Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Music of the Deaf

When I was a student at UCSD in the early 2000’s, I took a linguistics course on "Sign Language and Its Culture." This was an introductory linguistics course, which I was taking only to fulfill a credit. I had no real expectations for the class, but the course title alone contained an idea new to me. For whatever reason, I had never before then even considered that there could be such a thing as a distinct culture of sign language.

I could only imagine how great a loss it would have felt to me personally, if ever I were to lose my own sense of hearing, and that would lead me to thinking how unfortunate it must be to be deaf. Unenlightened as I was, I pictured a hypothetical deaf person being basically like myself (an American male, let's say, with whom I might have many other things in common), only they would be "missing" that one sense, consequently rendering them an "incomplete" version of me. I never quite articulated it in those terms, but that was, if only subconsciously, nevertheless how I perceived things, even gifted as I was with my full five traditional senses.

In my ignorance, it never occurred to me that this attitude of mine was shallow, insensitive, perhaps even offensive. The professor of that class, David Perlmutter, didn't hold it against me, nor against, indeed, the majority of students, who simply didn't know any better. That was why he was here, after all—to educate us.

Perlmutter's most memorable lesson for us was an anecdote out of his conversations with the deaf community. Suppose there were a magic pill that could instantly make a deaf person able to hear. As Perlmutter recounted, when asked if they would take such a pill, one deaf individual, rather than answering, turned the question around and asked, "Would you, as a hearing person, ever take a pill that would make you deaf?" And he continued: "Or, as an American, would you ever take a pill that would make you French?"

Their position was clear enough: they did not regard their deafness as a condition in need of a cure, any more than being French could be considered an affliction. Being deaf did not make them less able, in most every way that counted. If there were certain things they could not do that some hearing people could, well, there are a great many things that I can't do that some hearing people can, or, for that matter, that some deaf people can—compose a symphony, for example, or compete in the Olympics. Deaf people are no less able to enjoy community or to produce culture and art. And if the culture particular to the deaf community ever seems unconventional to outsiders, is it any less the case that, say, French cuisine might seem strange and foreign to someone from Kansas?

Not everyone was entirely convinced by Perlmutter's lesson, as there was some audible scoffing coming from the back of the lecture hall. I should mention again that this was an introductory course; the material, easy and intended for general consumption, leaned toward politically correct feel-good answers over relentless challenging inquiry. Although I say I came out of that class more enlightened than I went in, and certainly more knowledgeable, still there were many fair questions raised and not answered.

Setting aside the magic pills, some saw a flaw in the reasoning put forward by that proud member of the deaf community. Was their culture truly "deaf culture"? Or was it rather, as even the title of the course suggested, "the culture of sign language"? If it was the latter, then the deaf person would indeed seem to be at a disadvantage. A determined hearing person could eventually become fluent in sign language, and thereby assimilate its culture, but a deaf person could never appreciate sounds in the same way that a hearing person could.

Professor Perlmutter himself seemed to be the case in point, a hearing person who was the resident expert on the culture of sign language. He had studied sign language, engaged with the deaf community, and developed an appreciation for their art. Perlmutter did take a step back to remind us that he was not deaf, and that he in no way fancied himself qualified to represent the deaf community. Still, he was the one here gushing to us about how beautiful was “the music of the deaf." What could he know of it, without being deaf himself? And if he, a hearing person, could appreciate it well enough to find it beautiful, didn't that only undermine the deaf person's position that there might be something to lose in becoming hearing?

For me personally, there was no concept in that class more difficult to grasp than this idea of “the music of the deaf.” Beyond mentioning that it existed and insisting that it was beautiful, Perlmutter did not oblige us with a demonstration or even a video. I suppose it was somewhat outside the scope of that linguistics course.

I thought of Beethoven, of course, although he was never mentioned in the class, and truthfully probably was not relevant to a course on the culture of sign language. Beethoven began to lose his hearing as an adult, only becoming mostly deaf toward the end of his life, after he was already an accomplished composer. He continued to produce brilliant works during that later period, but I don’t think this was the “music of the deaf” that Perlmutter was talking about. Beethoven knew what it was to hear music. I imagined he could still use his knowledge and memory as a reference for his later compositions. He would be able to “hear” a note in his mind, even if his ears no longer served.

