I met James Gunn in 2009.
We both had pieces in a nonfiction anthology called “The Book of Lists: Horror.” We were at a reading together, in Hollywood, among many other contributors. I was lucky to be in that book. That book was lucky to have Gunn. He’d already written the new DAWN OF THE DEAD, plus a pair of live-action SCOOBY DOOs, as well as written/directed SLITHER. He was in.
Afterward, I stood on the sidewalk, ready to leave, waiting for my wife. As he and the woman he was with walked off, they passed by me and he said, “That was so funny”, in reference to my reading. I smiled, too slow on the draw to reply beyond “Thank you.” I never forgot it. He was a badass. He clearly outranked me in terms of entertainment biz stature, but he’d not only complimented me, he’d set me at least equal to him in his estimation. Generosity like that is impossible to forget.
Now I’m not saying that single interaction grants me some major insight into the vast undercurrents of James Gunn’s psyche. I claim no qualifications whatsoever to comment on who he is, what he’s usually like, or what goes on in his heart. But I will say that as of that memorable moment, I followed his career with interest. He hit the rocks, at least commercially, with SUPER. So when he later announced on Facebook that Disney was giving him a shot at GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, I smiled so hard that I almost got a concussion. He’d smashed it out of the park. An indie kid (in his 40s) had smoked a path from Troma to the mainstream.
Moreover, he made GOTG his own. They’re the closest pair of movies to an auteur experience in all of Marvel cinema. Despite the fact that he didn’t originate the source material, Gunn tapped the vibe and essence so completely that he took an unprecedented level of ownership over them, not unlike how Robert Downey, Jr., took hold of the Iron Man character.
Lots of voices are sounding about how unjust Gunn’s recent firing from the franchise was. I’d like to not only join those voices, but to spend a moment looking at what happened in the decade between Gunn’s berserk tweets and the moment we’re now living in.
First off, from a movie perspective, indie film pretty much evaporated. When the economy tanked in 2008, indie film went down with the ship. What was once a viable marketplace, the one that Gunn had come from, went under. Accordingly, filmmakers got left without a middle-class. Either you were making low-budget films that didn’t earn their money back, or you were employed by the major studios. Gunn having gotten in with The Mouse was a win for every filmmaker who’d ever tried. It’s virtually impossible to get in at a studio, from an odds perspective. And he not only accomplished it, but he did so while keeping his voice intact. (It would take an idiot to not see at least some superficial similarity between the attitude in those infamous tweets and the one that makes GOTG so hilarious.)
In the meantime, social media, once a stimulating pastime, began to devour human consciousness. You couldn’t go to a public place without seeing human beings glued to their phones. We downplay the impact that this has on our psyches, but I think a direct line can be drawn from how social media’s rewiring our brains to how people like James Gunn (and Roseanne Barr, and so many others before them) can find their fortunes reversing so dramatically…
For one thing, social media’s an irritating environment. It’s not unlike a casino, insofar as it hurls you into a hyper-sensitized, addictive state. You’re hungry for the next big burst of adrenaline, whether it comes in the form of approval, scandal, or both. The waiting leaves you impatient. You’re therefore angry and impetuous, and annoyed with the people who engage with you while you await the ones with whom you want to engage. It’s noise in your head. It lasts all day long. You know you hate it (who ever says they love it?!), and you downplay your attachment to it, but still, there you are, all the goddamn time.
Since it’s saturating our internal landscapes, social media’s starting to wash over our real-life behavior, too, not unlike a tidal wave. A decade-plus of people being hostile to each other without having to look each other in the face has poisoned our politics, and yielded dehumanized ways of seeing other people. We’re all characters now, or caricatures, with stale online pages reducing us to bland photocopies of our true selves. We insult one another like it’s a game, ignoring through the haze of our addiction that our attacks on one another can truly hurt. Or perhaps we stay out of all that noise, and try to say nothing controversial, and live (consciously or otherwise) with quiet shame over the fact that we’re censoring ourselves. Yet it’s hard to speak openly and truthfully on social media when you know that representatives from every conceivable ideology are not only potentially right there, and watching, but potentially very agitated.
The #MeToo Movement operates in the schism between what we’re comfortable saying online and what we’re comfortable saying offline. Every single man whom I’ve spoken with offline about the movement (along with almost every single woman) has at least some concerns about it. Online, they don’t express those concerns. They don’t want to sound insensitive to the movement’s very real sources — rape, assault, abuse, molestation, and harassment — and they know that in the social media environment, it’s all too easy for nuance to be vacuumed away in favor of outrage and venom.
This is self-censorship, induced by ideological pressure to conform, and it enables yet another form of real-world behavior that creepily echoes our new online behavior:
The real-world deletion.
On social media, we can unfriend and/or block people at the push of a button. That very efficiency is now craved in three dimensions. Someone’s a problem? Oh –CLICK! Just make them go away.
The mob that calls for the deletion, or firing, or other forms of social banishment, doesn’t actually push the button. No, in real life, that button actually gets pushed by major transnational corporations.
Think about that for a moment: We’re now passively allowing CORPORATIONS, of all things, to set the moral bar in terms of who gets to stay in our culture and who has to go. Over the justice system, over due process, over any attempt at civil, ethical reasoning, we’ve chosen to outsource this fundamental task to the boardroom, trading robes and gavels for suits and calculators.
