I’ve been sharing random details about my situation as they were relevant, but I think it’s time to tell the complete story. The TL;DR version is short. My job has ended, and I’m looking for something new. If you want the rest of the context, keep reading after the jump.
I moved to Des Moines in August of 2011, to take a job as the Director of Research and Programs at the American Judicature Society. My primary work was studying judicial selection (how judges get to be judges in the first place). I conducted and managed grant funded research, wrote articles and opinion pieces, gave public presentations and legislative testimony. I also wound up writing press releases, updating the website and social media feeds, and the other things that people do at understaffed nonprofits.
I have to confess that I made the move somewhat reluctantly. After living my whole life near Philadelphia, and in the city proper for seven years before and after law school, my conception of Iowa was entirely consistent with my East Coast snobbery. I expected to be bored out of my skull, surrounded by people for whom corn (and the growing thereof) was the most exciting thing in their lives.
Instead, I discovered a vibrant, diverse, engaged community, with opportunities to experience culture, art, food and entertainment in an atmosphere that lacked a lot of the pretension and self-importance of a place like Philly. I’ve met some wonderful people, made invaluable personal and professional connections, and begun to identify with the community in way that was entirely unexpected.
Early in the summer of 2013, I found out that AJS was moving to Nashville, TN, and my position was going with it. I was faced with the prospect of starting over in another unfamiliar city, or staying in Des Moines and finding a new job after the end of September. Neither option was exactly exciting, but after a lot of thought, the safety and familiarity of the job didn’t mean as much to me as the people and organizations that have become a part of my life in Iowa.
What’s important to remember when I talk about Des Moines is that I haven’t exactly grown out of my elitism. I’m still very much a city person. I value a certain amount of culture, sophistication and tolerance. Des Moines has all of those things in abundance, and it’s become a place that I’m proud to call home.
The last thing I need to make this place perfect is a job where I can challenge myself, put my skills, education and experience to good use, and hopefully give back to this community that I prize so highly. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m confident that it’s out there, out here, in this city that I’m so happy to be a part of.
Yes, I’m busy at work, and yes, I’m under a lot of stress, and yes, I’m mired in a half-dozen other necessary things aimed at ameliorating some of that stress. But god damn it, I haven’t written anything (beyond a handful of halfway amusing social media posts) that wasn’t for work in almost a year. This is unacceptable.
Why is it unacceptable? It’s not as though the public is clamoring for my creative output. There’s not exactly a serious demand for another blog post/hastily sketched comic/sarcastic bit of advice. If I surrender to the creeping stultification of age and anxiety, would anyone actually notice? I am far too old and anxious to delude myself that they would.
The reason it’s unacceptable is because I’m consenting to the complete waste of whatever nascent talent and creativity I actually possess. Like any skill, being pithy and/or clever and/or informative and/or eloquent needs to be practiced. By letting whatever meager ability I had lie completely fallow, I’m allowing it to wither, and the longer I neglect it, the harder it will be to revive it. If I permit my schedule and my anxiety (not to mention my abject fear that I’m not half as clever as I think I am) to keep me from at least trying to reconnect with those abilities, it’s only going to get more difficult.
So here’s what I need to do. Fucking write once in awhile. Or more than once in awhile, but c’mon, we both know I’m not going to suddenly overcome every hangup I have about how much I suck and pump out a novel or something. Let’s try a baby step or two, shall we?
At the end of June, I took a trip back to the East Coast to attend a conference, see my daughter, and catch up with friends and family, many of whom I hadn’t seen since I moved to Iowa. While I was in South Jersey visiting my parents, this happened:
No, I don’t mean that Charlize Theron showed up to narrate my trip in a preposterous English accent. Rather, my father and I wound up going to see a Friday night showing of Snow White and The Huntsman, starring Ms. Theron and Kristen Stewart (who apparently had some free time after lucking into a role as perhaps the least-inspiring female lead ever in the billion-dollar grossing Twilight movies).
I go to the movies so infrequently that I wanted desperately to enjoy a “grown-up” take on the venerable fairy tale.* So I am deliberately going to say some nice things about the film before I crack my knuckles and beat it like a Mafia snitch. So here goes.
First, the movie passes the Bechdel test, the incredibly low bar suggested by cartoonist Alison Bechdel for categorizing movies that take female characters even somewhat seriously. For a movie to pass, it must 1) have two named female characters, who 2) talk to each other directly 3) about something other than a man. Stewart’s Snow White (yes, that’s her real name, not a title or a nickname) and Theron’s Ravenna talk at several key points during the film, about things like beauty and vanity and the way that a perfect face and a flawless bustline are really the best way for a girl to get ahead in this crazy medieval world.