I wondered, what was it like for someone who was born deaf? They might still be able to appreciate music, maybe even be able to compose. They could experience the vibrational variations of the sound, and perhaps they could process the math in their minds to produce… something unknowable to me. I did not think I could ever know what a deaf composer’s music “sounded” like to them, nor could they know what their compositions sounded like to me. (To be fair, I don’t think I could ever know what a hearing composer’s music really sounds like to them, either, only what it sounds like to me.)

But I think what Perlmutter was really talking about was song—not deaf composers writing “hearing people’s music,” but deaf musicians singing lyrics through sign language, perhaps unaccompanied by any sound at all, primarily for the appreciation of deaf audiences. This was a vastly more difficult concept for me to grasp, because, to me, music could not be separated from sound. You could sign the lyrics to a song, but, without the music, it was just words, poetry. Hearing people had poetry too, but a poem was not a song. I just didn’t get it.

A few weeks back, however, I was attending an OK Go concert (House of Blues San Diego, May 1, 2015), and I noticed there was a woman, not on the stage but next to it, who appeared to be interpreting the show into sign language. She was standing on a small platform off to the side, in front of a party of concertgoers, who, I observed, were conversing with one another through sign language. Transfixed, I watched her for a couple songs, and thought at last that I understood this “music of the deaf.”

It’s not just signed lyrics, not just words; there’s a musicality to her every movement. You can contrast her performance of the song against the middle portion of the video, where she’s interpreting the band’s non-musical banter with the crowd. When she is interpreting speech, her signing is still expressive, of course, but there is not the same rhythm, not the "melody," that accompanies her interpretation of the music.

So, there we have it?

Honestly, I still have no idea. This was not an original deaf composition but an interpretation of a hearing song, so I don’t know if it counts as an example of deaf music. Also, I was fully capable of hearing the live band, so I was not appreciating the sign language performance on its own. I also don’t know if the interpreter herself was deaf, though I’m guessing not. She actually switched off every few songs with another lady, who I’m sure was hearing, because I saw her speaking with the venue staff. The woman in the video? I just can’t say for certain. In any case, I’m obviously not qualified to assess her fluency. I don’t even know if it matters.

Maybe I’m just not capable of appreciating deaf music. Maybe that’s something I’ll just have to resign myself to missing out on because I’m not deaf.

One final observation: the group that the interpreter was performing for was cheering and dancing and drinking, and overall seemed to enjoy the show just like any other concertgoers. In the middle of one song, however, two ladies started signing to one another, and it became a rather drawn-out conversation. It was clear that they were not paying attention to the performance, until finally another of their companions seemed to call them out for being rude. Seeing them conversing, I was actually a little envious, because I can’t usually even hear myself speak under the loudness of the music at these shows. Of course, I guess I’m not supposed to be talking anyway, because the whole point is to hear the music, not myself. It also made me think, maybe these distracted ladies just weren’t that into the performance. So maybe it wasn’t that great an example of deaf music.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)


The most glaring issue with the first Avengers (2012) was, of course, its failure to account for War Machine. As Loki and his Chitauri army descended upon New York, I very nearly stood up in the theater and asked aloud, “Where is War Machine? Why isn’t he helping out?” I’m sure many, if not all, of my fellow moviegoers were wondering the same in that moment. They didn’t even actually need to include War Machine in the action. But they needed to address why he wasn’t there, perhaps with a few simple lines explaining, oh, maybe how there was too much bureaucratic red tape to cut through before the Air Force could deploy War Machine. It was almost a fatal oversight that severely dampened my enjoyment of that movie, which I had been so anticipating for years.

Marvel and Joss Whedon must have realized how badly they screwed up with the first film, because the most applause-worthy moment in the sequel by far is War Machine’s triumphant entrance during the climactic battle. I very nearly stood up in the theater and yelled out, “It’s War Machine! He’s helping out!” I’m sure many, if not all, of my fellow moviegoers felt the same in that moment. In fact, although the overwhelming sense of elation left me rather senseless to everything else around me, I’m almost positive that the entire room was applauding. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for, not only for the three years since the first Avengers, but indeed for most of our lives.

(Hmm, I feel like I was trying to be facetious when I started writing that, but now I can’t tell if I actually mean it. Ahem. Let’s move on.)

