Summer Without End: The Comedy

 

“As a small child, something crystallized in her character, making her clear and finished, and as impervious as crystal…She was always grown up; she never really grew up.”

-D.H. Lawrence, The Princess

 

William Basinski is one of those composers who experiments with outdated audio equipment and songs whose names have been forgotten, crafting something strange and new out of the midden heap. Another is The Caretaker, whose album An Empty Bliss Beyond this World, reminiscent of The Shining’s soundtrack, mixes clips of 1930s songs into loops that mimic the repetitions and slow deterioration of thought that someone with Alzheimer’s Disease experiences. It pushes the definition of music- the songs are more like ideas or moods embodied in waves. They are haunting. Their nostalgia and beauty creeps into your psyche the way the cold gets into your bones. Listening feels like a surrender.

 

On September 11, 2001, William Basinski was in Brooklyn recording his album, The Disintegration Loops. It consists of song loops on crinkly magnetic tape that repeat as they fall apart, and go through a reverb. As the story goes, he and a group of friends played this on the roof of his apartment building as they watched the World Trade Center towers fall.

 

The wiffle ball scene from Tim Heidecker’s pitch-black satire of aging youth adrift, The Comedy. A warm summer day. The lens is oversaturated with yellows, giving the shot a sepia tone. A troupe of hipster man- and woman- children, arrayed in all their high-waisted mom jeans, short shorts, Ray-Ban regalia, frolick on a rooftop tennis court in Williamsburg, enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon-soaked game of wiffle ball while Disintegration Loops 1.1 (Excerpt II) plays in the background. Above the game is the Manhattan skyline. Midway though the scene, the camera zooms in on the Chrysler Building. Tim and Eric hop onto their bicycles and the game degenerates. The shot ends with all the youths riding down a street, weaving about each other, sipping their beer.

 

 

What does it do to a kid to live through an event as massive and profound as the September 11 attacks? Probably nothing obvious, at first. He will be aware that there is tension in the air, that he is being let out of school for some reason. An adult will tell him that the United States has been attacked. He’ll watch the newscasts, and be able to grasp what they’re saying, but it won’t really sink in, not until later. As the months and years pass, as the wars come and go (all mediated through the television screen), people will cease to talk about it, and the memory of the attack will fade into the background of his psyche.

Victims of a trauma will often dissociate from their bodies, remembering the event as if they witnessed it from the outside. They sometimes describe a sense of unreality. There was a sense of unreality about September 11, 2001. It jarred the nation into a state of perpetual tension, it created a symbolic boundary, after which came only crisis after crisis. The public was eventually numbed to everything, wrapped in and strangely comforted by a sense of ending, assigned the blameless role of spectators to the derailment of their culture.

 

That child who began his conscious life around 2001 may be barely able to remember life under any other national mood. He has grown up enveloped by disintegration. Maybe when he comes of age, he’ll appear much more like a child than an adult. Perhaps the long-term effect of witnessing the World Trade Center fall through the medium of television is an enduring sense of surreality, a sense (that runs far deeper than what one consciously affirms as the truth) that everything is a film, that all is entertainment. A disengagement from the world as anything but a game.

 

The Comedy is a depiction of that generation, grown up. There is no responsibility, for there is nothing one can do, about anything. They live their days under a perpetual twilight, warm the way it is warm after a nuclear blast, taking refuge from terrible knowledge in childish amusements.

the indie film guide to post-grad life

below are some films that give a sense of what happens after college.

what it’s like after graduation:
Frances Ha (2012), Noah Baumbach
Kicking and Screaming (1995), Noah Baumbach
The New Year (2010), Brett Haley

what it’s like ten years out:
The Comedy (2012), Tim Heidecker
Garden State (2004), Zach Braff
Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Lynn Shelton

what it’s like twenty years out:
Old Joy (2006), Kelly Reichardt
Margot at the Wedding (2007), Noah Baumbach
Greenberg (2010), Noah Baumbach
Step Brothers (2008), Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly

Man, Machine, Nature: Training and Ideology in Stallone’s “Rocky IV”

rocky mountain

The year is 1985. Rocky Balboa challenges Russian boxer Ivan Drago to a fight, in order to avenge the death of Apollo Creed, whom Drago has just killed in the ring.  The fight is to take place in the U.S.S.R., on Christmas Day. Into the belly of the beast.

The midfilm Drago/Balboa training montage is revealing.  Two ways of training, two superpowers, two ideologies.