I remember when things started turning on this front. It was late last year, as the #Metoo Movement started generating speed. Some offender would get deleted from existence (or some corporation would try to hit delete, as actual deletion is far more complicated…), and I’d notice repeated cries of McCarthyism and Witch Hunts from the comments section.
I had mixed feelings. After all, almost every woman I’ve been close to has a story of being raped, assaulted, abused, molested, or harassed. The justice system has not only let them down, but made itself a joke in the context of what these women (along with many men) have experienced. In the meantime, though, I felt the deletions were jarring. When an online uproar could motivate the actions of the justice department, as in the cases of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, I felt it was absolutely a sound and legitimate win for the mob. But I also felt the mob was biting off more than it could chew, and trying to squeeze offenders of all shapes and sizes (some of whom may not even have offended, or not offended in a way that demanded public shaming) into the deletion machine.
And I began to think something I’d never thought before in my life: Lots of these commenters have it right. ‘Til then, the comments section was the voice of unreason. Unsorted morons, failing to wrap their minds around the substance of the original post. Now, though, I was glad to hear some voices of reason. Why was the media — the official media, not the social one — actively partnering up with the mob in the course of rushing to judgment? Didn’t journalists have some responsibility to remain objective?
It goes back to how addictive social media is. Don’t forget: We’re constantly craving the next scandal, and the high that watching it unfold provides. The media’s addicted not just to the excitement, but to the money they get from helping to generate it. So when #MeToo has a slow week, you can get Barr for racism. You get Barr for racism, you can get Gunn for tastelessness.
All of us have lost our fucking minds.
Unless the mob can craft wise solutions that can effectively replace all that standard due process provides (or often struggles to provide) — presumption of innocence, gathering of evidence, right to a fair trial, impartiality, jury of peers, statutes of limitations, precedents for punishment, sentences that usually end — then I think the mob’s anger would be best channeled toward the justice system itself. Meaning: We must demand a far fucking better one. Its failures have obviously helped to cultivate the current widespread spirit of vigilantism, just as much as social media has. If I was a woman, all the rape kit backlogs alone would keep me up at night.
Meanwhile, the mob’s anger has also been fueled by politics (or more accurately, social media infected politics, which then stirred up the mob, but let’s calm down for just a second…). #MeToo’s been in large part a reaction to the offensiveness of having a president who outed himself on tape as a sexual predator. In an ongoing rash of mad role-playing, we’re now deleting other men who aren’t the president, to try and change the standards around punishing such behavior.
And yet Trump survives.
And while he survives, the mob, coming from both left and right, devours whomever it can.
The fact that it’s not fashionable to say this is all crazy is terrifying. The fact that I’m scared to say this is all crazy is overwhelming. But the alternative — cowed silence — is coming to seem more and more morally disgraceful. I live in a multiracial household, with a half-black wife, and I still winced at the corporate efficiency with which Roseanne Barr got stamped out. Which is not to say I’m so morally advanced, for if I was truly brave, I would have spoken out then, and not instead waited for the fall of a filmmaker who’s on my “side.”
To my mind, James Gunn’s tweets made use of a vanishingly popular form of humor, one wherein the jokester essentially makes fun of somebody he’s clearly not. The idea is, “Look at me, pretending to be the exact opposite of what I really am! OF COURSE I would never actually think or say what I’m now thinking and saying! THAT’S WHAT MAKES IT FUNNY!”
To have to explain this caves my head in. Half my relationships would go into permanent shutdown mode if that kind of ridiculousness was suddenly not allowed.
But let’s go the other way, for the sake of argument: Let’s suppose that James Gunn really is fucking nuts. He’s a depraved fucking nihilist who drinks his own blood and pisses it in his own face and drinks it again (hey, I’m just paraphrasing the tweets!). Then which James Gunn does society really want?
Does society want James Gunn the artist, who’s employed, productive, and creating entertainment to reduce the suffering of the masses, while more than likely reducing the suffering of himself?
Or do we want some isolated, scarlet-lettered James Gunn, locked away in a windowless room somewhere, robbed of his typewriter and his paintbrushes, and left to stew in the filth of his own darkness?
That’s one of the stupidest aspects of these boardroom-style, social-media-influenced deletions: They presume that the one being deleted was in an ignorant state of bliss beforehand. The job, the money, the fame — it was all a source of unending euphoria.
The truth is, people like James Gunn, and Roseanne Barr for that matter, are under unrelenting pressure. I’m not attempting to paint celebrities as victims, just as human beings: flawed, vulnerable, evolving, hurting, trying, falling, rising, and what have you.
When your face is in your phone, you can lose perspective.
Your own humanity can get dried out, as well as that of those around you.
Barack Obama spoke the other day, in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was happy to see him. I missed having a president who’s a moral leader, a president under whom vigilantism would have never been allowed to catch on. He said in part, “Democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view…And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they are white, or because they are male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
He was speaking toward identity politics, another currently raging wildfire, but the source of identity politics is identical to the source of our present-day mob-style deletions: our vast and rampant sense of dehumanization.
We’re slipping lately. We’re falling prey to vengeance. I see us at a fork in the road: Down one path, we slow down and exhale, and cooler heads prevail. Down the other path, we step it up a notch, and start to kill each other. Our Cold Civil War gets Hot. Our outrage spills over, from our screens out onto the streets.
‘Cause deleting someone — depriving them of social standing — is only one notch shy of depriving them of life itself. Humans crave acceptance from each other. We crave, in other words, to be loved. Even the real justice system does not target love.
Anybody who does is playing a dangerous game.