Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year We Made Contact


As of this writing I have not seen The King's Speech, Buried, Cyrus, Burlesque, The Other Guys, Blue Valentine, Another Year, or 127 Hours.  That understood, here are the movies I've seen this year that I've liked the most.
  1. The Fighter (Dir. David O. Russell, Perf. Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Mark Wahlberg)
  2. True Grit (Dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Perf. Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin)
  3. Please Give (Dir. Nicole Holofcener, Perf. Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt)
  4. A Prophet (Dir. Jacques Audiard, Perf. Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Hichem Yacoubi)
  5. Howl (Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Perf. James Franco, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels)
  6. Kick-Ass (in retrospect, after reconsideration; Dir. Matthew Vaughn, Perf. Aaron Johnson, Mark Strong, Chloe Moretz)
  7. I Love You Phillip Morris (Dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Perf. Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann)
  8. Winter's Bone (Dir. Debra Granik, Perf. Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey)
  9. The Town (Dir. Ben Affleck, Perf. Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively)
  10. I Am Love (Dir. Luca Guadagnino, Perf. Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini)
Honorable Mentions: The Kids Are All RightThe Social NetworkScott Pilgrim vs The WorldLet Me InThe Ghost Writer, Machete.

Respectable Movies That Simply Didn't Do Much for Me:  Inception, Exit Through the Gift ShopBlack Swan, Shutter Island, Black Dynamite, Toy Story 3.

Best Leading Performances:  Christian Bale (The Fighter), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Jim Carrey (I Love You Phillip Morris), Catherine Keener (Please Give), Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), Emma Stone (Easy A), Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass), Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).

Best Supporting Performances: Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Michelle Rodriguez (Machete),  Josh Brolin (True Grit), Dale Dickey (Winter's Bone), Blake Lively (The Town), John Hawkes (Winter's Bone), Rebecca Hall (Please Give), Richard Jenkins (Let Me In), Jeremy Renner (The Town), Justin Timberlake (The Social Network).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quasi Vegan


When the rich young man approached Jesus about attaining righteousness, Jesus told him that, to be perfect, he must give away all his money and sell all his possessions and give away all the money thus acquired, as well.  The young man turned away, because he was very rich.  The moral lesson here is twofold, I think:  one, money is a detriment to one's spiritual well-being, and, two, absolutism in ethics can be a dead end.

I gave up any form of puritanism years ago.  Scars of my fundamentalist Baptist past, in part, as well as a recognition that purity is, at bottom, anti-life.  If I refused to travel on any highway that was in part constructed through the toil of underpaid, exploited, immoral, racist, or Fox-News-watching laborers, I would be spiritual dynamite, but stultified as a human being ... as a life form, even.  I would be removing myself not only from the corruption of the world, but from the world itself.

That said, I want to hurry to explain that my lack of puritanism is not the same thing as freewheeling moral relativism.  It comes close, I suppose, but even as a relativist I am imperfect.  My moral code derives from the great books, including the bible.  What can we do in a world where good and evil are as hopelessly intertwined as they are--and where the outcomes of our actions are undeterminable (our good deeds can be destructive, our selfish intentions can work miracles)?  Well, the advice of Jesus, Voltaire, and Tolstoy is remarkably similar--we do what we can, enough or not enough, and make it do, for now.

Barrington Moore Jr.'s remarkable (and dense) little book Moral Purity and Persecution in History supports the position that I have long held by intuition--that much of the evil of history derives from individuals' and groups' attempts to purify the world.

Even on a mundane level, like the way I eat, I can't quite make myself into a purist.  The movie Food Inc. radically affected the way I think about what I eat.  It is not a polemic against carnivores.   At the beginning of the movie we see Eric Schlosser ordering his favorite meal, a hamburger and french fries.   Later in the movie we meet a Virginia farmer who raises and butchers livestock in a manner he regards as humane, wholesome, and compassionate.  What the film decries is not any particular kind of food, but rather a system of food production that is unethical, exploitative, undemocratic, dangerous to the nation's health and liberty, and nearly monolithic.  But, even there, there are limits to what we can do.  Is there any direction I can possibly move that would not be complicit, to some degree, with the system?

Of course, I can do more than I do.  Being a vegan is doable--and personally it's an attractive option.  Veganism, as a concept, strikes me as a better way of living--economical, simple, ethical, healthful.  My best friend is a vegan, give or take a cookie and a chocolate bar from time to time.  Perhaps it's only weakness of will that keeps me from taking the pledge.  I like to think otherwise.  I am a person of unusual scruples, at times--feeling vague pangs of guilt for owning a pet, for instance, which approximates involuntary servitude, in my opinion.  (But then what would happen if we liberated every dog and cat?  How cruel and ineffectual would that be?)

I adopt a quasi vegan lifestyle.  That's a laugh line.  I do minimize my intake of meat, eggs, and dairy, but the pleasures--perhaps more a matter of habit than taste--of certain foods forbid me from taking the 100% plunge.  Pleasure is important to me.  It's a fundamental aspect of what I regard as valuable in life.  It is not all-important, but by my standards, it far far outweighs the importance of purity.  So I have a shortlist of exceptions to my "veganism."  You will note, no doubt, that they are huge exceptions.  You would be right in saying that the word "vegan" (even "quasi vegan") should not even breathed in the context of this list.  Still, by minimizing my consumption of meat, etc., I do some little good to the environment, while, according to my Epicurean principles, intensify the pleasure it affords me.

In my oddball sense of ethics, I count my sins the way a Weight Watcher counts his points.  Deprivation, within limits, is one way to sharpen the senses when one does, at last, indulge.  My dietary sins, of which I have not repented, include the following, which, to my mind, bestow blessings to compensate for whatever harms they cause:

  1. bacon cheddar cheeseburgers (especially the ones at Broad Street Cafe, 1116 Broad Street, Durham, and, in balance with its ambience at 3:00 a.m, the Clover Grill, 900 Bourbon Street, New Orleans)
  2. steak, bloody medium-rare
  3. pot roast
  4. brisket
  5. ice cream, especially vanilla (I know, the "banality of evil")
  6. eggs benedict
  7. and the poor man's version of eggs benedict:  sausage, egg, and cheese croissants (a multiplication of evils, compounded by the fact that I am particularly fond of Jimmy Dean's microwavable frozen sandwiches)
  8. chili slaw dogs
  9. chocolate-chip cookies
  10. brie

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow

Friday, December 24, 2010

True Grit (Review)


People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
Thus begins one of my favorite novels published in my lifetime and the first book I ever bought for myself in hardcover:  Charles Portis's True Grit (I proudly have that first edition from 1968 still).  What enchanted me then was the language, perfectly captured in its opening paragraph with its economical and commonsense use of commas, disregarding grammatical rules for rules' sake (which might beg for a comma after the word "blood" but which our narrator Mattie Ross knows full well is not needed to get her point across and cares not how others might judge her for the omission).  In two sentences, her age at the time of the atrocity is repeated--establishing (1) that our narrator is no longer that age and (2) at that age something incontrovertibly turned her into the person she would become.  Then there's the naming of what Chaney took from her father, clear and exact as the red ink markings in a T account.  Then, too, there's the use of the word "credence," an old-fashioned word with reverberations of credibility, credit, and credentials that an adolescent prone to making deals and casting judgments (such as calling somebody a "coward") would be inclined to use.  In fewer than 100 words, Portis tells us pretty much everything we will need to know about our protagonist and narrator.