Drago trains in a windowless facility, surrounded by doctors and trainers with clipboards, using machines, running on a treadmill while wired up to monitors.  Rocky trains in the woods and in a barn, often alone, lifting rocks, pulling a sleigh through snow, chopping wood, and climbing a mountain.  Where Drago pummels lightweights in a ring for practice, Rocky, humanely, shadowboxes. In one key shot, the camera flashes from Drago toppling some nameless unfortunate to the mat, to Rocky felling an enormous tree in an alpine forest.  In an ironically un-communist twist, Drago struggles against others, whereas Rocky struggles against nature, and more deeply, within himself.

Drago is a product of scientific specialists and political authoritarians, an instrument crafted for the accomplishment of a singlemineded goal: the defeat of the best American boxer.  Note that in the film’s most famous line, Drago says not ‘I want to break you,’ or ‘I will break you,’ but “I must break you.”  Drago fights by mandate, by government edict.  He is cold and inhuman, trained with mechanics and technical knowledge, and a few shots portray him as being trapped within the training apparatus, an animal in a cage.  He shows no remorse when his punches lead to the death of Apollo Creed; this is simply his ideology’s logical conclusion, the elimination of the disorderly human element from a closed loop of order. Inasmuch as a totalitarian system (though it may be initiated with the goal of the collective’s benefit) forces its individual members to behave like machines, it is the antithesis of man and his erratic desires and emotions, and in the long run, man himself turns out to be its true enemy.

Rocky is an expression of sheer individual will and a very human desire to avenge a fallen friend and comrade-at-arms.  Training outdoors by rustic, antiquated means, he is the pioneer, the kind of intrepid frontiersman that won the West, with his monklike determination and lone-wolf mission that even Adrian cannot understand, though she does eventually come to support him.  Running along the snowcapped peaks, Balboa cuts a romantic figure, reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.”  He is the underdog in a strange land, dwarfed by his competitor and the enormity of nature that he pits himself against.  He is an American.  Towards the end of the montage, Russian agents in a black sedan follow him down a path, and he foils them by running into the woods.  As opposed to Drago’s caged animal, Rocky is the wild animal, as Springsteen put it, “Born to Run.”  Reaching the peak, Rocky shouts “Drago!” and his voice rings through the mountain range.

Grounding the possibility of both triumph and loss are acts of freedom.  Rocky knows both sides of this coin, for his choice to not step in and end an earlier match, instead honoring the wounded Apollo Creed’s wish to continue to the bitter end against Drago, led to Creed’s death.  An authoritarian would have stepped in and insisted on throwing in the towel “for Creed’s own good,” but Rocky, the ever-consistent libertarian, allowed his friend to make his own choices.  The looming, unmatched battle, which no one believes Balboa can win, is a both a consequence of those earlier choices and a new choice by Balboa.  There is a chain of cause and effect, but at each stage, Rocky acknowledges no outside forces and takes no refuge in ‘musts,’ as Drago does, accepting his fate as his own doing.  Rocky retains the power to save or damn himself, and inasmuch as his fight is a proxy for a war between freedom and its antithesis, he has the power to save or damn the world.

Crime and its Discontents: a comment on William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971)

frenchconnection1

With an eerie soundtrack by Don Ellis and a depopulated backdrop of urban decay and moral ambiguity, crime thriller “The French Connection” feels like it needs an introduction by Rod Serling:

 

Step inside the mind of NYPD Narcotics Division Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, possessor of an insatiable hunger for the chase, and suspicions grand enough to feed it. Doyle has caught a scent of something big going down in Brooklyn, involving a local wise guy with a cover as candy store owner, a visiting French actor, and a bearded international shipping magnate.  Doyle’s self-imposed mission takes him down a path no one else can follow: into the very disorder he claims to define himself against. Watch the detective as he pursues a connection corrupt enough to rend his own creed, through a cold, garbage-littered gritscape somewhere east of the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere west of the ports of Marseilles, somewhere that shares borders- and business contacts- with The Twilight Zone.

What separates The French Connection from most other American crime films that preceded it is that the bad guys win, and that by the time the credits roll the audience is no longer sure how good the good guy is. It is a deconstruction, clearing provincial American notions of ‘justice’ out of our movie theaters, making way for a stark view of the real lever of events- international commerce.

Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a small-time cop who gets in over his head, stumbling upon a criminal conspiracy that is many dizzying levels above his pay grade.  Sure, his partner and superiors are eventually convinced that he has uncovered a massive transaltantic heroin deal in progress, and they bust Brooklyn crook “Sal” Boca and the other American buyers, but the seller, the big fish- internationalist Alain Charnier- slips away unscathed back to his Mediterranean villa and stylish girlfriend. Doyle, in order to achieve even this qualified semi-victory, had to endanger the lives of countless civilians in a number of spectacularly reckless car and train chases.  A woman pushing a baby carriage is shot by a sniper during an attempt on Doyle’s life, and Doyle himself, tilting at shadows in a dank decaying building, shoots and kills a federal agent he mistook for the bearded Charnier. One is left wondering if all this carnage was worth it.

