Saturday, January 21, 2017

DEFENDING MADONNA

    Some people call him President. I prefer to think of him as the Ghastly Gremlin of Doom. Amid some of the most massively attended protests since the days of Civil Rights and Vietnam, where people from every continent on this planet came out to assure themselves and the rest of the world that this Ghastly Gremlin of Doom in no way represents their interests, a few whining losers bemoaned how what the protesters actually should have been doing was giving the poor bastard a chance. Meanwhile, Sean "The Spaz" Spicer was going apoplectic over the audacious media for reporting what was going on, as if his boss was locked in a battle over whose was bigger. Madonna, very much to the point, had the best response to this: "Fuck you." Give Hitler a chance to murder Jews before we try to stop him? Fuck you. Limit press coverage to nothing but Fox and Breitbart? Fuck you. Intimidate scientists by taking down their names? Fuck you. 
   I eschew profanity. It gets over done and loses its impact and all too often there are hateful aspects of it that blur the message. On the other hand, just as I refuse to abdicate the flag and God and apple pie to the bad guys, so do I decline to let bad manners be only within the purview of people for whom I have no respect.
   On occasion, and done without carelessness, I therefore reserve the right to be precise and purposeful in my use of the expletive and of the rights of famous people and all the rest of us to do the same, and so I join with Madonna in saying to the President and his lapdogs, "Fuck you."
   Ah, that feels so much better. Thank you for indulging me. 
   I do not say this entirely in the spirit of comedy. 
   We have a lot of work to do and as the streets swelled worldwide today with women and men and lots of young people who are simultaneously scared of the totalitarian proclivities of the Gremlin and thrilled to have a real voice in shouting him down, one very much got a sense of unity that I am convinced will not only protect us but actually help us thrive as we rid this country of the need for you know who.
   You may be wondering what I mean by "need." I am happy to explain.
   Racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry are used by people in power to keep us divided. Because America holds incredible diversity, the powerful have no shortage of opportunity to work us against one another. Under normal circumstances, we find it difficult to internalize the idea that rich people would exploit us, in part because some people hope to become rich very soon and eventually turn into smirking bastards themselves. It's much easier to hate the guy across the street than some invisible monarch on Wall Street. Our "need" for the Gremlin will vanish the instant we stop to realize that our neighbor has no real negative impact on our lives, while multinational CEOs have almost total control. And today those multinational CEOs were symbolized, quite properly, by the Gremlin. 
   Many protesters today took pains to say that the millions of people who turned out were not part of an anti-you know who rally. But of course, that is exactly what it was. If you are pro-choice, pro-PBS, pro-voter, pro-woman, pro-man, pro-democracy, pro-sensible gun legislation, pro-free press, pro-truth, then you want this reign of disaster, doom and dread to end before the gas chambers even get built. We cannot and we will not wait until the corporate polluters have turned us into China and the Gremlin has turned us into the Kremlin before we raise our voices and arms and shout out something in the spirit of Madonna.
    Madonna, Cher, Robert DeNiro, Michael Moore--they need no defense from me. But as many people we like get pigeon-holed into being thought of us elitists, it falls to the rest of us to tell the liar-in-chief that he himself is buck-nekked and more than a little flabby. 


   

Friday, January 13, 2017

STARDUST MEMORIES

     Whether by character or by sensibility, there are those for whom filmmaker Woody Allen holds little or no interest. I recommend that those people--whom I'm sure are very nice--may want to skip what follows. 
    You're going to read it anyway, huh? Suit yourself. But you probably will not be able to get beyond the predisposition that there is something a little creepy, a little unsettling, unpleasant and maybe not even funny about the man, in spite of all the fine things you are possibly about to read.
   Woody Allen is the perfect link between not only classic movie-making from the 1930s and 1940s (Marx Brothers, Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz) and today; he is also the same kind of link between art film directors (Fellini, Bergman, Godard,) and contemporary romantic comedies. His use of absurdities to amplify genuine human feelings runs consistent through the bulk of his work. Because many of his early movies had Allen playing characters who might be described as a passive-aggressive nebbish, as someone who is himself intelligent yet wary of intellectuals, as indefatigable in his willingness to let his indecisiveness screw up his plans--there has, over the years, been a tendency to assume that those fictional characters were to a great extent reflections of the man's overall perception of himself, and that, given such consistency, he was therefore a narcissist.  
   For all the people who did indeed take him to be a nebbish, a man suspicious of cant, a narcissist, Woody Allen made a movie to debunk all of that rubbish. He called it Stardust Memories (1980). Coming as it did after four successful directorial knock-outs (Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan), Stardust Memories left more than a few people dampened in their reactions. The protagonist, Sandy Bates, played by Allen, was clearly mocking his fans and their adoration of him, or so many people editorialized. His use of a wide-angle lens in close-ups of the exuberant crowds that gaggled around him at a retrospective of his films made the people look paralyzed with their own ill-fitted self-importance. 
    This kind of reaction--and it was widespread upon the movie's initial release--was simply wrong. It was wrong to the extent that it was (a) irrelevant, and (b) ignorant of movie history. 
   The point of whatever hostility Woody Allen may have felt against his fans and supporters, especially in light of the disappointment many felt with his attempts at seriousness with Interiors, did get some support from the director himself, what with the most often-repeated line in the movie being to the effect that people wanted him to go back to making funny pictures again, like he used to do. A lot of people did say that at the time. So I will concede that he was drawing from his own personal experiences there. But none of that makes a bit of difference because in this movie the audience is viewing those fans from the camera point of view of the protagonist, the character with whom, to some extent, we are expected to identify. 
   Anyone still not as yet convinced should take a gander at the film upon which Stardust Memories pays homage: 8 1/2 by Frederico Fellini. When I say that Woody pays homage to Fellini, I do not mean in the same sense that Brian De Palma often paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In other words, Allen did not steal from Fellini. He created a conscious and deliberate parallel of the Marcello Mastroianni character in Fellini's film, a parallel which utilized elements of the nebbish character Allen had been using for years. And the stylistic similarities with not only 8 1/2 but also with Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt are as deliberate as they are honest. 
   But all this explication ignores something I believe is far more important: this is a genuinely enjoyable movie, one crammed with some of the best screenwriting Allen has ever done, with lines that bite like sabers, one of the best of which takes place in a large field where UFO believers are apparently awaiting the landing of aliens and one of the men looks right into the camera, declaring that the Soviets are beaming satellite transmissions from the Empire State Building to cloud our minds, and finishes by saying, "And I'm the only one who knows."
  Stardust Memories also introduces a specifically American audience to visuals for which that audience was, to put it mildly, unprepared. The presentation of the troubled ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) implied rather than showed the depth of her struggles. There are otherwise empty shots of her enigmatic beauty, yet, near the end, we see her in rapid still shots as she babbles helplessly in a mental institution. 
   In Sandy's apartment, as he is being berated by studio people who want him to go back to making funny movies again, we cannot help but see that behind him, on the large wall, is an enormous photograph of the famous image from the Tet Offensive where a Viet Cong prisoner is about to be shot in the head by a South Vietnamese General. A few minutes later the picture has been replaced by a radiant Groucho Marx. 
   I realize that I have not said anything about the plot of this movie and that is because plot in this movie is nothing more than a device through which the writer-director is able to express the idea that personal and social responsibility can be tough in a world where most people only like you because it makes them feel important to do so. A small but vocal number of those wounded people may even try to kill you.
   At the end of the scene in the field with the expectant UFO-seekers, Sandy Bates is confronted by a fan who points a gun at him and fires. A little more than three months following this movie's release, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. 
   So for those of you--nice people, one and all--who resist enjoying Woody Allen because you find him a bit creepy or because you don't find his ideal characterization of himself to be something with which you can relate, I nevertheless urge you to reconsider your position by seeing this movie. Listen, even if all this art work and cinematic stylism eludes you, even if the struggle for morality in this film leaves you unsettled, even if you just don't want to watch it no matter what I say, you can tell yourself that it's a great way to people watch. You'll see a very young Sharon Stone, plus all sorts of other cool New York people, such as Judith Crist, Laraine Newman, Louise Lasser, Tony Roberts, and Anne DeSalvo, among others. If you look even closer, who knows? You might even see yourself.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

