Saturday, September 22, 2007

It's Not The End Of The World Or Anything

Snooping around over at The Dizzies, I found myself entranced by Ed’s ”livebloggery” of Cormac McCarthy’s appearance on Oprah. McCarthy’s latest book, The Road, has received acclaim from sources as diverse as the big O and the Pulitzer Prize committee. It’s also right up my alley, as speculative fiction by masterful artistss is always special treat for me, a dyed-in-the-wool science fiction/fantasy dork. I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and leapt at the chance to see Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046. So why haven’t I already filled up a Facebook profile with quotes from The Road, aside from the fairly repugnant quality of that idea?

Because I’m terrified of The Road, and not only because reading an excerpt of it forced me to learn the meaning of the word "catamite".The truth is that I have a very dysfunctional relationship with post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction. I enjoy it – a lot – but it scares the crap out of me. As a child, I often dreamed of directing horror films, not because I particularly wanted to be a director, but because I thought that if I could see how scary movies were made, they might not frighten me so much (I also said that I wanted to be a nurse so that I could “hurt people,” but that’s a different story). When I was a toddler, my parents were great fans of the Hellraiser series, and often watched the films in our living room after putting me to bed. On these nights, without fail, I crept downstairs to peep out from behind the couch, saw something awful, and refused to sleep for weeks. For whatever reason, stories where the world ends, or has ended, are still a bit much for me. Today, with valid warnings of a real Ragnarok at every turn, I try to keep my mind calm by avoiding any unnecessary terror. This is not something I have always done. Here’s a list of apocalyptic media that scared me in the past and scares me now.

If I saw T2 in theatres, then I must have been seven at my first viewing. I find this hard to believe. I mean, as previously noted, my parents were certainly a little laissez faire about what they let me watch, and I loved them for it. But this movie? Arnold Swarzenegger looking like a leather daddy and acting like a real daddy to poor screwed up Edward Furlong, and then sacrificing himself for humankind? This movie terrified me not because it was psychotically violent and not because that nice black computer scientist had to kill himself, but because there was no happy ending. Everything was fucked. Cut to shot of highway at night.

I read Pat Frank’s 1959 surviving-the-nuclear-holocaust tale in my eighth grade advanced English class, which was cryptically called “A.T.P. Humanities” and taught by one Arlene Jarzab, who ran marathons and drove a red convertible. Ms. Jarzab had nothing but faith in her students’ ability to understand books typically assigned to high schoolers, which was why I read The Grapes of Wrath in fifth grade, The Good Earth in sixth grade, The Crucible in seventh grade and wrote a paper about population control in India in eighth grade. Alas, Babylon isn’t exactly one of the great works of the Western canon, but it is cannily gripping. The Russians drop the bomb on America, forcing the inhabitants of a surviving Florida town to recreate society. Diabetics die from lack of insulin, “highwaymen” are summarily executed for theft, and racial integration takes place out of necessity. The book is supposed to show how society could survive even the worst of all possible fears – by the end the survivors are serving fresh-squeezed orange juice and eating delicious roasted pigeon, and the spinsterish bluestocking is married and has chubby babies – but all I can ever think about is the telegram a military man sends his brother with their secret code for disaster: “Alas, Babylon.”

Ayn Rand’s 1938 “Careful what you wish for, Socialists” novella was also assigned to me in eighth grade by Ms. Jarzab. In a distant future, collectivism has sent humankind back to the dark ages (but now with Communism!) and rendered them unable to use singular pronouns, meaning that the titular hero Equality 7-2521 begins every sentence with “we.” Equality is smart, but his independent thinking gets him assigned to menial labor by the Council of Vocations. He rediscovers electricity and attempts to use it for the greater good, but is imprisoned and tortured. Meanwhile, he falls in love (also a no-no) with a farm laborer. They run away together and find a preserved house in the woods, where they take the names of Prometheus and Gaea from a book. Now that I think about it, Anthem didn’t scare me so much as it pissed me off, because as soon as the woman (Gaea, nee Liberty 5-3000) learns to use the word “I,” she just starts spouting earth-mothery dreck like “I love you” and “I want to have your children,” and I kind of preferred the before version where she was reaping wheat and doing strong communist lady stuff. Also, my eighth-grade reading list looks kind of hysterically anti-Communist on second glance.