We are given reasons to question our protagonist almost at the outset. Doyle would never have discovered the conspiracy, had he not been drinking in a club, spotted Sal Boca, and been disgusted and yet attracted to the other man’s decadence, camaraderie with his fellow criminals, and pretty girlfriend. Later, we are treated to a shot of Doyle driving his car aggressively behind a well-dressed woman on a bicycle, and it is made clear that he takes her to bed.  Though the event is consensual, we are nevertheless treated over and over to imagery of predator and prey, with Popeye Doyle cast in the role of the former. What are Doyle’s motivations, at their heart? We are left to wonder.

This is why the film earned a place in the Library of Congress: It marks a turning point. Before The French Connection, the message was that crime never pays, and the good guys always win. After The French Connection, we are forced to ponder the possibility that everyone might have been better off if the good guys had stayed home today.

The French Connection’s true villain is overeager cop Popeye Doyle himself.  His crime is that he upsets the order of things.

the conversation: some thoughts on “Calvary” (2013)

calvary

There’s been a lot of jaw-wagging over the past two centuries about Authority. What is it, where does it come from, why should we follow it, what should it do. Once it was thrown out in the open that there are no natural authorities, that, as one of my mentors once said, “the world doesn’t give us an ‘Ought’,” the conversation kind of fell apart into camps of people that don’t talk to each other. But perhaps that’s the way it’s always been.

Some, the Utilitarians, thought they could turn things into an equation.  Greatest good for the greatest number.  We all know what that leads to- make a few suffer spectacularly to shore up the bland creature-comforts of the masses (the most mechanistic and modern answer, ironically just a mirror image of Christianity). Others, waving the flag of democracy, said ask the masses themselves what they want- they know best, and can tell us with their votes.  Well, it’s all too clear that they can’t. They vote away their own authority every chance they get.  The conservatives thought everyone should keep the faith, or rather that we should keep it while they, clever and beneficent initiates, prop up the whole farce from behind the scenes, lest all hell break loose.  But they never fail to show themselves unworthy to the throne they hide behind, and upset stable conditions just as often as they preserve them.

Some people tried to turn Darwin into their god, and said that Nature mandates the survival of the fittest.  It mandates no such thing, as they would have known had they actually read his book.  Sometimes the strongest, smartest, and most ambitious survive, but just as often conditions favor the the timid, the unexceptional, and the parasitic. There’s a good deal of randomness tossed in, and ‘Nature,’ whoever that is, really doesn’t voice an opinion on any of it. Nature is silent.  Though it can sound, at different times, like a void or a busy, cacophonous chaos.

Nietzsche said god is dead, and he didn’t just mean that bearded voyeur in the clouds.  Any one pursuit or value or interest you try to put up on that pedestal and make your personal god- Nietzsche is there to mock it.  It all comes down to personal choice, really.  It’s all on you.  There’s no reason to do anything you do, except that it’s what you chose.  Which is just as absurdly circular as it sounds.

And if you choose to be a priest, that’s on you too.  And in these dark times, you’re placing a target on your back.  That’s what good-naturedly acerbic widower-turned-priest Father James finds out in “Calvary,” a film baked to perfection from equal parts drama and black humor.  You may recognize the actor, Brendan Gleeson,  from his role in 2008’s “In Bruges” as the reluctant assassin sent to kill Colin Farrell.

In Father James’s small town parish, something is rotten.  In fact, everything is rotten, it seems, but Father James.  A cast of locals includes such delightfuls as the atheist doctor, the promiscuous foreigner, the bitter gigolo, the battered adulteress, the antisocial young male, the jaded high-finance bachelor, the suicidal curmudgeon, and the emotionally adrift daughter.

Why should we do what we do?  Why should we do anything? Nobody can say for sure, least of all Father James, who has his own doubts and demons.  But he’s there to listen. And when the priest unlocks his own word-hoard, he has some interesting things to say. As long as the words flow both ways, there is hope.

A discussion of Borges’s “The Babylon Lottery” (1941)

In a segment from this week’s episode of Cinematalk (sundays @ 4-5), Johnnymelodica discusses Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Babylon Lottery, a tale of a city where all events, large and small, are dictated by pure chance.  Or are they?

click here to listen

Who is Ben-Hur?: Hollywood’s sword-and-sandal take on individual, state, and god

Ben_Hur_ship-galley

What is the proper relationship between the individual and the state?  What does it mean to be loyal, and with whom should our fundamental loyalty lie- with lover or friend, family or mentor, ancestral mandate or status quo? How does one sort one’s priorities, and can they be unified? What can one hope for, and what can one retain, under the totalitarian boot?