WATERSHIP DOWN

    We have come a ways from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated movie I ever saw in a cinema. That was in the summer of 1967, thirty years after its original release. The studios heralded Snow White as a Walt Disney story, but of course that was a lie, as anyone familiar with the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm will attest. The true origins of the story actually go back beyond the Brothers Grimm to sixteenth century Germany where Philip IV fathered Margarete von Waldeck who, upon her maturity, fell in love with a prince who would go on to become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete's parents disapproved of the relationship and either banished her or poisoned her, much to the horror of the children (dwarfs) the family held as slave laborers. Kind of puts a different spin on the old "Whistle While You Work" motif, doesn't it?
   The Wicked Queen in that movie proved to be the image of nightmares for a few weeks, somewhat on a par with the Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz. The first time I watched those flying monkeys tear apart the Scarecrow, I thought I was going to faint.
   Both of those films are thought to be kid movies which are commonly enjoyed by adults as well, although the pleasure grown-ups get from such things may have something to do with nostalgia for their own presumed innocent days of youth.
   The 1978 animated movie Watership Down maintains its appeal to this very day and that appeal has nothing much to do with nostalgia since I only saw it for the first time earlier this evening and must confess to having been quite engrossed. 
   Whenever I watch a so-called feature-length cartoon, I take a moment to consider if I would have enjoyed the movie as a child. I believe that I would. I am certain that I liked it as a more or less grown person. And even though a few scenes display some violence and horror, the very nature of the construct of that horror is not in the least gratuitous and I believe would not much disturb any child who ever lost a goldfish to the perils of the toilet bowl.
   The story is about a warren of rabbits who escape from the progress of mankind. In the Martin Rosen film, as in the Richard Adams book, the rabbits talk. But these rabbits are not much like Bugs Bunny. Mankind, for that matter, is not much like Elmer Fudd. The thoroughly naturalistic animation catches details that any child would recognize, such as the way a rabbit's soul appears to be conveyed by its eyes, the way a rabbit sniffs and chews, the movements as they scurry hither and yon. All the details are perfect and not a bit boastful. Mankind's encroachment is only the beginning of the problems for our rabbits, however. It seems their social systems have a few authoritarian elements as well as a share of cosmic-inclined characters who can foresee disaster. 
   The real menace for our adventure-seeking harmony-loving rabbits is a big old bastard of a rabbit named General Woundwort who rules by inflicting scars on his people. His brutality is complete and as irrational as that of any Wicked Queen. Woundwort is also the ultimate foil and without his cruelty there would be much less of a story to tell. The movie also delivers a sinister pussy cat who is just as evil, though not as sophisticated, as Woundwort. Both are sufficiently frightening.
   Even if a person were to murmur some objections to the rotten behavior of the bad actors in this movie, I would counter that the splendor of the film's resolution is enhanced by all that comes before it and that without the violence, that resolution would be fey and dismissed by any kid in attendance, much less by his or her parental guardian. 
   This issue of violence strikes me as important because it seems that the BBC and Netflix are about to release a four-part mini-series remake of the original for sometime this year, but have decided to tame down the tension for fear of scarring the children who might watch it. 
   We are not talking about some sick, twisted garbage movie here. This is not I Spit on Your Grave or Friday 13th or even Caligula. This is an actual movie with believable characters about whom we come to care a great deal in a brief period of time and when something bad happens to one of them, we feel it, just as we do in real life, despite the efforts of sensationalists to desensitize us. Watership Down is a movie that aims to sensitize us to our place in this mad universe, to connect us with our fellows, to breathe life into each precious moment and in order to do that in a way that is honest and sincere, a few rabbits do indeed get hurt. But as Frith the Creator tells us, "There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be." Frith has a lot of interesting things to say, including, "All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed." 
    I'm sure it is too late to get the BBC and Netflix to reconsider their "sanitizing" of the story. I have not seen previews of the work, but I suspect they may stray from the naturalist appearance of the original and go for a "real" look instead, the difference between natural and real being, say, the difference between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Real is seldom an improvement. 

   

Saturday, January 7, 2017

ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA

   "If we could start with universe, we would automatically avoid leaving out any strategically critical variables."
  --Buckminster Fuller

   No one since Charlie Parker has built on what already existed and totally transformed that music as powerfully as Ornette Coleman. The Ft Worth, Texas, native summed up his revolutionary philosophy thus: "If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence, I might as well write out my solo." Because his compositions do not have chord changes, variable pitch, or asymmetrical phrases, they are free to transfer the listener's attention from a dominant soloist to collective improvisation. Because his groups based their solos on melody rather than on chord changes, Coleman referred to this blend of harmony, melody and motion as "harmolodics." It was in 1959 that Coleman assembled a double quartet that included Don Cherry on trumpet, Ed Blackwell on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. The result was a thirty-six minute album on Atlantic called Free Jazz. The album was more liberated from musical convention than anything ever recorded to that point. As Len Lyons and Don Perlo describe it, "The music is based on a given tonal center, around which collective playing alternates with solo performances." Another way to describe it is divinely sublime noise. 
   Almost everything Coleman did for Atlantic is stunning, changing the way the world understood music. In addition to Free Jazz, his 1959-1961 period also created Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and This is Our Music.

   Revolutionary director Shirley Clarke spends little time on Coleman's classic period and instead intersperses his childhood in Ft Worth with a wild presentation of the saxophonist's symphonic hook up in The Skies of America. Risks abound when pairing a wild talent documentarian such as Clarke with a massive creative force such as Coleman. Shirley is relatively careful in not letting the movie be about the making of the movie rather than about the subject matter, although the rhythmic jump cuts and deliberate scene duplications don't necessarily add much value to the process. What makes the Ornette: Made in America (1985) work so well as a vehicle to tell the story is her use of interviews. Denardo Coleman, son of the master, proves himself to be more than just another brilliant rhythm man. He tells stories of his father well, stories that matter, stories that reinforce the mutual respect we see between the two men. 
   One of my personal favorite segments of the film occurs when a Coleman critic-advocates talks about watching Ornette play just like Charlie Parker, almost as if to prove that he actually could make music with structure and finesse when he chose to do so. 
   We also meet poet Jayne Cortez, ex-wife of Ornette, as well as writer William Burroughs and composer George Russell. But it is Coleman himself who we came to see and it is Coleman who tells the best stories of all, whether remembering how when another Ft Worth sax man, King Curtis, hit the big time, the two of them took a ride in the latter's limo, or what it was like being a child in a house just a few feet from the heavily-trafficked railroad tracks. 
   This is a good movie and a very accessible introduction to the life and work of a complicated genius.

