Saturday, January 31, 2015

Max's Story

Parenthood is over.  It's one of those classic network TV dramas they probably won't make ever again, not a lot of cool factor, not a lot of anti-heroes and super-sleek dialog and broody, alpha-dog pretensions (True DetectiveBreaking Bad, House of Cards, etc.).  Parenthood just did what it needed to do, detailing the lives of a sweet, sometimes loud, messy, middle-class family in Northern California as they live their lives (and sometimes got into a few trumped-up, only-on-a-network-TV-hour-long-drama situations).  I've always been a big fan of shows like this, from thirtysomething on, because they have a soothing comfort emanating from their very cores, an optimism that doesn't seem fake as much as utilitarian in a heightened way:  people getting by, only in better clothes and better light.  Like the family hour-long dramas before it, Parenthood transforms domesticity by trying very hard to be real, elevating banality into a beautiful consumerist Utopia:  backyard candle-lit family-style dinners, low-key folksy alternative music defining scenes, set-decorated kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms and other spaces radiating that lived-in loveliness, but also somehow perfect, like museum exhibits with people added in.  You just want to jump into those scenes and be a long-lost relative with your own narrative arc, your own Iron and Wine song on the soundtrack.
The one narrative arc I want to write about the most is Max Braverman's, played by Max Burkholder.  Diagnosed at the beginning of the show with autism, Max's story has always been defined/coded/enlivened/oversimplified by that labeling, and yet without the label Max would not be Max.  Which is always the problem with representing people with disabilities in pop culture:  you don't want the diagnosis to be the only narrative force, and yet you can't ignore the force of a diagnosis on someone's story.  Parenthood worked all of this tension through allowing Max to be both a "hindrance" and a "blessing" and then getting rid of that binary and getting down to business by allowing Max to grow up just like anybody else.  The one phony and kind of dopey road the show took was allowing Max's mom and dad, Adam and Kristina Braverman, penultimate helicopter parents, to open up a special charter school for "people like Max," so he could be "protected" from bullies and other obstacles.  The school opened the beginning of the second-to-last season, and it really didn't come to any kind of dramatic fruition in this season:  it became a blank space, occupied by a nameless cast of "people with autism" peopling the background while Kristina and Adam figured out how to run it.  Max was a student there, and he got into just as much crap as he probably would have in any other school, but the show's folksy, romanticizing, politically-correct gaze made the school seem idyllic without showing us what "idyllic" means. 
But still, there was Max, at the end of the show, all grown up, with a camera.
The camera is the key.
Max was introduced to the camera by Ray Ramano's Hank Rizzoli, his Aunt Sarah's boyfriend who also turned out to be her one true love.  Hank, a professional photographer, through meeting up with Max, soon discovered that he himself was "on the spectrum," and Max and Hank's relationship blossomed from awkward side-glances to a true friendship/mentorship.  Hank taught Max the professional-photography ropes, Max got an internship, a summer job, and then finally, by the end of the show, a career path. 
When characters with developmental disabilities on TV shows like Parenthood appear, they are often tokens or background music, ways to define other people's kindnesses or meannesses.  In Parenthood, though, Max is given agency and desire, and he is also allowed to discover he can do things, he can have a professional life even though he's been labeled, consigned to a "special school," and often the object of ire and derision, when not being overly comforted by his sweet parents who just want him to be happy. 
Max's narrative arc, from lost boy to wedding photographer, is heartening because it pushes away notions of consignment, and allows us to understand the way "community" actually is supposed to work.
"Community" is one of those buzz-words right now in the business I'm in, trying to help people with developmental disabilities make lives for themselves.  Right now, the service system is in a tizzy because of rules and regulations coming down from the federal government concerning both "congregate settings" and "employment."  These new rules are borne out of a civil-rights-minded way of thinking about service-delivery to people, not a "medical model" notion of services "fixing" people.  Supports that help people with developmental disabilities become a part of the world are often funded by Medicaid:  services like in-home help, transportation, recreation, and job coaching are more often than not paid through that program.  And the feds have been working on ways to use this old-school funding system as a way to change an old-school cultural system.  This is making everyone I know kind of nervous. 
The history is pretty bleak:  people with developmental disabilities grouped into programs that "help," but that also isolate and sustain isolation as a way of life.  The new Medicaid rules are saying that Medicaid funds aren't going to pay for "congregate" service-delivery:  no more sheltered workshops, no more day programs in anonymous strip-mall buildings, etc.  So a lot of my colleagues are nervously waiting on how the feds are defining "community."  It's a topic of conference sessions, blogs, newsletters.  What is "community" going to mean in the context of funding rates, providers, programs?  "Community" this, "community" that.
It's kind of funny.  I think we all maybe know innately what "community" means, and yet now the "official" definition is coming down from on high, and this makes people anxious and angry. It also makes them skeptical and short-sighted. 
Parenthood may have it right somehow,  Even though they started down the road of a congregate "special school" where people like Max are consigned to be "helped," the actual narrative arc defining Max has nothing to do with the service system he's in.  He is able to discover what he wants to do, what his passion is, what his future night be, by living it like any other kid.  He got a camera.  He fell in love with what he can do with a camera.  He got help through his aunt's fiancĂ©e.  He got encouragement from his family.  He's on his way.
I guess that's what I'm trying to understand in real life:  how to help people discover that narrative arc that will set them on a path to what they need and want to do, so that the service system won't define them; they will define the service system.  And building "special buildings" and "special programs" just doesn't seem the right technique.  It's about figuring out how to make situations happen without waiting on permission.  It's about life as it's lived, not programmed or paid for.  Medicaid more-than-likely will have to be a part of it for a lot of people, but now even Medicaid is saying, "Let's stop the madness."  I like that, I guess.  I don't want to cling to history, don't want to depend on the past.  I don't want to wait around for what "community" means either.   

