Sunday, August 24, 2014

Bible Verses

The other day a really nice guy I know told me he had just read my book of stories Next to Nothing, and he seemed taken aback and perplexed.  He said that the characters in the stories were really the bottom of the barrel.  Really, he emphasized.  He said that back in the day characters like the ones I write about didn't seem so nasty.  All the drugs and sex and alcohol, he said.  I mean, they're just sad.  No way out.
So why do I write about those kinds of people?
I don't know why I write these stories except that the bottom of the barrel has been a focus since I started taking writing seriously.  That's because for most of my life I have had proximity to the Nothing people, direct access through working with them, being related to them, and being one of them.  I write what I know:  gay, working-class, Appalachian/white-trash, etc.  And while I'm not a dope addict or anything, I still am often coded as that because of the gay, working-class, Appalachian/white-trash-ness.  So the bottom of the barrel I write about is not titillating or stylized or embossed with disgust or conveyed with a distant splendor or even love.  I convey the lower level of human existence (for those who think in levels, and I guess that's all of us) without any sense of judgment or disdain or weepy sense of social justice.  The debauchery is just there, like anything else about people.  Therefore the debauchery gets blanched into banality.  Maybe that's what is so horrifying and depressing to a lot of people (the few that actually read what I write)?  That sense of scrambled morality, that in that universe I write about and from, "sin" is just another element of character, not a code of destruction or a broken commandment.  It's just life.
When I was a kid I always went to vacation bible school in a backwoods Baptist church, and one summer I memorized the most Bible verses than any other kid.  I was awarded with a construction-paper crown and a giant candy-bar.  The verses still come into my head sometimes, Jesus non-sequiturs that actually provide possible clues into what and why and how I write those bottom-of-the-barrel short stories.
Here's one that is often on repeat inside my skull.  Suddenly I'll just be driving around and ka-boom:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you."  Matthew 7:1.
Could that be the reason the stories I produce come out the way they do?  They are born outside of judgment.  When I was a kid, just about the only intellectual stimulation I got outside of school was going to church, and I took that church stuff seriously, construction-paper-crown and all.  I wanted to find meaning in those verses.  I'm still trying.  When you try to be moral or whatever, morality sinks you.  But when you try to figure out how morality works without using morality as a map, when you're all on your own out there, imagining a world bereft of meaning so that feeling usurps reason, then suddenly you can look at sin and sadness and drunkenness and perversion (maybe all those should be in quotes?) without cringing and without wanting.  And then maybe the Bible verses become flashlights? 
You just see the human in that beam, and once you see that the horror shrinks into comedy and then a sort of love might inconspicuously sneak in.
So I write about freaks and low-lifes and perverts and so on, and while they never transcend those earthly statuses they do become truly human I hope, not disconnected from those bottomless-pit identities, but also not condemned by them.  Just living that way.  God help them.  And God helps us all. 
I'm not judging.  I'm just seeing.  And the only judge at the end of the day is God, and I have no fucking idea who or what God is.  I just know that I'm not God in any way shape or form.  I do know, however, that these people I'm writing about are somehow God's own.
Another verse that keeps coming back:
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."  Romans 3:23.
One of the stories in Next to Nothing I like the most is called "How to Get from This to This."  It's about a raging alcoholic's last day of life on earth.  He basically has degenerated into what he has feared most about himself.  And he's drinking himself into the oblivion that he craves.  Even though I never intended it, the last few lines of the story read like a series of Bible verses to me now:
"This is the secret nobody ever tells you:  there is so much happiness when you finally give in, a kind of happiness you can't imagine until you hit the very bottom.  It's a magical pond you slip into headfirst, drowning quickly, though you take your time.  There's quiet, and then there's not even quiet.  It's just like that.  And you're grateful."
I followed that poor guy to the end, and I kind of found out, at least in my imagination, his end wasn't about torture or damnation or the gnashing of teeth.  It was about a freedom he was grateful for.  What we're all trying to chase outside of ourselves, anyway we can.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hate-Watching in the City

"Hate-watching" is an amazing activity that I do without thinking a lot of the time, but last night a bunch of us intentionally hate-watched Sex in the City 2, probably one of the most unbelievably smarmy and self-involved pieces of cinema ever made.  It is superfluous and trashy in every sense of the word:  all the horrible clothes, glammed-out NYC locations, smug self-reflecting, the penultimate gay wedding with Liza doing a sad yet somehow sweetly inept version of "Singles Ladies" with two lookalike dancers, and finally most of all the completely unnecessary location of Abu Dhabi as the new center of all things urbane and high-style, but also symbolic of old-world misogyny.  It all gets worked out culturally by the four sexed-up gals from Manhattan lip-syncing to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman Hear Me Roar" in an Arabian disco.  The whole Arabian disco crowd joins in.  Also, just to add in a touch of feminist class, there's a Muslim-dopple-ganger take on the Sex in the City icons:  four burka-clad ladies peeling off their burkas to show the latest spring fashions.