   
   

Thursday, January 5, 2017

THE LONG GOODBYE

   I can be bought. Let there be no doubt. But my price for saying nice things about you in print comes at a very high cost. What it would take to get me to say something favorable about someone in the book publishing industry or elsewhere would be to receive a book called Black Amazon of Mars: and Other Tales From the Pulps, an anthology of writings by one of the greatest writers whose words I have had the pleasure to digest: Leigh Brackett.
   Those words first came to me in a college course, of all the unlikely places. It was in Dr. Robert Gerke's Science Fiction class back at my beloved Marshall University in the late 1970s that I read "The Jewel of Bas" and from whence forever my opinion of all those science fiction nerds did change. Bob Gerke and I had a custom of amusing one another by smoking Camels in his office while belaboring pointless subjects such as whether Anthony Burgess could be thought of as an sf writer, would it be fun to actually have dinner with Kurt Vonnegut, and the suggestion that just possibly George Orwell had known and written about everything that needed to be known, so why the hell even bother with anything else? One day I punctuated one of my pathetic smoke rings with the question, "Who is this Leigh Brackett, anyway? Why isn't she on the cover of Time magazine? These stories of hers are incredible!"
    "Do you know your Raymond Chandler?" he asked.
    That was such a cool way to ask the question, I thought. It was the way a practicing southern attorney might have asked the jurors in a murder trial, "Do ya know your Bible?"
   "Yeah, I know Chandler. Detective fiction. Philip Marlowe."
   Bob shook his head and ground out a Camel. "The Shakespeare of the modern detective story. He wrote The Big Sleep. Hollywood made it a film. Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay with a little help from William Faulkner. Leigh Brackett is one of the best. That was back in the forties. You ever hear of a little thing called The Empire Strikes Back?"
   "I don't watch Stars Wars movies."
   "Why not? Don't be a snob, Mersh. The trash aesthetic has elevated more people than Milton, I assure you."
   This from the man who taught Chaucer in Middle English.
   "Well, Leigh Brackett wrote The Empire Strikes Back. In the old days she turned out horror films, westerns such as Rio Bravo, all kinds of movies, while still writing her stories. They called her the queen of the space opera, but as we have seen, she was far more than that. What you really should do, if you want to have a good time, is take some young lady to go see The Long Goodbye. The people who put together the movie schedule here are going to run it later this month. Robert Altman is the director. Elliott Gould plays Marlowe, or The Marlboro Man, as one of the characters calls him. It's brilliant."
    Young ladies were not exactly lining up to accompany me to the movies in those days, so I went stag and had to agree with Bob Gerke: it was brilliant.
   The actual movie added and subtracted a few items from the Leigh Brackett script, but you can read the original here and decide for yourself: Leigh Brackett Screenplay for The Long Goodbye. You will learn a lot from reading this.
   One of the things you will not necessarily learn from either the screenplay or the movie that eventually appeared, is how the $350,000 made it's way back to gangster Marty Augustine, but what you will discover for certain is that Raymond Chandler, Leigh Backett and Robert Altman cared very much about friendship. 
   They knew how to express that concern.
   The opening scene of the movie has detective Marlowe waking up at 3AM because his cat is hungry. The cat nudges him and he crawls out of bed with some reluctance but with a manner that convinces us he has been in this situation before tonight. Seeing that he is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, Marlowe fries some scrambled eggs and serves them to the cat. The feline is not impressed. Undeterred, Marlowe leaves his apartment to go to the all-night grocery to fetch some cat food. As he leaves, one of his neighbors, who likes to do yoga sans clothing while inhaling various mind-altering substances with her like-minded girlfriends, asks him if he will pick her up two boxes of brownie mix. He says he will. And he does. But the store is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, so he settles for a different brand. Knowing the cat is nobody's fool, Marlowe sneaks into the kitchen, fishes an old empty Coury can out of the trash, and shoves the faux cat food into the can. He lets tabby into the kitchen and makes a big production about how this is the real stuff, see, I'm taking it out of the can and placing it in your dish--and the cat is not fooled. From that one scene we learn that the cat kows things about people that Marlowe has yet to understand.
   Both Elliott Gould and the cat deserved major award recognition for their performances together. If acting is at least in part about reacting, these two characters reacting to one another is one of the finest extended moments in motion picture history.
   Elliott Gould, despite having been one of the most in-demand actors of the very early 1970s, had perhaps suffered from some overexposure by 1973, when this picture was released, and from interviews I've read, it appears he was relieved to get the job. He had already set the world on fire by playing Trapper John in Altman's MASH. After turning down a star role in the same director's McCabe and Mrs Miller, Gould accepted roles he wanted in critical faves and commercial busts such as Little Murders and Getting Straight. Even though he would go on to have parts in three more Altman films and was never out of work for long, The Long Goodbye was his last major role on the big screen. 
   With Brackett's words, Altman's direction and his own brilliance in front of the camera, Elliott Gould shines darkly in one of the most under-celebrated movies of the ages. 
   If by any chance my saying that Gould is magnificent is in and of itself insufficient to get you to watch this classic movie, then I will add that the support cast includes Sterling Hayden as a self-destructive writer type, probably based to an extent on Hemmingway, Henry Gibson as the notorious Dr. Verringer (the Hollywood equivalent of a Doctor Feelgood), David "Kung-Fu" Carradine as a long-winded storytelling convict, and, even though he is uncredited, I have it on reasonable authority that one of the gangster's henchmen is Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
   No one will tell me who played the cat.
   It has been written elsewhere that in this movie, private eye Philip Marlowe goes to sleep a 1953 detective and wakes up in a 1973 world, with all the shallow narcissism that concept implies. Perhaps that is the reason for one of the most substantial differences between the original Chandler novel and the finished movie. In the former, Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe's, is a real friend: fascinating, sympathetic and symbiotic. In the movie, he is a fake friend: boring, pompous and parasitic--although Marlowe does not accept this until deep into the story. 
   And so this movie is about the nature of the longing for friendship. It is about the nature of the longing for friendship in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. It's some Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), a little Warren Zevon, a bit of the audience from "Let's Make a Deal." But mostly it is the invincible threesome of Brackett, Altman and Gould. And while the director made sure the soundtrack included as many different versions of the title song as possible, it was the closing credits tune that actually tells the story: "Hooray for Hollywood," by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting:

Hooray for Hollywood That screwy ballyhooey Hollywood Where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic With just a good looking pan And any barmaid can be a star maid If she dances with or without a fan Hooray for Hollywood, Where you're terrific if you're even good Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple Is equally understood Go out and try your luck, you might be Donald Duck Hooray for Hollywood Hooray for Hollywood That phoney super-Coney Hollywood They come from Chillicothes and Paducas with their bazookas To get their names up in lights All armed with photos from local rotos With their hair in ribbon and legs in tights Hooray for Hollywood You may be homely in your neighbourhood But if you think that you can be an actor, see Mr. Factor He'll make a monkey look good Within a half an hour you'll look like Tyrone Power Hooray for Hollywood



   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

SCANNERS

   With Scanners (1981), writer-director David Cronenberg presented himself with one of the all-time great cinematic quandaries: how do you convey the act of telekinesis without making the actor appear ridiculous? What you want to avoid is having your actor look like William Shatner in an old episode of "Star Trek." 
   You also want to stay away from the actor trying overly hard to appear cool while in the midst of mentally forcing someone to do something against his will, as with David Keith in Firestarter
  What you do want is a fast cut to the protagonist so that the audience doesn't dwell on the inherent absurdities in the situation, which is one of the reasons why Sissy Spacek was so credible, not to mention terrifying, in Carrie
   In Scanners, lead actor Stephen Lack looks simply stupid.
   So stupid does he look, that one can hardly distinguish between the times when he is scanning out and those occasions when he is vaguely normal.

