost-absence, the I-could-be-gone-again-at-any-moment, dominated my childhood. Because that's the thing about lupus; just as it can stop at any moment, so it can restart, for no reason at all. The switch can be flipped, the gears can whirr again, and the assembly line you are strapped to can start chugging you toward the steel teeth once more. I say all this to make it clear that when I say my mother is a hypochondriac, that doesn't mean her body isn't actually trying to kill her, because it is. Like the woman who survives a mugging only to visualize an attacker behind every tree, my mother has no more reason to trust the medical establishment, pharmacology, or her own body.

She hyperventilates if she experiences gas pains. A slight fever is a certain indicator of death, and any pressure in the chest means she is having a heart attack. If she is winded on the stairs, there is fluid in her lungs that the scans just aren't seeing; if her eyes burn, she is having a drug reaction. Sometimes, to tell the truth, I feel as though the lupus did kill her—or at least, the part of her that I never got to know, the part that was joyful and fearless, the part of her that didn't keep careful maps of shark attacks in a hundred-mile radius whenever my children go to the beach, the part of her that didn't know how many armed robberies occurred at every fast food restaurant in her city, that didn't see an asteroid hurtling to earth behind every cloudless day.

On a practical level, this makes her a pain in the ass when she is actually sick.

I've been spending the summer helping her through post-surgical recovery from a knee preplacement (one of the joys of longterm steroid use being its destruction of your joints) and let me tell you, we are getting on like a house afire. Several houses, actually, maybe the whole block. With flaming people hurling themselves out of upper windows screaming, and dead pets.

People who say sickness brings people closer together know jack shit about being sick. Or maybe they're right, and I'm just an asshole. Pull it together, I wanted to shout at her last night in the emergency room. We were in the emergency room because she had decided that she has stomach cancer, because the pain meds have been tearing up her stomach for days. And with every reassuring pat I gave, I got angrier. Why couldn't she be brave? Why did she have to cry like that? Why couldn't she just suck it up? And even if she were dying, why did she have to act like death was the single most awful thing that could ever happen to someone?

As a parent, there's really only one thing I want to teach my children, and it is this: Be not afraid. In both Hebrew and Christian holy texts, the first moment of a theophany is always those words: Be not afraid. Fear not. God is the mother walking blithely into a darkened room ahead of her child and flipping on the light switch. See? I told you there were no monsters! If we have one job as parents, it must surely be to say those words over and over and over to our children, in capital letters: Be Not Afraid.

We say it because we know that fear is the single most destructive path we can walk as humans. It's the path that leads to hate, ignorance, and darkness. God is constantly peeling our tight fists away from our faces and leading us into the sunlight. See what a beautiful world I have made for you. Be not afraid.

We should not ignore, in this discusion about the destructive power of fear, that other great holy text of our days, Finding Nemo. My kids will tell you my ability to watch this movie without breaking down in tears is next door to my ability to kill and dispose of a cockroach unaided, which is to say, never going to happen in this dimension or any other. Because Nemo is all about fear, of course: Marlin's fear for his son, Marlin's fear of loss, Marlin's fear of threats from the world beyond. I just wanted nothing to ever happen to him! he shouts in despair, and Dory just looks at him and says, well, that's kinda weird, because then. . . . nothing would ever happen to him.

Nemo is also about how your dad and his gay best friend are not
going to get together, ever, and you should probably stop wishing it. 

As I was holding my mother's hand at two in the morning in the emergency room last night, I wanted to say so many things to her, none of which I said. I wanted to say, a lot has happened to me, and all your fear never bought me a single minute of safety. I wanted to say, I wouldn't trade any of it, because it was all wonderful, and messy, and terrifying, and mine. I wanted to say, let go. Be not afraid.

But I didn't.

I argued with doctors and nurses, and cried with her when there was pain, and gritted my teeth at her when she complained, and wrapped her in a warm blankie when I didn't know what else to do. Soon enough, it will be me small and helpless and curled on a bed, and one of my children will be writing some blog about how annoying I am, and why can't I just be a better person. I don't know. There isn't some pat ending here. None of us wants to die, and all of us do it, and it sucks. I guess we just keep swimming. I guess we try not to be afraid. I guess we swim with the current, and bounce off the jellyfish, and hope like hell we can get where we need to go, and hang onto the people we need to love.