These words also begin the new film adaptation of the novel by writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen.  Their respect for Portis's diction and their appreciation for nineteenth-century America, when a colorful turn of phrase was still a form of public entertainment, are what make this film vastly superior to the Oscar-winning John Wayne version of 1969.  Unlike that early version the Coens' film retains the pokerfaced Gothicism of the novel--matter-of-factly recounting the horror of violence ("The woman was out in the yard dead with blowflies on her head and the old man was inside with his breast blowed open by a scatter-gun and his feet burned"), with a dusky look that conveys the malarial enervation of frontier life, which Portis's prose and Paul Davis's original book jacket design likewise connote, entirely missing from the 1969 film, whose tone is virtually indistinguishable from El Dorado or The War Wagon or most other Hollywood westerns of the late sixties.

The performances of Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges are more nuanced and drolly humorous than those of Kim Darby and John Wayne.  I would not mind at all if Bridges won his second Oscar in the role that gave Wayne his first and only.  (I do not begrudge Wayne his Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, though not one of his best, because he clearly deserved the award 13 years earlier for his performance as Ethan Edwards, the racist with a heart of granite in The Searchers.)   I hope the Academy remembers Steinfeld and Josh Brolin (as Chaney) too.   I hardly need to add that Matt Damon (as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger) is a better actor than Glen Campbell.

What's more, the Coens' and music director Carter Burwell's decision to use traditional music (notably "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms") instead of something resembling the 1969 film's sweeping orchestral score, is a good one, evoking the sterner fiber of the nineteenth-century American soul, without the sturm-und-drang and smarmy sentiment of late sixties Hollywood.  Even more noteworthy are the long stretches where no music score undergirds the action on screen or tries to cue us the audience as to how we are supposed to feel about it.  The Coens lift long swatches of dialogue from the book, without embellishment or updating (or dumbing down), and lets Portis's earthy prose, often mumbled, always drawled (therefore requiring some attention), carry its own weight.

If True Grit is not the best screen adaptation of a book I love, I cannot for the life of me remember the one that is.  Oh, yes, I do recommend it.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

When Those Blue Memories Start Calling


I am the only child of parents who died in 1995 and 2001.  My father was in the military for almost 30 years, for the last half of which I was on the scene, my small, taciturn family trundling its shit from base to base every two or three years.

I like to tell people there were Christmases when all I got was a sock with oranges and walnuts in it.  This is true, too, if you make that singular "Christmas" and understand that the exaggeration is meant to convey the fact that plenty of other Christmases and birthdays were meager too, though not quite as much.  

The military paid little to NCOs and their dependents, but then we got health care, a quality on-base education for me, and, on holidays, a free meal from the NCO club, sometimes served in an open hangar due to the crowd overflow.  

As I recall, I spent only two Christmases in the company of grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, so my extended family was (is) distant and largely unknown to me.

For the past nine years, I have spent Christmas alone or out at restaurants with friends who now have real boyfriends or still have family requiring their attentions at this time of year.  Early on there were attempts to include me in other families' festivities, and these were fun and enlightening, of, if nothing else, the fact that my own family had been peculiarly unjolly at this time of year.  

But on the whole I prefer to spend the day by myself.  The loneliness of only children is sometimes exaggerated.  I don't mean that we don't feel loneliness, and deeply, but I suspect it's considerably less traumatic for us.  As for me, my father and my mother were asocial and uncommunicative to the extent that, now, the company of a good book or something on television brings back my fondest Christmas memories of childhood--which glow of nostalgia more than balances off the, truth be told, rather comforting loneliness.

For the past five years or so, I have tried to expropriate the season with a party of my own the first Saturday of December.  After this party, I usually feel the holiday is over, except to join in on other people's parties and to surprise myself repeatedly when I realize that we have still not reached the 25th.  Last year I went so far as to take down all my holiday decorations on December 6th!  But this year is different.  

As I mentioned yesterday, I am feeling an odd-for-me Christmas-y vibe.  I'm looking forward to Saturday, by myself with my dog.

Among other stops planned for today--getting said dog his rabies booster, seeing True Grit with Kirsten, and downing a few evening cocktails with Barbara and Shane--I plan to pick up a pre-ordered Honey Baked Ham (R) with untrademarked mashed potatoes and green bean casserole, and buy myself a few presents ("from Santa") to open Christmas morning, just for kicks--not that I have been neglected, not at all, I already greedily tore through all the presents my friends plied me with, except for a gift card for a massage, which I'm saving for after Christmas.

I hope I am conveying the fact that I am not sad.  Otherwise I'm missing the point.  I do not suffer from seasonal affect disorder.  I rather like the long nights, and the low temperatures tend to highlight the coziness of homes and bring out the most affectionate natures in pets and friends.  To be sure, I prefer spring, season of my favorite holiday, my birthday, but winter is good, too.  And this winter seems to me, for some reason, particularly dreamy.

There is a sweetness to loneliness that often gets overlooked.  Perhaps I feel it as I do because I'm an introvert or because, as I mentioned, it's my nostalgia.  I don't pity the lonely, only those who cannot understand the pleasure of filling one's space with oneself.  On days like these, I occasionally like to drift through my home like a docent in a private museum, touching objects my friends and lovers have given me, remembering the stories behind them, and amusing myself with the quirky things only I would want and buy for myself ... by myself.  

I also like to use these times to reinvent myself, make blueprints for whatever courageous follies await me.  For me, a secular humanist, Christmas is the time of year when the year's record has played out, and all that's left is the soothing tick-tick-tick of the needle bumping against the center label, waiting to be turned over and then replaced with something new.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Amazing Grace

video

His Eyes ... How They Twinkled!



I have the most Christmas spirit that I've had in a while.  I don't know why.  I'm close to bankrupt ... in a world that is turning more "Mad Max" by the second.

On the other hand, I feel good that a few things Obama promised are starting to happen--pretty much exactly as he said they would two years ago--DADT has been repealed, and now, let's hope, the first responders on September 11th, 2001, may be getting the help and health care they need.

On a personal note, I feel at ease with where I am in life.  Life is good.  Not life in the abstract or general, but my particular life ... right here and now ... is good.  This morning I got a new battery for my 2000 Chevy Malibu, which, instead of starting when I turned the ignition, popped open the trunk, so now that it's fixed, all is right with  the world.  There's really nothing to say about it.  What can I say?  Being 57, gay, single, and in the lower half of the 25% tax bracket works for me.  Works for me very well.

