Sunday, July 31, 2016

BEAUTIFUL MONSTER

Billy: We did it, man. We did it, we did it. We're rich, man. We're retirin' in Florida now, mister.

Captain America: You know Billy, we blew it.

   That scene from near the end of Easy Rider reflects how I often feel these days, these days of what some people call politics. We blew it. We blew a hole right in the middle of this country and jumped right in, not even waiting for the smoke to dissipate or for the dust to settle: caught, as a very good man once said, between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender. There we were in 1968 with painted faces, beads, speeches, mantras, marching boots, helmets and hearts, risking a future we were too young to fully value for the sake of creating some kind of fissure through which something of actual value could at long last manifest itself. I may have been only ten years old at the time and nowhere near Lincoln Park or the Conrad Hitler Hotel, but I wasn't all that much younger than Hoffman, Rubin and the others, just as I wasn't all that far away geographically, just as you reading this today (maybe not yet born at the time) were not that far removed from those atomic events. And today, whether we favor jeans or suits, sandals or slip-ons, we still yearn for a sense of community that cannot be sublimated by technology or traffic, that cannot be strangled by the type of food we gorge or intellectualized by the party affiliation to which we subscribe. We remain children in the sense that we crave the basics, as anyone who has lived a short time without them can attest. If I might be permitted another quotation by that same fine man:

Well I've been out walking
I don't do that much talking these days
These days-
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
For you
And all the times I had the chance to

And I had a lover
It's so hard to risk another these days
These days-
Now if I seem to be afraid
To live the life I have made in song
Well it's just that I've been losing so long

I'll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days-
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don't confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them

  On the surface this is just a well-crafted song of love gone wrong. Accurately or otherwise, I have always interpreted this song by Jackson Browne to indicate a loss of idealism on the part of an entire people. Even if that is not what Browne intended, my position still holds because when we really look at what we think is happening around us, a sense of disconnectedness from everything that gives us life just jumps up and attacks any trace of smile we might be struggling to maintain.
   I do not want to give the impression here that I am some sort of nascent hippie locked into a convoluted vision of a time that never actually existed in this country. For the record, I could never stand the Grateful Dead and I am a strong proponent of anti-perspirants. One of the differences between the old New Left and myself is that I never rejected the idea of work. Labor took a lot of criticism in 1968, mainly because a lot of people questioned the value of the ugly things that work often produces. In fact, "progress" as a dirty word changed completely when I was ten because many folks began to realize that progress was often code for the corporatization of the planet. There is something to that thought, but that does not mean that staying stoned all the time absolves people from the responsibilities we have for one another. So, no, I'm the furthest thing from some out of date flower child. 
   These days it is more of a challenge than ever before in my lifetime to remember that it is acceptable to consider those things that go into a contemplative existence. We can have more modest homes, more free time, more relationships with our neighbors, more invigorating conversations while having less automobiles, less mass produced lunches, less propaganda, and less distrust of people who do not look and act exactly as we do. Neither of the two major party presidential candidates will ever talk about any of this. Their pitches are based on either imprecise generalities or numbing statistics, and platitudes about the American Dream, national security, education, insurance and other intangibles.
   We blew it a long time ago. After getting rid of Nixon, this country was positioned to reinvent itself. In hindsight, Nixon may not seem like such a bad guy despite all the truly monstrous things he did, a fact that screams just how horrendous his successors have been. But we could have used the moment of his resignation as an opportunity to at least breathe some fresh air into this dying institution. Instead we just got right back onto the horse and imagined ourselves riding off into the sunset when the reality was that we kept right on believing in the same exact delusions that had brought us Nixon in the first place: the other guy is a son of a bitch, wealth makes happiness, nothing we do to the earth will ever truly harm us, might makes right--pick your cliche.
  Oh, but mustn't we pick one of the two in order to prevent the destruction the other will surely bring forth? That's a tempting rationale. And I probably will pick one over the other. But I do not like playing the cards I have been dealt these days because the deck is stacked, the cards are greasy and the dealer is a beautiful monster licking his lips with insectile anticipation. 