Very easy to hate, I know, and yet there's a succinct pleasure in the hating because of the movie's stone-cold arrogance, and the way Sarah Jessica Parker seems to gallantly shepherd the whole stupid thing toward an abyss so prissy and strained you feel dizzy, a kind of contact high.  Parker preens and poses and she seems caught in a web of her own silliness, gauzy with "sophistication."  And then there's Kim Cattrall's gloss on being a professional working girl:  rubbing hormone cream between her legs in front of her staff in her plush all-window uptown office.  And then there's the other two walking and squawking around in the in-between moments when Parker and Cattrall aren't doing their singsong, self-involved struts, Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum chatting it up over Cosmos about how hard it is to have kids and lives. 

What was this movie supposed to be?  Its essence has the feel of a big-budget superhero movie somehow, glittery and supersonic and over-stylized, and yet I guess its soul is with the spirit of being a lady who wants to have a lot of sex and write about it and drink cocktails and talk about it and be all I-LOVE-NYC and also somehow innocent enough to be googly-eyed about how lucky they are to be so sexy and in the city part 2.  But all of that gets eaten alive by the movie's almost mean-spirited love of itself.

Back to hate-watching though.  It somehow eases the pain.  The opposite of being snarky and trolling the internet saying bad things about Robin Williams, hate-watching is more about finding the pleasure in understanding that when something is really bad it has its own heart and soul, its own rhythm of debauchery that makes a movie like Sex in the City 2 seem as if it has been created and marketed by aliens from outer-space who watched a lot of other bad movies accidentally and decided to try to go all Hollywood on you.  There's nothing authentic or beautiful in this thing.  It is synthetic and full of nervous attempts at making movie-magic, but the magic actually comes from the hate and dread it instills. 

Can't wait for Sex in the City 3.  Maybe they can go to North Korea? 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Help Wanted

I have been reading this book for almost ten months, and I am almost finished.

It's taken so long because I wanted it to, and because Alive Munro's stories have such an impossible angelic heft to them I wanted to linger, not to worship or to find divinity or anything like that, just to experience life the way she writes it, very droll and necessary and hungry and impossibly dim, but also somehow soulful enough to provide momentary escape.

Every one of these selected stories is about work, I found out -- not glamorizing or memorializing it, but capturing all the brutal ways it informs the way people experience life.  A lot of lonely librarians here, door-to-door salesmen, college professors, waitresses, secretaries, used-book-store clerks...  A lot of drudgery, a lot of soul-searching on cigarette breaks.  But Munro's territory is not Raymond Carver's, or even Bobbie Ann Mason's, it's more voluptuous than what they accomplish, it's more about how isolated work makes you feel, and in that isolation her characters seem to find solace, a reprieve from all the desires that make them miserable:  there's order in having to do something you don't want to do so you can get a paycheck.  There's reason where reason really isn't in life beyond clocking in.  Munro finds civility in work, but not the kind that elevates or even provides meaning. It's a civility of hours spent outside of desire and whimsy and hurt, plugged into a schedule mandated by people you barely know.

Work is a way for each of her characters to find a temporary system of placation.

In one of the penultimate stories in the book, titled "Carried Away," the main character Louisa runs the public library in a little town and lives in a hotel most of her life, and most of her life is spent trying to match what she feels with what is offered her.  They don't really match up that much, and yet throughout the story the library she runs becomes a sort of zone of tranquility and sense, and by the end of the story in which she recounts her love for a soldier during the first World War who wrote her letters and then came home and married another woman, to her marriage to a factory owner, to her final days, what Louisa returns to is the image of the first day she arrived in the little town, when she stumbled across a HELP WANTED sign outside the local library.  This moment would be her small, seemingly unimportant destiny, what gave her life a structure that allowed her to stay sane enough to continue on, and she clings to it now, understanding what it means to dedicate yourself to something, even if that something may seem mundane and unimportant to others.

And I thought at the end of this story about people who maybe don't work, can't find work, choose not to, don't need to, can't, etc., and how without it how hard it might be to locate yourself in a sea of not knowing, in an ocean of pretending to get what you want when you never do.  Munro's poetic yet flat and gorgeously quiet prose finds moments like Louisa's and constructs tiny vestibules of passion from them.

It's the kind of writing that makes you not want to read anything else.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Frothy, Sweet, Fast, and Stupid

This movie made me way happier than it should have but that's what makes it brilliant. 

Directed and co-written by James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of style and humor and camp and drama and spectacle and silliness all of its own.  It does its job without a lot of effort, and yet the results have a popcorn grandeur that reminds me of Star Wars in 1977.  The nonchalant specificity and omnipotence of George Lucas' first space-opera is totally there in Guardians; it has the feel of something that needed to be made, that whip-smart pacing and authority comes through in every scene. But it also has a beautiful throw-away spirit, an insouciant nature that allows the absurdity to take on energy outside of all the silly escapades and gadgets.  The costumes, the CGI effects, the set design, the design of all the sci-fi apparatus have a tarted-up spirit, kind of like Mike Hodges' 1980 Flash Gordon, but unlike that movie this one moves forward relentlessly, not slowing down to luxuriate in itself.  Nothing is wasted and the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek, so the experience is frothy, sweet, fast, and stupid.  Exactly what is needed in a summer movie. 

While Guardians is seriously dedicated to its own mythology and universe, the seriousness gets worked out without belaboring the point.  In other words, it is what it is:  a comic-book come to life without that pretentious need for everything to be solemnized (as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, those ongoing onslaught of Spiderman movies, or last summer's Superman), and it also escapes Ironman 1, 2 and 3 fan-boy arrogance, that comic-book need to be the biggest/smartest/cigar-smokingest teched-out geek at Comicon. 

This one is the summer movie that I truly craved all this summer, infinitely fun and also completely and wonderfully refreshing.  Chris Pratt, as the lead guardian Peter Quill, is probably one of the best decisions Gunn made.  He rolls through like Han Solo's ex-con little brother, the one who gets ripped at family reunions and takes off in their mother's spaceship, only to return the next morning with a box of drugstore chocolates and a heartfelt hangover/apology.  He is an innocent prankster, and his motives and actions are freighted by the first scene:  he witnesses his mom dying of cancer in her hospital bed, runs out into the night and is summarily kidnapped by a great big star-cruiser in a field.  That is the heaviest moment in the movie, and starting off like that anchors the whole effort so that the movie can remain tethered to story and character without losing itself in absurdity and special effects.  Plus there's the Walkman Quill's mom left him with a mix-tape that includes the top hits of the 70s, and those songs juxtaposed with outer-space battle footage give Guardians its unique pulse and Tarantino-esque funk.

The supporting characters (including a mouthy genetically created raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper and an overgrown and sweetly one-note Chewbacca-like houseplant voiced by Vin Diesel) have a funked-out splendor as well.  They bicker and banter and give the whole palace of candy-colored galactic excess a smallness and intimacy needed, much the same way R2-D2 and C3P0 did for the vast spaceships and desert-scapes in Star Wars.    

Which brings me back to that feeling in 1977, when I was 12 and completely blown away walking out of the Cineplex into summer sunshine, eyes adjusting from being in the dark so long, a post-Deathstar sense of escaping the world a little while and feeling more alive and excited than I did before going in.  That's Guardians of the Galaxy in a nutshell. 

That feeling.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lady Dictator

Snowpiercer is a sci-fi phantasmagorical train-trip through a wintry countryside that used to be the world.  It has a fever-pitch pace, but also the languorous poetic soul of Dr. Zhivago.  It's one of those movies you feel the lure to go back to, not because it's insightful and brilliant, which it is, but mainly because of its visionary kookiness, its atmosphere and bravura.  It is evidence that smart people still make great genre movies.  Bong Joon-ho is the director, and boy does he direct.  Every aspect of the piece is pure auteur, from the credits to the hermetically sealed sense of design and locomotion to the way the actors interrelate.
But what truly makes Snowpiercer so piercingly odd and beautiful, the centerpiece on the table, is Tilda Swinton's grotesque and brilliantly comic turn as Mason, the Rich-Bitch/Adolf-Hitler who is in charge of enforcing the rules and regulations of the train's despotic owner.  She's the Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove of the piece, and yet also somehow its human soul.  Mason's lady-dictator look is so detailed as to become drag-queen iconic:   hair and eyeglasses from a 1982 Chamber of Commerce luncheon celebrating women in business, a fur-coat the Gabor sisters might fight over, a grim gray uniform underneath festooned with pearls, and a mouthful of false teeth that slowly slip back and forth as she microphones her orders throughout the train.  Swinton is a goddess that gets the joke, and all her performances in movies are both hammy and completely natural, so here too is comic exaggeration merged with artistic control.  And it's funny as hell.  Every time she graced the screen, I was laughing my ass off.  There's something totally guttural and surreal and next-door-neighbor about the whole thing, as Mason marches toward her own demise, slowly understanding her fate as hostage to the back-of-the-train trash taking their destinies back. 
Eventually you even feel sorry for this clown in a fur coat, tossed out of her comfort zone, which also happens to be a death zone for 99% of the Snowpiercer's working-class passengers.  All Mason's virtues and vanities get peeled away until she's pure nothing by the end of the  movie, and in that moment of abdicated epiphany Swinton seems totally alive and perfectly comfortable in Mason's debasement, her recognition of loss.  It's comedic acting that goes beyond the comedic and even the tragic, into a realm of absurdity so skillfully accomplished you see yourself in Mason's scrawny-monkey countenance, and while it's not funny really you laugh anyway as Swinton lets you in on a little secret:  we're all lady-dictators deep down inside, are we not?.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Outside of Itself

