Weighing In on Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”

Today, as I’m sure some are already aware, Arcade Fire released the music video for “We Exist,” the third single off of their acclaimed fourth studio album, Reflektor. While the song’s lyrics follow the difficult conversation between a gay man and his straight father, to whom his son pleads for recognition rather than the isolation he has faced from others, the video tracks a different story, but one with similar themes of identity and social rejection nonetheless.

It begins with the main character, played by Andrew Garfield of the rebooted Spiderman franchise, sullenly staring at the reflected image of their own naked torso. The chattering of chickens wafts through an open window but is quickly blended with the buzz of an electric razor guided over the head of and by the melancholy protagonist. Music bursts in with a punch as they* reach for and then throw aside a red top after trying it on over a black bra.  A series of different shirts are cycled through until a peach button-up, tied at the waist, is selected and paired with a blonde, crimped wig.

The camera flashes to them walking past a corn field on the edge of a small town, hands nervously fidgeting and eyes oscillating from looking down at the ground to straight ahead. This gaze is held as they walk into a bar, walls lined with neon signs and beer advertisements, and draw the attention of the other patrons just by entering. While sipping a drink and longingly watching** a couple dance on the otherwise empty dance floor, the main character is approached by man who pulls them up to dance, despite their obvious hesitancy. It isn’t long before a group of other men, friends of the first, swarm the dancing couple. A strobe light splices the scene as Garfield’s character is groped, harassed, and thrown to the floor.

It seems as though things will only continue to escalate until the protagonist, in a moment of triumph, bursts forward, a single spotlight illuminating their actions. They move about the dance floor freely, joined by four bearded men in jean shorts and flannels tied in a fashion that mirrors the character’s top. Are they guardian angels? Are they an up-and-coming new dance act that’s slowly sweeping the midwest dive bar scene? It’s unclear, as is whether or not the rest of the video is a fantasy or a trip to an alternative dimension, but their affect is overtly positive as they dance along and eventually reveal a portal to an Arcade Fire concert. Garfield, now wearing a beautiful white dress, approaches the stage slowly but soon, finding comfort among the band, stands on a speaker and faces the audience, making commanding poses that radiate a new confidence.

The whole video is both inspiring and striking in a lot of ways, particularly the exhilarating second-half of the six-minute piece. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear or two resting in the lower lids of my eyes as I watched Garfield’s character leap and twirl in the spotlight, first at the bar but then on stage at real-life Coachella. Their open form relates a sense of freedom, both from the negativity of others but also to flourish in self-acceptance as well as the acceptance of others.

However, thoughts began to cross my mind as I finished watching it for the umph-teenth time. Andrew Garfield, as far as I know, isn’t gay and doesn’t experience gender dysphoria, despite his noteworthy performance. Is anything, perhaps, loss because of this?

It’s a question that’s been asked before, but is clearly still relevant, especially considering story lines involving lgbt characters are growing in acceptance by mainstream culture in the form of movies, tv shows, commercials, and music videos. Is is okay for straight actors to hold gay roles? Is it okay for gay actresses to hold straight roles? What about cis actors and actresses and transgender roles? The answers are unclear. Blue is the Warmest Color, for example, received criticism from some for its heterosexual director and leading actresses, while others praised it as an honest portrayal of the struggles attached to coming of age, figuring out one’s sexuality, and the ups and downs of a lesbian relationship. Hillary Swank, however, acquired almost nothing but commendation for her performance of Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. One major critic, however, is Brandon’s former girlfriend who thought the film was a misrepresentation of the true story.

A lot is left for discussion, especially about the purpose of acting, the role of story and art-making in truth-telling, and the liberties given to artists and storytellers. What I’m wondering is if maybe its time for not just the marginalized voices to be made welcome in society/culture, but for the people to whom the voices belong, to be given a space to represent themselves. That is why I think a character like Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black, has a certain additional quality that Andrew Garfield’s is missing, despite the excellent performance. Because, again, for a song and video that is about visibility and acknowledgment of existence, why not have an existing transgendered actor or actress play the lead role?

*I refrain from using he/she pronouns as the gender identity of the character has been left unknown though some articles have identified the character as a transgender woman

**There’s a lot of references to vision and looking in this synopsis. This makes sense though, right?, considering the song is about seeing and being seen.

Pretty White Women Save the World

It’s hard to criticize International Justice Mission. One’s character comes into question when shitting on anything that stands vehemently opposed to human trafficking, freeing the exploited and seeking justice against the bad men who exploit them.

But they’re doing it wrong.