   

Friday, July 22, 2016

GLOOM

The gloom settled down over the seats of the emptying convention hall--emptying except for the clean-up crew of African-Americans and other blacks wading through popped balloons and sweaty confetti, reminding at least one writer of "The Load Out" by Jackson Browne. The party screeched to a halt like the out-of-control 57 Chevy it had been all along. We may not make much in his country, the convention declared from Day One, but we sho nuff can throw together a dancing gig of choreographed ineptitude that ma and pa will interpret as "telling it like it is," and grammatical correctness be damned. The red-haired billionaire had shouted his piece just minutes earlier, inspiring the middle-class self-described outsider delegates to do the hully-gully in an unembarrassed display of cued spontaneity. The current wife may have lip-synced someone else's speech and that old rascal "Lyin' Ted" may have refused to give the endorsement, but those foibles had only strengthened the Trump Brand, the marketing plan that radiated the notion that if the facts are inconvenient, they must be the offspring of that corporate-owned liberal media cabal hellbent on maintaining the rigged system that had enslaved us all for so long. And so the gloom oozed down from the flickering skylights like the rush of cocaine sweating out through the pores, leaving the adrenaline addict with a numb sense of anomie and exhausted lust for more. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

  There is an extended moment in Jason Miller's cinematic version of his own Broadway play, That Championship Season (1982), where Phil Romano (Paul Sorvino) begs the forgiveness of George Sitkowski (Bruce Dern). This scene breaks the movie wide open and its heart pours out over the audience. It is one of the most wrenching scenes I have witnessed in a movie. 
   But this film does not deliver weak punches. For a movie superficially about the twenty-fourth reunion of four out of five players with their basketball coach, That Championship Season eschews cheap sentiment just as it does cookie-cutter characterizations. These five men do more than reveal their personal flaws--as one-time friends, they inhabit their flaws. Romano has become a corrupt and wealthy thrill-seeker, wallowing in cocaine, fast cars and a succession of women who use him. Mayor Sitkowski reveals himself to be a vaguely inept town politico (the same week he buys an elephant as a gift for his town, the pachyderm dies) who is running for reelection with the help of Romano's money and his campaign manager James Daley (Stacy Keach). James' brother Tommy (Martin Sheen) has come back to Scranton for the reunion and he has brought his drinking problem with him. When James isn't managing the mayoral campaign, he acts as an unpopular principal at a junior high school. We never find out what, if anything, Tommy has been doing, except that he has traveled. But each man has earned himself a history and that history is what brings them all together around Coach Delaney.
   The Coach (Robert Mitchum) is some piece of work. He expresses sorrow that the fifth player, Macken, has never made it back to any of the annuals. Tommy understands why this is and he finally unloads this bit of information during one of the frequent tantrums throughout the movie. The Coach has a slogan for everything. Teeth problems? Take vitamin C. Your opponent trying to beat you? Drop the hammer on him. You want success? Never give up. "These aren't just slogans," he tells his boys. "This is philosophy. Just like the Greeks."
   "The Greeks were homosexuals."
   "Naw, that's liberal bullshit. Maybe the Romans."
   When we're seventeen, we are often physically amazing. We may not know where we left the Shineola, but we still believe we just might be living out our dreams. For most of us, the rust, the corruption, the loss of soul has not quite set in yet. But just like a fast car left out in the sun over too many summers, the wear begins to be felt, then it begins to show and no matter how much we rail against it, we struggle like hell to regain our relevance. In the Coach's universe, that relevance has never faltered, despite his stomach operation. God, the man tries so hard to make sure his guys don't forget who and what they used to be because dammit that's who they still are--never forget that, boys. 
   One of the great mysteries of the Old Testament is why did God allow sin to enter the Garden? Being omniscient, He had to know this would foul things up. 
   The Coach is a godlike character in that he called the shots, he formed the boys out of whatever raw material they possessed, but it was still their own drive and talent that made their team the state champions in 1957. In this case, the sin that entered the garden turns out to have been racism. Such a small and seemingly insignificant detail at the time. Just a smidgen of race hate--what harm could it do? If memory serves, sin got Adam and Eve searching for a new residence. Sin got Cain cast out to the land of Nod. In the case of That Championship Season, that inbred sin of racism led to all the neuroses and character flaws that have haunted these four men ever since they won the big game. 
  The acting shines without drawing attention to itself. The merging of the old guard with what were then four actors very much at the top of their own games is nothing short of inspired. And as the city of their childhood dreams has deteriorated in the ensuing years, so has the degeneration infected their once-famous residents.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

