Friday, March 30, 2007
Previous Chapters: 1, 2, 3
My father was a killer for the CIA.
He was involved in the Deep Shit, the type of vitally important national security matters that necessitated his total and unequivocal silence. It has only been through the painstaking and laborious process of investigation that I have been able to piece together the fragments of his life.
The twentieth century was not kind to the African continent. The aftermath to hundreds of years of colonial repression was decades of war – both civil and external. My father was a mercenary in darkest Africa for the greater part of the 60’s and 70’s – fighting in the Congo and Angola and Zambia, killing on the side of those remaining white colonial governments who were being secretly supported by the United States through the CIA.
Throughout my childhood and early adolescence there’s the recurring presence of a One-Eyed Man, a tall and swarthy individual who would sometimes make himself visible to me when I was at the playground or playing soccer or shopping with mother. He would appear and I would look at him and he would acknowledge me, just long enough for the mutual recognition to register, and he would be gone.
I knew without having to ask, without having to say anything, that he had been sent by my father to watch over me, to keep an eye (one eye, at least) on me and ensure I was safe. I am certain that my father made many enemies during his tenure with the agency, enemies who would have liked nothing better than to strike out at my absent father through his vulnerable family – but he was always there to protect us, even when he wasn’t.
The One-Eyed Man stopped coming sometime after I hit junior high. Perhaps the people who had threatened my father were finally dead, or perhaps, as I secretly feared, the One-Eyed Man had finally been eliminated. All I knew was that the final link to my father’s secret life and career had been severed.
I never told my mother about the one-eyed man. She lived in a state of forced ignorance in regard to my father’s activities – I suspect she knew more than she admitted, and had perhaps been in some way complicit in my father's death - but her sanity depended on keeping these disparate parts of her life compartmentalized.
My newfound drunken companion and I were released from police custody around sunrise. Trevor, as I later learned his name to be, had slept through the entire altercation, waking only after the body and the murderer in question had both been carried away.
He was holding his head and squinting in the crisp winter morning. Apparently the events which had led to his arrest involved drinking contests and video games – more than that he refused to remember. For the immediate future he was concerned mainly with finding coffee and shelter.
The campus police station was situated on the far end of the school from where my apartment and Trevor’s fraternity house were both located. It was a Saturday morning and the school was quiet.
It turned out that I had indeed met Trevor before, although I would not have remembered this if he had not been the one to mention that we shared the same chemistry section during our freshman year. On a campus filled with tens of thousands of unfamiliar faces it was almost a miracle to find recognition in a stranger.
Trevor was wearing a simple white T-shirt. He had been sweating throughout the night and now he was very cold. There was a pancake restaurant off the main boulevard as you rose up through the campus buildings. We decided to stop in and have breakfast together.
We were certainly a sight. I hadn’t slept all night and there were spatters of blood from the murder all over my shirt and coat, droplets which had inexplicably flown across the cell to land on me. Trevor looked like he felt, horribly hung-over. His skin was coated in grease and his eyes were crimson.
The restaurant was empty. The waitress led us to a booth towards the front of the restaurant and filled our coffee cups. She was a student at the school, dully attractive in a soft and unfocused manner, although her breasts were recognizably pert through her starched uniform.
I ordered a plate of pancakes and a glass of orange juice. Trevor nibbled on an English muffin with some strawberry jam smeared clumsily across the face. After he downed two cups of coffee, he opened his eyes wider and engaged me in tentative conversation. He asked me why I had been in the jail. I told him the truth: that I had been walking around campus late at night and had had the misfortune to witness a shooting.
I explained roughly what had occurred last night from the time I spotted the two men arguing near the entrance of the Life Sciences building. I omitted mention of my air rifle.
The same officer who had collared Trevor had apprehended me. We met in the back of his cruiser, which Trevor did not remember. He didn’t remember much from around the time he was doing tequila shots with Arthur Magnusen from Delta Kai to the time he woke up cold and throbbing in the cell next to where a brutal murder had recently occurred (a murder which he also did not remember).
He mentioned in passing that the police had arrested him after pissing in a mailbox on Warring Street. He didn’t remember doing it but that’s why he had been booked.
All throughout our conversation he was drinking coffee at a furious rate. In hindsight it seems perfectly sane – drinking copious amounts of coffee enables his body to flush the system of toxins. I wasn’t dealing with an amateur, apparently Trevor knew his way around the world of extreme inebriation.
And as we chatted quietly and as Trevor continued the slow and awkward process of working through his hangover, I looked over his shoulder towards the opposite side of the restaurant and saw a familiar face staring back at me across the sterile café. It was the One-Eyed Man, ten years older and none the worse for wear, unmistakable.
The One-Eyed Man was staring directly at me with a look of inconsolable melancholy writ passionless on his face. Whatever had brought him here, ten years in the future from the last time I had seen him, set down directly into my life and my world again, from out of the dim recesses of my ancestral past, was obviously a grim chore.
Suddenly I wished that I had discussed the man with my mother. I wished I had been able to overcome my natural reluctance to communicate with her and explored this mystery further because I found myself inexplicably unable to deal with the sudden numbing possibilities which his presence reopened in my near future.
Trevor had stopped speaking. He had lifted his head and was looking right at me. I snapped back to our conversation but I didn’t have the slightest notion what we had been discussing.
When I looked again the One-Eyed Man had gone, paid his check and left the restaurant. But I knew I was going to see him again, and soon
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Photo by Kenneth Cappello
So I decided to end my self-imposed concert ban and went to see Bloc Party last night. (Actually, I still probably wouldn't have gone if a friend hadn't had a spare ticket and needed a ride). I avoid going to Boston on general principles - the last time I went into Boston I got into an accident. I hate driving in Boston. Sure enough, we got lost on the way to the venue but still made it with plenty of time (because we left really early, but that was wise foresight in this instance).
There are a couple reasons I haven't bee not a concert in almost two years. The first (and coolest) is that the last show I saw was Sleater-Kinney, on what would later become their farewell tour, and it was such an amazing show that, honestly, it sort of sated my desire for live music for a long time. Which leads me to the second reason - as much as I loved seeing S-K, I hated the show itself. I think I've discussed this before: concerts would be wonderful if not for the people who go see them. When you've already got a thing about crowds in general, being forced into the position of being in close proximity with the worse-behaved specimens of modern American youth is quite simply a harrowing prospect. This is part of why I am beginning to think that I shouldn't feel to bad about going to concerts rarely, even though I enjoy it when I go. It takes a toll, and when I'm done I feel the sincere need to go lie in a cave for a week.
Bloc Party put on a good show, even if I did cringe at some of the more hammy moments - Kele Okerke's crowd-pleasing shtick wore real thin real quick. Aren't British bands supposed to be famous for their business-like reserve in front of crowds? The problems were more technical than anything else, and I suppose I'm marking myself as a hopeless fogey for even mentioning them. First, the guitars were massively out of tune for the first four or five songs, and although the problem was fixed after that point there were still a couple of dodgy moments throughout the course of the show. Is it so hard to keep your guitar in tune? Really? Secondly, the show was very badly mixed, and the sound design for the room was abominable. Boston's Orpheum is a really odd venue for rock shows, because the balcony is very low and half the building's seats are positioned under the balcony. It's a challenge to design the sound so that the highs and the lows don't cancel each other out and end up echoing badly for half the audience. They didn't succeed very well, because for most of the show the prominent noise (for me) was high-pitched guitar noise bouncing off the walls and low ceiling, effectively dampening the drums and bass. Which is a damn shame because Bloc Party has one of the best rock drummers currently working today, Mr. Matt Tong. He seemed to be having a great night - he took his shirt off about halfway through the show, which was impressive - but I'll be damned if I could hear a fraction of the intricate detail work he provided.