I wonder if there’s anyone my age who read The Giver and didn’t find themselves haunted by the book’s strange blend of dystopic fiction and soft-core philosophy. I can’t recall whether or not I read Lois Lowry’s novel in school or on my own, but it almost doesn’t matter. The Giver was a genuine pop culture phenomenon among fifth- and sixth-graders in the mid-1990s, and probably still is. I remember carrying the book down the halls of my middle school and noticing who else had it, and having hushed conversations with my few friends about how very, very sad the book is. As in Anthem (and that granddaddy of dystopias, Brave New World), one of the most disturbing elements of the novel is the destruction of the family, although the infant distribution center and “birthmothers” of The Giver are somehow creepier than the straight-up kibbutz-style Home of the Infants in the Rand book (especially the scene where Jonas’s little sister mentions that she’d like to be a birthmother, and her parents admonish her…shudder). Jonas, the deep-blue-eyed, sensitive-boy protragonist, was also extremely crush-worthy. Lowry’s deft handling of adolescent sexuality stuck with me for long enough that I wrote some Giver slash when I was thirteen. I mean, Jonas’s dream about bathing Fiona? Hot.

I read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel when I was 18, so I don’t know if it qualifies as a apocalyptic work that terrified me in childhood. It did, however, upset me more than pretty much anything I had ever read, and also established Atwood as one of my favorite authors. In my opinion The Handmaid’s Tale should be required reading for every high school junior, particularly the legions of girls ready to go wild who don’t understand what all the fuss about feminism is. The book’s funny, smart, angry narrator, Offred (quote my best friend Ben: “Offred was so fucking hot,”) explains in simple steps how Reagan-era America is destroyed by the violent religious right and transformed into the Republic of Gilead, where nuclear warfare has made fertile women a hot commodity. There as so many moments in the book that still disturb my sleep; the re-education center (really an old high school gym) where women are sent to become Handmaids, Offred’s realization that her husband must have killed their cat when they were trying to escape, the photograph of Offred’s daughter shown her by Serena Joy, and the miserable nightclub where Jezebels are kept. Atwood lights a tiny candle of hope with the epilogue, which implies that Gilead is long gone and has been replaced with churlish Inuit academics. I may demolish any respect my three readers have for me by noting that the first time I read the book, I failed to recognize its setting as Cambridge, Massachusetts. But after I figured it out, I sure couldn’t take the playful antics of those Harvard types lightly anymore. The Handmaid's Tale has been adapted into a film, play, opera, and radio play, none of which I've seen.

From my first blog, called “Madrant:”

Tonight, I went to see a movie which was the most moving, touching, beautifuk [sic], and horrifying film which I have ever seen. It was tragic, heartbreaking, suspenseful and humourous at times...and you know what? You Titanic freaks can all go stare at a wall, because Deep Impact KICKS ASS!
It's the story of how a comet predicted to hit earth changes the lives of so many, I no feel like explaining. But it made me cry..and if you knew me, you'd know that I NEVER cry in movies. You could show me a half-hour of children starving to death, and I'd think it was sad, but I wouldn't cry. Deep Impact Made me many valiant few shelters...ARRRGGHH! Depression!
I will see Deep Impact over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again for the rest of my is beautiful. And it kicks Titanic in the ass. So, to all Titanic fans: To females, stop staring at your Leo posters, use a Biore pore strip and go see this movie. YOu can see another, more appropriately aged attractive male in it, Elijah Wood(*sigh*) and ogle Males, stop staring so fixatedly at your pictures of Kate Winslet nude and get off your ass, wash your hair and go outside. That glare is the sun you haven't seen in so long. Now, go to a movie theatre and see Deep Impact. Trtue, there's no naked chicks, but depending on your taste, there is Tea Leoni. Gosee [sic] it anyway...
Tired and hungry. K'bye.


7. The Book of Revelations, especially as seen in the X-Files episode “All Souls” originally aired April 26, 1998

Although both of my parents were fairly burnt out on religion after decades of Catholic school and guilt, they made a valiant effort to inculcate the faith in our home. They weren’t about to send us to St. Mary-of-the-Ruler-Whack, however, so my sister and I went to extracurricular “CCD” or “Catholic class” held on Wednesday nights. I was a nightmare to the nice ladies who volunteered to teach these classes; I mean, I didn’t even process until the end of high school that they probably weren’t paid for their hour of sanctimonious workbook exercises. The highlight of my extremely splotchy CCD career was definitely seventh grade, when we were given Bibles and told to read the thing front to back. Not only did this give me bragging rights in my borderline-agnostic social circle for the rest of time, it also exposed me to Revelations, in which a woman in the sky gives birth to a dragon who swallows the sun. In “All Souls,” Scully has another forty minutes of religious guilt when she and Mulder have to figure out what’s going on with a series of handicapped girls who have died while in foster care. The girls were born with six fingers, and if I remember correctly, Lucifer is coming for them – but God gets them first, orchestrating their deaths so that they can ascend to heaven? I think? What I remember most is Scully reading some Revelations description of angels as having six wings: two to shield their eyes, two to stand on, and two to fly with. Scary. Also terrifying: Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, especially the title song. Religious terror was never so hot or cuddly.