An Apothecary of Jelly Jars and Moonlight


A few weeks back we went down to New Orleans to see friends, and Bill and I went to the New Orleans Museum of Art just to go there.  We stumbled onto one of those beautiful, serendipitous experiences that only happens when you don't make checklists or plans.  In 2012, NOMA refashioned their collection of Joseph Cornell shadowboxes, collages and dossiers into a self-contained universe with dark blue walls and intergalactic spaceship lighting that allows Cornell's world to sustain itself as both playfully serious and transcendently whimsical, a rare concentration of his works that allows you to quiet yourself down long enough to understand he was probably one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century.  And not because he was a part of a trend or reflected the turbulent times he lived in or whatever, but truly because he found a way out of all of that, and into a poetic century all his own.  He was making places for himself to escape to, dreamlands constructed from cracked window-glass and old toys, white-washed lavatory doors, forgotten wire in a junk-drawer, cobwebs in a corner crystallizing into words and phrases that never get said just evoked, unspoken yet vibrating.  The room of his work at NOMA opens up into its own versions of shadowbox intimacies; you want to go to sleep inside each of his pieces, find the dream he was dreaming the moment he made each one.  He was one of those people who could not find any other way out of himself other than through recognizing what he craved and fetishizing it into his own self-made religion, worshipping hotel corridors, magic tricks, sand on shoes from the beach, postcards inside shoeboxes, mystical moments you have that always go unsaid, that intricate form of daydreaming that allows you to find a whisper even inside a hive of bees.  He was a master storyteller who found epic narratives within empty pill bottles; he found hope in paint chips and discarded envelopes.  I kept walking back and forth among the pieces there at NOMA, not wanting to know titles or dates, but just luxuriating in the fact that they have been so beautifully preserved, tiny interstitial sentences, images, objects, minutes, days, all of it self-contained, an apothecary of jelly-jars and moonlight, misery unraveled by tenacity and determination.  Joseph Cornell knew what he was doing every step of the way, those collages and shadowboxes let us know:  he found his way through by working everyday of his life on a project he could only see one small puzzle-piece at a time. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Some Playful Soul Shows up with a Bucketful of Piranhas