It's not like it's impossible to get good sound out of the Orpheum. I saw Nine Inch Nails there a little over two years back. They were (as you may imagine) considerably louder than Bloc Party. I was seated in roughly in the same area for that show, and despite the volume the sound mixing was pristine and every element could be heard with perfect clarity. Damn shame.
But still, even with these caveats, it was a good show. I can quibble about the set list - "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)" is really not as strong an opener as they seem to think it is, and I would have switched around the encore of "Helicopter" and "Banquet" so that they played the latter last and not the other way around - sort of an anticlimax, as "Helicopter" never did strike me as one of the stronger tracks off that album, despite it's popularity. They didn't play "Price of Gas", but that's a small complaint. There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday night, especially if you don't have to pay for the ticket.
quite possibly the greatest music video ever, ever*.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Top Five Love & Rockets Characters Who
Aren't Actually Maggie, Hopey or Luba
3. Errata Stigmata
2. Penny Century
1. The Motherfucking Sea Hog
I couldn't for the life of me remember why I had put Agnes and His Brothers in my queue, but I did enjoy when I watched it. The funny thing is, the movie is very, very similar to American Beauty, right down to a specific scenes. Like, seriously, there's a scene where someone thinks they're watching one character perform fellatio on another, except there's a plant in the way and the other characters are really doing something else totally innocent. There's a spooky kid obsessed with his camcorder, there's a divorce precipitated by a frigid wife...
The thing is, despite the obvious filching, Agnes is a much better film. While American Beauty sort of skirts around controversial subject matter in that smarmy way that middlebrow American films do so well, Agnes - despite the superficial similarities - owes a lot more to Pedro Almodovar in terms of tone (and not simply because the movie features a post-op transsexual in a prominent role). There's veiled incest, bestiality and semi-public shitting. The movie's most sympathetic character is a peeping Tom with passive aggressive issues toward his father who only finds happiness by becoming an adult film star, to give you an idea. I don't even mind that they lifted the closing sequence almost wholesale from Adaptation - it was still an interesting movie that stuck with me for far longer than I expected.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Just because I know some of you are soft on Endemic Treponematosis, I will point out this post on the subject of crazy girls. As every man knows, crazy girls are the spice that makes life's gumbo tolerable. Hell, I like the breed so much, I even married one (although my ex had purple, not red hair). They have the bright hair to ward off predators, incidentally.
Just off the top of my head, ten artists who should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before U2 or Van Halen were even allowed in the building (not that it matters considering it's a mutual blowjob society for Baby Boomers, but still, but still):
- Captain Beefheart
(Longshot, but still)
- The Stooges / Iggy Pop
(I had to check, but yeah, neither are in...)
(Not a chance in hell, but still)
- The Replacements
(I'd say it's even money these guys might make it one of these years - too many people in rock nowadays built their careers out of aping the 'Mats for them to be so easily forgotten. )
- The Meat Puppets
(Pretty much ditto what I said for the Replacements, albeit with subtantially less chance of ever actually being inducted.)
(This should have been a no-brainer - but then, I guess they just fucking had to put Stephen Stills and David Crosby in there twice.)
- New Order
(Joy Division is too cult, but New Order are legitimately one of the most influential, important and popular groups of the last thirty years. But they're probably too British.)
- The Cure
(Even the most rabid Cure-hater can't deny their influence, their popularity and their staying power. But again, too British.)
- Depeche Mode
(One of the biggest bands in the world, still packing stadiums to this day, and they're not in? Even when a HoF induction is the only chance in hell of ever seeing Vince Clarke play with the band again? Jann Wenner must fucking loathe Britain.)
- Larry Levan
(About as much chance of this as Hell freezing over, but you can't make a serious argument that he doesn't deserve to be there just as much as, say, Bob Fucking Seger. )
If you get the chance to see the replay of this year's induction ceremony, however, it's worth it, if for no other reason than to see Paul Shaeffer make an uncharacteristically awful fuax pas. You'll know it when you see it - simply amazing.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Previous Chapters: 1, 2
When I was twelve I spent a month in a mental hospital. I try not to remember much about what actually happened during that month – lots of jigsaw puzzles and television. We were forced to participate in long nature walks through the surrounding wilderness. There was also therapy and there were tests but mostly, in between torture sessions, I remember being very, very bored.
I learned very quickly not to talk about those things I feared. People think you’re crazy when you start talking about red walls and purple nightmares – its best to avoid such discussions altogether.
It was an old building, I remember that, a very nice institution set on a sloping green estate in a quiet rural town many miles from the city. There was well-maintained but rarely-used playground equipment in the building's front yard. Only the windows betrayed the building’s deeper motives: dark and furtive, laced throughout with metal wire to prevent them from shattering when crazy people tried to break them with chairs - which they would try to do in order to escape the intense pain of "treatment".
When my mother sent me to the hospital I think she was relieved. It’s not hard to see why. Ever since I had been three she had been afraid of me, casting suspicious glances in my direction every so often as she became increasingly convinced that not only could I see more than she could, but that I saw things which would forever be invisible to her. I also saw things inside her of which she was ignorant.
The painful outbursts decreased in frequency as I grew older. Partly this was due to the growing realization that I had to normalize my behavior to survive unmolested in the mainstream, and partly this was due to the fact that I grew inured to the chaotic and daily betrayal of my five senses. The event that precipitated my first and final institutionalization was my last major episode before puberty, as well as the last major episode I had the weakness to share with the world outside my mind. Also, it should be noted that the medication I was given succeeded in preventing these outbursts as well, but not without extracting a cost.
(I can only imagine the relief my mother felt as I left for college. In the space of eighteen years she had traversed an emotional gamut the likes of which I could never hope to understand – from maternal affection to cold disdain to naked betrayal. For much of my youth she regarded me as a coiled snake held close to her bosom, and she would probably have had more consideration for the snake.
But eventually she softened. Trauma and anguish change a person. I would never say she warmed to me, but perhaps she grew accustomed to the idea that I was eventually going to leave. This allowed her the luxury of feebly attempting to recreate the sensations of her initial maternal affections. I appreciated the attempt, even if I knew it to be specious.)
The walls of the hospital were made of gray bricks, stacked one on top of the other and whitewashed over throughout the long subterranean hallways of facility. The dormitories were made to appear warm and welcoming, with friendly colors on the walls and picture books on the tables, but the hospital was still as uninviting an institution as could be imagined. I remember the gray-white walls and the blue metal doors that swung shut behind the orderlies and doctors with loud swooping thuds. It was harsh and loud because there was so little atmosphere, it seemed as if we were eight miles high and the air was thin and brittle, but we were really underground, deep beneath the surface of the earth.
To my disdain I would later discover that the hallways in my college dormitory were whitewashed gray-brick as well. Only, the atmosphere at school was as far removed from that of a hospital as could be conceived: the air was heavy and jellied, caked around the doors and windows. It was not a new building and the rot and mildew of previous tenants hung in the air like meat on a hook.
Of course it goes without saying that I despised my collegiate peers. Once you’ve been in the mental hospital and seen the clouds melting around your mother’s face you learn the lesson that life is a painful bitter and redundant struggle. You work hard and your soul becomes callused. You fight and you fight against the prevailing winds to gain a footing on what you have no choice but to call your own "achievement".
But you’re surrounded by privilege and affectation. Everywhere around you are reminders of just how callow and disproportionate the world your peers inhabit actually is. Had any of them been in the mental hospital? Did they understand what true, profound privation and suffering were? I doubted it.
There’s a world that I will never inhabit. The inhabitants of this world believe that art and literature are fashion accessories, and that having fine prints from the Met on your wall and Pablo Neruda on your shelf somehow absolves you of having to struggle. Well, art is powerful for exactly the reasons that these people will never understand.
