Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit Los Angeles Southwest College on Saturday morning, and the T-shirts were out in full force -- most of them for Clinton, and one for Jackie Robinson. The man six or seven places behind me in line sported a Dodgers jersey with the number 42, which Major League Baseball has retired in honor of its first modern black player. When I got a chance to talk to its wearer, he noted that he had obtained it at a recent game ("The Dodgers gave me this perfect prop") and that he saw a thematic tie between its honoree and LASC's guest of honor. "The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, right?" he enthused. "And the other day, where did Hillary debate Bernie? Brooklyn! So there's the connection."
That man was the only attendee I saw wearing sports regalia, but the crowd made it plain that Hillary -- we usually, it seems, call her by her first name -- amounted to an underdog hero, and not just for women. One man in line sported a shirt with a portrait of the former secretary of state and the words "Move Over, Boys" surrounding it; another wore a confident-looking closeup of Hillary with the slogan "Like a Boss." When Assemblyman Mike Gipson warmed up the crowd before Clinton's speech, he went out of his way to cite gender: The rhetorical question "Are you ready for the next president of the United States of America?" was quickly followed by "Are you ready for the next female president of the United States of America?" At several points, Hillary team members led the crowd in chants of "I'm with her!" It seems doubtful that a male politician's supporters would pick a slogan as generic as "I'm with him."
Obviously, there's more than gender attached to that slogan. Women have tried and failed repeatedly in the past to score nominations for president, and if Clinton weren't in the running in 2016, there's no reason to doubt that two men would land on the ballot again. But she appears to be a lock for the nomination, and any candidate with her resume -- especially against competition as divisive as hers -- looks hard to defeat. When I quizzed Hillary supporters in line about their reasons for backing her, they spoke about her experience more than the prospect of having America's first female president in office. A pair of men behind me said they preferred Clinton's pragmatic approach over Bernie Sanders' "pie in the sky" optimism; several people cited the fact that her foreign policy experience topped that of Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. One woman said she admired Clinton's background as a lawyer and added that the former first lady had "the best man in the world" beside her. (When I clarified that she was talking about Bill Clinton, she noted how Hillary had shown strength by "standing by her man" during his infidelities.)
Plain and simple, some people just like Hillary the best of any candidate. Still, the outpouring of feminist sentiment at LASC showed that, while gender may not be center stage during the 2016 campaign, it's at least a pleasing background. Whether in the White House or in the multiplex or on the radio, our society appears to relish strong women now -- unless "relish" is too shallow a word for something so key to human civilization and progress. (The late Christopher Hitchens, not always renowned for his enlightened views on females, still declared outright that the best cure for poverty was the empowerment of women.) As the crowd gathered outside the Cox Library on campus Saturday morning, chest-beating anthems like Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and Katy Perry's "Roar" blared from the speakers. At the movies in the last year, we've had gritty heroines in the new Star Wars and Mad Max installments, plus a female rabbit cop in the animated Zootopia; even Pixar's Inside Out tracks the emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old whose greatest passion is rough-and-tumble ice hockey. Perhaps we're entering a world where "You fight like a girl" won't be the playground taunt it used to be.
Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was on the verge of scoring the Democratic nomination, a friend told me that his main reason for voting for Obama (over, it should be noted, Hillary herself) was the pure and simple idea of having him in the White House. "I look at him on TV, and he looks the way I want my president to look," he said. "And I hear him give a speech, and he sounds the way I want my president to sound." Some people who queued up at LASC didn't seem to have thought much more about it than that; one woman, after expressing general praise about Hillary's character and credentials, mentioned Trump and asked me, earnestly, "Now, what are his positions again?" If voting in America required passing a test on the intricacies of NATO or the economic repercussions of raising the minimum wage, few people would likely ace it. As part of our freedom, we may pick one candidate over another for the most trivial reasons possible: support for a single issue, better hair, funnier Twitter posts. Sometimes, all it takes is a person who looks and sounds like our ideal vision of the president. After all, we'll spend the next four years seeing and hearing that person a lot.
Obama ruffled some feathers in 2008 when, during a debate, he quipped, "You're likable enough, Hillary." It seemed like a patronizing comment toward a woman politician, not that charisma doesn't factor hugely into male politicians' chances as well. Is Hillary likable, then? I think she is -- although, of course, it depends on what you like. She's not demure or gentle, and her flat, sometimes raspy voice is jolting more than soothing; Jimmy Carter, for one, might lose a shouting match against her. Still, she has an informal charm and seems quick with a laugh or smile -- the kind of woman, in short, that you would share a beer with rather than a cup of tea. I should note by now that, Saturday at LASC, most of us only saw her for about two minutes; she stepped outside the library and spoke before TV cameras before heading inside, where the lucky few at the head of the line got to sit in on her main speech. The microphones didn't broadcast her comments, so we could only hear bits about "balancing" something and needing voters to turn out for the June 7 California primary. When she went inside, the speakers played Katy Perry et al for what seemed like half an hour, and then we listened to her speech: the expected talking points about renewable energy, equal pay, affordable tuition, reproductive rights and so on. At one point, she chided the GOP for being ignorant about climate change and noted the presence of "some science teachers here at Southwest College who can help the Republicans." That line got a big cheer from the crowd.
When the speech ended, the security guards announced that Hillary wouldn't be making another appearance outside, and the crowd gradually dwindled. On my way back to the parking garage, I walked behind a woman with a son who looked about two, and who insisted doggedly that he didn't like girls because they were "stupid." His mother, feigning hurt feelings, asked, "But I'm a girl. Don't you like me?" The boy begrudgingly replied that he did. In sixteen years or so, he may cast a vote for the second woman president. Before then, Zootopia awaits him.
Three years ago this month, Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. I have seldom, if ever, missed a writer more. Like most people, I first knew Ebert as a TV personality -- that "Two Thumbs Up" trademark actually struck me as annoyingly glib when I was middle-school age -- and it was only later, through his reviews and essays, that I grew to appreciate him both as a scholar of movies and as a philosophical writer. After some point, I didn't care if he was reviewing a film or opining about the latest spiritual or political issue that concerned him; his voice, which brought with it the aura of listening to a familiar companion on a back porch, became the occasion itself. Even today, I miss the simple ritual of punching Ebert's website into Firefox to read his latest commentary. What would he have thought about Ferguson and Baltimore? Edward Snowden? Same-sex marriage being legalized? And, Lord have mercy, Donald Trump?
I doubt that his positions on any of them would have come as a shock--the man was a diehard liberal, after all--but unlike the Larry Elders and Michael Moores of the world, Ebert had an unusual gift: to be critical, even vehement, and somehow still oddly reassuring. As a pundit, he was the equivalent of the tough teacher who marks up your paper with red ink but invites you to his office afterward to discuss your next assignment over crackers and tea. As funny as Ebert's negative reviews could be (and he was aware of this: hence the book-length collections I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), you rooted for him to like something--a film, a politician, anything--simply because you knew he would wax so eloquent in describing it. And if he was miserable, the unforced candor of his prose allowed you to share in the feeling, even if it wasn't for laughter's sake.
In Ebert's final years, that latter relationship with his audience became key, especially since humor often wasn't on his mind. By the time he succumbed three years ago, he had battled cancer for a decade, and few celebrities have ever been more up-front about an illness. Famously, Ebert lost his ability to speak and had part of his jaw removed; he still appeared in public with an electronic voice, making no effort to conceal the lower part of his face. On his blog--which, by the time of his death, had become as notable as his reviews--he repeatedly confronted the concept of death, and not merely his own. In his essay "I Remember You," he eulogized departed friends and family members whom he feared the world would forget in 100 years; in "Does Anyone Want to Be 'Well-Read?'", he turned his attention to beloved authors whose books had slipped into obscurity. It is a common belief of religions that we should spend part of life preparing for death. Ebert, who was not particularly religious, let his readers in on that process.
When Ebert died on April 4, 2013, his last published reviews were a pair of two-and-a-half-star writeups of the animated film From Up on Poppy Hill and the sci-fi thriller The Host. Neither seemed like much of a capper for his film-reviewing career, although Ebert didn't intend either one as such; shortly before his death, he posted a message to readers saying that he planned to reduce his workload due to health reasons and that he hoped to "see you at the movies" as he concentrated on reviewing select films. Two days after the message appeared, Ebert was gone. And then, news emerged that Ebert had filed one last review before he passed on: his take on To the Wonder, the impressionistic new film by Terrence Malick, whose The Tree of Life Ebert had hailed recently as one of the greatest films of all time.
Granted, it was not intended as Ebert's final review. But some writings or artworks grow more poignant in context; who, for example, can listen to Elvis Presley's groundbreaking recording of "That's All Right" without recalling the story of the shy 19-year-old who suddenly found his confidence in Sun Studio? Ebert's To the Wonder, taken not merely as a film analysis but as the last review of a man aware that his body was not long for the world, is almost chilling in its appropriateness. Most endings in real life are anticlimactic; many endings in the movies are overly tidy or clever. This one, for what it was worth, felt just about perfect.
I know Ebert's review of To the Wonder better than I know the film itself. I saw it once on a plane when I was tired, and I have just a vague recollection of it. Suffice to say that if you didn't like The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, it probably isn't for you--it has the same dreamlike quality, intentionally vague plot points and whispery voiceover narration. In awarding it three and a half stars, Ebert was in the minority (the movie currently holds a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I don't get the feeling, reading his review, that he felt much like being a critic at that moment. He notes the film's "half-understood" dialogue and lack of conventional storytelling, and admits, even while praising the film, that many viewers will probably dislike it.
What Ebert seems to respond to in To the Wonder is not the movie itself so much as the ideas it evokes in him. At times, he sounds almost like a man who has decided that he doesn't need to see any more movies, or at least dissect them the way he used to. At one point, he begins what sounds like a criticism by writing, "As the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something." But then, he adds, "As it continued, I realized many films could miss a great deal." He concedes to not caring that Malick didn't make his plot more linear or his characters' motivations more clear, and then comes to an epiphany of sorts in his second-to-last paragraph:
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
These don't sound like the words of a man who had years of film reviews left in him; to the contrary, they sound like those of a man who has more or less figured out what movies can do and is content to leave them aside. Had Ebert lived, he no doubt would have continued to add reviews to his Great Movies series and stop by the screening room for titles he anticipated. But perhaps the spark would have died. Donald Hall, the former U.S. Poet Laureate who is now in his 80s, stated recently that he had stopped writing poems for the simple reason that he didn't have any more poems in him. Ebert, with his growing real-life concerns, might have reached a similar peace with movie reviews.
Regardless, he ended on a high note: one that showed him at his eloquent best, reviewing a film he admired and delving under the surface for the insights it contained. We have nearly half a century of his other writings to remember him by. And not long after To the Wonder came out, the Chicago Sun-Times published one last Ebert review, one that he had written months earlier and filed away after viewing the movie at a festival. The title of that film? The Spectacular Now. Weigh those titles alongside one another: To the Wonder. The Spectacular Now. In the end, that's what all great writers do. They key us into the wonder, and the now.
I received the sad and shocking news today that Amanda Walzer, a Fullerton College English professor and longtime supporter of local poets and authors, has died of injuries sustained in an Easter Sunday car accident.
I first knew Amanda through the visiting writers program at Fullerton College, which spotlighted remarkable local poets such as Eric Morago and Susan Davis in recent years. Amanda invited me to be the featured author in 2014, and my wife and I were proud to consider her a friend.
In the wake of Amanda's death, her friends have launched a campaign on GoFundMe to raise money for her sons, who are ages 13 and 10. Those interested in donating can do so here.