Under the Skin is a movie (directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson) about a space alien that manifests itself in Scotland in the form of a sexy empty-eyed fur-coat-wearing lady.  She goes on a predatory rampage, luring young men into her black-tar trap apartment, seducing them into literally sinking into blackness.  The artistic spookiness of the movie does not come from the plot, but from Johansson's silent, stoic yet completely devastating performance and Glazer's intense redefinition of what a sci-fi flick is supposed to be.  Glazer takes the glum run-of-the-mill alien conceit and inverts the purpose of its conception, slows down the whole apparatus to focus on moments that slowly click into one another.  The interior spaces of the film (the alien's epic strange black-nowhere apartment, the yellow-dark kitchen domesticity of a sad young man who takes the alien in, the horror-movie woodenness of a cabin in a gray wintry forest) have an inescapable sense of obsession and completion, as if Glazer is working things out of his own consciousness, merging actual memories with movie scenes until they blur into something else, a sort of escape from both memory and from genre, producing what Stanley Kubrick was always after:  a strangeness that can only be style. 
You feel connected to a spinal column, not a movie at times, a dreamy, closed-eyed trip through a biological landscape lit with blood-thick sunsets casting shadows across pavement and straw and brick.  And then Johansson's slightly too pallid flesh, her black hair, her Elizabeth-Taylor lips.  She is a movie star, and this movie is her total iconic turn.  She is the movie.  We follow in her tracks but never completely understand her until the last moment of the movie, a gorgeous non-shock that's still shocking.  Her skin gets pierced, and it starts to slide off in a wintry Scottish forest after she's turned from predator to prey by a backwoods rapist.  What's underneath is a skinny shiny black mannequin that seems to be the source of all silence and all noise.  The connection between that object under the flesh, and the flesh, is what Johanson locates so skillfully in the movie.  Her eyes and her expression throughout the whole ordeal release a subtle twitchy sorrow that mimics both starving animals and newborn babies without losing that ethereal oddness the movie needs to stay outside of itself.  Johansson is a genius.
The only victim that the alien allows to escape in Under the Skin is played by Adam Pearson.  The character is a lonely, sexually inexperienced man with facial neurofibromatosis.  Pearson's face is a constellation of tumors, and it's Glazer's triumph here that he did not hire an actor without a disability to portray someone with a disability.  The deformity is real, and Pearson's way of using his disability to increase the movie's meaning and atmosphere is to remain himself while also finding a way to connect with Johanson's monster.  A new kind of beauty corresponds from that telepathy.  The alien recognizes herself when she understands that this man is not like all of the other lonely guys she picks up in bars.  He's struggling with something that she struggles with without knowing it:  their shared loneliness reaches beyond sex and seduction into a realm of understanding.  Pearson plays the part without one shred of ego or self-pity.  He's there, himself.  If Glazer would have hired an actor without a disability, the prosthetics would have been the meaning here.  We would have been aware of the phoniness and in awe of the audacity.  With Pearson's subtle, grim performance, we recognize so much more.  The two "aliens" find a way to connect outside of ability/disability.  They are both wandering the earth in search of an escape that can only happen when people close their eyes and rethink every thought they've ever thought. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Let's Go to Bed

Chris Doyle has work in a show up at 21 C Cincinnati called "Hybridity," so I googled him and got his website and stumbled into this suite of watercolors he did based on slept-in motel beds.  Each has a voluptuous ardor, like windswept gowns, or oceans crashing into reefs, but also a sort of solemn, stone-like morbidity, rock-star coffins, dirty linens as love-letters and/or suicide notes. 
The poetry just flows because Doyle has focused in on something right there in front of your face and yet he has fetishized it carefully into a set-aside, a moment you want to return to even though you've never been a part of it before.  You can go off on adultery here, or laziness, or a Madame-Bovary mix of both.  Luxury like cake icing just shimmers.  
I've never really loved watercolors before.  They always seem so timid and self-righteous somehow, flat and free of trouble and yet also fussy.  Here they are gossamer and gloss, the costumes of ghosts pretending to be lovesickness.