It’s powerful because it can destroy as easily as it can create. It’s harder and harder to appreciate beauty the deeper you explore misery. That’s why its so important, so vitally intrinsically important that people have their conceptions of beauty and truth, so that we can somehow manage to keep living even when we’re seeing three thousand people die on the television in our living room in real time.
If you don’t understand this, if you’ve never suffered, how can you claim any appreciation of beauty? It’s callow and selfish and delusional to pretend at depths you cannot fathom.
So I spent a great deal of time in college sitting behind the dorms near the garbage dumpster and chain smoking. I would sit against the fence and read my books in the shadows of the streetlight and pull my jacket closer to my skin because it was getting chilly outside but I didn’t’ want to go inside because they would all be sitting around playing video games and listening to MTV. It seems petty, doesn’t it? But I don’t want to have to pretend I care, that would just be needlessly unpleasant for all concerned.
I’m already a loner with a reputation for sullen disrespect. My mother calls every few days and we actually have long meaningful conversations. Perhaps she misses me – if for no other reason than that I was the closest thing in her life to a constant? The closest thing in her life to an actual living breathing confidant, based on the fact that even if we didn’t like each other we still had a shared background of distrust and codependence?
She missed my father, I could tell. When she had been thinking about my father I would come home late in the day after high school classes and find her sitting in the kitchen in front of a cold cup of coffee and staring at a half-finished crossword puzzle or possibly a romance potboiler that she had placed before her and simply forgot. She had loved my father and she regarded me strangely as her only link to him, a mystifying mixture of keepsake and indictment. He was gone, she was still here, I was still here with her, why was this so?
In the habits and attitudes of those who come into money late in life, I have come to recognize a certain mortified stiffness of demeanor, a pallid rigidity that reflects an inherent uncertainty. My mother was never comfortable in her own skin after the day she became a millionaire. Her mind, the body which imprisoned that mind and the world around that body became perfect strangers, reflecting only distrust and anxiety. There is a constant fear that the sky will open and God will descend to Earth flanked by a chorus of angels in order to explain in very reassuring yet firm tones that the money was a mistake and he’s going to take it all back.
So the money became a burden. If the wealth had been intended to ease the suffering my father’s passing had left, it was a total failure. My mother would have been happy to be poor in his presence – now that she was rich in his absence she felt shame.
Of course, all of these things appeared in my thoughts in the duration of a mere instant as I sat uncomfortably in that dry and stuffy cell, with my inebriated friend for company and those two anonymous criminals with whom my fate had become temporarily and inexplicably tied. It had been a busy night for the campus police. There were drunken and disorderly frat brothers and sexually assaulted coeds running everywhere, it seemed, and the cops were just too busy to actually do anything about any of it.
As we had been booked there was a girl in the front of the station begging and crying and screaming for help, claiming she had been raped and that a group of boys at one of the fraternities had ganged up on her when she was drunk. She had been wearing the remains of a nice outfit, a short plaid skirt and a white blouse that she had sweat right through. She had been drinking and was still somewhat drunk but there was a fevered hint of sobriety at the edges of her voice, a hysterical glint in her words that betrayed a deep and portentous suffering. Of course, she was ignored.
So the ceiling is low and the lights are flickering. It’s late at night and its pretty hot outside because I’m sweating underneath my coat even through its supposedly air-conditioned inside the jail. I’m going to be sweating for hours tonight, even when I’m back in my apartment I’m going to feel my body sticking against the sheets. Nervous shivers rack my body. I am calm.
There’s a girl down the hall in my apartment building who I initially found attractive but who has since fallen in my estimation. She’s rich and comes from a background of privilege and license, and I find myself unable to mask my sarcasm when I’m around her. She seems functionally intelligent but lacks the kind of essential hunger that is necessary to succeed in this world, unless you have already achieved success by virtue of your birth.
Of course, this is the same problem I see all around me. Everyone seems recklessly intent on squandering their advantages and wallowing in their own concupiscence for mediocrity. It’s a depressing world to have to live in because no one seems at all worried about what they’re going to do with their lives.
These thoughts are still bubbling in my head when the action occurs.
I had been nodding myself to sleep in the quiet interim when I was woken by the struggle. The two men who shared our cell, the two shadowy figures who had killed the police officer as I watched in horror, who I had later seen to be punk kids little older than myself, were speaking in loud and agitated voices. They became increasingly angry as the minutes of captivity passed into hours, and finally the agitation erupted into desperation and violence.
The smaller one stands and runs to the opposite end of the cell, trying to stand out of the larger man's reach. The larger one leans down and pulls something small out of his sneaker, I can’t quite tell what because I’m trying very hard to seem like I’m totally ignoring what’s going on even though I can’t look away. It’s a small cell so my attempts at ignorance go unrewarded.
The small man is wailing like a cornered animal as the larger man strides confidently across the cell. There’s something in his hand and his eyes are fixed, like inanimate objects, rocks or stones set against the pasty backdrop of his face.
The small man is screaming louder and louder for help, for any kind of help but there are no answers. Everyone in the jail is looking at what’s going on in our cell but everyone is strangely quiet: all the petty crooks, all the drunks, all the hookers and all the brawlers. I get up and move across the cell to where my inebriated friend is laying, the only person in the cellblock oblivious to the drama, pursued by his imaginary demons.
On the opposite end of the cell, nearer where I had been sitting, the larger man has the smaller man backed into the corner and he’s holding him against the wall with the collar of his dark leather jacket balled in his fist. Suddenly there’s movement and then there’s blood everywhere, like he had reached into the smaller man’s chest and turned a faucet, because it’s on the man’s jacket and splattering on the floor.
The larger man turns away from the victim and tosses the knife away, into the hallway. His hands are covered in grimy, dark black-red blood and he’s got a strangely distracted look on his face. The smaller man slumps to the floor, his hands limp and his face ashen. His blood is everywhere it shouldn’t be and he can’t put any of it back where it’s supposed to be and he seems mildly amused by the irony as he starts to quietly cough and the blood drips down his chin.
Finally, after what seems like an eternity the police respond to the commotion and move into the cellblock en masse, opening the door to our cell and pushing the larger man to the floor and running to the smaller man but he’s already dead. Of course, my friend and I are overlooked and that’s for the best all things considered.
The smaller man dies before they can do anything and the larger man is mute, he seems tired and he doesn’t want to communicate anything, he just wants to go to sleep from the way he acts. He’s still got blood all over him and even some spurted on his face, shading his mouth and his eyes so that it looks like he put on war paint. He’s on the floor and he’s handcuffed and the police are yelling and shouting at him but he just looks like he’s about to fall asleep right there in the jail cell as he's being held to the ground.
And of course I never found out what any of that was about, not until much later.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
As a little-know provision of the Patriot Act renewal of 2006, clouds were deputized by state and federal law enforcement. Whereas flesh-and-bone cops are subject to conventional search-and-seizure regulations, clouds - as diaphanous globules of gaseous water - are not. Clouds possess the ability to enter any premises without warrant, because they are mist.
This has been a great boon to law enforcement. They can find that joint in your ashtray left over from the Christmas party where you invited your cousin. And then if you say you didn't even know it was there, they can get you for resisting arrest.
And the new clouds Force will finally enable the government to crack down on The Gays. In the past, sodomy laws were notoriously hard to enforce without photographic or, preferably, videotaped evidence (featuring multiple angles that you can toggle back and forth from with your remote control), because any Suspected Gay, when brought in to court, could always say they were "just kidding" about the Gay thing. But now that the very fog has been deputized, the Attorney General can finally take permanent steps to get The Gays off our streets.
Next stop, The Blacks, the Browns, the Yellows, people who vote for the Democrat Party and those other people who do that thing we don't like. Brought to you by the Justice Department, and the Cloud Police.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
For a while now I've been meaning to discuss more animation on this blog. It's definitely "not comics", but animation and comics have always been kissing cousins. My enthusiasm for comics may wax and wane, but I've loved cartoons since I was a little kid. I still prefer watching cartoons, even bad cartoons, to just about anything else.
