Monday, January 27, 2014

Unfortunately Toxic

Some movies you just hate.  Some movies you walk out on. 
The Wolf of Wall Street you walk out on. 
It's a meticulously shitty piece of work, and it's that meticulousness that pisses you off.  Martin Scorsese directed the thing, and Leonardo Dicaprio is the center of his focus, and their relationship is unfortunately toxic and even worse than that completely fucking boring.  Academy Award?  Jesus.  Why do we need this movie in our stratosphere?  Is it a form of punishment, or some kind of satire that needs to teach us how to live?  Nope.  Morality play?  Silly romp?  Nope.  It's just vanity.  Scorsese pretending to be what he once was, and Dicaprio pretending to be Robert Deniro.  Hell I don't know.  From the get-go I felt trapped.  Something about the self-congratulatory voice-over, the half-felt parody with the stupid lion walking through the busy Wall Street office, that sense of some blow-hard getting hepped up on his own storytelling ability.  And it's more than obvious that he's counting on you being impressed.  This movie ain't satire.  It's a total paean to status-quo.  It's a hymn to Ronald Reagan.  Which is fine, but goddamn propaganda is propaganda.  Not art.  Not even fun.  (Although it's fun to many people obviously who want to have a sort of time-out from the 21st Century.)  Fucking blond bitches and throwing midgets at Velcro targets and snorting coke off of blond bitch-tits and busting that fag butler in the nose, etc:  that's just some idiot in a bar telling you what it was like managing at TGIFriday's back in the day.  Nothing sharp or insightful about it. 
The emperor here has no clothes, but he sure as hell has a lot of stupidity.  Watching this thing reminded me of being in high school.  A bunch of dumb-asses in shop telling themselves lies.  This movie is a goddamn lie and it pisses me off.  And I'm using expletives because I can.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Being There

Fruitvale Station is one of those self-assured, steady-handed, stylishly executed movies that both transcends and exemplifies its subject matter.  It's a distillation of one man's life into an examination of the day he's killed, and the killing becomes a nexus of sorrow that allows us to understand what happened without outrage, even though what happened is completely outrageous.  That's what really great movies can do:  burn away the peripherals, the politics, even some of the facts, so we can have access to a point of view that doesn't bark or bite but somehow lives.  In Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant lives, at least for a few hours, and we have access to that life.  We see him cleaning up his bedroom, losing his job, answering fish-fry concerns with help from his grandma, trying to help an injured dog, picking up his daughter at school, going out on the town on New Year's Eve...  The movie's chronology and pace have a sort of airy, dreamy realism, but all of it is anchored by the knowledge (given to us in real footage from the actual shooting) of Oscar's killing.  
Oscar was shot by a policeman in Oakland, California on New Year's Day.  The shooting caused riots and revolts across the area.  
First-time director Ryan Coogler takes on the controversy but doesn't use it as fuel for anger, but as a microscope to envision Oscar's interior and exterior life.  The lighting of the film is blue-sky and chrome, with a darkness on the edges burnished with holiday lights.  The houses and streets have a deadpan solidity to them, lived-in but also ghostly.  Each scene is a link in a chain, and Coogler is completely in control of what the chain pulls.  This is director to watch.  He knows how to dramatize while also pushing the drama out of its preciousness.  He accesses real life but shapes reality into story.  
Michael B. Jordan's Oscar is an exercise in effortless grace and strength about to lose its footing.  He's pissed and not trying not to be, and many times throughout the film you recognize that he is triumphing over the past just by living in the moment, helping people, joking around.  You could label Oscar a "thug" or whatever, but Jordan allows you to understand that the label is meaningless once you enter into Oscar's orbit.  He's just trying to figure shit out.  Octavia Spencer plays Oscar's mom with an exhausted love and dignity that doesn't seem forced or abstracted, just simply there. 
In fact the whole movie is an exercise in "being there," stripping away style to create its own stylishness.  From the beginning to the end, this movie is a work of art.  It allows you access to an overheated debate and then cools down the situation to the point you can feel the immensity of the loss without having to locate a villain, or even a hero. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Look How Beautiful It Is to Be So Terrifically Small (Mike Kelley at MOMA PS 1, Part Two)