What books and movies scared you when you were small? Did the end of the world seem foreboding to you, too?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Good Ideas, Poorly Executed

It’s just my luck that the first novel I read and the first movie I saw upon returning to New York this autumn have been massive disappointments, despite their seemingly engaging premises. Admittedly, I had higher hopes for Felicia Luna Lemus’s Like Son than I did for Julie Taymor’s cloying Beatles singalong Across The Universe. I first heard of Like Son via a feature interview in the April 12 Time Out New York. The novel follows the pilgrim’s process of Frank Cruz, nee Francisca, a Mexican-American trans man whose father dies, leaving him an Edward Weston photograph of Nahui Olin, a mysterious woman. The picture of Olin – a real-life member of the Mexican avant-garde movement in the 1920s and a fascinating figure in her own right – obsesses Frank over the course of a decade, during which he moves from Los Angeles to New York City, falls in love, and becomes a man. I’m fascinated by trans culture, particularly with the under-looked demographic of female-to-male transsexuals, and the Olin angle made the book even more attractive to me, because god knows I love forgotten female artists. Various other themes Like Son promised to examine included race, class, and 9/11.

The curious thing about Like Son is that it flatly does not discuss most of its supposed themes. Frank’s sexuality is only addressed when it can’t be avoided or ignored. Early on, he states that as a troubled teenager, “All I knew was that I was a boy and that being a boy felt safe and true and right” – a statement that almost directly treats his male identity as a salve for the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. It’s not that I wanted Frank to constantly justify his transsexuality, but it does seem odd how little attention the topic receives, especially in the context of Frank’s eight-year sexual relationship with his girlfriend Nathalie; they “fuck” constantly, and Nathalie wants a baby, but Lemus never addresses how all of this physical love takes place. In fact, Nathalie herself is another black hole of a character. The woman is a standard-issue indie sexpot, all messy beehive hairdo and chipped nail polish, the kind of dame who wears vintage silk cocktail dresses all the time (despite the fact that she’s apparently an office temp) and vacuums in the nude. May I suggest an industry-wide ban on these dreamy, weepy, skinny wet-dreams of the thick-framed-glasses set? These chicks have been popping up in literature like mushrooms in a dirty shower. But I digress.

Most of Like Son focuses on cutesy-for-cutesy’s sake vignettes from Nathalie and Frank’s domestic life. Nathalie is flaky and sensitive, with a tendency to run off to different states when she feels sad. Frank steals trees from the outer boroughs and replants them in Tompkins Square Park. They go to a movie at the East Village Cinemas and drink coffee from bodegas. Nahui Olin takes a backseat to this thrilling litany of fin-de-siecle New York life, emerging from time to time to enchant Frank for about an hour before he goes on to the next melodramatic thing, like getting an ill-advised tattoo before boarding a train in search of his runaway girlfriend. Most frustratingly, at the end of the book, nothing is resolved: Nahui’s picture gets put in the safe-deposit box, along with Frank’s past, which he has completely failed to explore. Like Son reads like YA author Francesca Lia Block – that progenitor of Weetzie Bat and anorexia glamour - for grownups. It would have thrilled me when I was thirteen and obsessed with anything that seemed new and different, but unfortunately now I’m just obsessed with finding novels that earn their page count.

I can't say that I thought Across The Universewas even a good idea for a movie. I’ve enjoyed Julie Taymor’s previous work, especially Titus, but a Beatles musical just seems like a terrible idea no matter who directs it. The band itself covered this territory satisfactorily during their career, and besides, what about that Cirque de Soleil thing? Mightn’t the latter be a better exploitation of the music in question than a zany Taymor-a-thon, especially considering that live performance would at least inject some energy into the proceedings? Alas, my entreaties seem to have fallen on deaf ears, because the showing I saw was packed at four in the afternoon. The film’s crimes are almost too diverse to list. Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess, as the story’s titular lovers (if you’ve seen the trailer, I doubt you need a plot summary, but here’s one anyway: “In a time of change, they loved”) have about as much chemistry as my seventh-grade self trying to light a Bunsen burner. They both behave in a peculiarly modern fashion – Wood, especially, seems more like her character from Thirteen than a hippie-turned-political activist, although probably less fun in the sack.