Avengers: Age of Ultron may well be a messier, more deeply flawed film overall than its acclaimed predecessor, but I honestly feel it’s a much more satisfying Avengers movie. More nimble than the first Avengers, Age of Ultron zips along from spectacle to spectacle, avoiding the moments of drag that made the previous movie sometimes a chore to get through. Director Joss Whedon manages his players’ minutes more effectively this time around (except for Thor). Thus, although Age of Ultron features a greater number of superheroes, each one (except for Thor) actually gets more moments to show off than they did last time. And that was really the essence and appeal of the Avengers comic at its conception—the promise of a large number of superheroes uniting to show off in spectacular fashion.

Nowadays, both Marvel and DC like to structure the bulk of their superhero comics around all-encompassing and status quo-shattering crossover “events,” but, back in the day, a comic like The Avengers, which brought together a bunch of characters who were already individually stars of their own titles, was kind of a treat and a bonus—the superhero equivalent of a team sports all-star exhibition. If you wanted to follow the ongoing dramas of these characters, you would read their monthly solo titles. What The Avengers, originally published only every other month, offered was a cover-to-cover action story, where the heroes would be in costume from page one, no time to waste, as they scrambled to take down an indiscriminately menacing enemy of transcendent power.

For me, Age of Ultron manages to capture the experience of those classic Avengers comics, or, even more so, some of the older “event” crossovers, such as Secret Wars and The Infinity Gauntlet—fluffy but fun stories, which were little more than thinly plotted excuses to gather all of Marvel’s heroes together for one big brawl against an ultimate villain, after which the characters would disperse back to their separate arcs, as though the crossover never happened.

The reason this doesn’t work as well in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it did in the comics is because even the solo pictures are already summer blockbusters, so it is less certain where the team-up movies are supposed to stand in the overall scheme. Is The Avengers to be a fluffy but fun diversion from the character-driven solo melodramas, or is it the culmination of all those individual stories? The first Avengers was positioned as the latter and felt grand for that reason. Age of Ultron definitely is not the culmination of anything, as it arguably doesn’t progress any of the characters’ individual arcs at all, and so, massive as it is, it comes off inconsequential, even compared to most of the solo pictures.

Still, that can be a blessing as much as a weakness, depending on your perspective. I think Age of Ultron can be more easily enjoyed as a standalone experience than any of the other Phase Two movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far (excepting Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which is, right now, kind of still in its own self-contained corner of that universe). That might seem counterintuitive, considering Age of Ultron ties in threads from every other movie and even the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. But, honestly, the majority of its references are more akin to easter eggs (little things that might slightly enhance your viewing if you get them, but otherwise can be shrugged through with no great loss), and are entirely immaterial to the experience of the film. Age of Ultron is a direct sequel to the first Avengers, written and directed by the same man, Joss Whedon, with Loki’s scepter from that movie reappearing as a major plot device. Age of Ultron also advances my least favorite subplot of the relationship, begun in the previous film, between Black Widow and the Hulk. The only post-Avengers movie that it would help to have seen before Age of Ultron is Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), which covers what happened to Nick Fury. The events of Iron Man 3 (2013) and Thor: The Dark World (2013) are pretty much ignored.

None of this is to deny what a giant mess Age of Ultron is. Never mind trying to deliver on other movies’ setups, Age of Ultron raises questions all its own that it is never prepared to answer.

Right off, when the Avengers are storming some Eastern European stronghold to retrieve Loki’s scepter from HYDRA, I wondered, why is this Iron Man’s problem to deal with? If I’m not mistaken, Tony Stark is still a civilian, so it’s not like anybody can order him to take on this mission. With S.H.I.E.L.D. gone, who is there to give orders anyway? Did Thor or Captain America just text their pal Iron Man, “Hey buddy, could use some backup on this one”? I guess I could believe that. It’s harder to buy that Bruce Banner would be at their service as the Hulk. And what about Hawkeye and Black Widow? Weren’t they just agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. working for Nick Fury? Is Tony Stark the one signing their paychecks now? (Stark does hire Maria Hill after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the idea of him directing his own version of S.H.I.E.L.D. could have nicely set up next year’s Civil War, but Age of Ultron doesn’t explore that in any depth.)

Later, when Iron Man has to take down the Hulk, even though it was the most awesome fight in the movie, I had to wonder, if Iron Man has a suit powerful enough to beat up the Hulk, why doesn't he just wear that suit all the time? (By the way, the notion that Iron Man could ever build a suit capable of coldcocking the Hulk is ludicrous. As awesome as that fight was, the resolution was disappointing.)