Anyway, advance screenings of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie are starting to leak into the press, and the reactions are, ah, mixed. Which shouldn't surprise me. What does surprise me is that they actually made an ATHF movie in the first place. I mean, it probably cost next to nothing, considering how cheap the show already is. But it's such a cult artifact... although the audience is rabid, it is probably considerably smaller than the audience for, say, Firefly. And the general bewilderment with which the property is meant by the general public does not indicate that it will be much in the way of a breakout success.
No, ATHF is a niche. But the thing that always gets me is how people who don't "get" the show always misjudge just what that niche is. I mean, I don't know everyone who watches it: I could be in the minority. But I think it's probably one of the most intelligent shows on television, in terms of the amount of thought that goes into the premise and the execution. At the risk of overstating my case, it's definitely one of the more self-conscious and self-aware shows in the history of television, a show which could not even exist without an extremely sophisticated, not to say jaded, awareness of pop culture history and the disposable absurdity thereof. Sure, you could say it was essentially a comedy for stoners to get high to - but then you'd be taking it at face value, which is exactly the type of over-literal thinking that creates the talking fast-food items that live forever in our cultural detritus. No, despite the occasional overreaches into toilet humor, the show is a much more postmodern take on the Seinfeld template - a pile of useless high-concepts spinning their wheels, doing nothing, existing in a Beckett-esque limbo (New Jersey) where everything, no matter how earth-shaking or destructive, is reset every twelve minutes.
It's a formula that never fails to amuse me. I don't like to buy DVDs very often, because I am one of those people who just can't stand to watch movies over again until I've totally forgotten them (with a few exceptions), but I can rewatch my ATHF DVDs over and over again and still enjoy them. For some strange reason, they tickle my funny bone like just about nothing else. Also, the series has remained remarkably consistent in a way that many of the other Williams Street programs have not - as much as I enjoyed the Brak Show, for instance, it probably ended when it needed to. Harvey Birdman probably should have ended a long time ago. But unless they change the formula radically the movie should be the most purely enjoyable thing I see in theaters all year - and that's even if they release a movie composed entirely of Helen Mirren and Irene Jacobs mud-wrestling while Neko Case plays Stones and Bowie covers in the background.
My dad, in an offhand comment, once made a brilliant insight towards encapsulating the show's appeal. We were watching a few episodes off my DVDs and he pointed out something to the effect that "all these adventures they show in the opening credits - they never actually do any of these things". And that is the point - the glorious, mind-numbing, borderline-autistic point. They are talking fast-food products who live in a world of mad scientists, aliens and wizards, and everything they encounter is as mundane as it can possibly be.
Sunday, March 18, 2007
I usually detest most memes, but there was something charming about this one that piqued my interest. If it's good enough for a little stuffed bull, then it must be good enough for me.
I admit this is a purely mischievous impulse on my part; I bow to no man in my iTunes' ability to offer some really fucked-up, and yet, oddly thrilling juxtapositions when set loose at random.
(Also: it's rather depressing to realize you ate up the entirety of the 30 gigs on your mp3 player and could still fill it up twice over. I'm having to delete something every time I want to put something new on there; last night, Dylan's John Wesley Harding got the axe, I just can't love that album and am not sorry to see it go.)
"So Many Ways" - Mates of State
Hmmm. This is actually somewhat appropriate. Sometimes I forget I put this album on here.
"If Music Could Talk" - The Clash
Nothing says "rise up to meet the day" like a dubby jam from deep in the heart of Sandanista!
First Day At School
"Almost Forgot Myself" - The Doves
Wow, the shuffle is being a bit indie today. Again, oddly appropriate, in a melancholy, John Hughes-meets-Cameron Crowe fashion. (I hate both John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, honestly. I'd have much preferred, say, some Gang of Four.)
Falling In Love
"We're No Here" - Mogwai
Now that's perfect. What is love if not blinding, pounding post-rock terror produced by Scottish people?
"A Winter's Sky" - The Pipettes
Yes. Perfect. This is the sound of me hurting you.
"Ferdinand the Imposter (Demo)" - The Band
OK, this is not really a good pick . . . and yet, I guess it's got a plaintive thing going at the choruses. Not anyone's favorite Band song.
"Surge" - Funky Porcini
Maybe if everyone was taking a lot of speed and listening to a scratched-up copy of Birth of the Cool on the turntable.
"Art Bitch" - Cansei de Ser Sexy
Yeah, this is my life in a nutshell.
"Haze" - Dan Mass
Yep. When I go nuts, I hear slightly goofy lounge-influenced house tracks. Again, I didn't even realize I had this on here.
"Inocular A" - Mouse on Mars
Driving in downtown Boston, yes.
"Black Flowers" - Yo La Tengo
Actually 100% appropriate, what a disappointment. I would have paid hard cash for the Chemical Brothers' "Flashback".
Getting Back Together
"Heaven Is A Truck (Live In Australia)" - Pavement
If love is a drunken car crash only briefly by flashes of wistful reminiscence, this is the soundtrack. It is, so this works.
"Wilderness (Live)" - Joy Division
Having been married once, this is pretty close to what I expect to hear if I ever have to go through it again.
Birth of Child
"Seen Your Video" - The Replacements
There are few moments in life that cannot be made better by the Replacements. Sure, if I had to pick, obviously "Bastards of Young" would be more appropriate (you're never too early to indoctrinate your offspring into the cult of crushing disappointment!), but this mostly instrumental track carries a nice romantic heft as well.
"Hoist That Rag" - Tom Waits
Ah, a rookie - I just put this CD in yesterday (bye bye John Wesley Harding). Again, appropriate, especially if you are me. But not quite as appropriate as it would be for my American Idol audition.
"Rebel Rebel (Live)" - David Bowie
This is the really coked-up, super-glammy version off the David Live set - a criminally underrated live album, featuring some of Bowie's most distinctive (read: did he even know where he was when he sang these songs?) vocals. Perfect for that long march into the white light, since there was sure a lot of white powder involved in the recording of this song.
"Saturday Morning" - Meat Puppets
Yeah, not quite as upbeat as I'd usually want for my funeral procession. But certainly violent enough. I want the weeping and the wailing and the gnashing of breasts, dammit!
"Sweetness Follows" - REM
OK, I cheated here because it was really a David Bowie song (the album version of "Candidate", in case you were wondering), and I'm of the old school - no two songs by the same artist on a mix, unless you've got a damn good reason for it. Anyway, I couldn't have picked a better track than this - the most depressing song in the entire catalog of a intermittently very depressing band. Anyone who sees a movie of my life should want to walk into the parking lot and wrap their lips around the exhaust pipe of their automobile, for despair from realizing they will never be as cool as me.
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Friday, March 16, 2007
Previous Chapters: 1
As a child I remember running. It seemed as if the terrain was made of sticky taffy and every movement was caught on the trees or the streets or the grass. I couldn’t move without trapping myself, suffocating at the heart of the world.
I ran through the fields and valleys of an idyllic childhood, pages flipped across the lens of my memory. I can’t see the details because the edges are blurry and the light is soft and bleeds through the cracks, but I was young and alive.
There were abandoned industrial pipes set down in a lot near our home. I pushed through the long tubes like a worm, struggling and straining to reach the light. There was fear, naked crazy fear and a nascent claustrophobia. There were no words for these things in my mind but I had known dread long before I understood restraint.
The mountain vales were green and the waters that trickled across the rounded algae-green rocks were quiet and peaceful. It was a simple and unaffected childhood in many respects, marked only by my clean determination to learn and to understand, a determination that marked me beyond my years.
