Sunday, August 31, 2014

1968 Needs to Shut Up

I've never read a Gore Vidal book before.  He was one of those public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer (whom he got into fisticuffs [yup the right word] with I think), occupying a Dick-Cavett-Dayglo-1970s space in my head:  not interesting enough to read, but interesting enough to witness on a talk-show being resplendently intelligent, a big fish in a little groovy pond.  On TV he always seemed kind of smug and hyper-articulate, catty and a little too eager to prove something.  Plus he was gay, unapologetically so, which is heroic when you get right down to it, especially in an era of closet-case ghettoization. 
So I read Myra Breckinridge
Lord have mercy, what a stupid book. 
It's anchored in a late 60s free-for-all time-zone so archly what it is you feel like it's not a satire of American culture in that period, as much as a satire of a satire of American culture in that period, like Kurt Vonnegut trying to be Vladimir Nabokov trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix.  And it's pure nastiness the whole way through.  None of the characters seem worth reading about. And yes I know how that sounds, but halfway through I wanted out, but trudged on and kept discovering more hyped-up omni-sexual antics and bitter little asides about how buttoned-up and conservative and stupid American culture is, which I guess is always going to be true but so what?  There's an empty mouthy hysteria to the prose that's meant to be hilarious but is just kind of dated to the point it's like witnessing a fucked-up Bewitched episode through a pornographic/psychedelic lens. 
The title character is a transgender lady who seems hell-bent on being triumphant but you're never really sure what the triumph is supposed to signify, outside of liberation from not being able to be triumphant.  Is she pissed about at one time being a man named Myron trapped in a lady's body, or is she a figment of her times, a super-articulate public-intellectualized symbol of "freedom"?  Or is she a campy/silly thrill-ride of a character, created for our tongue-in-cheek enjoyment? 
Probably all of the above. 
And that's kind of what makes the book feel so dead inside, that sense of Myra being nothing and everything, and the plot, structured around a narrative centerpiece involving Myra raping one of her male students with a dildo, reflects the nothing/everything style.  The voice is conveyed in diary format (except for interstices involving Myra's pissed-off father-in-law, the dean of the acting school where she is teaching a posture class), all soap-opera disdain, high-dungeon narcissism, shrill, full of 1940s movie-star allusions and other uninteresting bits and pieces that don't add up outside of accumulating into a sad little scrapbook a middle-aged starry-eyed stereotypical gay guy in 1968 might keep under his canopy bed.  
Maybe Myra was the birth of some stereotypes?  Or maybe just reflected them?   That's all that populates the novel, though, from Myra on down, until at the end of the book, punctuated with a hit and run scene that creates a denoument in which Myra becomes a eunuch, you realize it's all been a sort of dream without being dreamed. 
Last year, on a whim when we were in New Orleans, we watched a local theater version of Hair, the late 60s hippie musical.  We didn't make it through the first half though.  The whole thing seemed forced and frantic and bourgeoisie-trashy, and while you could blame it on "local theater" I guess, I'm thinking it was the core text that did everybody in.  That musty, me-me-me chorus, all those actors jumping around being pissed at the cops and singing about "Aquarius."  It was depressing because of all the simplification, the upper-middle-class wish fulfillment.
There's a musty metaphysical smell coming from Myra Breckinridge too.  Like Hair, it hasn't aged well at all.  And not because of political correctness or anything -- more because it seems to be written from a scornful and eerily unnecessary place.  It's all make-believe queerness, shoving its mean creepy little sense of humor/disdain in your face until you feel disconnected from the whole situation. 
By the end of this book you just want Myra/Gore-Vidal/1968 to shut up.           

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Slow Burn

I dreaded seeing Todd Haynes' rendition of James M. Cain's masterpiece of working-class melodrama Mildred Pierce.  It debuted as an HBO miniseries back in 2011, and I just watched it this week.  The dread has a lot to do with my love for the 1945 movie version of Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford.  That movie is one of those classic, campy go-tos, comfortable, fast-paced, and brilliantly arranged so that Joan Crawford can fashion a supercharged, fully-lipsticked star-turn as a trying-too-hard victim who eventually realizes everything she's done for her little bitch of a daughter is in vain.