But I'm afraid.

Monday, July 22, 2013

God Save Us, Everyone

I've considered about four different captions for this,
but really there just are no words.
Here you go, a royal story that has nothing to do with the new baby. Back in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, there was television, but no transatlantic cables that could transmit it (much less satellites.) So the American film crews that had been on hand for the coronation had to stuff their footage into cans, race to the plane, and edit it over the Atlantic so it would be ready to roll the minute they were wheels down in New York.

It was the world's first major international event to be televised, and I once read an interview with William S. Paley, head of CBS at the time, from a couple of years before his death in 1990, in which he reminisced about it. He talked about that flight, and how they set up screens in the back of the plane, frantically splicing and editing, and he said at one point he looked around, and every single tech, journalist, and editor on that place was gathered around watching, riveted, many of them with wet eyes. And at that moment, he said, he got it. He realized that what they were watching was the closing ceremonies of World War II. He said there was a real sense, on that plane, that this was the final closed door on that whole awful period: that somehow, watching that slight young woman say those solemn words was the nail in Hitler's coffin. Because of course, if Hitler had had his way, there never would have been an independent England at all, much less a coronation. And just as images of London standing unbowed under the blitz inspired the free world to stand firm and continue to resist, so Elizabeth in that moment stood for all who had died, as well as all the living who vowed to move forward into those "broad, sunlit uplands" of which Churchill spoke.

So yes, I do think we should care about this royal baby. I think we should care tremendously, because it is tremendously important. I think the British monarchy is tremendously important. It's true that the U.S. is not a member of the British Commonwealth, having left the realm in rebellious circumstances. But we are the de facto leader of that Commonwealth, the eldest daughter, if you will. Where Canada and Australia and New Zealand and England and South Africa and India stand, there assuredly stands the United States—bound in that same brotherhood of shared history, language, and culture. It may be an uncomfortable family, and elbows might get thrown around the holiday table, but in the end we know who our mother is.

Symbols matter, and as symbols go there aren't many older than the British monarchy. At some point in this little baby boy's life, God willing, he will stand where his great-grandmother stood in Westminster Abbey and take that coronation oath. He will be raised to take that oath, raised to be consecrated to the service of his country. It's a mind-boggling, almost barbaric idea. He doesn't have a choice about what he is going to be. I'm not sure that there's enough money and privilege in the world to compensate someone for the loss of that choice. We like to think that everyone born into our world has a choice about the direction of his or her life, but the bitter truth is, for many children born in the world today, the idea of choice is a mockery. I would suggest that this little prince, in all his privileged choicelessness, can serve as a reminder—a powerful symbol—that there is a nobility to that kind of life. You can be robbed of your choice before you are even born, and still you can live a life of dignity, worth, and ultimate humanity. The choiceless life can be a grace-filled life.

America has been acting her part of periodically estranged, continually conflicted eldest daughter today: for every excited exclamation of delight about this royal baby, there are (by my completely accurate head count on various social media) at least seventeen thousand of righteous disgust—protestations that we fought a war not to have to listen to this shit, that they're all just mindless parasites, that none of this matters today. And maybe all that's true, to a degree. But symbols matter. History matters. In celebrating this baby we can celebrate all children born to a choiceless life. In acknowledging the line of history that this baby stands in, we can affirm the continuance of history's march, and our own place in it. I don't apologize for caring, and for all its occasional silliness, I think the media coverage of this royal baby has been a good and unifying thing. I think the world can do worse than to care about a baby being born.