It helps that I've been reading some Virgil and Horace lately.  They are incredibly calming influences.  Not only have they been dead for a couple of thousand years, but they also led settled, wise, and pleasant lives--in the midst of scandals, a civil war, political intrigue, religious extremism in high places (Augustus Caesar passed a law making it illegal for males to remain unmarried--it was later dropped as unenforceable), not to mention extremely poor WiFi--and that accomplishment heartens me today.

I have often called myself a "happy pessimist."  Sometimes I think of myself as a "true" Christian.  Not that I believe in God.  No way.  Or a life after death.  No thank you.    But certainly I do 
consider the lilies of the field ... they toil not, neither do they spin ... Therefore, take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or Wherewithal shall we be clothed? ... Take, therefore, no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.  Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof.  
I am a life coach's worst nightmare.  And, like Jesus, I have the very opposite of a "purpose-driven life."   (I know, I know ... I grew up hearing all about Jesus's "purpose," but, frankly, if Christians loved Jesus's teachings half as much as they love his blood, they'd have a halfway decent religion.)

My philosophy of life is Voltaire's, at the end of Candide; or Optimism (1759):  "We must cultivate our garden."  This is what Horace did on his Sabine farm, and this is the gentle, narrowly scoped equilibrium Virgil seeks in his Georgics and Eclogues.  And for all the tons of theology under which Jesus has been buried since his supposed resurrection, his words reveal him to be a man little concerned with the "big picture."

The secret to happiness--and the true "reason for the season," I think--is "Fuck the 'big picture.'"


Monday, December 20, 2010

It Ain't Susposed to Be Funny

The Neighbor's Christmas Tree

Monday, December 13, 2010

Should We Blame Obama?


I wish President Obama actually were the fire-breathing socialist that Fox News and others on the right seem to think he is.  I suspect I will never see a US President as liberal as even most European conservative politicians, much less one with the radical socialist cojones of a South American president.  But in good conscience I cannot blame Obama for not being what he never claimed to be in the first place.  While campaigning he exhibited distressing signs of lukewarmness on hot-button issues (such as, for instance, gays) and, shortly after his inauguration, even more distressing signs of sympathizing with George W. Bush and his administration.  I voted for him twice--the primary and the election--on the basis that he seemed to be a man of intelligence and compassion, but, even then I would have had to admit, not much of a man of character.  Still, his two out of three beat his competition--and they still do.

So, no, I don't expect that the torture of detainees has stopped.  And I won't be surprised if America finds good reason (quite possibly many reasons, all too complicated to explain) to go to war with Iran.  And the fundamental Christianity of American democracy will be affirmed for many years to come, directly and indirectly.  And I would laugh in your face if you were to ask me whether Bush and his cohorts would ever be charged with war crimes.  And I would be genuinely surprised if we do not give trickle-down economics another nine or ten tries before giving up on it--if giving up on it is ever something we will do.

Like most politicians, especially Democratic ones, Obama likes to be liked and likes things to stay nice and calm and quiet.  Despite the wording of the title of one of his books, he lacks much of a stomach for "audacity," which means "fearless daring."  Besides, I am fairly sure he was being ironic when he chose the word.  I suspect he follows his approval ratings with the same anxious eagerness with which grade-grubbing students tally up their weighted averages from week to week.  Despite his reputation, on the right and on the left, he is not much of an idealist--he can say the words "hope" and "change," but then so can Sarah Palin.  They are distinctively American (and, more precisely, American political) words.  (I suspect "hope" and "change" were on the lips of the white settlers who drove the darker skinned natives onto reservations, too--what was "manifest destiny," if not a cry for hope and change?)

Obama is a great American politician.  He has (still has) the potential of being a great American, as well, but that remains to be seen.  He is being blamed for things that are not his fault: the Middle Eastern wars, which, once gotten into, were never going to be easy to get out of, not with a century of bad blood between the Arab nations and the United States, and it's certainly not Obama's fault that the US government (legislative, judicial, and executive branches, inclusive) became (with its twin sister, the mass media) the handmaid of Wall Street, banks, insurance companies, and other speculators.  President Eisenhower was warning us all about the military-industrial complex back when I was in second grade, and this complex was then already about eighty years old.  The things the right wing has blamed Obama for are equally unfair and shortsighted.  The economy has been tumbling in spurts for the past 120 years, most notably during the 1930s and, again, in the past twelve, and we have probably not seen the end of the decline, so that Republicans will indeed be able to say in 2012 and perhaps again in 2016, with some accuracy, that Obama has presided over America at its economic worst.  

For a while now I have felt that America is unsaveable.  Sorry for the negativism, folks.  I have never been much good at holding up my end of the optimism banner.  If it were just a matter that our leaders and our political system were corrupt, if only that, I might hold some hope ("hope" for "change"), but the problem is deeper--we are a corrupt culture, worse than corrupt:  silly, unserious, greedy, self-centered, hypocritical, shallow, cruel, obsessive-compulsive, repressed, divisive, ignorant (even worse, willfully ignorant), sentimental, vain, obsequious, fearful, impatient, dishonest, and tacky.  No President can change that state of things, even if we gave him eighteen terms in office.  

So I did not vote for Obama because I expected him to be our savior.  I stopped believing in saviors long ago.  I voted for him because he seemed like the kind of sensible and intelligent politician who could restore the American people's face in the world--and this much he has done, not that I think we actually deserve other nations' respect, but it is nice to have.  I believed that he could be the best President of my lifetime--and he may well be (such is the low esteem with which I hold other Presidents, perhaps, but I don't say this just to be smug).  

And I voted for him because I like the way he talks, I like the way he makes me feel when he talks, and I like that he has some wit about him.  He stirs my emotions--less so lately, but still--though he has never stirred me on any deeper level than my emotions.  He has not, for instance, stirred my desire to be a better person than I already am, and he has not stirred my sense of justice, equality, liberty, and life itself.  He may just be entertainment--good for laughs and tears and a few goosebumps--but he is quality entertainment, and right now, though that is certainly not enough, given the state of things, it is better than what our other options are.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Stupidity has a knack of getting its way"--Albert Camus


This is being bold of me, I know, but I reserve the right to call stupidity stupid.  I do this in spite of the fact that I belong to the race of people who teach English, who are known far and wide for our insane tolerance for just about any cockamamie bullshit you can imagine as long as it doesn't involve comma splices.  I suspect it was one of our race who first coined the expression "There is no such thing as a stupid question."

Oh, yeah?  Since when?