The novel is a lot more intricate, and also more of a slow burn.  I read it a few years back in a James M. Cain fever-sweep, everyone of his almost-mid-century noirs in a row, including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double IndemnityMildred Pierce, the novel, has a sleepy-sick pace to it, a flatness that bursts into intense passion at the drop of a hat, so that by the end of the book you feel deeply connected to Mildred and also somehow still in awe of her her alien-ness, her status as a sort of icon that doesn't really represent anything specific outside of her own status as, well, Mildred Pierce.  She's a hard-worker.  She's independent.  She takes the bull by the horns.  But at the end of the day she's ruined by her hugest and saddest flaw:  her deep-seated love and jealousy and resentment and worship of her snotty sinister older daughter, Vida.  And Vida, in turn, is just as mysteriously iconic, lurid and horrible and yet somehow innocent in ways Mildred can't be, in that sad-sack way of all unrequited relationships.  Mildred's intense and self-diminishing love for Vida is the monster in the room, out-monstering even Vida, the true little monster of the piece. 

All of those complications are paved over in the 1945 Mildred for the most part, which makes the thing zoom on through with murder-mystery ferocity.  But Haynes puts up roadblocks in his version, and un-paves those complications, pulling up asphalt layers in order to show us the hows and whats and whys, but also lingering within the mystery of Mildred's messed-up but somehow work-a-day obsessions.  His remake/revision is a stylized, lush but dour "novel for television" that takes itself very seriously, and yet has a strangely insouciant edge that's almost indefinable, kind of like a parody without comedy attached, but the parody is so deeply rooted in the meticulous lighting and set-design and cinematography you experience the overarching distance of Haynes' approach the same way you experience versions of your own dreams:  there's a logic to his determination, a passion to his need to stare at his own made-up Depression-era America.  And while it all makes sense, you don't understand the sense being made outside of the image and the moment and the need that it make sense.

Kate Winslet is Haynes' Mildred Pierce, and Winslet is very comfortable in his universe.  She gives the neo-Mildred a stone-cold docility and sharpness in certain areas, a fatigued loveliness in others, and a bold, tight-lipped lustiness when needed.  The lust and the love combine most intensely and unnervingly in the last segments of the miniseries, when Vida (played like a hellish android with total and abysmal relish by Evan Rachel Wood) is ascending toward a stellar career as a classical singer.  Winslet delivers emotions that usually don't get rarified treatment like this in movies and TV:  total, almost psychotic martyrdom mingling with jealousy and envy and also a fear that she does not deserve the very emotions she's feeling.  Winslet gives these cross-currents of feeling a bedrock in her expressions, in her gaze.  It's the kind of acting a full-speed-ahead movie can't allow to get in.  Hayne's slow-boat-to-China pacing is about capturing those kinds of emotions and allowing them to be absorbed and echoed somehow, become a part of the tightly controlled scenery and symmetry he's created. 

By the end of Haynes' Mildred Pierce, you are in the presence of true need.  Mildred's desire to please Vida manifests in not only total self-destruction but in a sort of self-realization that becomes torment in a scene in which Mildred discovers Vida naked in bed with Monte, Mildred's new playboy husband played by Guy Pearce in a performance that somehow channels emotions without feeling, a tour-de-force depiction of smarm, seduction and ennui.  When Mildred discovers Vida, Vida lights up a triumphant cigarette in her new lover's bed and slowly pulls herself from under the covers, revealing a nudity that is somehow dislocated from sex and love, and even power.  It represents a supernatural vindictiveness, a horrible style that Vida "wears" all the way to the other side of the room, where she slowly sits down at a vanity to brush her hair.  At that point, Mildred loses it, and strangles her. 

You definitely want to strangle Vida as well, and yet as in all of Haynes' strange and stellar oeuvre  (including Far from Heaven and Safe) you also understand the power of movies in that moment, how art can collapse life into a sensuousness and fury unmatchable to the real.

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.