(This is Part Two in a series of responses to Mike Kelley's retrospective at MOMA PS 1 in New York City.  The show is amazingly thorough, and Mike Kelley was so amazingly prolific, I can't just write one post and move on.) 
In one suite of classrooms at the MOMA PS 1 (a renovated public school that now showcases MOMA contemporary art), Mike Kelley's Kandor variations and obsessions nest side by side like universes collapsing and blurring together.  The whole sensation is like a lava-lamp blooming into philosophy, glow-in-the-dark sci-fi kitsch wrestled and edited into thesis.  Kandor is the capitol city of Krypton, Superman's home planet, and in comic-book narratives it sits inside a bottle within Superman's Fortress of Solitude, fully populated and filled with intrigue and tragedy.  The architecture of Kandor morphs from comic book to comic book, and it's never been represented fully in any of the Superman movies, so Kelley has full access to a range of representations and shapes and ghosts that haven't really fully entered the pop consciousness outside of a few fan-boy fantasies.  That vacuum between "knowing" Superman through the movies or through a segment about Superman movies on Entertainment Tonight, and "knowing" him in a fevered, pointed, meticulous manner allows Kelley transformative powers.  He's a wizard in those rooms inside PS 1, spinning out Kandors in all shapes and sizes, meditating without meditating on the meanings of each one.  It's like he's trying to disappear into the magic lamps he manufactures, trying to find the dream to fit the fever.  There's an endless variety of glows and glimmers, like Christmas aboard a space-station, or a 1950s kid's chemistry set growing out of itself and into a thought you should not think. 
You want to be able to eat parts of these luminescent fruit-cake Metropolises; you want to return to your grandma's living room, the one filled with weird colored little bottles; you want to splash on iridescent perfume that smells like a school-teacher's wrist. 
Kelley conjures.  He makes a world for himself here, one that he can't live in, and yet one that he can wish for when no one else is around.  That sense of yearning burns through the very idea of Kandor, a city in a bottle in a fortress of solitude, and you start to imagine the busy streets, the floating smoke, the interiors of plush bars and restaurants, bedrooms and ballrooms and government offices.  At times Kelley perches Kandor bottles bubbling with light and oxygen orbs on makeshift stage backdrops and you can walk around to see what's behind.  In one of these set-ups is a silver wash bucket; behind another a simple brown basket.  It's like you've stumbled backstage, which is probably where Mike Kelley thrived when he was alive, even when he was front and center.  He seems to adore that hushed static intensity of mundane little items stored away.  He seems to try to reach through the phantasmagorical rainbows he makes so he can sit with a janitor on his break and have a smoke.
With the Kandor pieces Kelley  merges school-boy myth with a sort of creepy-pervert sweetness that almost seems too beautiful, too precious, to witness, and it is, but Kandor is also a trap, a nightmare of smallness that Kelley knows is a dead end. 
And yet look how beautiful it is to be so terrifically small. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Even a Fire Kisses Itself (Mike Kelley at MOMA PS 1, Part One)