For too long Americans have benignly ignored and intentionally mislabeled stupidity, possibly in the interest of a misguided concept of what the clause "all men are created equal" means or else polite deference to the feelings of stupid people.  As for the former, I'm pretty sure the statement of our founding fathers is not a denial of the existence of human stupidity.  And though recognizing and honoring the right to free speech most certainly ensures that stupid speech is constitutionally protected, it does not mean that the rest of us have to pretend stupidity is anything other than what it is.  And if stupid people are especially sensitive to their stupidity being so labeled and pointed out, I, for one, am no longer willing to consider the possibility that perhaps my plain-speaking even roughly equates to hate speech or bigotry.   To adapt a cliche dear to homophobes, I love the stupid but I hate the stupidity--though, in truth, I do not love the stupid either, because to love them would mean to enjoy their company and I do not, unless they are cute with well-defined muscles and easy to get in the sack, but I do at least see the necessity of having to live in peace among them, even the unsightly ones.

As for saving the feelings of stupid people, I am all for it up to a point, but clearly America's decades-long toleration of stupidity has encouraged deeper, darker strains of stupidity to emerge, fatally resistant to reason or good manners.  Stupidity is both meaner and more pervasive now than it's been at any time since the Enlightenment.  Stupidity has become even a selling point in entertainment, politics, and religion (where it is sometimes called "faith beyond reason")--and that, folks, is bad news for us as a nation, a culture, and a people.

Stupidity is now no longer content to sit quiet--it wants to be in school textbooks, as a viable alternative and counter-balance to "science" and "intelligence."  It wants to be called "common sense."  It wants to ban from the airwaves anything that cannot be comprehended by and processed into the world view of a typical third grader.  It wants its own political party.  It wants to speak out and malign the intelligent and then squawk about persecution and intolerance when reasonably smart people criticize it.  It even wants to categorize thoughtful, perceptive, and insightful speech as, de facto, elitist and tyrannical.

No, no doubt, the stupid are among us, and we must live with them.  We should seek ways of gently prodding them towards reason and fact-based perceptions of the world around them.  We should not lock them away as insane or criminal, unless those lines are actually crossed--in which case, we must hold to the truth that "ignorance is no excuse."  Being stupid is not a cultural difference to be protected in a diverse society.  It may at times be genetic, true, and in every instance we should act with compassion and understanding.  But understanding stupidity is not the same thing as ignoring its clear and unmistakable signs.

Here are the sure signs of stupidity--

1. opinions lacking sufficient support in concrete, verifiable details and beliefs based entirely on authority,

2.  jingoism, unqualified assertions, and high-sounding cant,

3.  impatience with the slow, rigorous processes of research, logic, and fair argument,

4.  and heated and defensive reaction to others' hesitation to swallow patent nonsense.

Any two of the four are certain evidence of stupidity, but, sad to say, folks, quadrilateral stupidity is already the order of the day.

So I am done with pretending that stupidity is just ignorance.  Simply not knowing something is very different from belligerent resistance to knowledge.  I am done with pretending that stupid beliefs bring people together, or that they bring comfort and happiness to many and so should be exempt from criticism or analysis.   I am done with letting stupidity slide.  I am beginning to see it for the intentional, manipulative, and uncannily effective tool that it is, and see it, too, as the tool of oppression, cruelty, and resistance to progress.

Dear Santa


What I suppose I want most of all this Christmas, Santa, is the end of the bullshit.  The bullshit I'm talking about encompasses the phony "War on Christmas" diatribes in the media (Really, folks?  You think "season's greetings" is something new?  Have you no memory whatsoever?) as well as Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, saving Bush-era tax cuts that crippled the nation's economy (There are worse things than taxes, namely a government entirely incapable of doing anything for its citizens beyond staging elections every two years--how many more Katrina aftermaths do we need?--and elections that are more suggestive than substantive of democracy).  The bullshit also includes the clamor on the left to let gays die in unjustifiable, preemptive wars in the Middle East and participate in a decadent institution like proprietary marriage, though, yes, I understand and heartily support the principle that people of all sexual orientations deserve the same rights and opportunities, especially when the scant services the government does provide its citizens are tied to the voluntary serfdoms of military service and monogamous matrimony.

I have little hope of getting what I want most this Christmas, so let me say what I'm happy about--friends whose generosity, intelligence, and kindness move me to tears sometimes, a job I love that is meaningful and important, another year with my dog Tom Ripley, and the Internet, by which I am still free to access all sorts of useful and scandalous information and imagery and sustain a workable illusion of influence, liberty, and power that counterchecks the dispiriting juggernaut of stupidity almost everywhere else in the American mass media, including a good 98% of the available web sites, which I can at least choose to ignore.

Thanks, Santa.  You are trying, and that's what really matters, I guess.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Beautiful Morning

This is a beautiful morning because the guy walking his black lab about a half block ahead of Ripley and me wears his tight black jeans and leather jacket well and Ripley has to pee so we never catch up with them so that way I am not disappointed.  And I say hello to Morgan or Sara whose names I get straight sometimes and sometimes do not and I ask her if she's going home, because then Ripley and I would walk with her on the way, but she says, no, they are heading to Virginia, because she means for the holiday, and I say I meant no home here and she says oh their walk is just beginning, her and her dog, whose name I also forget, and we say goodbye.  Then I wave at my neighbor in his truck but he doesn't see me because I am white and old and his neighbor anyway.  And the party is over and Laurie is still no older than she was a month ago.  And the icy air cuts through me like angels' knives and Ripley knows his way to the door all by himself.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Eight Teachers Who Left a Lasting Impression on Me





John I. McCollum, my dissertation adviser at University of Miami, struck me as the quintessential gentleman college professor, erudite, precise, even-tempered, with copious knowledge of the Metaphysical Poets (and the rest of the seventeenth century), which he was able to bring together and connect in startling fashion in a flash.  He had a reputation for severity, which was never apparent in his manners.  The semester before I took my first class with him, he had (reportedly) failed every student in the class--and this was in graduate school!  The challenge lured me (and my other classmates) in, which taught me that sometimes a large gesture is needed to attract the kinds of students one wants to teach (and can teach).  For a while I worked as his research assistant on a paper on Carpenter's Gothic churches in Florida, thus awakening my mind to architecture and local histories.  Based on a shorter paper I had written, he wanted me to write my dissertation on the 17th-century playwright Thomas Shadwell, and now I wish I had.  I wrote an arguably fine paper on John Bunyan instead--not even The Pilgrim's Progress, for which he is known, but Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which I thought and still do think is a more interesting book.  Professor McCollum was right, always, as close to intellectual infallibility as anyone I ever met, yet the most shining example of "gentilesse" I have ever met, too.  A model of nobility and a source of wisdom as well as knowledge and sound advice.  Sadly, he died the year after I got the PhD degree.