Second, it’s at least mildly encouraging that the film features a reasonably strong female character on either side of the conflict. Snow White needs rescuing a bit more often than I’d have liked, but not nearly as much as in the Disney version. She’s resourceful and resilient, and (as writer/researcher Ben Radford noted on Facebook) she apparently has the stamina to run up several flights of stairs wearing plate mail that should weigh as much as she does. And Ravenna is a cruel, conniving monster, a slave to the literal truth that she can only stay powerful if she remains young and beautiful. So she’s either a deliberate comment on a culture that’s obsessed with female youth and beauty, or an attempt to sell makeup products to shell-shocked Twilight moms. I honestly can’t tell.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to point out that I didn’t say anything about what many other reviews have characterized as a strength of the film, that, whatever one thinks of the the caliber of the story, it was beautifully shot and visually arresting. The thing is, the film was beautifully shot and visually arresting. And it was almost entirely lifted from other, better movies.
Its most obvious influence, cinematographic and otherwise, seems to be The Princess Bride, but there are scenes that look like outtakes from films as varied as Batman Begins, Saving Private Ryan, Transformers, Terminator 2, Braveheart and What Dreams May Come, with unimaginatively costumed “medieval” characters greenscreened in as necessary. In nearly every scene, Theron emotes so hysterically that she could be auditioning for a remake of Mommy Dearest.** Take that mixture, force it through a small pinhole carved into the back of J.R.R. Tolkien’s skull, feed it to Peter Jackson, and you could recreate SWATH by transcribing his dream journal. The disparate shots are so obviously cribbed from other films that they don’t hang together, and the jarring transition from set piece to set piece wound up feeling like a liability rather than a virtue.
There really is the germ of a decent story buried in that mess, like a lone rose growing in a landfill. The idea of a competent, capable Snow White, who decides to go kick her evil stepmother’s ass instead of hiding in the woods, is a compelling one, and is the reason why I was curious to see the film in the first place. Unfortunately, casting Kristen Stewart (and the wet paper sack in which she keeps her charisma) as the titular character strangled that story about a clash of dynamic women in its narrative sleep.
I’m loathe to discuss the aesthetics of actresses, who, by virtue of being female and famous, are already subjected to the kind of scrutiny about their appearance that would make an experienced counterfeiter wake up in a cold sweat. Unfortunately, the whole premise of the film, aside from wringing pocket money out of disaffected teenage girls, is that Stewart’s Snow White has, at long last, grown up to surpass Theron’s Ravenna as “the fairest of them all.”
I would like to state in no uncertain terms that I do not want to live in a world where Kristen Stewart is generally considered “fairer” than Charlize Theron. And it’s not about aesthetics. These women have both played lead roles in massive Hollywood films, so they reach a certain ill-defined and impossible to reproduce minimum standard of Hollywood pretty. Whether you prefer the energy of youth to the confidence of maturity, or blond to brunette, that’s your personal preference, and I wouldn’t begin to impinge upon it.
The reason I can’t get behind the idea that Kristen Stewart is more attractive than Charlize Theron, at least in this film, is because Kristen Stewart has all the charm of wet lumber, and her Snow White doesn’t have the brains that evolution granted a small, yappy dog. I stated earlier that Theron’s Ravenna is a monster, and she is, but she’s a calculating, conniving, manipulative monster. She’s sizes up powerful men, figures out their weaknesses (which oddly enough always reside in their genitals) and exploits them. She figures shit out. By contrast, Show White’s flash of inspiration is to get everyone she knows to grab a horse and a sword and go charging off down the beach into a flurry of arrow fire. It’s got a very tiny element of surprise, but on the whole it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face.
It’s made worse by Stewart herself, who seems to have hung her entire burgeoning career on the ability to breathe dramatically. In a scene near the end of the film, which requires Stewart to look anxious in an off-the-shoulder gown, you can literally see her collarbones disappear and reappear with every heaving gasp. If she could emote half as well with her face and voice as she can with her lungs, she might have been able to pull off the meant-to-be-inspiring, rouse-the-troops-for-a-suicide-mission-speech in an earlier scene, which instead is delivered with all the obvious passion of the teenage manager of a fast-food restaurant encouraging the people at the french fry station to step once more unto the salty, golden-brown breach. Theron only sounds two notes in the film – gale force hysteria and stony silence – but that’s one more than Stewart manages to hit.
“But what of the titular Huntsman,” you ask, mostly because you think “titular” sounds kind of naughty, and you want to see how many times I’ll use it in a single review. Chris Thor Hemsworth is serviceable (and vaguely Scottish?) as the grouchy outdoorsman sent to retrieve Snow White after she escapes Ravenna’s clutches. He isn’t as bombastic as when he’s playing the saucy Marvel deity, which is odd, since Hemsworth seems not to have gotten the memo given to the rest of the cast, which simply read act harder.
At its heart, Snow White and The Huntsman seems like a sincere attempt to rescue the essence of the Snow White mythos from its treatment at the soft, knowing hands of Walt Disney, an attempt that was ultimately derailed by a script groaning under the weight of its own cliché, direction that prizes screaming over subtlety and cinematography too blatantly lifted from other films to create a believable visual space. Although for film buffs, that last part might be a hidden saving grace; a shot-by-shot round of “spot the inspiration” might make an entertaining drinking game.
* I deliberately didn’t use the word “adult,” because we all know that an “adult” version of Snow White would feature a far more genitally-oriented cinematic experience. Although, as it turns out, roughly the same caliber of dialogue.