But aside from these scattered scenes of idyllic youth, the dominant note sounding through my childhood was panic, a sheer and vertiginous lust for stability and control that belied my age. Ever since the fever had taken me at such an early date I had been unable to dream. As I slept I drowned in sweat, soaking my sheets, starting bolt upright and sober as the clock struck three throughout an empty house. There was, from very early in my perceptions, an acknowledgment that something was wrong with me. Something was missing and I had no idea what it was.
So I reached further into solitude and parsed my own way through the mysteries of existence. The primal fears were unassailable, but I could at least try to come to grips with the daily agonies. The spectral images of my fever had been seared onto my brain, and I had to be ready in case they ever returned.
After graduating college I returned home and resumed tenancy under my mother’s roof. It was time for the wedding preparations to begin.
My wedding to Connie had been in the stages of perpetual planning for years, since before college. I entered into the theoretical compact with great trepidation and an inhuman dread. I had simply erred on the side of caution, unwilling to hurt Constance and, as a result, unable to make my feelings known at any juncture.
So we had left for college and placed the matter on the back burner. It made perfect sense to imagine that in the course of four years the engagement would be forgotten and nullified by the passage of time. How often do these things last? What are the statistics?
Of course I lacked the strength of convictions necessary to break the engagement myself. Constance dutifully sent letters on a weekly basis, letters I rarely read. Constance visited my school and made the acquaintance of my friends and peers – they all commented on how lucky I was to have found such a beautiful and intelligent companion.
I couldn’t tell them, of course, how much I truly loathed her - and how much I loathe her still, if the truth be told. My animosity had been precipitated by nothing specific she had ever done or not done, but simply by virtue of her copious virtuosity. She was very beautiful - intelligent and compassionate. She thought I was joking when I told her how much I wanted to kill her, to do anything necessary to take her out of my life and absolve myself of this persistent responsibility. She would laugh and giggle and hug me, pulling me closer to her in the bed.
So I took to walking the campus in the middle of the night, navigating by the light of the moon. Sometimes I carried an air rifle under my coat. There were a lot of rats in the neighborhood of the college and I enjoyed trying to kill them – but, in my defense I will also say that I was a horrible shot and they usually got away.
One night as I was stalking through the darkness on the periphery of the Life Sciences building I overheard a whispered conversation around the corner of a concrete abutment. There were two figures standing in the shadows across the stairway.
The first of the shadows was taller and seemed to be angry at the second shadow. They were arguing and were having a hard time keeping their voices down – words echoed swiftly through the crannies of the hollow concrete architecture.
“Jean’s got these,” were the first words I heard from the taller shadow.
“I don’t care what Jean has, Axel asked for these,” the second retorted.
“Jean’s got these,” the first shadow repeated. “And you don’t seem to understand that Jean doesn’t want any more of these. Jean is very unhappy with these.”
“Yeah, well, you tell Jean its not my fault, she needs to talk to Axel – or better yet, tell her to talk to Carter and see how she handles that.”
The first man stiffened visibly. I could see how angry he was even from the safe distance of my dark corner.
“Jean is not going to talk to Carter. Ever. You’d be good to think twice before you speak like that. You could get yourself killed.”
“Shut up,” the second shadow said. “You just shut the fuck up, no one's gonna get killed.”
“Wait a minute,” the first shadow stopped and put his hand on the second shadows arm to still him. “I think I heard something.”
I froze in my tracks and tried my level best to turn invisible. I had no idea what was happening but I knew that I wanted no part of it.
There was a moment of tension before I saw what happened next. A policeman stepped from the fog on the opposite end of the square and started yelling at the two shadows standing in front of the Life Sciences building. They turned their heads and in that moment I saw disgust, fear and anger on both of their obscured faces. The cop was already climbing the stairs towards the two men by the time they reached into their coats and pulled out two large handguns. They were firing their weapons at the officer before I had a chance to register what was happening – I saw the policeman fall as the two men fled into the night.
I fled too. I had no idea what had just happened and I had no intention of finding out. However, it was not to be. The night failed to swallow me as assiduously as I had wished. There were sirens and lights everywhere across the campus and I hadn't made it home before the police spotted me skulking through the underbrush.
“What are you doing, boy?” the policeman called out to me.
“Nothing, sir, just going home.”
“What the hell are you doing out here at this time of night?”
“Nothing, sir, as I said.”
The cop grunted. “Put your hands on the wall,” he said. I did so and he began to pat me down.
“What’s this?” he said after a moment. He reached into my coat and found my air rifle. “What the hell is this, boy?”
“Its an air rifle, sir.”
“Well, so it is . . .” the cop replied, surprised. He fingered the bolt and a handful of BB’s fell out of the gun and onto the ground below, landing with a dry metal crack. “I’m not even going to ask why the hell you had this on you at this time of night.”
The cop pulled my hands down from the wall and slapped handcuffs around my wrists. They were tight and sharp and I began to feel very claustrophobic. He opened the back door of his cruiser and pushed me inside. He threw my gun on the passenger seat and sat down behind the steering wheel.
There was someone in the back of the cruiser with me. I turned and saw a dark-haired boy, probably my age or a little younger, slumped over unconscious with a little bit of vomit on his shirt. He came awake with a jerk and opened his eyes wide to see me.
“Duuuuuude . . .” he began, slowly and cautiously. A stupid grin spread across his blotched face.
The policeman was quietly talking to his dispatcher on the radio. It occurred to me that I had seen my new companion somewhere before in my life.
“Duuuuuude,” he repeated, more forcefully now.
“Do I know you?” I finally asked. It was really beginning to bug me.
“Shut up,” the cop said from the front seat. I gave the officer a mildly forlorn look before we settled into our seats, him again blissfully unconscious and myself deliriously unperturbed. I had been through worse in my day, it was merely a matter of not letting the walls get to me.
And so it then occurred to me with the help of my inebriated companion that my generation lacks any sense of purpose or destiny. For the first time in forever the sense of history had been lost. History was in the past, a finite process that had somehow stopped completely in the last decade or so. Everything, or so the assumption went, was going to continue pretty much exactly as it has been for the rest of our natural lives with no real noticeable alterations in the fabric.
So when the towers fell there was a long fugue, a state of shock that gradually melted into brittle denial.
And I wonder just how much suffering the average person experiences in the course of their lifetime. Has my drunken friend ever had to experience the death of a sibling or a parent, madness or imprisonment, been the victim of a violent crime or a horrible life-threatening illness? I don’t know. Somehow as much as I would like to tell myself otherwise I can’t seem to decide whether or not that would impart any deeper meaning to the act of being piss-sloppy drunk.
I’ve been young and it feels like I’ve been old but at the moment I’m riding in the back of the police cruiser with my drunken friend and the surly cop I feel of a strangely indeterminate age, as if the future and the past had failed to crystallize in that one magic moment, leaving me adrift and alone on the shores of an eternal opaque now. I wished with a sudden and painful wistfulness that I had remembered to bring a blotter of acid with me.
When we reached the police station my friend and I were led through the most intimate corridors of the building until reaching the jail. Our pockets had been emptied and our photos taken and our names recorded and we were ready to be forgotten until the proper authorities could be notified as to the nature of our heinous crimes. I gave my name as Randall McMurphy, and my drunken friend slurred something incoherent from between his foaming lips. Undoubtedly he would have given them his actual name if he had had the wherewithal to form syllables.
But I was Randall McMurphy, at least in my mind, for the duration of the stay. I had developed the habit of hiding my real identification whenever I left my dorm or, later on, my apartment, on the principle of protecting my anonymity in the event of sudden and violent death.
My drunken companion stumbled the three feet to the hard bunk and passed out immediately. He was in rough shape and looked as if he was going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning. Periodically he moaned or mumbled something, which would be just barely audible out of the corner of my ear. He was tormented by something, conscious of blind assailants chasing him through his stupor.