Laurence Donovan, my poetry professor at University of Miami, nominated me as the first ever (and, at the time, only) student member of the Snarks, a literary clique of  nine (as in "muses") exceptionally talented poets, artists, and academicians--drawing, from time to time, visitors like Pulitzer prizewinners Donald Justice and Gwendolyn Brooks--who met weekly to share and critique our poems.  I got an enormous amount of encouragement as a writer--Justice said that my poem on Noah's ark, which was basically just a rhythmic catalogue of the names of every animal I could think at the time of its writing, "works, although it shouldn't"--which sounded like rapturous praise to me back then.  Donovan was also a gifted etcher, as well as a Hart Crane-mad poet--I wish I could have afforded to buy at least some of his work to have hanging in my home now, particularly a gorgeous series of prints he based on the Tarot.

Robert Miller, my English teacher at Tennessee Temple College, encouraged me to go on to graduate school.  He was a witty teacher and a gifted pianist, who built his own house with his own hands (according to his own blueprints), and while as devout a Christian as everybody else at Tennessee Temple, he could roll his eyes at some of the excesses of fundamentalist evangelicalism.  He encouraged me in my writing and intellectual pursuits--and looked askance (rightly) at my attempts to "blend in."

Dutch Mehlenbacher, friend and colleague at University of South Carolina, Salkehatchie Campus, taught art and fencing and headed the campus foreign film showings, as well as the theater and special events calendar--before I had even met the guy, I was infatuated with him.  Then, getting to know him, I developed a crush on him, of which he reciprocated only the friendship part of it--though he expressed some interest in the details of my sex life.  He lived and painted in an abandoned church in the country, without a telephone, so that, annoyingly, as his closest friend, I received the phone calls from his folks in Nashville when he needed to be contacted immediately.  An avid fan of Ayn Rand, he was an indefatigable egoist and nearly won me over to objectivism.  He played drums (backing up Jeannie C. Riley on "Harper Valley PTA") and sailed a sloop, on which we spent many a drunken weekend.  When I left South Carolina, we agreed that we would shorten the long, dragged-out process of "losing touch," by amicably agreeing never to contact each other again, giving the close friendship a proper and definite closure, celebrated wildly the week before I moved to Pensacola.

William P. Sullivan, my thesis adviser at Marshall University, who, with an offhand note on a paper I had written on the novelist John Gardner, let me know that I belonged in graduate studies in literature.  He also encouraged my poetry writing, telling me that it was good enough for the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's (it wasn't).  I had never tackled anything as monumental as a 60-page thesis before, and he gave me and the project (on Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood) close and critical attention that taught me more about the writing process than I had known in my previous 17 years of education.

Maurice Hussey, Cambridge Chaucerian and visiting professor at Marshall University while I was there, is the reason I love Chaucer now.  In one semester I learned to read Middle English at least as well as I read French (not well, but doable) and gathered a sense of the world Chaucer had been a part of.  He taught in the old-fashioned style of elite British universities, reading lecture notes to the class and then asking open-ended Socratic questions.  When nobody responded, he said simply, "And so now we have one of those long embarrassing silences," and refused to say another word until somebody would at least attempt an answer to his question.  When he returned graded papers, he would not just hand the paper to its student author but deliver a short speech detailing (from memory) the strengths and (embarrassingly) the weaknesses in each paper's logic and grasp of the material.  It was an edifying and sometimes chastening experience.

Joan Adkins, who taught me the Romantic poets at Marshall University, had me when she blithely introduced herself to the class on Day 1:  "Hello, I'm Joan Adkins," without titles, degrees, or self-serving biographical details.  A small thing, but impressive to me at the time, and to this day, my first words at first class meetings are "Hello, I'm Joe Marohl."

Ardell Jacquot, my English teacher at Dade Christian School, made a huge impression on me as a teenager, despite some really bad advice along the way--mostly on the order of not to follow my dreams, but settle for the me everybody else expects me to be.  Advice I later (wisely) spurned.  Funny, colorful, and opinionated, he was a lot of students' favorite teacher.  Today, I may no longer worry about putting my hands on my hips (he told me it made me look effeminate), but, then, come to think of it, I seldom put my hands on my hips now, so maybe I do worry.  He did say one thing that sticks with me today as a teacher:  "If anybody is going to be bored in this class, it's going to be you students, and not me"--the response I now give to students who complain that their reading assignments are boring--though I do it with a certain gay bitchiness Jacquot could only envy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dog Years



This morning I woke up with my dog curled up on top of my body under the covers of my bed.  It's getting cold enough that we have come to depend on shared mutual body warmth to get us through the nights.  The dog weighs 28 pounds, yet I'm amazed how much heat he puts out--better than an electric blanket, I kid you not.

On Monday my dog Tom Ripley turns fourteen years old.  Even though I am not the type of person who considers his dog his child, I can't help but think that Ripley would be in ninth grade at school right now if he were a child.  Fourteen is old for a whippet--about 78 in human years, so his maturity stretched past mine some five years ago.  And in the past year or two we have had some touch-and-go days, where mentally I was preparing myself to see him off.  Lately, though, he has been fine--not the leaping marvel he was several years ago, but still a quietly active dog, who enjoys his treats and walks.

My dog years stretch from the day I picked him up at eight weeks old, early December of 1996 in Savannah, to the present, in Durham, North Carolina.  He was born almost exactly a year after my mother's death (that sad anniversary was yesterday), and I suspect my motivation for getting a dog then, some thirteen years after my last dog, was partly to fill the loneliness I felt after a parent's death, even a parent who was already mentally lost to Alzheimer's-like stroke symptoms some years before, and three years after the breakup of what was probably my most significant human relationship as an adult.

There's nothing objectively special about Ripley.  He's the mute companion that other dogs are to their masters, Ripley more mute than others, since he so seldom barks.  And like other dog owners, I can testify to the weird telepathy that develops between human and dog over years--a language the dog trains the master to recognize as the master trains the dog to recognize simple monosyllabic commands.  As a puppy, Ripley used to sit with his back to the door when he needed to go outside.  Over the years, that signal has been refined and pared down to just a certain barely detectable flicker of light in his eyes, which I cannot describe and which apparently few other people can see at all.  That is if "light" is the right word, since that "look" also has the power to wake me from a sound sleep.

In my imagination, Ripley represents not just himself but also all the friends, family, and lovers I will never see again, but whose images remain close because Ripley's eyes have seen them too.  That, of course, is my sentimentality carrying me away--but dog ownership is itself convicting proof of sentimentality in a man or woman, so there is no escaping the charge:  I am a sentimental guy.  Buried under my dry ironic pessimism and icy layers of asociability and indifference is a belief that my dog means something--this coming from a guy who is not convinced that all of human history means anything, given the immense scope of the cosmos.

And, yes, we will be celebrating Ripley's birthday on Monday.  I am a gay middle-aged man, after all.  Freeze-dried liver treats and beer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Let Me In


Some people are tired of vampires.  I am not.