   None of this would matter much to the sophisticated cinema-philes who frequent these pages were it not for the lost opportunity during the first few minutes of the movie when Cameron (Lack) stumbles through a food court, snatching cigarettes and eating off deserted food trays. We gather that he is homeless and possibly schizophrenic. We are half right. Two proper middle-aged women observe this and one of them reckons aloud as how Cameron ought not to be permitted out among decent people. Cameron takes this in and goes all scanner on her: speeding up her heart rate, bloodying her nose, and giving her one nasty migraine. Because he is properly paranoid, when two CIA agents catch him in the act of scanning, he flees up and down escalators, eventually getting tranked and sent to visit the friendly old professor-type secret agent, Dr. Ruth. 
   Ruth points out to Cameron that he isn't nuts at all. He is a scanner, one of two hundred or more special people who can look into the minds and bodies of mere mortals. 
   Right there we have what could have been a brilliant set up. All those sad folks we see walking the streets screaming about how Henry VIII shouldn't have run off with Catherine the Great are not psychos at all. In fact, they might just be more tuned in than the rest of us.
   Unfortunately, we have no such luck. It's just a bunch of special effects nonsense, pregnant pauses that amount to nothing and some meaningful glances between Cameron and anyone unlucky enough to meet him.
   The absolutely only reason to watch this movie is to take in the scene where Cameron is on a school bus for special kids that plows right into the local Disco-Mart, destroying all manner of crappy albums by the Robert Stigwood Organization, the latter actually paying for product placement to have their merchandise go up in flames.
   That's all the personality this thing offers. None of the actual characters display enough humanity to evoke our sympathy in any regard and the complete dependence on plot and effects yields the usual results: if the choice is between watching this and contracting smallpox, go with the disease.

Monday, January 2, 2017

CLERKS

  On the one hand, I come away from director Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) with a strong sense of "who cares," without the question mark. But movies without conventional plots, shot in black and white, with vaguely existentialist themes sprinkled throughout do on occasion have their value and seeing as how the film had the decency to lack special effects, the least I can do is offer up a cursory review without damning it with too much severity.
   The best thing to be said for this movie is that it might be used at success coach seminars by people who have an abundance of slackers in their audience. Even slackers prefer to believe they are worthy of being elevated by the lectures they receive, so the Wayne Dyer pull-your-own-strings attitude gets mixed with some verbal self-reflection, as when Randall, the video store clerk, bluntly tells Dante, the convenience store clerk, that all the latter's bitching is pointless because he is doing exactly what he wants to do in both his personal and professional life--well, you may get the idea that you have not stumbled into a prequel for Avatar, not that such a thing would be any more enlightening.
   Probably the most depressing aspect of this admittedly amusing film is that none of the people to whom the wit is directed actually rise to the level of the movie itself. When the director cuts away to illustrate some of the stupid people with whom Dante must interact, he's actually talking about other under-achieving gen-xers, even though he doesn't know it. Out of every ten people who watched this when they were in their early twenties, maybe three caught the reference  implicit in the main character's name and of those three, one might have read somewhere that the film is divided into nine segments, corresponding to the circles of The Divine Comedy
   Of course, I don't actually believe any of that. I never did believe there ever was such a thing as Generation X, unless you are referring to the Chelsea group that spawned Billy Idol. Was there ever a specific post-boomer age of disaffection and directionlessness? That sort of widespread apathy would require a level of social engineering far beyond the abilities of any governmental or corporate officials I've ever had the displeasure of meeting. 
   Now if you want to argue that music and movies went to the turd factory by the late-1980s, I will shake your hand and stroke your brow. But that has been a symptom of the crass behavior of the people in the entertainment industry rather than the disaffection of youth, per se. If you want to persuade me that the acceptance of narcotics use has become so widespread that we as a whole--and especially the young--have collectively dropped our brains into a cesspool of stupidity, I assure you that I come pre-persuaded. I am likewise convinced that dwelling on it is counterproductive. Sophomores--sophisticated morons--have always walked amidst the rest of us. Being reminded that even sophomores are smarter than some other people is a drag. 
   Pardon me? What happened to me saying something nice about the movie? The director plays Silent Bob, friend to a drug dealer, and a cooler-looking person in a black and white movie I have never seen. The acting is spectacular, especially given the rapid-fire pace with which the lines are delivered. And without onscreen nudity of any sort, the movie manages to be so verbally profane that you will either laugh yourself to tears or commit suicide. The choice, you will understand, is all yours.


   