These are just a few of the questions grappled with in the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston.  Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a provincial aristocrat-prince on a journey that will turn out to be (we moderns might say) personal, political, and indeed spiritual, against the backdrop of first century Roman-dominated Judea and the deeds of a certain prophet.

Though the setting is remote in both time and place, Ben-Hur is the Angry Young Man, the Rebel Without a Cause- he is a force unto himself, young, male, and physically imposing, at odds with almost everyone he meets (at first) and a deep critic of the establishment.  The film’s screenwriters (of whom prominent author Gore Vidal is one) are clearly still working out one of the dominant preoccupations of the fifties: how to reconcile youthful rebelliousness, and indeed the very concept of an individual will, with a monolithic state that demands (and practically ensures) an all-encompassing conformity of not only deed but also thought (America, or in this case Rome).

Early in the narrative, we are presented with two alternatives in the form of Judah himself and a Roman citizen he saved as a boy: Messala.  Unlike his provincial and individualistic savior, the young Roman is ruthlessly ambitious, and throws a boundless energy towards his own advancement and the sadistic enjoyment of a personal power that the government affords a select few.  Messala returns, a newly minted tribune, to rule Judea and says in no uncertain terms that he will accept nothing but his old friend’s total loyalty and assistance with the task of further subjugating the province.  By refusing to betray his people, Judah seals his and his family’s fate as captives and slaves, and by way of trumped-up charges, is sent off to row, chained to an oar in the galleys.

During a fateful shipwreck, Ben-Hur ends up saving yet another life, this time that of the relatively noble Roman consul Quintus Arrius.  Arrius, the sonless paterfamilias, adopts Ben-Hur and names him Quintus Arrius the Younger.  The gaining of a second name further fragments Judah’s loyalty and identity, and we are treated to more than a few shots of the brilliant Heston’s portrayal of agonized, soundless internal conflict.  He truly loves his new, Roman father, but still has business back east.  It may be of note that Judah’s real father is never mentioned or seen, and his entire family- mother, sister, and romantic interest Esther- is female.  So in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur is an authority without equal, sole protector and alpha male.  This role will deepen when Ben-Hur later returns to defeat and mortally wound Messala in a chariot race and is called by Pontius Pilate “their [his people’s] one true god- for the moment.”  Perhaps this all goes to his head.

What happy outcome is possible for one who opposes Rome, or any equivalent entity?  Judah soon removes the ring of his father Quintus Arrius, and thereby renounces the protection of his mentor.

The ever-pragmatic Pontius Pilate offers hothead Ben-Hur this line of wisdom: “Perfect freedom has no existence.  A grown man knows the world he lives in.  And for the present, the world is Rome.  Young Arrius, I am sure, will choose it.”  Here it is: that acceptance of the things as they fall, that old, pre-scientific determinism that could be called a faith in fate, that goes back to the Stoics.  Judah has the choice of a prosperous life as an adopted Roman, but he throws it away, still haunted by that mirage of his forefathers: an independent state for his people.

Ben-Hur, despite victory against Messala and numerous improbable escapes from death and meaningless servitude, would have gone on grinding his unbreakable will against Rome till he was nought but dust.  As the dying Messala croaks, “The race… the race is not over.  It goes on, Judah.  It goes on.”  With his mother and sister crippled by leprosy after spending years in a Roman dungeon, Ben-Hur can find no outlet large enough for his vengeance and hatred, and is unable to enjoy his love for Esther.

As we, the mid-century American audience are shown, rebellion blocks the individual from the comforts and pleasures of conformity, and poisons his relationships with other members of the tribe.  It is only after he shrugs off his juvenile antics, that the young man can get down to the agreeable business of producing offspring.

Sooner or later, our protagonist would have met a bloody end, were it not for the interventions of a certain proselytizing rabbi.  A man we can only conclude (from his luscious golden locks and pristine white robe) is Jesus of Nazareth, gave Ben-Hur water while he was trudging, chained and enslaved, across the desert. Later, when Ben-Hur is at his true crisis of identity, he finds redemption in giving the convicted Jesus a sip of water- in returning the favor.  Here we have the solution: not violent revolt to precipitate political change, but simple reciprocity at the individual level- the Golden Rule. After watching the prophet crucified, Judah returns to find Esther waiting for him, and his sister and mother cured of leprosy.

The film ends with Judah returning home, embracing his family, and saying the words: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”  His fiery passion has been quenched with love; he has made the transition from charismatic rebel leader to placid Christian.  Thus, we are shown the route by which one can reconcile oneself to odious and arbitrary earthly powers: disregard all public ambitions and national concerns, and focus on the domestic unit.  Project all hopes onto a kingdom that is not of this world, and stay in one’s house, with one’s family, where one belongs- and be thankful Rome has allowed one even that.  Nietzsche would be proud.