Thomas Pynchon writes like a great big dumb-ass, and I love it.  Often touted as a postmodern stylist and just as often derided as an emperor without clothes, he writes with a strange reptilian gusto that allows each novel to be totally hot and totally cold at the same time.  Every writerly move he makes seems arbitrary and yet preconceived, intelligentsia-stylized but also urgently infantile, smart but totally silly, funny-haha and not-so-funny-weird.  I've read every book he's published because I truly love the worlds he makes, and the distinct flirty mannerist folly all his books seem to go after.  He's not interested in "fiction" or "characterization" or "plot" or anything of that bull-shit.  He's looking for a way out while also reveling in the shimmery nonsense he churns out sentence after sentence.  His best book, the one I just reread in anticipation of the Paul Thomas Anderson movie based on it, is Inherent Vice.  It is his perfect dumb-ass masterpiece.
The story is like a Quinn Martin production, all private-investigatory flourishes parenthesized by pothead exhaustion and pornographic sex scenes and the sadness of the sixties hitting the seventies with a great big whimper.  Everything is hazy but the words he uses to describe the haziness are sharp as knives, a zoom-zoom vernacular from Laugh-In, Dark Shadows, and 1970 soap operas merged with a Saul-Bellow arrogance along with a sweet hint of forgiveness provided by a love of total losers.  Laugh-out-loud hilarious most of the way through, the whole book has an atmosphere of privacy being invaded by questions that can't be answered, a swirl of neon and ice cream and palm trees and concrete and acid and bullet-holes, like a James Rosenquist painting turned into a verbose puppet-show.  It ends so beautifully there's an ache but it also flails and fractures all the way through so that as you coax yourself toward that ending you give up trying to understand what's going on and enter into a Pynchonian coma, comfortably numb and also a little pissed off.  And yet still that ending has lyrical finality, a shut-lid on Pynchon's strange brew full of jokes and sinister tensions and silly little asides that never add up but then add up when you're not thinking about things adding up. 
Here, close to the start of the book, he's describing Hollywood right after the Manson murders (which play an inherent role in Inherent Vice's overall schizoid thematic structure):
“Odd, yes, here in the capital of eternal youth, endless summer and all, that fear should be running the town again as in days of old, like the Hollywood blacklist you don't remember and the Watts rioting you do - it spreads, like blood in a swimming pool, till it occupies all the volume of the day. And then maybe some playful soul shows up with a bucketful of piranhas, dumps them in the pool, and right away they can taste the blood. They swim around looking for what's bleeding, but they don't find anything, all of them getting more and more crazy, till the craziness reaches a point. Which is when they begin to feed on each other.”    
Wow.  The metaphor bleeds, right?   But it's chaotic and vibrant enough to gain steam, until it's sort of a joke, sort of not.  
PT Anderson cast Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Doc Sportello, the private-dick at the center of the Vice tornado/revelry/big-sleep, and I think he'll work because he's got a long streak of dumb-assed-ness all his own to pull from.  (And that, fully formed and perfectly executed dumb-assed-ness, is truly Pynchon's major gift to readers, the nonsense of the gods, first truly and grandly conjured in his penultimate tome, Gravity's Rainbow, which is loftier and heavier than Inherent Vice, but does a lot of the same things, only with a lot more grimness and determination.  You might even code Inherent Vice as Gravity's Rainbow Lite.)  Phoenix's off-kilter countenance and need to be methody is perfect, because that's kind of a Pynchon gig as well:  the egotistical freak-out guest on a Letterman episode spliced with Johnny Cash on Benzedrine, down-home funk and spectacularly self-aggrandizing stunts, full-on American glory built for the ages.  Yup Phoenix will do. 
In conclusion, Inherent Vice is fucked-up, stupid and brilliant.  Thomas Pynchon is Evil Knieval.  Let's hope PT Anderson gets the joke.