Monday, December 19, 2016

THE NEW REICHSTAG FIRE

   History allows us to make informed predictions. During times of contrived political transition, those in possession of real power exploit their own versions of the Reichstag Fire. I venture that we can expect the next version by early summer of 2017.
   The Reichstag Fire? Oh, that was the mother of all modern day contrived crises. On January 30, 1933, Germany's President, a somewhat weak and ineffectual leader named Paul von Hindenberg, appointed a man of small physical stature as Chancellor of the country of Germany. That man was, of course, Adolf Hitler. Less than one month later, on the evening of February 27, a fire was set at the German Parliament building, which they call their Reichstag. After what became known as World War II, a great deal of evidence came to light suggesting that elements of the Nazi Party were actually the perpetrators of the fire. But at the time a young Dutch communist emigre named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested, tried and executed for the crime. As Chancellor, Hitler used the fact of van der Lubbe's communist affiliation as an opportunity to enact what came to be called the Reichstag Fire Decree. Abolished were habeas corpus, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to use telephone and telegraph without being monitored. Less than one month later, the German Parliament passed the Enabling Act, which established Hitler as absolute dictator. 
   In America, of course, we do things differently. We don't pass Enabling Acts. We pass Patriot Acts. We do not ban free assembly. We establish Free Speech Zones. We would never allow the equivalent of a Chancellor to select our President. We allow the fans of Fox News to do it. Or the Russian oligarchy. Whichever is available.
   We have a history in this country of finding ourselves in crisis. In November 1928, Republican Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover won a majority in all but seven of the forty-eight states. By the end of October of the following year, the Great Depression had swallowed the country whole. Because Hoover did not believe in government intervention in public economics, he did nothing about it. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, completely and immediately redesigned the American government and established the New Deal, ending the Great Depression and joining the Allied Powers in defeating the formal establishment of fascism.
   Three months prior to the Presidential election of 1964, on August 2, a naval destroyer ship, the USS Maddox, was in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the southeast shore of what was at that time known as North Vietnam. The crew of the Maddox discovered that they were being followed by a North Vietnamese torpedo ship and fired upon that ship. In retaliation, the North Vietnamese apparently fired back, although the ultimate damage to the Maddox was later discovered to have been but a single bullet hole. Two days later the National Security Agency reported that a second attack had occurred, this time on a ship called Turner Joy. Years later the Defense Department admitted that the second attack never actually happened. 
    President Johnson, in response to what he claimed was the communist aggression of the North Vietnamese government, went to the United States Congress and requested absolute power to wage conventional war in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress on August 10 and that document gave us the Vietnam War. The first attack had amounted to little more than mussing the hair. The second attack did not happen. Neither event occurred in what the President referred to as "international waters," but rather in a body of water the North Vietnamese considered to be their own. In the war that resulted, more than two million Vietnamese died and 58,000 U.S. servicemen lost their lives as well. 
   On November 4, 1979, exactly one year to the day before the 1980 U.S. Presidential election, Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding fifty-two diplomats and other unclassified Americans hostage for 444 days. Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan effectively used the existence of this crisis to portray his opponent, incumbent President Jimmy Carter, as a weakling and himself as the infusion of traditional American strength so sorely needed by a tired but determined nation. Reagan won and four years later he won again.
   On September 11, 2001, less than nine months into the Presidency of George W. Bush, fifteen Saudi Arabians, two citizens of the United Arab Emirates, one Egyptian and one Lebanese hijacked U.S. airliners and flew two of them into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane probably in route to Washington which crashed in Pennsylvania. The consequences of these attacks were the aforementioned Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and, erroneously, the war in Iraq. 
   One thing that each of these crises have in common is a substantial, measurable and palatable increase in domestic patriotism. In World War Two, the patriotism manifested in, among other indications, hostility toward Germans and Japanese. During the Iranian hostage crisis, the anger was directed at not only Iranians, but many people of Middle Eastern "appearance." And as memories of the U.S. attacks by Al-Qaeda blur in the mass mind with the contemporary attacks by Isis, we have seen a generalized suspicion of anyone who appears "Muslim." The Vietnamese experience was different in that we not only had a draft (as we had had during World War Two), but the events were happening ten thousand miles away and nothing tragic had occurred on American soil.
   All these crises--real and imaginary--initially led to an amazing tightening of the American spirit. As with Vietnam, however, eventually people began to have their suspicions that not everything their leaders said was necessarily true and eventually the leaders were met with some degree of resistance. Even the extremely popular Roosevelt was prohibited from stacking the Supreme Court with four added appointees. Even the inexplicably popular Reagan had the Iran-Contra Affair. 
   With the ascendancy of the man called Trump, is it likely that another crisis will present itself, one which will serve to legitimize his Presidency? At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Lyndon Johnson had only become President upon the death of his predecessor John Kennedy. Three months later, with America in crisis, he soundly defeated extremist candidate Barry Goldwater. Presidents Roosevelt and Reagan were elected because of their skill at accentuating the presumed impotence of their opponents. George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote and only won the electoral college vote because of the interference of the Supreme Court. Johnson and Bush, unlike Roosevelt and Reagan, needed a crisis to give their presidencies legitimacy. LBJ exploited what he later admitted he had known was faulty intelligence. Bush the younger ignored the warnings of his Daily Presidential Briefing. What type of crisis will Trump exploit to solidify his power over the people of the United States?
   We have some clues. As I write this, four different and apparently independent terrorist attacks have happened within the last twenty-four hours. Trump's affinity for Russian president Vladimir Putin and the constant thumping the president-elect keeps giving the Chinese suggests that Trump may use whatever the crisis is as a means to form an alliance with the Russians against China. Whatever the crisis happens to be, it will need to be thwarted by Trump's intuitive brilliance, if you'll pardon the ridiculousness of that expression. Let's speculate for a moment. Suppose an American naval ship is doing some type of reconnaissance work in the Taiwan Strait based on (possibly) fabricated intelligence that the North Koreans are planning another nuclear missile launch. The Chinese spot the ship, warn it off, engage it in an exchange of fire, and appear to be on the brink of sinking it when, out of a clear blue sky, or sea, Russian intelligence learns of the incident--let's call it the Formosa Incident--and comes to the aid of the Americans. While news of all this comes in by steady Twitter updates, we also learn that the Chinese have been aiding pro-Isis Syrian militants, even though the previous U.S. administration had led us to believe that the Sino-Russian relationship in Syria had been collectively anti-terrorist. Had Trump not been so enthusiastic in his admiration for the Russian leader, the former KGB officer might have gone horseback riding in the Ural Mountains instead of blowing the Chinese to hell and back as a favor to America. 
   Maybe I'm just smoking the wrong flavor of banana. 
   Whenever a presidential candidate gains sufficient favor among the populace, the various U.S. intelligence agencies run predictability analyses to help assess what that person, should he or she become President, would do under conditions which might be called critical. Imagine that you are a member of a panel with one of those intelligence agencies and you are trying to anticipate Trump's behavior in the event of an incident on an equivalence with the Gulf of Tonkin or the Reichstag Fire. And how might those actions serve to not only legitimize his unsteady election results, but more to the point, how might they result in his consolidation of enormous power when carried out in conjunction with Army Generals, Confederate Sympathizers, Privatization Enthusiasts, Climate Change Deniers, and that shirtless wonder known as Putin? 
   Hey, I could be completely wrong. Maybe Trump will stop with a few tax breaks for big business, deregulate the oil industry and call it a day. Maybe all those loons who claim that Trump's spoken words and appointments happen only to start a dialogue are the ones who have truth in the eyeball. Maybe Trump actually does respect women, loves Mexicans, treasures democratic institutions, and knows that voter fraud went out with Charles Foster Kane. Maybe he just adopted his Lonesome Rhodes routine as a way of getting elected so he could shake the dandruff off the collars of the stodgy political system. Yeah, maybe.
   But I'm going with the Reichstag Fire Theory. 

    
   
    

Monday, December 5, 2016

NOTHING IS TRUE; EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED

  I first heard the expression from singer Jim Carroll, who first heard it from critic Lester Bangs, who first read it in William Burroughs' novel Cities of the Red Night, who first copped it from Betty Bouthoul's book Les grand maitre des Assassins (The Master of the Assassins). Betty probably picked it up from an Islamic trader in fine woolens who, the story goes, was prone to anarchic ravings against those who would try to encourage him out of his nihilistic snits. 
   "Nothing is true; all is permitted." 
   "There are no facts; only interpretations," warned Nietzsche. "What is. . . simply is. . .and then there are the stories we tell about it."
   Scottie Nell Hughes told an NPR audience, "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts." Hughes is a Trump supporter. Perhaps one day we will be able to say, with equal awkwardness, "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as Scottie Nell Hughes."
   If you thought people such as Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten were nihilists, well, think again, pardner, cuz them boys was mere pikers compared with the obligatory negatory mentality of the incoming regime of greasy-eyed minstrels harmonizing their glory stories of the way this here world ought to be a-workin'. This gaggle of smug kitten-faces strutting along the corners and hallways of glossy power tunnels are proving themselves to be the vilest collection of nihilists we've seen since Warren G. Harding invented the smoke-filled backroom. 
    The Trump people say things which embolden their supporters, things which have no resemblance to objective reality but which feed the quivering goosebumps that rise and fall along those supporters' spines. "Hillary Clinton cooks Israeli children livers in a Chinese restaurant in Soho!" It isn't true but when nothing is, what does it matter? In the world where objective reality gets kicked off the bus by the subjective driver, any nonsense people in power care to propagate gets treated as acceptable. Conversely, when something that actually is empirically accurate, such as the President-elect being guilty of racism, sexism, jingoism and more isms that a linguist at an etymology convention could muster, when that fact manifests itself with multiple sworn testimonies, legal rulings, video and audio feed, well, friends and neighbors alike, that's just "facts," with the quotes. Don't mean nothing about what the man is really apt to do when he gets in the office and 'sides, it is the will of the people.
   We were granted insights into this obfuscation early on when Trump discovered the word "Great." He loves that word and has embraced its use to the extent that it no longer has any meaning whatsoever. Making America "great" again, a "great" economy, "great" people, a "great" transition period, "great" generals, "great" guns: it means nothing and nothing is precisely what only the most optimistic can pray it delivers. More likely, we will discover that such adjectives in the mouths of Trumpeters has parallels in Orwell: War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.
   When facts disappear, or lose their importance, or cease to exist, then what we have is an embracing of Negation. When, during the vice-presidential debate, Tim Kaine observed as how the Trump policies were stacked against the majority of the American people, his adversary, Mike Pence, screwed up his face to convey a look of supreme distaste and sneered, "Now, Senator." He then with some frequency continued to assert that the very things we had all heard Trump say were not the man's words at all, and no, they were not metaphors or hyperbole or exaggerations used to make a cogent point--no, sir, they were simply never said in the first place and only a terribly biased media is the reason so many people incorrectly believe they heard what they in secret double-probation fashion manner did in fact hear. 
   One has to be a sick twisted rat whisker to think up this garbage.      But garbage, of course, is the essence of negation. Garbage is that which holds no value and hence is discarded. It is also a treasure to the ragged old people who dig through our garbage, so I assume that they were the ones who voted for the darkness which in turn means that Trump has become the President-elect of alley-sniffing glueheads who cling to the illusion that within every dumpster reeking from soiled diapers, dog feces, empty beer cans, cold pizza crust and snot there lies a bag of treasure. Perhaps that is why so many people voted against their own self-interests and elected a person who has made it clear that by "great" he means "unimaginably horrendous." We may have internment camps on every corner, an economy based on artificially inflated real estate values, white power politics on Wall Street, and the exploitation of our cities, but if you look close, things are really, deep down, at their very inner core, just great.
    In a world where "everything is permitted," which you might think of as the libertarian dream, we get an extreme type of Social Darwanism where the ones who enter the field with the best equipment and training that money can buy wipe the rest of the people off the field. The first thing negated by Nihilism is history. And history is the mother of truth. So while it is an historical fact that Donald Trump openly and with great cheer ridiculed many of the same people whom he now claims as allies (e.g., Ben Carson), it is also true that now, according to the Trumpeters, there is no truth and so Trump never actually said those things. And even if he were to admit, at some future time, that he did in fact say those things, he will much later prove to our collective satisfaction that his admission indeed did not take place. Likewise, while many people are convinced that they heard Mitt Romney refer to Trump as a con man, in this new world, because it is no longer convenient to Mr Romney to be thought of as someone who distrusted Mr Trump, the thought-tapes are erased and as we are all quite relieved to discover, Romney never actually said any such damn thing and the only reason a few people were under such a false impression is because of that counter-revolutionary corrupt mainstream media. 
   I could go on, but why? If I am correct in what I have written here, or if you are correct in agreeing with me, neither of us will be able to admit it in the near future, so perhaps we should simply shrug, smile and pretend we never had such silly thoughts at all. Maybe the Trumpeters will turn the tables, as they are wont to do, and accuse us of the very conspiracy-mongering in which they themselves trade so well. Or perhaps, one at a time, almost imperceptibly, we will, one at a time, disappear into the netherworld of NonPeople, a discorporated twinkling of vague recollections in the minds of others, soon forgotten beneath the crushing boot heels of the future. 
   Or we could resist.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE CRITIC'S CHOICES

