White Lotus Rorschach

Welcome to year 4 of this party at the Moontower. I took a 3 week holiday break from writing and the universe sent locusts. Well, a different bug at least — Covid and RSV which I’m pretty sure is bronchitis rebranded from the 1980s when I was a kid. Our house was a petri dish and the rain has been non-stop, although as a Californian you’re not allowed to mention precipitation without the solemn acknowledgment “we really need it”. I’m inside playing a lot of NBA2k23 with the kids and as much fun as that is, I’m done with winter. But like Pepé Le Pew, I doubt it’s done with me. Bah.

One silver lining was doing stuff I don’t do as much as I would sometimes like to — play guitar (1,2,3 songs with friends), watch movies (Bardo stood out) and binge TV (Classic Concentration reruns). I watched some mainstream stuff too. Avatar 2 and…White Lotus season 2.

I enjoyed and would recommend season 2 (I haven’t seen season 1 but it’s not necessary). White Lotus is a murder mystery but the mystery is actually not central to the show. The characters and dialogue are the draw. I recently watched this ancient but outstanding interview with Tarantino where he contrasts how American cinema [used to be] best at storytelling while “Europe was where you had character-based or mood-based films”. (Eddie Izzard’s old bit about British vs US movies implants the distinction with the stickiest mind-adhesive — side-splitting laughter). White Lotus is more in the spirit of a European film with a cheap Coen Brothers-style plot pushing the series forward.

The scenery in Italy is a timeless luxury. The acting is exceptional. Sure, the references to “mimetic desire” and “dark triad” felt focus-grouped from Twitter but it totally works even as a nod to the terminally online. The show provoked a lot of thoughts that I expected would have been covered in reviews. I don’t normally read reviews until after I watch something so I can see how my interpretation squares with English majors with much better literary comprehension skills than I do. In this rare case, I found the quality of reviews to be unsatisfying, lacking the depth clenching the show. (If anyone has a review probably from a Substack that stood out pass it on…I’m too lazy to write one myself because it would require a second watch. It’s a weak-sauce excuse. I’m torn between saying “sorry” and “tough”).

The editorial The White Lotus Nails How We Struggle To Reassess Classic Cinema does an admirable job of covering one of the show’s remarkable repartees:

Grandpa Bert Di Grasso planned the trip to get in touch with the family’s Sicilian roots, including worshipping at the altar of “The Godfather.” He lights up with absolute glee when telling Portia why their lunch location is so important, reveling in how Al Pacino cries out “Apollonia!” as the Corleone character watches his wife explode before his eyes. “It’s a great scene,” Bert declares. Portia, having zero nostalgia or cultural kinship to the film pushes back. “She blows up? Like, blows up? It’s a little tasteless maybe,” she says.

Bert immediately tries to double down by saying, “Well, look, they’re trying to make a buck. They own the house where they shot the best American movie ever made,” but Portia finds a (possible incel) softboi ally in grandson Albie, who confidently disagrees with his grandpa about the film’s brilliance, telling him he only likes it because:

“you’re nostalgic for the solid days of the patriarchy…men love ‘The Godfather’ because they feel emasculated by modern society. It’s a fantasy about a time when they could go out and solve all their problems with violence and sleep with every woman and then come home to their wife who doesn’t ask them any questions and makes them pasta.”

My favorite part of the scene is the chicken-egg tension that follows:

Bert and Dom Di Grasso then go on to say that “The Godfather” is a “normal male fantasy,” which Albie disagrees with and instead says, “No, movies like that socialize men into having that fantasy.” His father pushes back: “Movies like that exist because men already do have that fantasy. They’re hard-wired,” and Bert agrees. “Mm-hmm, comes with the testosterone.” Albie can’t let it go, and either because he genuinely believes what he’s saying or because he’s trying to impress Portia by coming off as “one of the good ones,” he declares, “No. Gender is a construct. It’s created.”

The article continues…

The scene is magnificent because it’s a circle of three generations of men being so loudly wrong about the message of “The Godfather,” while simultaneously nailing why conversations surrounding classic films are never-ending and consistently complicated. All three of the Di Grasso men were introduced to “The Godfather” in different eras, and their relationships to masculinity are completely different because of not only the changing social climate, but the types of masculinity modeled for them by the men in their lives.

The interpretation of historical figures through contemporary values is a guaranteed click-bonanza as people who think they can anticipate “the right side of history” battle with those who take an unnecessary apology so far that they come out the other side of the Pac-Man map needing to actually apologize.

The scene ends with a line that could have been captioned with “to be continued all-the-time and forever on the internet”:

“They used to respect the old. Now we’re just reminders of an offensive past.”

Does the Godfather’s masculinity reflect or culturally manufacture our apparent nature? I hate the trading advice if you don’t know what to do “sell half”, but I feel like bi-directional causation is embedded in so many forms of expression that any broad concept that devolves into a nature/nurture argument is hard to lay long odds on.

My “sell half” cop-out in this particular example is to recognize that men’s physical dominance is a thing but that it explains many behaviors rather than justifies them. “Explains but does not justify” is a phrase I picked up from Russ Roberts’ Do I Deserve What I Have Series which I reference in Why ‘Deserve” Makes My Skin Crawl. Russ asserts:

Accomplishments explain results; they don’t justify them 

Explanations are not justifications anymore than temptations determine outcomes. There’s a layer of personal agency that resides between eating a pint of Salt & Straw every day and not fitting in your jeans. Id vs ego.

Collectively, there’s a layer of cultural agency. Impulse vs laws. We like, decide, about stuff.

Decisions are never justified “just because [insert banal observation about nature]”. Discussion and debate are part logic, but that’s still only downstream from our value weightings. And those weightings can’t always be reconciled. In fact, if you take the wide-angle view of the human experience, it’s a miracle that we can agree enough to have any kind of general order. I have Oliver Sacks’ 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales on my nightstand. It’s a reminder that our perceptions and values are widely different cross-sectionally. This short post When Childhood Was Discovered explains that childhood as a concept is a fairly modern idea. It’s pretty clear that despite 23 pairs of chromosomes being a common denominator throughout history, we, as in the anthropological “we” change much faster than the 8th-grade life science “we”.

Arguments that pretend otherwise, leaning their full bodyweight on one side of the nature/nurture divide, collapse as soon as a second perspective enters the room. If the internet “dress” from 2015 taught us anything, it’s that we don’t even perceive colors the same. Good luck with the Godfather.

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