Thanks to Stuff Christian Culture Likes, this came to light. It appears IJM has teamed up with some sort of clothing company to swarm Rwanda with attractive, mostly white female “storytellers” to end sadness by promoting ethical consumerism. And *you* can be part of the team by writing an essay and hounding your friends into clicking on a picture of your face a bunch of times. An exercise in abject narcissism to earn the privilege of serving others.

The fucking audacity.

Everything stated in that contest is more or less IJM’s core mission. Train former prostitutes to perform menial labor, teach westerners to spend some of their extra income on their trinkets. Teletubbie capitalism, positively heartwarming.

No doubt IJM has gotten some people out of truly abhorrent conditions, but what they stress as “economic opportunity” shines a different shade of exploitation. Out of the brothel and into the sweatshop, at least they’re not fucking for money anymore.

This focus on the awful spectacle of shame and degradation in the Third World brothel saps the attention from everything else. Do we really care about the women and girls after they’re carried out of the whore house by police in riot gear? Or does that sole image contain the salve for our collective guilt, a cinematic instant that is really more about we Western observers than the bodily and emotional wellbeing of the woman weeping into the arms of a kevlar-clad cop? Do these women become anything more to us than pawns in our own egotistical currents of guilt and absolution?

I have no doubt that IJM’s intentions are pure, but they’re slapping a band-aid on a cancer patient.

 

Misnomer Pt 2: Pain and its Uses

Arms scarred from self-harm, they couldn’t find a vein. They injected the poisons and sedatives into his balls. The sedatives didn’t take. He feels his own dying. The doctor calls it off. A massive heart attack finishes it.

Clayton Lockett’s sentence was carried out. And the authorities that handed it down call it “botched”.

The fact that he felt pain seems to be the only thing that renders this obscene in the eyes of the law, and at at that, only pain in the course of death.

The law, specifically the law of the United States, seems to have very few qualms with having pain inflicted upon bodies at its behest, be they the bodies of Occupy protesters doused in pepper spray and beaten with clubs by police, or the bodies of (usually ethnic Arab) detainees deprived of sleep and forced into stress positions by US soldiers. Pain in these situations is perceived as temporary and utilitarian. Because the subject of the pain is alive at the end of the process, the law seems to view these methods as legitimate ways of the state accomplishing its goals, being the “maintenance” of “public property” and “intelligence gathering” respectively.

There has been no widespread outcry over the abuses of either Guantanamo detainees or protesters.

The true obscenity of Clayton Lockett’s suffering and death is that it’s not really out of the ordinary. Ultimately, the state seems willing to forego it’s well earned “mission accomplished” because Clayton Lockett’s pain was, to borrow a phrase, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Which is to say, there is no rhetorical avenue by which his pain could be construed as “useful”. In the above cases, the state disavows the pain of the detainee and the protester as the means to or regrettable byproduct of “security”. In these cases, the state can gloss over acts of cruelty done on its behalf as necessary to the common good, it can posit a world where wailing and gnashing of teeth are not MALIGNANTLY USELESS.

The literary critic Elaine Scarry devotes the entire first half of her monumental study The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World  to the intersections of politics and pain, specifically in the phenomena of torture and war. For Scarry, pain, being one of the things most immediately perceived by consciousness, constitutes the highest order of reality. It is unmediated, pure sensation. It overwhelms consciousness, destroying language, reducing even the most verbose of us to the pre-lingual cries of infancy. Pain being the most real, association with pain confers reality.

In the torture chamber, the professed goal may be the gathering of information, but what is accomplished is the making-real of the state’s power. Torture is the use of pain to deprive the individual of their own voice, replacing it with the state’s.

On the battlefield, state power is made real on the twisted and burned corpses of the young, brave, and foolish; the baby-faced kid from Omaha, torn asunder, crying for mother.

If one thing was clear to Clayton Lockett in his final moments, it was the existence of the authority of the State of Oklahoma.

The state has admitted that Clayton Lockett’s suffering was not worth a single damn. Will they ever say the same for anyone else they inflict on a daily basis?

Misnomer Pt. 1: A quotation

(Second in a series on politics/ethics/crime/punishment.)

“It’s a good thing there’s not much suffering,” he observed, “when the head flies off.”