In 2008, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (based on the 2004 novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist) offered serious horror film lovers the opportunity to experience a horror film built on texture and tone, rather than shock effects, creating a mood, rather than an assault on the senses.  Its international popularity ensured that there would be a Hollywood remake, with American actors and an American setting.

I am happy to report that Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), is in many ways better than the original.  It "explains" more than the original film did, unfortunately, but it also trims away some scenes that slowed the Swedish version down.  And the explanations are not tiresome or cheap.  The new film's special effects are superior in every way.  I miss the cat-attack scene--but it's a scene so full of unintentional comic effect (as is true in the original to some extent) that its deletion is understandable.  Sexual ambiguities in the original are tidied up--with clear, no-nonsense borders for American audiences--while maintaining the original's queasy evocations of pedophilia.

The setting is switched to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in wintertime ... to good effect.  The site's history well evokes the idea of "necessary evil," which is central to the story's theme and the perplexing moral anxiety that threads through it.  More unexpected is the switch of the setting to 1983, with flickering images of Ronald Reagan lecturing the American public on "evil" and the 12-year-old protagonist's mother's absorption with televangelists.  In the original, set in the present day (so I thought) the vampire's presence in the small Swedish town evokes the pervasive fear of strangers we have because of the age of terrorism.  But then the theme--that harsh violence is sometimes necessary to resolve existing injustices at the hands of mindless wielders of power--might be too harrowing in post-9/11 America ... even though neither film is expressly or explicitly political.

The performances by child actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moritz are amazingly good--frighteningly good.  Richard Jenkins, great in anything I have ever seen him in, is superb here too, in the role of the vampire's caretaker.  And Elias Koteas tones down his usual manic tics to deliver another great performance as a police investigator looking into what he suspects is a series of satanic ritual slayings.

I intend to rewatch my DVD of the Swedish film sometime between now and Halloween.  Hopefully, more intriguing contrasts will be brought to my attention then.  But the remake is good, very good, and I wouldn't be surprised that I will want that DVD too, once it becomes available--and perhaps give it another look while it is still in theaters.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

10 Things About "The Social Network"

 

  1. Smooth,  unpronounced special effects in making actor Armie Hammer into twins.
  2. All the characters have the same vocabularies, speech patterns, and wit--but then the same could be said of Oscar Wilde's characters.
  3. Director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin perform a small miracle in making a talky movie about computer programming and marketing that is interesting to watch, with hardly anything in the way of action, sex, or violence.
  4. The camerawork and editing during the crew competition look great in a life-insurance commercial sort of way.
  5. Great opening dialogue between Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara, poignantly scripted and well acted ... and nicely mirrored in the film's closing shot, underscoring the protagonist's loneliness with a quasi-Citizen Kane-style coda.
  6. The film can be interestingly read as a drama about Jewish identity and intellectualism in the face of persistent American antisemitism.
  7. A fine understated performance by John Getz as Sy--be sure to notice it.  No small roles only small ... etc., etc.
  8. Trent Reznor's musical score suggests psycho thriller, subtly elevating what is basically dramedy-slash-biopic and giving emphasis to (perhaps?) underlying social critique.
  9. This movie is this generation's Less Than Zero, for better or worse.
  10. The movie invites smug superior laughter from the audience--so that placing sixth in the Olympics is something we all feel we have done, it would seem, and that we know oh so well the challenges of being a billionaire.  We leave the cineplex feeling smarter and more accomplished than we really are.  We know that "appletini" is funny and appalling, for reasons impossible for us to articulate.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cuba










I had a funny thought today ... well, not funny: sad, I guess.  Sad in the way that my mind still works sometimes, and funny that I sometimes have to remind myself of things like this.

A friend sent me a link to a New York Times opinion piece, which details the sorry state of the American character today.  You probably don't need me to give you the details ... you know:  an assistant state attorney general who cyber-bullies the openly gay student body president at the university he once attended, otherwise intelligent gay young men who kill themselves in large part because some dick doesn't like the kind of sex they're having, the extension of U.S. military bombings in countries (Pakistan, for instance) we are not at war with, media hogs who scream "class warfare" when working-class people complain about being drained dry by faceless corporate financial institutions, the mindless and incessant rallying over values which are, in effect, just prejudices and issues which are, in effect, just hurt feelings.

In response I said, wittily, "Kind of makes me wish I lived in a socialist republic.  Cuba, anyone?"  Then immediately I thought about what I had said and wondered to myself whether I could indeed live in a country like Cuba, ... given its history of human rights abuses, particularly the campaign against gay men during the 1960s, so stirringly depicted in Nestor Almendros' 1984 documentary Bad Conduct and poet Reinaldo Arenas' 1992 autobiography Before Night Falls.

Then I had to laugh (the funny part) ... and asked myself how I manage to live in the United States, given its history of human rights abuses (the sad part).  Slavery, massacres of its original inhabitants, the biggest prison population in the world, extreme interrogation techniques, carpet bombings, and evisceration of its own middle class are hardly things a country can boast of ... not even a god-fearing yet tolerant democracy with a laissez-faire free market.

And in the '60s, while Castro's henchmen were rounding up gay men into concentration camps, the state and local police in the USA were still raiding gay bars and shaking the patrons down for no-contest fines, a state of affairs that eventually erupted in the Stonewall Riots.  In the 1960s, the American Psychological Association still categorized gays and lesbians as mentally ill, subjecting them to apomorphine aversion therapy to "cure" the disease.  Last month, Castro apologized for his contribution to the persecution of sexual minorities.  Last year, Fort Worth and Atlanta police raided more gay bars, beating some of the patrons severely.

The blessings of liberty, folks.

(Photos:  slave with whip scars, a medicine man after the Wounded Knee massacre, 2009 police raid on a gay bar in Atlanta, lynched black man, the Stonewall Riots, child killed by poison gas near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, lynched black man, incarcerated Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Abu Ghraib.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

25 Reasons I Love Old Tarzan Movies




  1. loin cloths (especially those in the pre-Code Tarzan and his Mate)
  2. the Tarzan yell 
  3. wrestling
  4. near naked natives
  5. hungry crocodiles crawling into the murky river 
  6. the creepy, smoky juju cave in Tarzan Escapes (minus, alas, the lost footage of giant human-bat creatures, who devour the majority of Tarzan's party--a scene studio chief Louis B. Mayer deemed too gruesome for exhibition)
  7. the Ganelonis' use of crisscrossed trees to rip poor captives into halves
  8. elephant stampedes
  9. quicksand 
  10. enough steamy sex dream imagery to keep a whole company of Freudian psychoanalysts at work for the next 20 years
  11. natives falling off the Mutia Escarpment 
  12. giant spider webs
  13. vine-swinging
  14. the sounds of the jungle at night 
  15. the surrealism of out-of-scale rear-screen projections
  16. roaring waterfalls 
  17. Johnny Weissmuller's unruly hair
  18. underwater canoodling 
  19. "A Cannibal Carnival" (music score by Sol Levy)
  20. bans on firearms
  21. animal rights
  22. Cheeta
  23. the tree house, with plumbing, elevator, and ceiling fans 
  24. the elephants' burial ground
  25. cute baby lion cubs that you had better just leave alone