To my surprise we shared the cell with the two shadowy figures with whom I had earlier made my hidden acquaintance. In the harsh medicinal glare of the halogen bulb they were immediately recognizable by the shapes of their bodies and the language of their posture, but they seemed strangely shrunken, as if the obfuscating fog of darkness had previously endowed them with a terrible authority that broad daylight - or a reasonable facsimile thereof - could never hope to match.
But they were punks. Punk kids - older than me, but kids nonetheless - with frayed leather jackets, and who looked in over their heads. They looked dreadfully, deeply afraid, morbidly distraught. Possibly high.
The cell was small and dry. There was a slight draft whistling down the hallway,
just enough of a breeze to chill the room. There were no shadows.
The bed where my inebriated companion had settled to sleep was little more than a metal plank jutting from a concrete wall. We weren’t trusted with bedrolls or pillows, apparently – which made sense, I suppose. Certainly the drunk kid barely noticed.
There’s a dream where I’m falling down a dark hole for an indefinite period of time. The air is hot and fetid and damp. I reach out to touch the walls but all I feel is something wet that gives but slightly to my touch – something like a lung or a chest cavity pulled inside-out.
I’m falling through the dark and I can smell something deep and old, something that was born before the stars were lit and something that makes my sleeping body recoil in horror.
Eventually I reach the ground. I don’t hit the ground with a great impact, somehow I merely touch the ground and begin to walk, to explore whatever strange underworld in which I’ve found myself. I’m in a cave and I can see the walls vaguely flickering like the vestigial memory of a flickering pre-digital nickelodeon. I continue walking for what seems like forever, with surging flotsam around my feet, my body borne along by strange faint breezes from further down the tunnels.
I’m lost and I can’t seem to see anything but the ground immediately in front of me. Its dark and the waters are rising and I am slowly aware of noises, loud and tremendous, filling the air and echoing through the living corridors of the maze.
Sometimes when I’m lying in the hazy netherworld between sleeping and awakening I imagine that I’m going to be wandering through hell for the rest of my life. I’m choking on shit and I try to move my arms to grasp at the walls but I’m asleep and I can’t move, I’m paralyzed and my limbs only respond in sharp imprecise jerks.
We were in the cell for the better part of an hour before the violence began.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
- Is Marvel ever going to mention "The Other" again? You remember, that big crossover that was supposed to change Spider-Man, forever? That ran across three months of books and took less than an hour to read in total? That even the people involved didn't seem to know what it was about? Or is that weird Spider-demon thing going to have something to do with re-establishing Peter's secret identity? Even "Maximum Carnage" was more interesting and had a longer impact. I didn't even pay any money and I still want my money back...
- Finally saw Science of Sleep. I had read a few negative reviews that put me off it, but it was surprisingly good. Not just the whimsical twee-fest I had been led to expect - pretty dark in places. Reminded me of The Fisher King a little bit, never a bad thing. One of the better movies about mental illness to come down the pike in the last while.
- The new Arcade Fire is growing on me. I must admit I was really less than sold on their first album - more hype from the indie-music cognescenti - but this new one is really something. Definitely took a few listens to simmer, but pretty good.
- Today in the comic shop, in the space of about twenty minutes, I saw two different women - women, not girls, at least in their 30s - purposefully walk into the shop, head for the "B" section of the new releases rack, pick up the new Joss Whedon Buffy book, and head for the register. Didn't look at anything else, might as well have had tunnel vision as far as the rest of the store was concerned. There goes that "gateway" comics theory... (Although, if they are that committed, they might actually stick through with the whole series, which is more than retailers are seeing for the second Dark Tower book, apparently.)
- OK, looking through an issue of New Avengers in the shop - am I the only one slightly curious at the fact that this team of Avengers doesn't have a single charter member (or Captain America, who might as well be)? Is that a first as far as Avangers line-ups go? Am I the only person who notices crap like that?
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
For some odd reason, recent events have brought the subject of fascism and the casual acceptance of fascist ideological elements in pop culture to the foreground of my thoughts. It's one of those subjects which most people either find entirely opaque or blatantly obvious: either you accept that images and symbols have weight and power beyond their immediate context or you don't. Both approaches have their risks: on the one hand, attempting to apply blanket moral condemnation across the vast spectrum of art invariably creates its own reactionary tendencies. But on the other, accepting all art as situational - parsing off certain experiences as more or less harmless in separate contexts - allows for the assimilation and eventual rehabilitation of harmful ideas into the broader discourse.
Few critics have understood this conflict as well as Susan Sontag. Rereading her 1975 essay, "Fascinating Fascism", it is amazing to see just how prescient she was in many ways, surveying the eventual atrophy of moral indignation in reference to gradually receding historical events which would, in turn, be drained of their power and transformed into acceptable objects of kitsch. But she was also painfully naive, mostly in presupposing that the differentiation between "elite" and "mass", already dying in 1975, could in any way survive the coming decades. "Elite" culture has dwindled to an almost vestigial nub, leaving the whole of mass culture to deal with dangerous and harmful ideas which are no longer even one step removed from reality.
I have quoted extensively from "Fascinating Fascism" in the hopes of illuminating certain general ideas which may be of interest; assumedly, all quotes © the estate of Susan Sontag.
(In discussing Leni Riefenstahl's 1975 book of photography, The Last of the Nuba:) Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl's portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit." The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels's cry: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit." And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having "typically Jewish traits of character": putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling. In the transformed thematics of latter-day fascism, the Jews no longer play the role of defiler. It is "civilization" itself.
What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl's casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly - as in [Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques]- the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that is being extolled. Riefenstahl strongly recalls fascist rhetoric when she celebrates the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the "heaving and straining" Nuba men, "huge muscles bulging," throw one another to the ground-fighting not for material prizes but "for the renewal of the sacred vitality of the tribe." Wrestling and the rituals that go with it, in Riefenstahl's account, bind the Nuba together. Wrestling ... is the expression of all that distinguishes the Nuba way of life. Wrestling generates the most passionate loyalty and emotional participation in the team's supporters, who are, in fact, the entire "non-playing" population of the village. ... Its importance as the expression of the total outlook of the Mesakin and Korongo cannot be exaggerated; it is the expression in the visible and social world of the invisible world of the mind and of the spirit.
In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture-where success in fighting is the "main aspiration of a man's life" - Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films. And her portrait of the Nuba goes further than her films in evoking one aspect of the fascist ideal: a society in which women are merely breeders and helpers, excluded from all ceremonial functions, and represent a threat to the integrity and strength of men. From the "spiritual" Nuba point of view (by the Nuba Riefenstahl means, of course, males), contact with women is profane; but, ideal society that this is supposed to be, the women know their place.
Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
Such art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments. (To cite films only: Walt Disney's Fantasia, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here, and Kubrick's 2001 also strikingly exemplify certain formal structures and themes of fascist art.) And, of course, features of fascist art proliferate in the official art of communist countries - which always presents itself under the banner of realism, while fascist art scorns realism in the name of "idealism." The tastes for the monumental and for mass obeisance to the hero are common to both fascist and communist art, reflecting the view of all totalitarian regimes that art has the function of "immortalizing" its leaders and doctrines. The rendering of movement in grandiose and rigid patterns is another element in common, for such choreography rehearses the very unity of the polity. The masses are made to take form, be design. Hence mass athletic demonstrations, a choreographed display of bodies, are a valued activity in all totalitarian countries; and the art of the gymnast, so popular now in Eastern Europe, also evokes recurrent features of fascist aesthetics; the holding in or confining of force; military precision.
In both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and the chorus. What is interesting about the relation between politics and art under National Socialism is not that art was subordinated to political needs, for this is true of dictatorships both of the right and of the left, but that politics appropriated the rhetoric of art-art in its late romantic phase. . . . What is interesting about art under National Socialism are those features which make it a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China aims to expound and reinforce a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics - that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.
