Something about Interstellar and East Tennessee, about time crushing into time the way a Faulkner novel collapses in on itself, Faulkner in outer space, As I Lay Dying staged on the 2001: A Space Odyssey set.
It was daylight when we went into the Cineplex in Johnson City, Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving 2014. It was pitch-black when the movie was over and we stumbled out from a spaceship's hull into a dark mall parking lot. And all that feeling around finding yourself trapped inside a moment you don't understand, kind of blissful and kind of not. It was just a pretentious big-budget movie anyway. But outside and inside of all the wormhole gobbledygook in it is an emotional strangeness, a wistful sense of what you can never figure out even if you have a big slate wall and lots and lots of chalk. Time itself is the main villain, sweeping and gutting meaning, seducing people into believing they can escape themselves while also swallowing them whole.
That's the whole situation here. My East Tennessee roots are pretty messed up, especially the relatives who did not escape. They live in backwoods trailers and sad dilapidated suburban homes, and they either work crappy jobs or figure out ways to get on disability. Some of them have kids they don't take responsibility for; some of them are strung out on oxycodone. Some of them take responsibility for everything and look haunted. Some of them are morbidly obese. I think a few of them might be making meth. I think a few of them still go to church, still go through the motions. Those are my relatives. It sounds like I'm a horrible judgmental person, which I probably am, but that's the truth when you pull away all the niceties, and every time I go I try not to see them even though that's what I'm there to do.
Those mountains are so beautiful and yet so encoded with secrets you just try to not see them. You go to the Dollar General any time you have a chance just to get out of it for a while. You get a motel room a half hour away just so you can have a place to go to when you can't take it anymore. I know that sounds awful. But I was there before. I witnessed all these sad sunken people through a kid's eyes 30, 35, 40 years back. I followed them through to what they are and what they aren't now (and what I am and what I'm not now too), and the "then" wins because it has a sort of insulated hopefulness, a sense that we will all be immune, even when you know it's all going to hell. At least there's time to take the pain through, to help tell the story, back then. The story is now finished however, or at least close. It has devolved to nothing, into dark-night mountain roads without any streetlights, into a Golden-Corral Thanksgiving so dreamy and claustrophobic it was like being on a boat of refugees, into a meanness inside a tree that you can't get at but know is there, into a sallow, gaunt face inside a trailer window.
One story that sticks with me from this last trip: one of them was arrested last year when she was riding in a truck with her five-year-old son and her 65-year-old boyfriend, and the boyfriend was drunk-driving. Turns out she was drunk and high too, and the kid was only wearing short-pants in the back of the truck. It was like 30 degrees. It all got into the paper. She got arrested. Her kid was taken away. He's back with her now.
And then that movie with all those arctic mountains, frozen clouds, pristine spaceships, glowing rings around Saturn, boxy robots and blighted cornfields. That pounding organ soundtrack, the seriousness filling your head with an artificial urgency you often crave in real life. All of it perfectly executed. Time is suspended. Someone else is in control of what you see. You witness the world without the world in it. You go in when its daylight and come out to night. The alchemy happens but then dissolves, and you know who you are again, but still there's a manic/magic little interregnum, moments before you make it to the car in the parking lot, when that darkness maybe isn't darkness, but made up, and maybe everything is made up, and then you're back where you are, wanting not to be there, and yet that's kind of life itself.
My sister, who didn't want to be here either, took my mom Christmas shopping while Bill and I and my sister's husband snuck away to see Interstellar. Mom and my sister were waiting in the dark outside the Cineplex in my sister's car. We had planned to go out to dinner with mom and her husband but he got sick at work and went home early. Mom, Bill, my sister, her husband, and I went to Longhorn Steakhouse closer to where she lives. We ate there, and then once back at her little house (the right side of a duplex) out in the middle of a mountain road, the snowy, muddy outside of it surrounded in the lawn ornaments she likes to buy and display, she gave us our Christmas gifts: a wallet, a set of holiday candles. And my sister's husband put together a lamp my sister got my mom during their shopping spree, a floor-lamp with glossy amber glass shades. Bill and I found out they didn't have light bulbs, so we offered to go buy some at Dollar General. My mom's husband, who is real big, was in his bedroom, still feeling sick. He was in bed, watching a little TV in there; you could almost feel his exhaustion like you feel heat through a register. We drove those dark mountain roads back to civilization and got light-bulbs at Dollar General, a boxy small over-lighted place filled with snack-cakes and coat hangers and toilet paper and magazines and chewing gum and rubber-bands and little girl dresses and furniture polish and mittens and socks and furnace filters and steak sauce and so on so forth. People milled in and out buying stuff. It was cold and spitting snow. Once we got the light-bulbs we went back to my mom's place and for a second I felt like this might be the best visit we've ever had because I was able to avoid everyone but mom and her husband. And I was able somehow to make sense of everything because I did not have to witness it. Which might be a triumph, I guess. Hiding from things is one way to survive them, and here we were in the dark, walking up the muddy path to my mom's front porch, delivering light-bulbs, and we went in, put the light-bulbs in the lamp. Everybody said it looked great. Then the phone rings, and it's one of those relatives we were avoiding with her latest little flare-up. Mom retreats into her bedroom, and Bill, my sister, her husband and I wait, listening to her voice, looking at each other, kind of knowing suddenly how unimportant we are to her, even though it's vitally necessary to see her, be with her, especially as she gets older.
I kept flashing on scenes from Interstellar, sitting there, waiting to go back to the motel in Johnson City. Kept my focus on distant frozen ferocious planets and videos from dead relatives making astronauts cry and blighted cornfields bursting into flames and chalk boards filled with equations that never really work out. Right then I knew that Christopher Nolan's movie is probably a masterpiece because it somehow leaked out of itself into a realm most movies can't attach themselves to anymore. Nolan has left his Batman bull-shit behind. His Kubrickian genius somehow melted in the face of his own heartfelt need to make something beyond Kubrick, and he found moments, completely plastic but still warmed up enough to cause a chill, an impulse for nostalgia and memory almost like Proust and almost like Hallmark and yet irrevocable, kind of real. All of those tricks and sentiments shined to a supernatural gloss, and played on a screen in East Tennessee. I guess it was meant to be.
This is a picture of the motel we stayed in in Johnson City. The place we went back to after saying goodbye to mom and her husband: