Monday, May 29, 2017

Author: The JT LeRoy Story: Why are leftists so gullible?

The documentary Author: The JT LeRoy story has a promising premise, and it starts out strong, with a seemingly dazed Winona Ryder bragging to a crowd of appreciative sycophants about her deep and meaningful friendship with the author JT LeRoy. We’re primed to see a story of gullible celebs being beclowned by a hoax—and, hopefully, of finding out just what it was about JT LeRoy’s ridiculous story that they fell in love with so hard. 

Alas, the movie scrupulously avoids examining what was so enticing about JT LeRoy to the celebrities that championed him. Instead, the film is all surface, depending largely on JT’s inventor to tell of the mechanics of the story, and on the recordings that she made of the phone calls during which she spoke to the celebrities, authors, and doctors she duped.

Bono giving the "okay" symbol, which apparently means he's a white supremacist or something--I read that on some leftist websites so it must be true, right? I mean, it's not a hoax.

LeRoy’s story is exceptionally lurid, and it seems engineered to appeal to the prurient interests and prejudices of leftists: He was transgender, and had contracted HIV, apparently from being raped by one of his mother’s multiple, abusive boyfriends. His mother was one hell of a piece of work, a trashy stripper traveling with him throughout the south, pimping him out at truck stops. He made his escape to San Francisco where, a heroin addict, he survived by pimping himself out. JT began writing stories about his alleged abuse at the behest of a psychiatrist called Dr. Terrence Owens. Those stories formed the basis of the pretentiously titled The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Here’s an overview from an approving Telegraph profile in 2005:

The stories are written in a crude, repetitive, blank style. In the past he has described them as being like journal entries. They were 'going into the unconscious,' he says now, 'sorting everything out'. The narrative is one of relentless abuse, of a small boy taken away from caring foster parents by his speed-addled teenage mother who tortures him psychologically and physically, leaves him with a series of violent boyfriends, and passes him off as a girl because it makes her thieving and prostitution easier. 

He is first raped at the age of five, is briefly subjected to a life of Christian fundamentalism by his grandparents, becomes a transvestite hustler before he reaches puberty, and has the end of his penis burnt by his mother with a car cigarette lighter.
He eventually comes sadomasochistically to crave beatings as an eroticised form of the only attention his mother used to show him. 

The last story in the book - actually the first he wrote when he went into therapy - describes him paying a biker to beat him up and slash his genitals with a switchblade.

What made JT LeRoy’s story so seductive is that it played into the provincial, prejudiced preconceptions of the mostly liberal and leftist celebrities who championed him. It hits all the liberal sweet spots, from religious (Christian, that is) fundamentalism to white-trash desperation. What Ryder was basking in in the clip at the beginning of the film was her own incandescent virtue signaling. LeRoy wasn’t an author, not even to the celebrities who thought he actually was an author—he was a concept that allowed celebrities to feel above the flyover rubes living in the desperate hellholes that result from unenlightened thinking.

LeRoy was the invention of a woman called Laura Albert, who, apparently, used prank calling child abuse hotlines and recording the results as her creative outlet. That was how she began communicating with Dr. Owens, who encouraged “Terminator” or “Jeremiah” (I can’t remember which name she was using at the time) to write out all of the horrible stories that he was hearing from her/him. As therapy. Albert was working as a phone sex operator at the time (“LeRoy,” she says in the documentary, came from one of her phone sex regulars) and so I suppose she had nothing better to do than to escalate her deception and waste even more time of people dedicated to helping child sex abuse victims.

The stories that “Terminator” wrote ended up in the hands of exactly the right authors and editors, and one story appeared in a collection, from which LeRoy managed to get a book deal. And how could he not, with stories written in a “crude, repetitive, blank style.” That’s what editors are looking for! (In fairness, Fifty Shades of Gray was written in a “crude, repetitive, blank style.” It’s also all about abuse. Something to think about.)