** A slightly more cynical reviewer might suggest that Theron’s performance must have doubled the film’s construction budget for, since she was doubtless on set chewing on the scenery before the cameras started rolling.
I posted on Facebook, musing about an old project that I occasionally miss. The following exchange occurred in the comments:
Dear Little Bald Bastard,
As I get older, I notice that I keep getting more bald, while you get less bald. Help.
-Hairless in Hackensack
It turns out that hair loss is negatively correlated with student loan debt. I have to keep a gas-powered string trimmer in my bathroom just to stay ahead of it. If I skip it over the weekend, by Monday morning, I look like the early-90s version of Nelson. (All of them.)
The Iowa Constitution (Article I, §6) says “the General Assembly shall not grant any citizen or a class of citizens privileges or immunities which upon the same terms should not equally belong to all citizens.” In 2009, The Iowa Supreme Court interpreted this to mean that, if the Assembly grants straight people a state-sanctioned marriage, it has to grant that privilege equally to gay people. (Because, last I checked, homosexuality wasn’t grounds for revoking citizenship. And if gay people are gay citizens, then the privilege has to be extended to them equally.)
The Republican Party of Iowa (slogan: First In The Nation) calls this “unelected activist judges attempting to impose their personal views on the public.” (Those crazy judicial activists. They looked at the word “equally,” and forgot the part that says “except teh queers,” which isn’t actually in there, but c’mon, we know that’s what it means, right?) The Iowa GOP has decided that Justice David Wiggins should be removed from the bench, apparently for the heinous crime of disagreeing with them about what the word “equally” means.
Their press release is stuffed so full of boilerplate rhetoric about arrogant, unelected judges that it could have been written by a cliché-heavy chatbot, but I’ll give you just a taste of the magic that it contains. (Emphasis added for later parsing.)
“In 2010 Iowa voters chose to dismiss three activist judges who allowed their own politics to influence their obligation to uphold the Iowa Constitution. These three were among a handful of judges who chose to disregard years of legal precedent on the status of marriage and how it was to be defined. Instead of allowing the people of Iowa to decide this issue at the polls, these judges instead chose to impose their will upon the state and re-write history without weighing the merits of our laws and values. Regardless of political pressure or the state of cultural affairs at the moment, it is the people of Iowa through our elections that must be permitted to decide this important issue.”
Their own politics: The Iowa GOP has just stated publicly that discrimination against homosexuals is a political issue. Voting Republican is a vote for bigotry, folks.
Disregard years of legal precedent: This is code for “we passed a marriage amendment in 1998, and the first time it was challenged in court, it was ruled unconstitutional.” So it’s what those of us who care about such things colloquially refer to as “completely incorrect.”
Allowing the people of Iowa to decide this issue at the polls: By virtue of living in a constitutional republic, the voters of Iowa have the final say about this issue. Although you wouldn’t know it from this press release, there is already a mechanism for allowing the voters to decide this issue. It’s called amending the Iowa Constitution, and the process is clearly defined in Article X, §1. If you want the voters to decide, get an amendment on the ballot, or STFU.
Without weighing the merits: It’s true! The court ignored all the briefs submitted by the parties at the trial stage and in preparation for the appeal, the longer-than-usual oral argument, and the 24 amicus curae briefs submitted on both sides of the issue. The justices had a vigorous round of Rock/Paper/Scissors to decide the outcome, and drew straws to see who would get stuck writing the opinion. Then Justice (now Chief Justice) Mark Cady (who was appointed to the court by notorious liberal activist Terry Branstad) drew the short straw. Most of the nearly 70 page opinion in Varnum v. Brien consists of transcribed internal musings about what Justice Cady was planning to have for lunch that day. The remaining six justices signed the opinion by email from their beachfront villa in Cabo San Lucas. (A confused Justice Hecht, apparently the only justice aside from Cady to read the opinion, tried to order a Cobb salad.)
The state of cultural affairs: In keeping with their statement that the Iowa GOP is committed politically to discriminating against gays, here the party admits that they’re in the minority that is still sore afraid of marriage equality. Which is curious, since you’d think the last thing they’d want is a vote on an issue when a majority of voters disagree with their position. Oh wait, I think we’ve just figured out why they haven’t managed to put a marriage amendment on the ballot.
It is the people of Iowa through our elections that must be permitted to decide this important issue: There’s an important point that shouldn’t be lost in the noise. Voting Justice Wiggins off the court will have exactly zero practical effect. It won’t roll back the decision, or make discriminating against homosexuals constitutional in Iowa. Voting no on retaining Justice Wiggins is a symbolic gesture, that will do nothing more than prove that Iowa Republicans can get voters to the polls merely by appealing to their bigotry and hatred of gay Iowans.
All of which raises the following questions. What does ”equally… to all citizens” mean, if it doesn’t literally mean that everyone is equal? Is it more appropriate for the Iowa courts to be in the business of deciding who’s a citizen and who’s not? Or is that a question that the Iowa GOP has already answered for itself?