ELECTION NEWS

   Prefatory to the matters at hand, I must remind you that I am an eternal optimist, meaning that I am prone to severe disappointment. And I am not alone in this. Every time I observe what appears to be some wiped out drug addict shuffling down the road talking loudly to himself about the injustice of it all, I recognize that he and I have our shattered dreams in common, so I scream back at him, "I know! I know!"
    That cautionary set of words is necessary because I want you to resist the urge to dismiss what follows as the electro-convulsive ravings of a formerly politically involved truth-seeker. The fact is that I am a former politically-involved truth-seeker, but electro-convulsive therapy plays no part in this story.
   Onward. 
   The following concepts are heretofore dismissed as myth-making illusions which exercise no value whatsoever in the real lives of actual humanoids: presidential elections, candidates for vice-president, media coverage of anything at all, vetting, criminal investigations of public officials, or any of the other election-related drivel that oozes from your television set or other electronic devices. 
   Things that actually are real include voter suppression, massive brain-washing techniques, global heating, deliberate disenfranchisement of millions of people, war, starvation, really stupid movies, books for illiterates, teachers paying for their own classroom supplies, collapsing infrastructure, a joining of government with business and organized crime, the use of drugs as a means of placating the masses, and the implementation of a caste economy in these here United States and elsewhere in the world. 
   Anything that does not address these issues directly is a fraud. Whenever a highly successful get rich quick con man and a moneybags counter-revolutionary shill for the open market pretend to duke it out on the contemporary equivalent of the smoke signal network, they invariably make no mention of the cultural degeneration that their own campaign processes have caused. Just one time I would like to see Trump or Clinton approach the microphone and say, "Has it ever occurred to any of you that the fact that you all showed up here today is in and of itself a very bad sign? Why are you looking to me for the answers to your problems? I talk about things like international borders and Wall Street and integrity--things that have no rational applications to your daily lives? I have yet to say anything at all about putting food on your tables or cleaning up your water supplies or offering a world in which violent video games have lost their popularity or where the so-called entertainment industry severs its ties with the intelligence community and actually presents something with more substance than Finding Dory's Brain.  Yet you professional lap dogs just keep on licking the vomit off the shoes of people such as me and my ilk rather than dragging us all from these podiums and tearing down the profitable yet artificial system that continues to provide a high standard of living for half a dozen people while crippling the morale of everyone else."
   Yep, I would love to hear that and still dream that it may happen, which is why I am an optimist and why I am so often frustrated and disappointed with the frog feces that passes itself off for culture nowadays. 
   When we stop believing in the lies (and it is always much easier to accept bullshit than to have to think for yourself), we might just begin to develop an appreciation for the things in life that are of true value: family, friends, nature, art--I'm betting you have your own real list. But before any of that can happen, I believe we have to divest ourselves of all the idiocy: no more Scientology, no more religious fundamentalism, no more prostituting ourselves and others in the name of "getting by," no more settling for McDonald's ToadBurgers just because they are cheapfastandeasy, no more binge watching of television shows that insult your intelligence, no more novels by creative typists, and most especially no more acceptance of idiot elections as the only means we have of maintaining our society. Our society, my friends, is a well-packaged turd ball. Which professional shitter is in charge of crapping it out and tying a pretty ribbon on it is the most irrelevant illusion of all.