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thoughts on Psycho


Alfred Hitchcock's most iconic (and possibly best) movie, Psycho was released exactly 50 years ago today.  It is arguably the first "slasher" movie--but none of its successors have had anything close to its cultural impact, which is not to deny the merit of some of them.  (Halloween, perhaps the best of the rest, capitalized on the original by casting Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh's daughter, in the lead.)  The Reagan-era sequels could not dim (or touch) the power of Hitchcock's film--largely bolstered by the estimable talent of Anthony Perkins--and the much-reviled 1998 "remake" by Gus Van Sant, which followed the original script almost word for word and the original storyboard almost shot for shot, is much much better (and more instructive in the changes in US culture) than most viewers and reviewers gave it credit for, and, as Patricia Hitchcock said at the time, it was precisely the kind of experiment her father would have attempted (he did in fact make The Man Who Knew Too Much twice).



In the homocentric manner that many straight film fans hate, I would like to make a modest, brief argument for Psycho being a "gay film."  Male homosexuality was not a theme foreign to Hitchcock.  Films like Rope and North by Northwest flirted with the subject in the 1950s, the decade in which such references were most taboo in America; Rope even obsessed over it.  Psycho alludes to some of the overt cold-war, quasi-Freudian stereotypes of the homosexual--an overbearing mother who dominates and frightens her boy, a man who likes to wear dresses and pretend he's a woman, and the "sad young man" conveyed in Anthony Perkins' understated performance.  Also the hard-to-miss fact that the film evades the subject of "romance" (heterosexual or homosexual, while rather bluntly addressing the subject of "sex") puts it outside the mainstream of American movies of the time--even in the horror genre, even among Hitchcock's other work.


The opening scene of John Gavin stripped to the waist in a cheap hotel room is one that, despite its patently heterosexual context, lets the camera indulge in the spectacle of the actor's considerable masculine beauty.  The scene portrays the aftermath of sex--worse, illicit sex, since Gavin's character is still married to somebody else.  Gavin literally embodies the ideal masculinity of the period, square jawed, tall, beefily athletic, an image more famously embodied in the fifties by Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, ironically two closeted gay actors.  This image is brought into stark contrast with (later in the film) the oddly birdlike, quiet, gawky diffidence of Anthony Perkins--a markedly different kind of American male, one seldom seen in the movies of the decade, especially not in a leading role.  Later, Gavin's character is "paired" with his girlfriend's sister (played by Vera Miles), with no real hint of romantic interest on either one's part (Van Sant's film is instructive on this point).  Perkins is often shot by himself, isolated, or surrounded by inanimate objects--stuffed birds, academic paintings on biblical subjects, and the empty immensity of the dark Victorian house he lives in.


Alfred Hitchcock was born in the Victorian era, two years before the stately old queen died.  His life spanned the end of Victorianism and the beginning of the end of postmodernism.  The Stick-Eastlake architecture of the Bates' house is in pointed contrast to the boxy functionality of the seedy post-war "motor-hotel" it looms darkly over.  Victoria's disapproving gloom towers above the image of mobile, transient, promiscuous, gawdy "free love":  that this was the established stereotype of motels at the time we know because of Nabokov's Lolita five years earlier.  The film is full of contrasts like this--the performance styles of Gavin and Perkins, as mentioned, but also the jarring abstract expressionism of Saul Bass's opening title sequence and the plodding expository monologue delivered by Simon Oakland, closing the movie on a weirdly anticlimactic note.  In fact, the whole movie appears in retrospect to be an experiment in anticlimax.  The protagonist dies 45 minutes into the film.  The young couple who meet (decidedly un-cute) later in the film never kiss, their only bodily contact occurring as they clasp each other while recoiling in horror at their various discoveries of the truth--an allegory of the Western world in the twentieth century?  A title that exploits the American public's fascination with psychoanalysis at the time (in a decade when shock therapy and lobotomy were still "cures" for homosexuality and other forms of "mental illness"), while the character of the psychologist makes his first and only appearance when the film is almost over. 

Psycho ... or The Birds or North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train ... is my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.  (Sorry to be so indefinite--but the man was a genius.)  Its influence is still felt in American Psycho and on The Simpsons, in the bleak sexuality of AMC's Mad Men and in countless shower scenes in countless erotic thrillers.  Between 1963 and 1971, I visited Universal City Studios in Hollywood three times.  The only constant was the facade of the "Psycho house" still perched on the hill that Perkins descends in horror when he sees the blood of his eroto-phobic mother's latest victim.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Wanna Buy Five Copies for My Mother

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Down Time


I am depressed.  Mildly depressed.  Depressed in the probing, essayish manner I am accustomed to.  Not "sad," nothing to be sad about.  Not "bleak," or at any rate my worldview at the moment is no bleaker than it is even in the midst of euphoria.  Not even--though I feel my body losing gas, the essence of depression, as I experience it--not even "dread of death"--quite the opposite, in fact, rather a mild apprehension about the many many many classroom lectures still left to prepare, papers still to grade, bills still to pay, meals still to eat, miles still to drive, awkward silences still to clip short out of some sense of obligation to the comfort of others.

I see depression as a natural cycle of the emotions, just as sleep is a natural cycle of the body.  The unrelenting cheerfulness that Hollywood, the pharmaceutical industry, coffee commercials, cruise lines, and some insanely inhumane religions promote is, to my way of thinking, a nightmare.  Animals are not built for perpetual motion, which includes e-motion.  Mammals, in particular, are not built for the constant busyness of bees or the hyped-up lightness of hummingbirds.  Sometimes we just have to sag.  I see my dog sagging as I write this.  Think about all the indolent lions, tigers, hippos, and apes you have seen in nature documentaries.  In fact, the makers of nature films frequently complain about the difficulty of capturing wildlife on film actually doing something.  Pep is just not an important commodity at our end of the biosphere.

For the past several weeks, on vacation, I have been a slug, and now with the fall semester fast approaching I am experiencing a certain self-awareness I call "depression"--the follow-up of hours on hours of restful, restorative sloth, mixed with an agitating consciousness of impending outside obligations.  The self-consciousness of (perhaps even embarrassment over) one's propensity for slackerliness and slovenliness and one's acceptance of a set of life circumstances that are, let's say, usually unstimulating is what ordinary (i.e. nonclinical) depression is.