In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a "spiritual" force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse. Thus Riefenstahl explains why Nuba marriages, in contrast to their splendid funerals, involve no ceremonies or feasts.
A Nuba man's greatest desire is not union with a woman but to be a good wrestler, thereby affirming the principle of abstemiousness. The Nuba dance ceremonies are not sensual occasions but rather "festivals of chastity"-of containment of the life force.
Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.
Nazi art is reactionary, defiantly outside the century's mainstream of achievement in the arts. But just for this reason it has been gaining a place in contemporary taste.
Riefenstahl's work is free of the amateurism and naivete one finds in other art produced in the Nazi era, but it still promotes many of the same values. And the same very modern sensibility can appreciate her as well. The ironies of pop sophistication make for a way of looking at Riefenstahl's work in which not only its formal beauty but its political fervor are viewed as a form of aesthetic excess. And alongside this detached appreciation of Riefenstahl is a response, whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power.
More important, it is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism - more broadly, fascism - also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl's films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it. . . .
Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful - as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer - do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. Riefenstahl is hardly the usual sort of aesthete or anthropological romantic. The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl's images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings - feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously. Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Riefenstahl's. And so people hedge their bets - admiring this kind of art, for its undoubted beauty, and patronizing it, for its sanctimonious promotion of the beautiful. Backing up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and camp taste.
Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetic is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp. Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.
Monday, March 12, 2007
I didn't go see 300 because I thought it would in any way shape or form be a "good" movie; rather, based on the previews and advance buzz, it looked like a very bad movie in many ways. But it did look like it might just be a hoot regardless of its quality, sort of a Snakes On A Plane for the sword-and-sandals set.
If you've read this blog for any amount of time you know that I am no fan of Frank Miller. I loathed Sin City in comics form and have had to repeatedly defend my disinterest in the film adaptation from otherwise well-meaning people who - unfamiliar with the man's work - naturally assume that there is method to his madness, a meaningful irony to be found in his assiduous application of overwrought sensationalism. But insomuch as it is possible to read an artist's intentions through the evidence of their work and their public statements, Miller is absolutely, painfully sincere. The alternative is to believe that everything the man has done for over two decades has been a kind of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art statement. Considering that the man is currently and enthusiastically busy on a project roughly hyped as "Batman vs. al Qaeda", it becomes more and more probable that books like Sin City, 300 and All-Star Batman are resolutely honest in their steadfastly reactionary ethical framework.
I went to 300 with a friend of mine who was very much looking forward to the movie. Totally unfamiliar with Miller's work, she is something of a military history buff. She had downloaded the trailer and watched it repeatedly, and really wanted to see the film simply on that basis. I tried to warn her: this is going to be an extremely bad movie. If it's as accurate as the filmmakers claim, it will be comically bad. Of course, oracles are often ignored in their own time . . .
About the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film we spent in total silence; me trying not to ruin my friend's enjoyment of the movie, her in shock from the first frame of the film and trying desperately to will the film better. But at a certain point she simply gave up: it was the scene where the Spartans are surveying the ruins of one of the cities ravaged by the Persian forces, and the little boy's shadow rising against the smoke looks like a giant Transformer robot. She started laughing hysterically, covering her mouth and hyperventilating so as not to disturb her neighbors. She leaned over and whispered in my ear that she had "never been so disappointed by a movie in her entire life". The laughing on both our parts did not end for the entirety of the movie's running time. Although the majority of the film's sold-out audience did seem quite sincere in their enjoyment, there was a small but vocal minority who along with us were hooting and laughing throughout the whole film.
I have to say that I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I would. I was expecting it to be bad, but not this bad . . . in the annals of crap cinema, 300 has immediately risen to the level of Citizen Kane - a classic of crap, an ecstatic celebration of all the worst kinds of schlock. It isn't just that the acting is poor; it isn't just that the plotting is ramshackle and disjointed (betraying the weakness of the source material); it isn't just that half the things which occur on screen seem to happen without any cause or context; it isn't just that this is one of the most claustrophobic films in history, betraying with every frame the fact that every second of film was shot in a small room filled with green screens (some of the dialogue still carries the flat echo from being recorded indoors). Everything together conspires to create one of the most thoroughly incompetent film experiences in recent memory. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a film so much: although it may seem counter-intuitive, I highly recommend 300 to anyone and everyone. You won't have a better time in the theater all year.
It's the type of film that really makes you wonder just why, at no point in the process, no one involved ever thought to raise their hand and make an objection - "doesn't anyone else see just how silly this all is?" As my companion observed, 300 would be the perfect movie if everyone in the world was fourteen years old. Sure enough, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the film is well on its way to being a monstrous hit, winning the acclaim of the bulk of the movie-going population. It's not the first profoundly dumb movie to achieve massive success, but something about the sheer glee with which the conventions of history and storytelling are skewered in 300 places it a cut above the average moron fare. There's not a note in the movie that wasn't cribbed wholesale from another, superior film; there's not a single historical fact left unmolested when it could be warped to fit the storytellers' ideological agendas. I believe very strongly in the inviolability of history in art: an artist has the responsibility to either get the history right to the best of their ability, or to make changes in good faith with the understanding that an intelligent audience will be able to interpret the changes as necessary sacrifices to artistic merit. 300 merely changes history to suit its whims, and the majority of modern filmgoers will most likely never be the wiser, and will never know that Miller's omissions and elisions are in fact harmfully disingenuous, the kind of changes that would perhaps in a more skeptical era be attributed to rank propaganda. It may not - as many commentators have tried to suggest - be directly political propaganda, but it is ethical propaganda of the most egregious.
So we have a historical epic that presents a disastrously bad distortion of history, an epic spectacle that looks dinky and stupid, a special effects movie with poor special effects, a graphic novel adaptation that hews so closely to the source material that it slavishly recreates the source material's every fatal flaw. At what point did Frank Miller become a serious media mogul and aesthetic touchstone, and not just a hacky ideologue with a disproportionately large following? The world may never know. Why can't, say, Robert Heinlein get this kind of slavish devotion? Now there's a slavishly reactionary libertarian who could actually tell a story . . .
Perhaps I was biased walking into 300, on account of the fact that I have very recently read and enjoyed a surpassingly good account of the actual events that inspired the story - Tom Holland's Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. The Persian invasion of Greece presents one of the most fascinating military, political and social narratives in all of Western history, from the Athenian defeat of the Persian expeditionary force at Marathon, through the Spartan defeat at Thermopylae and on to the tremendous navel victory at Salamis and the final, decisive rout at Plataea (the battle alluded to in the movie's final moments). It's a great story and told exceedingly well by Holland. Anyone with even a modicum of interest in the real story owes it to themselves to give the facts a real hearing.
Friday, March 09, 2007
I was born dead, dead and dying as I fell from the sack of the womb dripping filth.
The doctor put me down and tried to kill me but my mother stopped him, reaching up from the stirrups and clawing at the doctor’s face as he held the anesthesia mask over my mouth. Whatever red madness possessed him was gone in a moment and his rage subsided. I was alive.
When I was three I was gripped by a terrible fever, pulled across the world and near to death’s door by an incipient grief of future tragedies. I lay at my mother’s side for four days while my eyes remained cold and hot, focused on phantoms that lay beyond my years. After I awoke from this delirium my mother would forever regard me as a stranger.
I was in the living room when the towers fell. I remember seeing the smoke and ashes, thinking to myself that nothing would ever be the same again. Somehow I knew in my heart that what was happening across the world was just a taste, just a foreshadowing of something big and dangerous, something that would rise up and destroy us all. I wanted to know, I wanted to understand what it was, I needed to know that it wasn’t just me, that it wasn’t my fault. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to satisfy myself on this point. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite comfortable with myself since.
My mother came up behind me and together we watched the footage on the television screen as it unfolded. The TV was on mute and the only sound we heard was the dog barking outside. She set her hand on my shoulder and for a moment we were apart, together.