“You’ve just observed that, and everybody makes the same observation as you, and this machine, the guillotine, was invented for that. But a thought occurred to me then: what if it’s even worse? To you it seems ridiculous, to you it seems wild, but with some imagination even a thought like that can pop into your head. Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, the now, this second– your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and it’s for certain– the main thing is that it’sfor certain. When you put your head under that knife and hear it come screeching down on you, that one quarter of a second is the most horrible of all. Do you know that this isn’t my fantasy, but that many people have said so? I believe it so much that I’ll tell you my opinion outright. To kill for killing is an immeasurably greater punishment than the crime itself. To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers. A man killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however, certainly still hopes he’ll be saved till the very last minute. There have been examples when man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or flees, or pleads. But here all this last hope, which makes it ten times easier to die, is taken away for certain, and he’ll lose his mind or start weeping. Who ever said human nature could bear it without going mad? Why such an ugly, vain, unnecessary violation? Maybe there’s a man who has had the sentence read to him, has been allowed to suffer, and has then been told, ‘Go, you’re forgiven.’ That man might be able to tell us something. Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No, you can’t treat a man like that!”

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, p. 23

 

 

Three-chemical cocktail for a shotgun and a shallow grave

(First in a possible series on politics/ethics/crime/punishment. Further entries may be more or less drenched in “theory”)

 

Fucking botched.

And it accomplished exactly what it was meant to.

 

The state of Oklahoma decided that Clayton Lockett should die for his crimes.

 

Clayton Lockett is no more.

 

Clayton Lockett was guilty of what he was accused of. The facts: he shot Stephanie Neiman, he buried her alive. Clayton Lockett was a murderer.

Presented so succinctly, Clayton Lockett was a cold-blooded, inhuman monster, thoroughly deserving of the excruciating end he met. But, as it is said, context is everything.

The local news coverage concerning Clayton Lockett’s confession tape maintains the reptilian image; pretty, white female anchors describe how he coolly smoked a cigarette before shooting Stephanie Neiman with a shotgun; while he shoveled dirt on her while she still breathed. They say he described these events without showing the slightest hint of remorse.

 

The full confession tape diverts from the pretty, white narrative.

 

The facts are immutable: Clayton Lockett smoked before shooting Stephanie Neiman with a shotgun, before dirt was shoveled on her while she still breathed.

 

Adapted from Lockett’s confession:

Lockett, his cousin, and his best friend break into a man’s house to collect on a debt, by way of relieving this man of his television and other sundry household appliances. They assaulted him as he slept on his couch. Lockett hits him on the head with the barrel of his shotgun. The commotion wakes up the man’s infant child. Lockett prepares a bottle and calms the baby as they explain to the man that they are going to take his electronics. Two girls drive up to the house, one being Stephanie Neiman. The three assailants take them and hide their vehicle, and decide what to do next. Lockett suggests they strand them out in the countryside. His con-conspirators shoot him down, insisting they’ll still get caught.

 

“Let’s take them out to the country and kill them.”

 

It’s agreed upon. The gang of three bind and gag their victims, after asking if the man has a shovel. They drive to parts unknown.

 

On the drive, the man insists that he can’t die. He has to raise his child. Lockett, who had held said child intermittently throughout the night, secures the man’s promise that he won’t tell. He grants the man life.

The group comes to a field. Lockett informs his gang that the man is “cool”. The girl Lockett refers to as “the little girl” says she can’t die; she also has a child. The Little Girl swears she won’t tell.

The criminals accept the oaths of the man and The Little Girl. Stephanie Neiman swears no oath.

Lockett and his compatriots urge the man and The Little Girl to talk sense into Stephanie. Stephanie is unmoved. Lockett paces for a time, smoking cigarettes, preparing for what he thinks must be done. His accomplices dig the hole.

An inexperienced marksman, Lockett misses Stephanie with his first shot. The gun jumps from his hands. He picks up the weapon and fires again. She screams. She falls. He swears that Stephanie Neiman is dead. He hopes she is dead. They place her in the grave. Lockett’s friends question his certitude. Lockett sees a puff of dust from Stephanie Neiman’s mouth as she is committed to her final resting place.

 

 

Lockett was absolutely guilty of his crimes. He took the life of another human being. Over a few hundred dollars’ worth of consumer electronics. But, from his telling of the events, it was not quite the monstrous act described in the news reports. It was a heinous crime, but one fraught with anxiety, and inexplicable moments of compassion. The pacing, the nervous smoking of cigarettes; the care for a child (the child of Lockett’s debtor and enemy); the shotgun jumping from inexperienced hands. The murder of Stephanie Neiman was not committed out of malice, but fear. The chilling details of the crime were the result of incompetence, not bloodlust.

 

Is the state’s business the extermination of monsters? Was Clayton Lockett truly, irredeemably a monster?

 

Sean Hannity called Byron Smith a hero.