Reading Tom Hodgkinson's nifty little book How to Be Idle several years ago was a small transformational experience for me.  I started interpreting my life a little differently.  Like teens and other immature adults I used to panic when I felt that my emotions were depressed ("on pause," so to speak).  I feared boredom more than cancer.  I thought I had an obligation to have a stimulating life--the kind of life that was in a constant state of excitement, even turmoil, which is, after all, the soul of drama.  I even wanted--or thought I wanted--to have a "rollercoaster" life.  I thought I should want--though I never really wanted--to be a "mover and shaker."  Though I never would have put the idea in so many words, I must have thought that "war" is preferable to "peace," as well--how interesting is peace?

This is not to say that I live an uneventful life.  I have my fights and triumphs, my turbulent romances, my agonizing losses--consuming perhaps as high a percentage of my overall life as my dog's playing fetch or a lion's stalking and killing an antelope (which is to say not much, as dogs sleep for half their lives--and stare lazily at their masters for another quarter of their lives--and lions are known to sleep, just sleep, for up to 24 hours at a time).  I even found out recently that peasants, the hardest working social class of the Middle Ages, worked no more than 88 days out of a year ... peasants!

The panic over the apprehension that one's life is being "wasted," which nonhuman animals apparently never experience (not even goldfish!), is what, I think, ordinary depression is.   Depression is perhaps a distinctive effect of American-style workaholism--that neurotic "drive" that causes us to take fewer vacations than most other cultures do (cultures which are, by the way, no less productive than ours) and, when we do take them, to plan them expressly to minimize any idleness--or "rest."  This is why so many teachers believe a heap of homework is the secret to education, why so many parents believe continuous "planned activities" are the secret to happiness, why so many business people believe "efficiency" is the secret to success.  Small wonder, then, that, for the past 30 years, America has been Prozac Nation, the cradle of "cosmetic pharmacology."

I am depressed, as I said before.  Don't worry about me.  I'm dealing with it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crack in the World


It's pretty incredible that I, at age 57, can vividly recall one-half of the soundtrack music (it helps that it is ponderously repetitious) to a movie I saw only once in a movie theater on Yokota Air Force Base, Japan, 45 years ago.  That movie is Crack in the World, filmed in Spain, released by Security Pictures, and just recently made available on DVD by Olive Pictures (no Criterion Collection treatment here).  My recall of so much of the music composed by John Douglas, who also scored Psycho-Circus and Bikini Paradise, says less about my remarkable memory (I am abnormally oblivious to most ordinary sensory perceptions and quick to forget what I do in fact take in) than about the impact this mid-1960s disaster movie had on my impressionable 12-year-old mind.

The movie is about a mad scientist, but suavely mad, as played by Dana Andrews, who has penetration issues.  He's apparently dying of hand cancer, and as the story starts he is in Tanganyika trying to cut a chasm to the earth's core in order to retrieve enough natural energy to fill the world's escalating  energy needs for the "foreseeable future"-- not exactly what the good folks at Exxon and BP would call "long term."  Andrews has been married for just a year to Janette Scott, almost 30 years younger than he and a scientist in her "own right."  They met at the university, where she took him for Thermodynamics.  She wants a baby ... now.  Andrews kids her about the fact that she's married to a very busy old man and raises the specter of her former lover, tall and studly Kieron Moore.  She responds, deadpan,
Stephen, for the umpteenth time, Ted Rampion is not my pin-up.  He's young, brilliant, dances divinely, and plays very good tennis, but he isn't the one I picked.  I picked you.  You're my husband.
(Yes, Janette Scott speaks in occasional italics.)

That Andrews' scientific efforts to drill a well to the earth's magma are largely symbolic on a psycho-sexual level is confirmed (for me) when the scientist demonstrates to a skeptical board of commissioners that a thermonuclear missile, aimed straight down the deep shaft Andrews and crew have already dug, would not shatter the protective volcanic crust, but rather burn neatly through it.  To demonstrate, Andrews lifts a ten-inch metal rod, white hot and aflame, and plunges it forcefully through plate glass.  Janette Scott's reaction shot at this point is instructive.

Through frequent self-treatment with x-radiation, Andrews has severely burned both his hands.  Scott thinks the inflammation is a bad rash and suggests a vacation:  "It's tension, it's psychosomatic," she coos understandingly.  This scene is played out in a bedroom, tastefully decorated with shelves of backlit igneous rocks and other geological specimens, where the couple sleep in separate twin beds.  Quite clearly this is a marriage already on the rocks.

This scene immediately precedes Kieron Moore's entrance--in a helicopter, from which he strides with manly confidence towards the camera.  This guy has played Count Vronsky and one of the 300 Spartans, so you figure "virile, handsome leading man" is not a challenge for this suntanned, brawny Irish actor, though years later he did play a guy named Chief Dull Knife in Custer of the West.

Moore and Andrews disagree over how safely a thermonuclear weapon can be used to tap the planet for lava and its boundless uses for technology.  Moore is of course right ... more to the point, he is right for Janette Scott, who intrudes on Moore's outraged you-are-playing-God resignation speech.  Forget for a moment that Moore unwisely has a photo of himself shirtless embracing his boss's wife on the beach, pinned inside his closet door.  Forget for a moment that Scott brazenly enters Moore's private quarters and offers to darn his worn-out socks:  "If the world is going to come to an end, at least you won't get caught with holes in your socks."  They are only doing what they have to do.  And the smoky theme music lets us know that these two belong with each other.

Not that music and sex were at the top of my mind at age twelve.  There were other things to like about this B-movie.  That it's set in Africa, for instance--continent where I was born (but to the north, in Libya), and home of Tarzan and Bomba,  my pin-ups since age eight.  Also, the special effects, cheesy by today's standards, were not half bad by 1965 (pre-2001, pre-Star Wars, pre-Blade Runner, pre-Avatar) standards.

Andrews' initial success with the rocket is quickly followed by disaster--pay attention, people, the movie is called Crack in the World!  What most impressed me back then was a scene in which a train is derailed by the crack and plunges into a ravine--a special effect surpassed in a similar train-wreck scene--tellingly, more for thrills than for a sense of human tragedy--in 2008's Wanted.  And when I watched the movie again today, I was struck by how precisely I had remembered it--even down to the briefly glimpsed panicked passengers' faces.  (How memory works--and fails to work--is a topic that has intrigued me ... um, as far back as I can remember.)

No, this movie is no great work of art--even by pre-2001 sci-fi standards.  But it's an interesting movie to watch if you're willing to read between the lines or, if like me, it reverberates as a particular memory from your past.  It's interesting to watch Dana Andrews deteriorate--as his downward-turning warhead unsurprisingly destroys the planet.  Soon after all hell breaks loose, we find him wheelchair-bound, in dark glasses, with both hands bandaged in his lap, a sort of impotent Doctor Strangelove figure.  A kid who devoured movies like When World Collide on TV and then as a middle-aged kid rushing to see 2010 just last year, I have a fascination with cinematic apocalypse.  That most of this movie's imagery is taken from stock footage--animal stampedes, cities ravaged by earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions--takes little away from my ability to have fun with it.

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