So a few days before New Years Day we went on a pilgrimage to New York to see Mike Kelley's vast, terrifyingly beautiful retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art's PS 1 space in Queens.  The space is an old school, and there could be no better place to review all of Kelley's oeuvre than that:  a haunted institution gets haunted by a fucked-up phantom-genius.  It is four floors of art made by Kelley over a period of 30 or so years, ranging from drawings and paintings to sculptures, videos and installations.  It's like entering a gigantic ear and finding your way through tunnel after tunnel until you hit the center of the brain.
The center of this brain is pictured above.  Titled, "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999)," it's a school-room inside PS 1 cordoned off, with an attendant at the front sitting in a folding chair, allowing two or three people to enter into the space at a time.  The ceremony is papal somehow, as are the plush, dirty, gorgeous satellites of love Kelley created, hanging on pulleys and ropes from the ceiling.  On the walls are huge pine-scented room deodorizers hissing out their smell every few seconds like background singers.  You approach the satellites the way you might approach a loved one who has Alzheimer's and is currently living inside a locked unit in a nursing home.  Carefulness turns into reticence and memories start leaking through your game-face.  These are clouds you used to climb into.  There are mass-graves lifted from the earth.  These are toys you used to talk to suddenly turned away from you forever.  A hellishness and heavenliness combined, and in that Blakean moment you're just stunned.  Completely fucking stunned. 
You know exactly why Kelley did this and yet the words don't come to you.  They just drift by like jokes on bumperstickers on shitty cars in shitty towns.  You stopped paying attention a long time ago, and now here you are confronted with the results of that ignorance, that amnesia.  The creatures from all the bedrooms from the 1980s have combined into a holocaust that doesn't even matter anymore, and yet they have fused into a religion that replaces religion.  That's Kelley's lyricism, his curse, and his triumph.  This little locked chamber of dementia, these heavy brains suspended in mid-air, planets once populated by action-figures and loved deceased house-cats, grandmas and gunslingers, basket-cases and unaccountable freaks laughing into pillows. 
I'm reading Straw for the Fire, selections from Theodore Roethke's notebooks, a hodgepodge of greatness fit for kings and for morons.  Roethke and Kelley have to be sitting at an Applebee's in Heaven right now, discussing their favorite thrift-stores and ditches.  Straw's greatness comes from its total randomness, and in one section, titled "The Proverbs of Purgatory (1948-1949)," little haiku-like nothings are presented streamlined into a manifesto. 
Here are a few that I've pulled that somehow remind me of Kelley's "Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites":
All interiors call.
In a house of louts, I lived too happy.
Vision is the end of religion.
The angels ask but never answer.
Even a fire kisses itself.
(This is Part One of an ongoing blog-post series about Kelley's PS 1 retrospective.  I'll be going on and on about many of the other suites of works in the show in upcoming days and weeks.  It's just too much to fathom in one post...) 


The Spectacular Now has a grace and melancholia to it that sets it apart somehow.  I watched it a couple nights ago and still feel its beautiful haze.  The stars make it blur into nostalgia and dream.  Shallene Woodley plays Aimee Finicky, a geeky, sweet high school kid who falls in love with Sutter Kelly, a snarky, sweet, alcoholic in-school stand-up comedian played by Miles Teller.  Both actors effortlessly merge together; they have the sort of chemistry you can't manufacture or even act out.  It's how their eyes fuse together, the way their bodies interrelate even when a scene is just about walking around talking.  The Spectacular Now is about the ache of trying to separate yourself from your family while also understanding you are ineffably connected to them without a way out, except possibly through a connection to someone else that's deep enough to make you see yourself anew.  That's a lot of bull-shit, I know, but the movie has a power of intention that's so organic no one struggles to convey the multitude of really deep emotions being portrayed.  They are just living on-screen.

The movie is directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the book of the same name by Tim Tharp).  It's their efforts that yield that easy feeling, a sort of soft-edge to the edginess that provides relief and seriousness simultaneously.  Shot in Athens, Georgia, the houses and streets seem to glow with sense-memory stylization, but also they are humdrum enough to be anywhere.  The movies' music and cinematography and set design are dedicated to a series of moments we are privy to without a frame of reverence or irony.  We're just there, focused on what we need to see.