  It may be impossible to watch Citizen Kane (1941) without recoiling from some stark similarities with a certain Orange Menace currently in vogue. While often cited as the greatest movie of all time, those words are misleading because, while likely accurate, they project a kind of elitism that dampens the visual delights of this movie. Mystery, biopic, suspense drama, documentary, art film, even black comedy: Orson Welles made such categorizations irrelevant as he blended flashback vignettes from the lives of William Hearst, Sam Insull, Harold McCormick and possibly his own bad self with the hegemonic artistic license of a brilliant child with too much money and no one to contradict him. Everyone should have one opportunity to make such a film, as long as those who succeed can withstand the agony of having all the rest that they do compared with it unfavorably. 
   
  Welles was an auteur, a seer whose vision guided all aspects of a movie's creation. One could tell an Orson Welles film from some distance: floor-level shots, images drawn with negative space, misleading and beautiful visual metaphors, a recurring cast of actors and a story-line that implied as much as it spoke. Few director writers have been able to hold the often pejorative auteur moniker, but Welles took it to heart, as was his due. 
   Someone I have often believed to be the natural descendant of Orson is Robert Altman. He too preferred to operate outside the studio systems and he too took pride in the contemporary euphemism for auteur: outlaw. After years in relative obscurity, Altman's explosion blew cosmic debris throughout the cinematic landscape with critical successes and his lovely commercial failures. In the 1970s, there were no better movies than Brewster McCloudNashville and 3 Women.  Yet when Robert's attempts to build a community that would enable him to create did not properly gel, his movies embarrassed even his most ardent fans, as anyone who has ever endured Popeye or O.C. & Stiggs can attest. 
  The Player (1992) stands as Altman's greatest story ever told. While the director himself seems to have considered the movie as an inoffensive little satire, in fact The Player takes pains to offend people who might in kindness be called ignorant through no fault of their own. The nearly eight-minute tracking shot opening scene actually references Welles film Touch of Evil and no less a personage than the late Roger Ebert has claimed that the Griffin Mill lead character (as played by Tim Robbins) bears a purposeful resemblance to the young Charles Foster Kane. He certainly has Kane's early morality, especially when he shuts down new kid Larry Levy when the latter is musing over the prospects of ridding the system of writers. Griffin's comeback is pure Wellesian brilliance: "I was thinking what an interesting concept it is... to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can get rid of the actors and directors, maybe we've got something."


   

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A HAPPY HALLOWEEN STORY

"The night was clear
and the moon was yellow
and the leaves came tumbling down"
    --Improvised lyric intro to "Stagger Lee"

   Davy emerged from the house's front door with a heavy sigh. His hands jammed deep into his pockets of their own volition. He felt his feet shuffling down the three uneven steps and out to the sidewalk, heavy with autumn leaves. You could see the wall from where he stood, if you bothered to look. He didn't bother.
   He hated that damned wall. It reminded him that his old home was just across the border back in the United States. Cecilia was still back there, no doubt wondering if he was all right, just as he wondered how she was holding up under the new regime. One year later--well, not quite, but close. Tonight was the end of October. Nearly a full year later and he had not heard from her since losing the coin toss. Only one of them was to leave while one was to remain behind,just in case. "Just in case" had turned out to mean the opposite of what they had hoped. 
   As the one left behind, Cecilia had taken the responsibility of luring the Fuhrer to his demise. A series of tweets promising to allow the Leader of the Free World to assault her any way he wished--it was too much for the Fuhrer to resist.
   So his Orangeness accepted the invitation to come alone across the border and to sashay his wrinkled old rotten behind up the stairs, turning left at the top and barged his way into the first bedroom on the right. "I am here so bigly!" he had shouted, just as Davy sprang out from beneath the blanket wearing a coonskin cap and a smile.
   When it was all over, Der Fuhrer had been tarred and feathered and glued to the top of the house with a long plume sticking out of his rectum. 
   And now Davy needed to get back home to undo all the treachery that this monster and others had done to his country. Cecilia was already working on things from her end. She had gathered a group of like-minded patriots together and they were already tearing down the wall, one brick at a time. 
   It would be nice getting back home.The autumn chill in southern Canada was more than Davy could stand. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