So good luck, little prince. We may sing the wrong words to your national anthem (yeah, we don't know where Tisavy is either), we may have serious disagreements about spelling, and we may be giving your family the side-eye over here, but we're still the cool aunt who will splash gin in your lemonade and sneak you cigarettes underneath the table. You stick with us, little guy. Everything's gonna be fine.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Dark Knight trilogy

Now that the horrors of Aurora have been eclipsed by the horrors of Newtown, is it possible, one year later, to have a conversation about Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy that just discusses the films? Probably not. And that's probably as it should be. The Batman story itself was born of the gun control debate, back in the Golden Age of comics, as a nation traumatized by the rampant gangster culture of the 20s and 30s began to celebrate heroes who won their victories without guns, and whose mission was to destroy weaponized violence. Superheroes are the anti-gun, and none more so than Batman, who has no special powers to rely on to replace those guns: no X-ray vision, no superhuman strength, no resistance to pain and disease.

That debate is front-and-center in the final film in the trilogy. "About that whole no guns thing," says Selina Kyle, shooting her way to Batman's rescue. "I'm not sure I feel as strongly about it as you do." Batman himself may never touch a weapon, but there sure is an awful lot of shooting in Nolan's movies, and Batman's surrogates Catwoman and Robin are pretty comfortable slinging heat. That's just one among many sources of uneasy tension in Nolan's trilogy.

I'll be honest: I deliberately did not see these films when they came out. They looked like dark, murderous glorifications of violence, which felt like an insult to the meaning of Batman. I was also wary of the reboot for fannish reasons. I have loved comics, and the DC universe in particular, since I was a kid, and I didn't particularly want to watch some over-teched, slicked-out, hollow shell of a new incarnation. And also: Michael Keaton. What can I say, I'm loyal.

But there was plenty that I adored in Nolan's films, and plenty that only a true lover of this mythos could have produced. Let me just say Ra'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhulRa'sAlGhul!!! in a high-pitched squealy voice as many times as possible while flapping my hands, because man. Man. Did Nolan ever do justice to that villain, capturing the part of you that wants to love Ra's, wants to adore him. And doing justice by Talia — I really didn't see that one coming. Maybe I'm overly dismissive of Hollywood reboots, but part of me was surprised the writers even knew the name of Talia Al Ghul, much less the complexity of her relationship with Bruce Wayne. Every single villain was just spot-on, throughout this.

What else was awesome? The toys, of course. I realize every Batman reboot is under the technological gun to make the toys better and more exciting, but this really delivered. Nightwing said it best: the great thing about running with you, Bruce, is the toys. Gary Oldman was another gigantic slice of wonderful. His voice! I kept listening to that accent for any flaw and there never was one, not a single misstep. It was completely beautiful. He is the actor's actor, the male Meryl Streep, and anyone who said he wasn't beautiful enough to play Sirius Black should be punched in the face. (Though what is it, a law, that he has to wear that mustache alla time?)

I was less in love with some of the other parts of this trilogy. The loving attention to canon we saw with the villains was completely dispensed with when it came to Robin, and though I realize Joseph Gordon-Levitt's police officer gig was a nod to Nightwing's day job in Bludhaven, it still felt like we were creating Dick Grayson out of whole cloth instead of respecting the material. One of the biggest problems for me in any Batman reboot is its inevitable ignoring of this most basic element of the story: the push-pull tension between Batman as Lone Wolf, and Batman as family man. When he's not busy brooding on rainy rooftops and sulling in the Batcave, let us not forget the man does manage to raise four boys. That tug in two directions is the most complicated part of Batman's story, but it's not one I've ever seen handled well on the screen — well, the non-animated screen, because Under the Red Hood is the most beautiful and thorough exploration of that whole painful family dynamic out there. (No, Val Kilmer taking in Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever did not count, because explain to me who does not take in seventeen-year-old Chris O'Donnell.)

However, on the plus side was the suggestion of "Robin" taking on the mantle of Batman after Bruce's retirement. That much is canon, and that was fun to see. But all that goodwill the film was building in me got torn down by Anne Hathaway. Don't get me wrong: she was faaaabulous. Anne Hathaway could pick salami from her teeth and I'd still watch, and she was worth it and more in this. And then. . . she kissed Bruce Wayne. I'm sorry, was there anyone sitting in the theater who believed that one? Really? Mmmkay, that woman who lives with her and whom she defends and with whom she fleeces unsuspecting guys and who was just feeling her up three scenes ago — that was her cousin, right? Because I'm sure the studio didn't just slap some heteronormative bullshit on the gayest character in comics. Least sexy kiss in all of movie history.  

Only wood here is the acting, sorry.
Of course, that could have been a way to sew up the Alfred storyline tighter than it was, because that whole thing was left hanging like a four-year-old's pants after a potty trip. No two ways about it: Bruce treated Alfred shoddily. Alfred's sobs at Bruce's graveside tore my heart because they made me hate Bruce that little bit more, right in the final minutes of the trilogy, when the film really needed me to love him. Sorry, I can't wrap my head around a Bruce who treats Alfred poorly. BUT, if when Bruce sees him at that Florentine cafe, he had gone over to him, put a hand on his shoulder, sat down and said, "Alfred, I'd like you to meet my lesbian wife" — well, I feel like that would have gone a long way to setting things right between them.

But really, I've just been kicking sand around what truly bothers me about the Nolan trilogy, and that's Christian Bale. Look. I realize the cosmic unfairness of saying to an excellent actor, "Okay, we are going to wall you in a black Kevlar fortress so you can't really move your head and neck, and the only part of your body that will show is your lips. And then we're going to shove you onto the set and stand you next to Gary Oldman and Heath Ledger and Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman (and then, because we're not done kicking you in the groin like Batman in the final minutes of a hand-to-hand with Bane, next to MARION FUCKING COTILLARD) and then we're going to say, okay, ACT! And we will tilt our heads funny and make squinty faces because we're just not feeling it from you." So I recognize it's in many ways unfair to say that Bale's performance was the least exciting thing about this reboot, but there it is. Unfair to call a performance wooden when Batman is made of polished oak, but again, there it is. Bale was consistently stiff and awkward where Bruce Wayne needed to show emotion and vulnerability, and open and emotive where Bruce Wayne needed to be a closed wall. It was confusing at best.

I would like to think the plot holes are going to be resolved when Man of Steel, which Nolan is executive producing, comes out this summer. I have to say I'm with the legions of fangirls on this one: clearly, Batman was snatched from the blast radius by Superman. I know this because there is only one way to travel six miles in one minute forty-seven seconds, and that is safely tucked under Superman's well-muscled arm. It's just a commonplace of the DC universe that Batman will regularly feel the need to crash into something on a suicidal mission (a rocketship into a meteor in Public Enemies, the Watchtower into Earth in Justice League) and Superman will just as regularly rescue him, to Batman's intense annoyance. So this is how I know for a sure and certain fact that Clark Kent swooped in at the last moment to clear him from the blast radius while Bruce was shrieking, "You asshole, I'm goddamn gonna kill you!!" and Clark was sing-songing, "I'm the bigger he-ro, I'm the bigger he-ro."

Anyone around here have a measuring tape? 'Cause we
were just gonna, you know, um. . . compare some stuff. 
Hey, speaking of plot holes, how about that five-inch-wide one in Batman's ribs? You know the one, where Talia Al Ghul shoved her knife in between those armored plates and twisted that motherfucker? Yeah, it can take HOURS to die a painful death from that, and she sure looked like she knew what she was doing. That scene was exquisitely thrilling: oooh, I thought, it's going to be just like that final scene in Gladiator when evil Emperor Commodus shoves the knife under Maximus's breastplate and he has to go out there and fight while slowly bleeding out but he wins anyway even at the cost of his life because he is the goddamn Batman! Except not. Talia shoved her knife in, and that was the last we saw of that wound. Batman goes on to wrestle an armored truck and fly a nuclear bomb, because that Talia Al Ghul, she knifes like a girl. People who complain about abdominal wounds, they are just pussies I guess.

Nevertheless, my love for Nolan's vibrant re-imagining outweighs my reservations. "I loved everything about it but Bale" is as good a summary as any. Sometimes there is such a thing as being too beautiful, and finally I think that's Bale's problem. He just needs to let life punch him in the wide puppy-dog eyes a little bit more before he can sell me on Batman.

Still the prettiest, though.