Woodley is so gorgeously not gorgeous, plain but devastatingly accessible, kind of like Ellen Burstyn back in the 70s.  Her quiet deft way of moving into and out of scenes, and the way she makes herself central by mastering the periphery is never twee or come-hither.  It's just the character she's playing.  Conversely, Teller's Sutter is over-the-top and sneaky and beautiful without being "cute," and it's to the movie's credit his love for Aimee is never about slumming but somehow about extracting a realness from the lies he keeps telling himself.  Sutter is a riff on Lloyd Dobler, the main character in Cameron Crowe's teen-love 1989 masterpiece, Say Anything.  But while Lloyd was an outlier and apologist, Sutter is an inside-player, without cynicism or even regret.  He's just a guy, and his pursuit of Aimee eventually becomes a way for us to see the both of them escaping their own futures in order to create a new one together. 

One last piece of praise:  Kyle Chandler is incredible as Sutter's no-good dad.  There's a scene in a bar where Chandler's performance is so haunting and sketchy you truly believe the father is worthless and yet you also can't give up on him. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Under the Stars

One of my collages.  It's directly linked to a couple of the stories in Next to Nothing.

This week a really nice reporter from Cincinnati Magazine called me up to do a short interview about my book that's about to come out in March (from Lethe Press, thank you LA Fields and Steve Berman), Next to Nothing.  It was a pleasure to talk to someone so kind and sensible about the stuff I write.  A lot of people, at least in the past, have not taken too kindly to my stories and what they mean and do.  That's not patting myself on the back or anything, just the way it is.  I mean many people get it of course and I'm grateful, but when they don't get it boy it's hurtful, as in your day job being threatened, etc.  The main reason many people have turned up their noses at my oeuvre is because the people I focus on are poor working class trash who also often happen to be gay, and they are living in situations and places that are not conducive for the "coming out" story or even hopeful tolerant little ditties about "fitting in."  I mean they "fit in," but often times they fit in with people who are "morally objectionable" as well.  And by putting air-quotes around "morally objectionable," I'm stressing the fact that every person I concentrate on in the fiction I write helps me at least question what that term means.  And then I usually go back to that epigram I'm always tossing about, the Flannery O'Connor one that actually starts off Next to Nothing:   "It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.” 
I centralize freaks in a way that doesn't allow codes of morality to interrupt their transmissions.  And for me at least that's one of the most moral actions to take.  Sounds self-aggrandizing, but that's it. 
Next to Nothing is a drastic, off-kilter parade of homosexuals, alcoholics, pedophiles, philanderers, adulterers, robbers, wife-beaters, transvestites, foul-mouthed kids, and so on.  It is also a Wednesday night after work where everyone is too tired to breath, some going home and feeding the kids, others having a drink, others going to their part-time jobs as caregivers at the group-home.  Some are getting ready for Wednesday night services at church and others are bracing themselves to ask other relatives for some cash till pay-day and still others are hoping their cars are going to start tomorrow morning and a few more are doing laundry, watching HBO, taking the garbage out.  It's that mix of "morally objectionable" parade and the mundane everyday where I find meaning, and even grandeur, in lives that often don't mean shit to others, and when I write those stories I don't feel anything but a connection, a direct link, to both myself and to others. 
We are all sinners, and we all sometimes bounce checks because we wanted to buy really good Christmas presents.  We all are evil, and we also help the old lady get her groceries into her car. 
By foregrounding lives that are not heroic or even upstanding, but just there, I can mitigate the need to judge and forgive, and find a place to examine my own shortcomings, my own stupidities and my own goodness.
I just finished reading The Great Gatsby again, which is a much more elegant and brilliant book than I will ever be able to write of course, but still it has always informed what I want to do.  Gatsby is the freak here.  He is all desire and lies and crimes, and yet he is the central figure of Nick's displacement, and ours.  "Morally objectionable," Gatsby owns a different metaphysical space, an ethereal world of wishing and hope that's completely tainted and diffused by the means he has gone to attain what he wants.  And yet he is better than most people we will ever know.
One of my favorite moments in the book happens toward the end, when Gatsby is summarily banished from the Buchanan household, but he still waits to see when or if Daisy will come to the window to let him know she loves him.  He is an outcast on the edge of his own paradise, and Nick is leaving after hanging out with him out of pity.  It's nighttime in West Egg, that blue-gold glow Fitzgerald loves to conjure, and Nick shouts across the lawn on his way to his train:  "They're a rotten crowd.  You're worth  the whole damn bunch put together."
That shout always makes me cry. 
Look:  God knows I'm no Fitzgerald or O'Connor, but I do have a reason to write, and it's probably linked to those two great American writers' needs to not only stylize life into a form they can create from, but also their needs to find morality outside of the "hive mind," outside of the "crowd."  Both of these canonized geniuses found ways to canonize freaks, to displace us from ourselves for a little while so we can know our own shortcomings, and understand our place under the stars.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