It’s telling that Albert was living in San Francisco when she first concocted LeRoy. That is perhaps the most provincial, closed-minded, hateful city in America. LeRoy’s story plays like a satire of a leftist’s idea of middle America. The “surprising” election of Donald Trump has only served to heighten leftist’s bigotry toward those with different beliefs. JT LeRoy’s story could have served as a jumping-off point for an examination of what it is that makes leftists so narrow-minded and susceptible to hoaxes like JT LeRoy, that other massive literary hoax the UVA rape story, the alleged epidemic of “hate crimes,” and the currently fashionable but utterly demented conspiracy theory that Trump colluded with Russians to somehow “hack” the election.

Winona Ryder, basically giving herself a kiss.

Instead, Author: The JT LeRoy Story seems to have been engineered to prevent any deeper examination, and to formally excuse Albert’s deception. The film is structured in such a way that toward the end Albert alleges that she herself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. She claims that this abuse caused an eating disorder (she was overweight for a great deal of her life, until getting gastric bypass surgery just as LeRoy was hitting it big). But, of course, this is the same woman who cynically invented an alternate persona that just happened to hit every liberal sweet spot—there’s absolutely no reason why we should believe her new stories of sexual abuse causing an eating disorder. Which is, itself, another popular liberal trope from the era in which Albert grew up. 

That’s another potentially interesting subject—as the “body positivity” movement has ascended in liberal and leftist circles, what’s happened to the “sexual abuse caused me to over-eat to make myself less attractive to my abuser” movement that was so popular when I was in college?

Albert is a fabulist, and not a particularly interesting one. She simply parrots leftist talking points back to leftists. How are we to be sure that this documentary isn’t just another layer of deception. It’s possible that someone with greater insight into human frailty—someone like, say, Todd Solondz—could have done something with this material. As it is, the director of the film doesn’t really try all that hard. In fact, he admits to making propaganda:

Could the new documentary be seen as Albert’s attempt to regain control of her own narrative? It is framed as a cards-on-the-table confessional, but if nothing else, Albert has proved herself a notoriously unreliable narrator. “This is her version of events,” says [director Jeff] Feuerzeig, although he alone decided what went into the film, he adds. “And yes, as you hear in the film, there’s a mosaic of responses. Some people are outraged, some think it’s the greatest thing since sliced cheese, and all of their responses are valid. The film doesn’t seek to moralise or judge.”

That's right; the movie doesn't moralize or judge--it indulges. It enables a peculiar pathology, and makes Albert, a horrifyingly dishonest and manipulative person, into a victim/hero, without in any way examining the implications of how she managed to get away with what she did.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hulu's "Batman & Bill" documentary-- more #BigFinger propaganda

Bob Kane lived the high life after "creating" Batman. Bill Finger died alone in diminished circumstances. It's an exceptionally sad and unfair story. 

Hulu’s “Batman & Bill” documentary opens with the author Marc Tyler Nobleman speaking to a group of children, spreading propaganda. Allegedly telling the whole story and correcting history, but in fact re-writing it to for his own aggrandizement.

Ostensibly about one of Batman’s “co-creators,” “Batman & Bill” ends up being a monument to the nobility, passion, and heroism of Nobleman himself. The David taking on the Time/Warner Goliath for the most noble of reasons—simply to gain creator credit for an unjustly forgotten visionary. If you don’t believe that Nobleman isn’t a noble man, don’t worry—his own wife interviews that he’s a “persistent” “detective” who is a “very brave person.” And: “He’s also very righteous and he wants to do right in the world.” Nobleman himself says that getting credit for Finger was part of a “higher moral obligation.” 

What starts this noble man on his quest is his desire to write a book about Finger and the creation of Batman. Before he gets started people tell him that there’s just not enough material there. But he knows different, and it’s not long before Nobleman is “uncovering a big superhero secret that should have been blown wide decades ago.”

He confides that “I had a couple of people who told me that ‘What you are trying to do will never happen.’” And while he’s relating that particular bit of information the on-screen animation shows Nobleman putting on a dark trench coat, then walking out of his house as he casts a shadow on the walkway before him. That shadow—and I am not making this up—has pointy bat-ears. This is because Nobleman sees himself as a Batman figure: “The parallel was not lost on me [of course it wasn’t!] that Bill made Batman a detective, and I was a detective in search of Bill’s legacy…” He says that his quest “became addictive.” 

Nobleman shows us some home movies in which he asks his daughter What’s my job? “Bill Finger,” she replies. What do I do? he continues. “Bill Finger” is her answer. It’s meant to be a cutesy-poo moment but it’s actually a biting commentary on Nobleman’s seemingly blind monomania. (At one point he’s shown harassing Batman cosplayers at San Diego Comic Con. “Do you know who Bill Finger is?” he badgers them. It would have been nice if one of them had asked him, “Do you know who Theodore Tinsley is?”) “Bill Finger” was, in fact, his job. “Bill Finger” made Nobleman a noble man. “There has to be someone who stands up and leads the charge,” he says at another point. Nobleman is just that rare and singular person. 

Nobleman actually comes across as self-aggrandizing, vainglorious, and grandiose as Bob Kane. And Bob Kane comes off very, very badly indeed. It’s difficult to like Kane, to be honest. He owned and ran the studio that produced the original Batman stories for National Comics, but his actual participation in the creation of those stories was—well, it wasn’t as singular as his single credit byline would have you believe. He was just part of a group that put those comics packages together. He had the sense and wherewithal to negotiate with National directly, but in fact what Kane did at his studio wasn’t particularly unusual. Almost every studio that was producing work for publishers in that era was bylined by a single creator, if in fact it had a byline at all. The difference is that most of the characters produced by those studios went nowhere. National, which would later become DC, was able to exploit the Intellectual Property to build it into the inescapable juggernaut that it is today.

The Shadow isn't mentioned once in "Batman & Bill." I wonder why?

The story is, roughly, that Kane either on his own initiative or at the behest of National Comics was inspired to create a new superhero, because Siegel and Shuster were making $800 a week from Superman. In 1939 that was big money. So Kane drew a picture of a man in red long underwear, a domino mask, and batwings. Kane either originally called this guy “Bird-Man,” or he actually wrote “Bat-Man” on it. He showed the image to Finger, an employee of Kane’s studio, who suggested Kane change the wings to a scalloped cape, make the long underwear darker, and give him a cowl with bat-ears on it. Kane took the revised drawing to National and made a deal to produce comics featuring the character, which National would publish.

The film suggests that there was no formal written agreement between Kane and Finger regarding the character “Bat-Man,” or the writing work that Finger did on the character. This is important because Finger’s heirs were able to use this as leverage to suggest that Time/Warner might not have ANY claim on the character. During this section of the film the cover of a copy of the 1976 Copyright Act appears—it would have been nice to get some clarification as to why and how a law passed in 1976 would have any bearing on events from 1939. But then again, this documentary isn’t about imparting any real information. It’s about chronicling the efforts of a noble man. That said, I have written extensively about copyright law as it pertains to comics, to Superman in particular, so feel free to read my past work on the subject for far more information than you’ll get from the documentary.

“Bat-Man” appears in Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939, in a story called “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” That story was written by Bill Finger, and illustrated by Bob Kane. Actually, it was swiped by Bill Finger. It was in fact nothing more than a re-writing of a Shadow novel originally published in 1936 called “Partners of Peril.” I’ve already documented some of Bill Finger’s extensive creative swiping. You can read about the actual origins of the cowl, the scalloped gloves, the utility belt, the Joker, Two-Face, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the parents-shot-by-a-street-tough-while-leaving-a-theater origin story, and so on there.

None of this information appears in “Batman & Bill.” The pulp magazines that let’s say “inspired” Bill Finger get not a single mention. The viewer is led to believe that Finger, an avid pulp magazine reader, simply came up with all of his contributions out of thin air. There is absolutely no context whatsoever given to Batman’s “creation” story. This is a glaring omission that assumes that the history of Batman starts in 1939 and casts Finger in borrowed robes. He was obviously a talented guy, but there were precedents for just about everything that Finger contributed to Batman. Precedents that are so remarkably similar that it’s very, very difficult to believe that Finger didn’t swipe them.

That said, Kane fights hard to assume all the credit for Batman’s “creation” on his own. When Finger appears at a comic book convention in the 1960s and Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio at the time of Bat-Man’s creation, points out in a fanzine that Finger deserved some credit in Batman’s creation, Kane pens a self-serving editorial in another fanzine, essentially giving himself sole credit. It also appears that Kane might have attempted to buttress his story of being solely responsible for Bat-Man’s creation by scribbling a character with a scalloped cape, a cowl with bat-ears, and a bat-symbol on his chest, and dating it “1/17/1934.”

Who knows? Maybe it’s authentic. Pulp adventure magazines were selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month—maybe Kane was inspired by them the way Finger was, years later.

Kane also has a painfully self-aggrandizing headstone made—it’s almost the Hulu documentary of headstones, casting its subject as an exceptionally noble man.

As Nobleman says of Kane, “He had a chance to take the high road or…the low road. And he took the VERY LOW road.” Luckily, detective Nobleman is on the case. For a detective, however, he seems to be exceptionally uncurious about Finger’s inspirations. Also, strangely, in 2007, when he learns of the existence of Bill Finger’s granddaughter, it doesn’t occur to him to search Myspace for her. And it’s not entirely clear why it was so hard to track her and her father down when Finger’s family had made an effort to get Finger credit around the time of Tim Burton’s original 1989 film. But, again, this movie isn’t particularly about imparting information. 

(Actually, the parts about Finger's son and granddaughter are kind of touching, and the documentary wisely moves away from Nobleman for at least part of that. But it still can't help itself, and ends with a bit in which Nobleman goes to the movies to see Batman V Superman and gets a little misty-eyed when he sees that "Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger" credit on the big screen. We don't get his reaction to the rest of that cinematic classic, however.)

Nobleman’s book about Finger is published, which leads to a TED Talk, an interview on NPR, and an appearance on Kevin Smith’s podcast. All of which contribute to “raising an army… a groundswell of support.” He’s growing the #BigFinger movement. For too long there’s been a myth of Bob Kane! The only way to correct it is to construct a myth of Bill Finger!

And that’s what this movie is really about.

Finger clearly deserves at least as much credit as Kane for Batman’s creation. But the story is a lot more complex than this shallow and inadvertently amusing film makes it appear. Some acknowledgement of Finger’s “inspiration” would have been welcome. But it would open up some very thorny questions about the nature of creativity, inspiration, and plagiarism. For instance, shouldn’t Shadow writer Theodore Tinsley get a credit as well, considering he’s the author of the story that Finger swiped when he put together that first Bat-Man story? Shouldn’t Tinsley get a co-creator credit on the Joker, considering he wrote a “Bulldog” Drummond story about a clown gangster called “the Joker”? 

Most interestingly, how has modern copyright law affected creativity? If a “Bat-Man” were to be created today, would its “creators” be able to actually get away with it, or would the publishers of all the characters that “inspired” it sue? How directly can you lift something that has "inspired" you, and how much do you have to do to "transform" what has inspired you? (As Krusty the Clown once said, "If this is anyone but Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit!")

The documentary notes that Batman is one of the most recognizable "characters" in the world. Nobleman's noble quest has taken him all over, but no matter where he goes, he tells us, everyone knows what "Batman" is. Superheroes are a major part of the culture now, and Batman is one of the biggest, if not the biggest. It has inspired a lot of loyalty. Exploring the real story of it's creation would expose exactly what it is that people are pledging that loyalty to.

Kevin Smith interviews that Batman is “a character that people build their moral compass upon.” Considering that Batman is a piece of corporate Intellectual Property that was cobbled together from scraps that were lifted whole cloth from other, largely forgotten pulp characters whose writers are more forgotten than Finger ever was, it makes you wonder just which direction that compass is pointing.