Those are minor details, I'll acknowledge. The less forgivable plot holes all revolve around the character of the Vision, who just shows up in the middle of the movie without any proper justification. What are his powers, and how are they to be explained? In what ways was this body supposed to be an improvement on the one Ultron already had? (When Ultron and Vision later do battle, Ultron clearly seems more powerful.) What's the deal with the yellow gem? Does it have a mind of its own, and is that now the Vision's mind? What became of J.A.R.V.I.S.? Is he just gone? Wasn’t he kind of essential to Iron Man’s operations?

Speaking of which, even though it obviously wasn’t the plan when he first signed on to do Iron Man (2008), how nice for Paul Bettany that he has been able to parlay his disembodied robot butler role into playing an actual Marvel superhero. That said, I preferred him as the robot butler.

His evil counterpart, Ultron, I think is a marginal step up from Loki, who was a likable villain, certainly, but not a credible threat to “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

I loved the original Ultron story from the comics, and I found the character in his debut to be very effectively unsettling. Part of it was the way they built up deliberately to the reveal that Ultron was a machine; for most of the story, everybody, even his own minions, assumed it was a human mastermind underneath the hood he wore. In the 1960s, the idea of an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to dominate human beings was probably only just becoming conceivable enough to be legitimately the stuff of nightmares. Also reflecting the exponential rate at which technology was advancing (perhaps beyond humankind's capacity to command it), the Ultron of the comics had already redesigned himself four times before revealing himself to the Avengers.

Almost none of that makes it into Age of Ultron, alas. I suppose, given that J.A.R.V.I.S. already exists in that world as a super-advanced AI, there wasn't all that much new to say about Ultron. At least he cuts an imposing figure (although I find his visage to be lacking some of that spark of menace of the original comics version—odd that even a robot character's face should be such a challenge to translate to live action).

The other new stars, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, core members of the Avengers for decades in the comics, make their way to the movies with some compromises, though not as many as might have been feared. Originally mutants in the comics, these two are unique in being equally associated with the worlds of both the Avengers and the X-Men. Readers and writers alike have always interpreted an allegorical dimension to the X-Men, so it’s not a great leap to recast these former mutants in a slightly more real-world context as orphaned children of an oppressed people in a fictional war-torn Eastern European country. In Age of Ultron, these new Avengers suffer, not so much because rights issues have robbed them of their origin story, but more so because, as with Black Widow and Hawkeye last time, they haven’t had their own films to develop them outside the mayhem of this mega-movie.

Technically, they never had their own solo titles in the comics either. Rather, The Avengers became a smaller, more character-driven comic, once Thor and Iron Man left the team and were replaced by characters who were never individually stars. The ending to Age of Ultron, where we see the new Avengers lineup, composed of Captain America leading a bunch of supporting players, might indicate that the movies too will settle down a bit with the heavy-hitters gone. But, of course, we need only look over Marvel’s future release schedule to see that they have no intention of going smaller, and they are surely bluffing with the suggestion that Thor and Iron Man might not be part of a third Avengers movie.

My biggest complaint with Age of Ultron has not to do with the new characters, but rather with some of the established heroes, specifically Captain America and Black Widow. It wasn't something I was wholly conscious of while watching the first Avengers, but, between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, it strikes me now that the Joss Whedon versions of these characters are a little off. Well, I suppose they are no less canonical, so I'll say instead that they feel like different people from who they are in the solo movies.

The Captain America of the solo films is moral but not moralizing, noble but not proud, firm but not an ideologue. The Captain America of Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies is didactic, and, in his seldom-if-ever-constructive debates with Iron Man, he too quickly devolves into shaming instead of leading.

The Black Widow of Winter Soldier (and, to a lesser extent, Iron Man 2) is an artful master of the game, always thinking five moves ahead, "comfortable with everything," and takes pleasure (if not pride) in being the best in the world at what she does. She has the measure of every man and super-man, while being herself impenetrable. In the Avengers movies, she is more exaggeratedly compartmentalized, "Black Widow" being more clearly a role she plays, rather than a facet of herself. She is effusive when off the clock, and her dialogue is more often subject-oriented, rather than object-focused.

If it's not clear, I prefer the versions of these characters that we saw in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as I suppose I preferred that movie overall. Age of Ultron is a different experience, and one that I did enjoy, but I am ultimately glad that Joss Whedon's run on the Avengers movies is now ended.