Thursday, March 08, 2007
(I'm "philip" because no way am I giving my name to the Army)
SGT STAR: Welcome Philip. How can I help you today?
philip: I was wondering what your opinion was on Marvel's CIvil War crossover.
SGT STAR: In combat, Soldiers work to accomplish the mission. The Army will provide you with time to rest and take care of personal matters.
philip: Issue seven hits stores tomorrow and the word on the street is that Captain America might bite it, but I kind of doubt they'll actually do that. Any thoughts?
SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. To find out about the availability of specific jobs and what you're qualified for, log into the Army Career Explorer.
philip: The alternative is, of course, that something will happen to Iron Man.
SGT STAR: You have the choice between serving either on Active Duty, which is full time, or you can serve in the Army Reserve. Generally, in the Army Reserve, you are required to train one weekend a month plus two weeks per year, and serve when needed. Read this page to find out which option is best for you. >>
philip: I am thinking that regardless of how it ends most people are going to be seriously unhappy.
SGT STAR: That is a good question, however, I am not positive that I understand what you are asking. Try rephrasing your question. I understand simple questions best.
philip: Did you see the Ghost Rider movie?
SGT STAR: All Soldiers undergo eye exams for enlistment. Perfect eyesight is not a requirement and many applicants do enlist wearing glasses or contacts, the Army will re-evaluate your prescription and if needed will issue you two sets of glasses to wear during your intiail training when you arrive at Basic Training. All soldiers will also be tested for color blindness at this time. Many Specialties do have vision requirements, but if you wear glasses and they are corrected to the requirement, you will be Ok. >>
philip: I really liked it. It was very close to my platonic ideal of the perfect superhero movie.
SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. To find out about the availability of specific jobs and what you're qualified for, log into the Army Career Explorer.
philip: This was, I believe, the first time since Christopher Reeve was Superman that they have been able to translate a character's visual appeal with such fidelity.
SGT STAR: Here are some jobs in that category that might be of interest to you. The Army Career Explorer can help you determine the job qualifications and availability. Try it now.
philip: Have you been able to look over the recent year-end Bookscan numbers at all?
SGT STAR: Hmmm, I've been trained to ask for help when I'm not sure about an answer. If you would like, you can ask another question or I can connect you to my supervisor if you click 'Ask Live Help.'
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
The Eternals #1-7
I have come to the conclusion that two things need to happen on this blog: 1) I need to write more reviews, and 2) I need to write shorter reviews. I've got this thing in my head about needing to write lengthy reviews, it's almost a neurosis, but it's really unnecessary considering that the majority of books that I read are not worthy of extended critique (sorry, Bondage Fairies). So I am going to try in most instances to be less like Jog - I honestly have to wonder how he finds time to eat and sleep; I mean, I live alone with a cat and work nights and I can't imagine devoting that much time to writing about comics if I wasn't being paid for it - and more like Tom Spurgeon, able to encapsulate the virtues and vices of any given book in succinct and unambiguous terms, and not without a dash of elan, either. (of course, my favorite image of Tom remains the Sam Henderson illo on top of the Comics Reporter site - I like to imagine that Spurgeon actually does walk around town yelling at people just like that, maybe even while smoking a cigar and brandishing a rolled-up racing form, as if to smack his foe as he would a poorly trained dog.)
Anyway, with all this in mind, I am going to review Neil Gaiman's Eternals in bullet-points, as every time I thought about sitting down to write an essay about the series' merits, it occurred to me that it simply was not consequential enough to deserve that much of a time expenditure. That alone can probably be seen as a damning indictment, but it need not necessarily be . . .
- The series kept my interest enough for me to buy all seven issues more or less as they were released. Considering my emaciated buying habits, that in itself is high praise.
- At the same time, I think that whatever residual halo hung over Gaiman's comic work in the wake of Sandman has pretty much fallen away. For whatever its faults - and there are many - Sandman is still a very good comic, mediocre in many places but downright brilliant in a few spots. Perhaps whatever it was that enabled him to write that series has faded, because nothing since then has struck me as being anywhere near as good. What little I've seen of his prose strikes me as, well, workmanlike and more than a little plodding. The less said of 1602 the better - I stopped buying that, I believe, after only two issues. I still don't know how it ends.
- But as good as Eternals is, it's still only really at the level of a very good mainstream comic, which can’t help but be something of a disappointment for those few back-benchers for whom Gaiman's name was enough to sell the project. But for the enthusiastic acceptance of the Marvel Universe's fantastic elements (the type of which the likes of Bendis have never really been very comfortable exploring), this could easily have been written by any of Marvel's current stable of go-to guys. It holds up well, without any major plot holes or jarring tonal shifts - better than you'd expect from Straczynski or Millar or Bendis, but that says as much about the lowered expectations of mainstream comics readers as much as anything else. When competence is the benchmark, the benchmark has fallen low indeed.
- But for what it does, it does it extremely well. None of Kirby's 70s work has ever meshed particularly well with Marvel's broader cosmology, probably because it was never really intended to, but Gaiman manages to smooth over not only the source material's tonal inconsistencies, but a whole raft of subsequent bad stories that only served to further dilute what was already a tough sell in the context of the greater Marvel Universe. You gotta give Gaiman some credit: you don't have to know that Sersi's most recent prior appearance was as a screaming cosmic harridan in some horrible Ultraverse crossover to appreciate the story, but if you do, the way Gaiman confidently resuscitates the character - who was as close as it comes in comics to soiled beyond redemption - can't help but seem masterful. Similarly, you don't have to have read Mark Gruenwald's Quasar to understand the character of Makkari, but it's obvious that Gaiman has, and is wise enough to base his interpretation of the character on Gruenwald's previous work. In a day when superstar writers are more than happy to throw out decades of established continuity for the biggest characters in comics, it is refreshing to see a writer - especially a writer with the kind of clout that could easily have justified any changes he wanted to make - paying heed to the work that preceded him on a group of D-listers for whom, honestly, no one really would have cared one way or the other.
- But with that said, it’s also worth noting that the overall plot was kind of familiar. Something very much like it was done with the Eternals themselves in a storyline in the early 300s of The Avengers. (It was the one where Gilgamesh gets clobbered by a lava demon and ends up in a coma, so the Avengers have to find the rest of the Eternals only to find that they've disappeared.) Also, something very similar was done in Journey Into Mystery in the mid-90s when it reverted back to the original title during Thor's year-long sojourn in the Heroes Reborn universe. I even recall seeing Odin as a homeless man with a pet dog. So, eh, good execution but no points for originality.
- The best part of the series was undoubtedly John Romita Jr's art. For some reason Danny Miki's inks reminded me of Vince Colletta's inks on Kirby's Thor - not the erased backgrounds and awkward faces, but the sense of slightly rustic antiquity that resulted from putting fine linework over Kirby's powerful pencils. (Of course, in a perfect world Colletta would never have been allowed anywhere near Kirby, but for what it's worth his inks did add a bit of atmospheric detail that seemed especially appropriate for Thor.) Romita's art on the book seems both majestic and slightly gnarled, and it really works in terms of selling the reader on the massive time scales at work.
- This series offered a rare example of a final issue that really did improve the rest of the series. After issue six I was ready to dismiss the book as an enjoyable but resolutely lightweight confection, but with issue seven Gaiman actually pulled off the neat trick of using a quiet denouement to pull the previous events into much sharper focus. There were even a couple moments that caught me totally flat-footed, offering glimpses of the same potency that Gaiman was occasionally able to muster for Sandman. It's still essentially a reshuffling exercise, but damn if it didn't end on a much stronger foot than I would have thought possible. In any event, I'm actually interested to see where these characters go from here, which is something I would have imagined on the outset to be frankly impossible. So, yeah, neat trick.