MEMO TO MY SON

   You've been asking me about women lately so I figured this would be as good a time as any to have this conversation or monologue or brief dissertation, all for the improvement of your psychological well-being, now that we have hit a point in what some people have taken to calling a Presidential Election. You're thirteen-years-old, a fine old age to be, and it is perfectly appropriate that you might have a lot of questions about a lot of different things. But since I won't know the answers to most of those, I thought it better to steer the talk toward something I actually do know just a tiny bit about and that is being a guy. What does me being a guy have to do with women, you might well ask. That's what we're here to find out.
    When I was thirteen--and I suspect things have not changed all that much since those days--just about the only thing any fella I knew fretted over at all was invariably connected to the subject of "How will this make me appear to girls?" When you're a thirteen-year-old boy, you want to have your mother approve of you because if she does, then there's always that chance that the young lady down the block might also think you are worth the time of day. In that same vein, it's cool if your dad approves of you too, because you get some sense as to what you are supposed to do so that the girl down the road will take positive notice of your potentially pathetic existence. But what's probably most important is that your mom and dad really like one another. I don't mean that they love each other. I've known people married for decades who could put on a pretty face about matters who quite evidently despised one another's immortal souls. No, the important thing in this situation is not love, but like, as in respect, admire, appreciate, treasure. If your folks like each other, you're in a better position than most when it comes to having some sense as to how to be comfortable around other people--especially girls.
    Another thing you need to know is that women are not from Venus and you are not from Mars. Back in the days when they were still making books, some joker who pretended to be a psychologist actually made that claim on the cover of his book and then went on at some length explaining how men were like microwave ovens and women were like crock pots, and never mind the mixed metaphors. This bozo's idea--what's that? Bozo? Oh, he was a clown who rose to a certain quiet fame back in the 1950s and 1960s and so popular was he that years later it became fashionable to use his name whenever making reference to somebody congenitally stupid. But as I was saying, this book tried to make the claim that there were all these big differences between men and women, that men wanted aggression and women wanted to sew; that men wanted war and women wanted peace; that men were protectors and women were nurturers. I can see you smiling so I guess you know just how ridiculous that was. But at that time our country was in the midst of one of our typical reactions against the progress that women had been making socially and economically. Because a lot of people didn't understand what true power meant, they felt threatened whenever a woman achieved equity in the workplace or gained reproductive freedom or even made the first move on a date.
   Power? Sure, I'll be glad to tell you. Most people, as I say, get it wrong. They go with sociologist Max Weber definition, which says that power is the ability to get someone to do what you want them to do and that the more they don't want to do it and do it anyway, the more power you have. Of course, in a geopolitical sense, that is a fine definition. But around the house, where people actually live, power is the opposite of that. Power is the ability to be comfortable with who you are no matter what everybody else thinks of you, unless everybody thinks you're drunk and you're fishing your car keys out of your pants pockets, but that's a conversation for another place and time.
   So we have this election coming up, as you know. A lot of my friends and maybe some of your friends or their parents, they just absolutely loathe this Hillary Clinton person and that is why they plan to vote for Donald Trump. If you ask them why they hate Clinton, they'll roll their eyes and shrug and finally sputter out something about how they can't trust her. They won't have any specifics, of course. They'll blather on incoherently about missing emails and foundations and Vince Foster and about how her husband's infidelities were somehow her fault rather than his own, but when you pin them down they will only say that they just don't like her.
   Then you ask them what they like about Trump. Again, the delusional part of their minds will formulate some nonsense about how he speaks his mind and doesn't worry about correctness, but what they really and truly like, love and worship about the man is that he makes other people into commodities. The Mexicans he rented to were inhabited units. The blacks he would not allow to rent from him were undesirables. The women he insulted were vaginas.
    That last point is crucial, son of my loins. You see, Trump is such a sniffling wretch of a glob of sub-human protoplasm that he thinks of women's sexual organs as commodities. So do most of his supporters. So do some of his female supporters, which is kind of like finding Jews in the 1930s who wanted to jump into the train cars on their way to the death camps. 
   I could spend the next decade telling you why Trump is a sadistic monster who makes de Sade look like a humanitarian. But that isn't why we are here. We are here because if you worry too much about whether or not girls like you--the way you want them to do--you will be very disappointed and what is worse you might even channel that disappointment into a type of what Freud called reaction formation where you end up despising that for which you used to yearn. And when you despise women, you are a misogynist. You're a misogynist just like Trump, Gingrich, Ailes, Howard Stern, Michael Savage, Matt Drudge, the whole Breitbart regime, and a whole lot of people in national and state government. 
  So, yes, I do want you to think about how you appear to girls, of course. But don't worry about whether they think the car you have is fast and shiny or whether you have a lot of spending cash or whether that muscle between your legs is long enough to drape over your shoulder. Here's the secret: some girls actually do care about that kind of thing, at least for a while. But what real girls care about deep down is whether you respect the human race and them as members of it as well as yourself within it. Once you have that accomplished, everything else you worry about these days will take care of themselves.
    Yes, I realize I have kept you a long time. You're playing baseball this afternoon, right? Is that Janie girl pitching? Watch out. She has a mean slider. 
   Have fun!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

DRUGS

   I went outside this morning to walk one of the dogs. Cody is a handsome German Shepherd mixed with some greyhound. We estimate him to be thirteen years old. He carries an inoperable tumor on his right front knee and exhibits--as is common for his mix--a certain amount of obsessive-compulsive behavior. My girlfriend and I love this dog very much and do, on occasion, think of him as having human comprehension. 
  As I say, my version of the morning was just getting started. I hooked Cody to his leash, trotted out the back door, swung a right at the driveway and prepared to stroll east on the sidewalk.
   Lisa Ann dreads mornings here like a normal person dreads a root canal. Some deviant maggot-faced parasite or two often as not are rummaging through the three city dumpsters against the fence that separates our house from the jungle. She knows the odds are excellent in favor of me seeing this, losing my cool, yelling at the maggot-face in question or, worse yet, engaging the creature in some sort of fisticuffs. The next phase in her anticipation of my admittedly inappropriate behavior is to storm back inside the house and bitch about conditions here for an hour or so. 
   This behavior on my part is idiotic. I readily admit that.
   Just yesterday some junkie scum was standing on a trashed television set so that he could lean into dumpster number one. When I saw him, he was three-quarters into the trash, hanging there as if he were smelling the intoxicating aroma of fresh cut roses rather than the cat vomit and dog feces that live in that receptacle. I asked him if he was finding everything all right in our neighborhood grocery and he assured me with a stoned slur that yes indeed he was just hunky dory, despite the fact that he had tossed half the trash in all three dumpsters out into the mouth of the alley.
    By the time the police arrived, he was long gone. But the visible stench remained for us to clean up on his behalf.
    That was yesterday. This morning, as Cody and I walked merrily out the door and around the front to pass by the alley, we saw something that made yesterday's miscreant look like the centerfold for Rich Man's Monthly
   This perpetual loser had opened all three dumpsters, thrown back out yesterday's TV set, and, not to be outdone, had likewise spilled toy trucks, laundry bags, cardboard boxes, school work belonging to someone named Angela, and hundreds of opened trash bags all over the alleyway. But unlike the soporific demeanor of yesterday's hoodlum, this character was stoned on some accelerating drug, as was evident by the way he kept beating his shirtless chest and screaming about how the invisible monsters were holding him down. 
   This type of nonsense happens here everyday. The cause is not poverty; nor is it an oppressive police force, nor inner city inevitability. The problem is that these people are addicted to drugs and given the choice between clean housing, steady meals and medical treatment, they opt for the drugs. 
   An opulent thrill accompanies this lifestyle: begging for cigarettes and spare change, screwing degenerate whores in doorways, wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time, flailing arms at passing motorists, bellowing bloodcurdling ululations at four in the morning--I'm sure it's all quite a blast. And if that weren't enough, they get to sleep in the park until some other lunatic sets a barrel on fire and gets them all chased away. 
    Because I do think of Cody as part human, and because I love Lisa Ann more than I do anything else in this world, and because I am inclined to be a vicious hothead who does not need drugs to go crazy, I flipped out. How dare this semi-human turdman even exist on our planet, let alone do so a few feet from our front door! Didn't the stupid glob of protoplasm realize that I have a family to protect from the likes of him? Apparently he did not.
   He was nuts, so I did not approach him myself. Instead I called the police. One of the funny things about these slovenly divers is that they invariably disappear just as the cops roll up. It does not matter. All they would have done was to chase him away once they asked him if he wanted social services, which none of them ever seem to do.
   I don't want to sound like some kind of Republican here. But after being exposed, as it were, to strangers fornicating in the park, urinating in the greenbelt, shooting up in the street, loitering on the sidewalk while Lisa Ann and I struggle to pay our bills on time and try like the fools we must be to keep our part of the jungle presentable, my personal interest in the "freedom" of these bums to choose a lifestyle that offends anyone willing to look at it is somewhat diminished. And before someone suggests that I don't know what I'm talking about, that drugs are not necessarily the problem or that social services need to be enhanced, let me simply say that we watch drug transactions happening within spitting distance of our front door every day. We have asked these pathetic bastards if they want help. They do not. They want to stay stoned.
    I hope you will think about this the next time you buy an eight ball of coke or a vial of glass from some so-called reputable dealer. What you are doing is keeping the criminal enterprise for which that dealer works in business. A happy life out in the country or the suburbs is what the supplier gets.What the rest of us get is a dead junkie on our doorsteps. Thanks a lot.
  In my lifetime, the world has lost a lot of famous people to drugs: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, Philip Hoffman and others I'm too pissed off to remember. There is nothing romantic about drug addiction. It is a scourge. It looks like this:


Saturday, September 3, 2016

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

   Defining certain philosophical terms is akin to dancing between raindrops during a hurricane while struggling to remain dry. Once the proper beat presents itself, the band changes time signatures and the conductor sneers.
  So it is with one of the primary concepts never mentioned directly but consistently implied in the 1993 movie Six Degrees of Separation. The term theosophy is a type of Gnostic stew, holding that the only true religion is Truth, something which can only be divined, as it were, by active use of imagination.  In the late nineteenth century, Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of New York City's Theosophical Society, wrote that the subject matter had three objectives: humanity itself constituted a universal brotherhood without considerations of race or gender; humanity should study religion, philosophy and science; and it was paramount to understand the undeveloped powers within human beings, something which could only be grasped by willful use of the imagination.
   The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, among the greatest expressionists, was a fan of Blavatsky's thinking and incorporated a ferocious sense of childlike wonder into most of his paintings. However, he never did create a two-sided painting as is claimed for him in Six Degrees. Facts and truths are not necessarily the same thing, of course. 
   Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) is a high class art dealer who, with his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing), is looking for one big score so they can maintain the east side Manhattan lifestyle to which they have grown dependent. To facilitate this, they hope to sell Geoffrey Miller (Ian McKellen) a painting by Paul Cezanne, one which he in turn will be able to resell to the Japanese. It should be noted that neither Kittredge cares much one way or the other about Cezanne. What they like is Kandinsky, and in particular, two paintings of his on either side of a canvas, one of which emphasizes control and the other chaos. They do not know why this appeals to them so much.
   Miller isn't too hip on buying the Cezanne until Paul (Will Smith) staggers in, as all strangers must, with a knife wound to the abdomen. 
   Miller is immediately dazzled, as is Ouisa. Flan just does what is expected of him until he sees that Miller is hooked on the situation and has become so amazed by the story Paul acts out that he would buy the Brooklyn Bridge if someone offered to wrap it up for him. 
   The movie (based on the John Guare play) unwinds from there amidst a series of crafty flashbacks and visits to the police department. All the while, Ouisa draws ever closer to having the first actual human feelings she has experienced in decades. She becomes the beginning, the original cause, the Alpha, and thereby brings the whole experience of this marvelous film into focus. One of the other aspects of theosophy is that creation began with a single point and grew geometrically outward, therefore being traceable back to that original point. Hence, six degrees (or six people) are all that separate any one person from any other person. 
   The movie does not beat us over the head with philosophy. On the contrary, it just tells a fascinating story and uses Theosophy as one of the abstract themes. Because Six Degrees was not a genre film, its amazing cast was not enough to have it break even. It must be said, however, that Will Smith has never been better and Stockard Channing robs every scene in which Smith is not featured. 
    Any film which opens the mind to Kandinsky, Cezanne, Salinger, Sidney Poitier and perfect pasta cannot disappoint. 

   
   

Thursday, September 1, 2016

DARKNESS IN THE CENTER OF TOWN

   Living in Phoenix for more than thirty years presents me with ample opportunity to criticize what I still think of as my "new" home. Summer heat blows car engines apart. The late season monsoons bring walls of sand--called haboobs, these are often fifty miles across and several miles high--through the sweltering city before drowning us in Amazonian-style downpours. Our metropolis expands out rather than up, so that one must spend hours every day getting from one part of town to the other, or else reside in the city itself, causing one to ingest what passes for culture: white people determined to prove their enlightenment by visiting the Heard Museum to admire Native American pottery, while just down the street a bar shakes from the numbing vibrations of a graying band of Metallica wannabes trying to fight World War II all over again. Even though Arizona can only boast of three state universities, the dominion of Phoenix prides itself on a vast array of pseudo-schools: everything from the omnipresent Grand Canyon University to various Colleges of Applied Pet Grooming and Linguistics. We dine on a multitude of trendy green food in shiny eateries. We drink margaritas with the gusto of a glutton just given the news that the famine has ended. We text when we drive and crash our freshly-waxed wheeled behemoths into other peoples' houses and feign outrage that the mishap somehow was not our own fault. In short, the situation here is just as pathetic as it is where you live.

But last night something happened in Phoenix, Arizona that embarrassed me more than anything has in a long time. And this thing that happened also instilled in me a strange sense of very unusual patriotism.

Last night DJ Trump came hither to proclaim his ten point immigration policy.

Need I tell you that the crowd inside the Phoenix Convention Center moistened their panties?

While in the early days of the campaign, the candidate's henchmen routinely let in a few minorities just so the crowd could pummel them. But what with the threat of massive lawsuits against DJ, Herr Trump no longer makes a habit of visiting unfriendly locales and his brown shirts earn their wings by spinning away anyone they suspect of sedition. Il Duce did not disappoint those in attendance.

"Number one, are you ready? Are you ready? We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall. Number two, we are going to end catch and release. Number three. Number three, this is the one, I think it’s so great. It’s hard to believe, people don’t even talk about it. Zero tolerance for criminal aliens. And our local police will be so happy that they don’t have to be abused by these thugs anymore. There’s no great mystery to it, they’ve put up with it for years, and no finally we will turn the tables and law enforcement and our police will be allowed to clear up this dangerous and threatening mess. Number six, we are going to suspend the issuance of visas to any place where adequate screening cannot occur.

"I saw her today at the reception. . . "

A mere transcript does little to capture the tenor of the proclamations.

My girlfriend, Lisa Ann, watched the speech with me. Both of us were caught somewhere between a state of horrified disbelief and the remnants of faith that the entire campaign would dissolve into tasteless satire.

People watching at home would see the word "Phoenix" in the upper left corner of their screens and draw conclusions from that. The idea troubled us.

Of course, our friends and family in other parts of the country and world would know that not all Phoenicians were mouth-breathing saliva drooling racist idiots. But by God, this is our city, too! Just as we have never agreed to sign away our rights to the American flag to a particular political party, neither have we abdicated the character of our adopted home to the anti-xenogeneic ideologies of our fellow desert dwellers. Every city holds a certain neo-fascist contingent, I suppose. Usually that contingent is a very loose and disjointed smattering of people who only get worked up when Vince McMahon leaves the WWE. But when a would-be strong man descends through the polluted mist to invigorate the downtrodden slumlords, investment bankers and Scottsdale merchants--lo and behold, the unity in the air makes you think there's a sailor kissing Marilyn Monroe on the beaches of Normandy. So the sacred flags were waved, Clinton heads were impaled, and the throngs went orgiastic at every suggestion that African-Americans should come on board the slave ships because America really is a land of dreams, or at least would be if all the opportunistic politicians would lose their grip on the inner pockets of the working people who actually pay taxes, great God Almighty.

Those people chanting the "USA" mantra to ward off invisible demons no more represent America than the National Front represents Great Britain. But the anti-immigrant fixation both groups share causes the spines of our heterogenic country to shiver because we have learned from an early age that when it walks like it and talks like it, you call it what it is: fascism. The American brand of this disease gets into our hearts and nibbles like a malfunctioning video game until a sociopathic doomsayer wanders up to the microphone and feeds that dormant disease with the bile that is its life blood. We have to be willing to examine the meaning behind the words we use, the intentions in our daily actions, the impact of our thoughts. I'm lucky. I have Lisa Ann to help keep me in check. I only wish those goosesteppers at the Convention Center had someone to remind them of the darkness of their own deeds.