White Trash Baroque

Paul Dano plays a man with developmental disabilities in Prisoners, a thriller that came out this fall, and at first look the performance seems like prototypical caricature.  Silent, blank-faced and pathetic, Dano's Alex Jones skulks through his scenes as a predator who does not seem to understand his own debauched status, or sins.  He just is what he is:  pure nameless feeble-minded evil.  But the movie, and Dano, do not allow us a lot of comfort in our judgment of Alex as that sort of freak.  In fact, by the end of the movie, no one is exactly who they and we think they are, and yet nothing really has changed. 

Ostensibly, the movie is about two little girls being abducted on Thanksgiving in a suburban working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.  There's a rainy, grim fairy-tale focus from the start, and the director, Denis Villeneuve, has a beautiful fetish for grit and pallor.  The center of his focus is a beaten-up RV that seems to absorb the two girls.  Next up is the frantic chase to find them, headed by Jake Gyllenhaal as a police detective who is enjoying a solitary Thanksgiving feast at a local Chinese restaurant when he gets the call.  The drab world Prisoners depicts has a sort of an inner-growl to it, as Villeneuve fills the screen with busted walls, rotten wood, and lots and lots of rain.  Hugh Jackson, as one of the dads, carries the movie as his emotions transform from horror and grief into torture and sadism.  It turns out the main suspect is Dano's Alex, that no-good weirdo from down the street who once he is arrested doesn't even have enough sense to answer polygraph questions to the point they can measure the depths of his deception.  According to the detective, Alex has the "IQ of a 10 year old."  This lack of intelligence and morals only increases Jackman's father's anger and eventually he kidnaps Alex and tortures him in an abandoned apartment. 

The paralleling of intelligence with morals is a toxic leftover of course of old-school early 20th Century eugenics and phrenology, and the movie depends on that paradigm in order to place Alex in the context of plot and atmosphere, but somehow Dano's diligent dedication to the part renders Alex's identity as something more than just genetics gone "horribly and predictably wrong" (that's a quote from Henry H. Goddard's 1912 eugenics masterpiece, The Kallikak Family: a Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness).  Alex through the course of the movie's wrenching, white-trash-baroque plot becomes a sort of anti-hero that isn't heroic but has somehow survived a secret holocaust horribly scathed and yet supernaturally real. 

Dano does not escape the stereotype as much as he bores through it.  His face is both Joan-of-Arc-spiritual and stilted, silent-movie delirious.  He seems to drift through the interstices of thought and place, a ghost that isn't involved in his own story and yet has to live through it, without any resources or access to relief.  Somehow Dano makes that helplessness and hopelessness into a sort of mantra that we can hook into, without turning Alex Jones into a demon or an angel or a "normal guy" underneath it all. 

Alex Jones is what he is, somehow, and I don't really know what that is outside of being human.  Dano gives us a human being that has none of the constraints and controls of the usual movie performance.  He's making performance-art inside the chilly, horror-movie contexts of Prisoners.  And it's a total compliment to Villeneuve that the movie's moral compass is more of a spider-web than a navigational tool.  The whole piece seems to take its marching orders from Dano's blank, beautiful, unnerving face.