As The A.V. Club noted, by far the worst musical number is Eddie Izzard’s performance of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” but equally excreable is anything that comes out of the lame mouths of Hendrix and Joplin rip-offs "Jojo" and "Sadie." Ultimately the film proves so frustrating, and so wildly inconsistent – why is there an Asian-American lesbian from the Midwest in the mix? Why can’t the movie make up its mind where it cares about the civil rights movement or not? Why does Vietnam look suspiciously like a museum diorama about war? – that the true sweetness of certain of its moments its completely obliterated (anachronism or nor, T.V. Carpio’s performance of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is lovely). Weirdest of all, Across the Universe presents a Sixties America where free love and radical politics don’t deadend into the interesting, fucked-up seventies, but blossom into an endless hugfest. In a world where the Beatles are endlessly abused but never even mentioned by name, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Loose Ends

Lynch's Emily, who went with him to visit the Maharishi and was invited to stay at the holy man's house, is in fact Emily Stofle, who played "Lanni," one of the Greek chorus of prostitutes in INLAND EMPIRE. No word on why Lynch and Mary Sweeney divorced after two months of marriage in 2006, but Stofle stepped out publicly with Lynch for the first time at the Venice Film Festival, below:

I came home seriously considering signing up to learn Transcendental Meditation, and discovered that it costs $2500 to become a part of the practice. I did invest in a sort of generic-brand version called Natural Stress Relief ($25), which I have practiced intermittently since. It's good when I remember to do it.

The movie theatre in downtown Fairfield is called the Co-Ed.

David Lynch Weekend, c'est fin

The Donovan concert was held in the mysteriously titled Men’s Dome on Sunday night, free to the public. My earnest chauffeur drove me around a low hill and through gold-tipped gates to the edge of a large round building. Fairfield residents walked towards the Dome laughing and talking, their Birkenstocks and linen outfits somehow color-coordinated with the landscape. The forceful presence of TM transformed the familiar Midwestern environment – rolling fields, thick stands of trees in purple dusk – into a sort of spiritual moonscape. Inside the Dome, posters praised the Maharishi and announced community events. Money was being raised to renovate the building. I removed my shoes and placed them on a rack that held hundreds of other pairs and padded into the sanctuary.

The interior of the Dome was wood; bright orange light from the saffron-curtained windows that ringed the room framed the silhouettes of the audience. I sat on the floor of interlocking foam mattresses and saw that nearly every other attendant had brought a portable chair-back, of the sort parents sometimes put on the floor for children to sit on. After a few minutes, I understood why: the cushy floor made it impossible not to slouch painfully, and lying down would eliminate my view of the stage. An enormous American flag hung from the ceiling directly above my head. On the stage stood a large icon of the Maharishi garlanded with flowers.

The woman next to me wore a flower-print prairie dress and a long brown ponytail. “Don’t you have a chair?” she asked me. I shook my head forlornly. “Oh, don’t worry – they’re for everybody,” she said, and walked off, returning with a chair-back. Somewhat more comfortably seated, I peered around at the crowd. The average age was fifty – a few people had brought young children, but nearly everyone in the Dome looked old enough to have enjoyed Donovan’s music during its heyday. The lights dimmed, and Bobby Roth came onstage, singing praises to Lynch, Donovan, MUM, and hey, all of us, too. Lynch walked on, followed by Donovan. MUM presented an award to Lynch for, well – the exact wording escapes me, but it was something along the lines of “For promoting peace and wellness through meditation in education.” Two standing ovations followed. Lynch and Donovan were photographed with a very large framed certificate. Glancing around, I recalled the numerous Fairfield residents I had encountered throughout the weekend who had had very little idea of who Lynch was, people who had never seen any of his movies but came anyway. The conference was about evenly split between Lynch enthusiasts and meditation enthusiasts, but the crowd in the Dome seemed to appreciate the director simply because he was a vocal proponent of TM.

Bobby Roth introduced one of the head educators from the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. This man had worked in “a public school on the East Coast that was widely considered the worst high school in America. There were security guards posted every 50 feet in the hallway, and stabbings and beatings regularly took place at the school. The graduation rate was very low. And we come in saying ‘life is bliss.’

“At first the principal arranged our meditation sessions so that students had to miss study halls if they wanted to learn TM. There was one boy who had been in over one hundred and fifty fights, and he was widely considered one of the most violent people in the school. After a few sessions with us, he said: ‘I get angry, but my body won’t let me fight.’ Another boy, considered the most dangerous gang member at the high school, kept his head down at the end of a session. This was in a lecture hall, so after we called his name a few times, we climbed up and touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. ‘I’ve never felt happiness before,’ he told us. A gang tried to dissuade students from attending our sessions, saying that it was a form of White mind control. But the students resisted and risked bodily harm to come. Another boy was homeless. He collected cans and spent the deposits on clothes from the Salvation Army. His family had just fallen apart. But he was a talented artist, and always wanted to pursue his talent. He got involved with us, and meditation seemed to work for him. He won first-place in a state competition for talented young artists, and he’s now attending school on a full scholarship.

“At the end of the year the principal of the school called us into his office and put the master schedule for the next semester in front of us. ‘We want you to put meditation on the schedule first,’ the principal said. ‘We’re making it mandatory for all students.’”

It was the second time I had heard this success story, and the second time it choked me up (It would probably behoove the reader to know that I am an unreliable narrator in that I am extremely susceptible to sentimental stories of unlikely success, in every category from education to athletics). It had elements that made me suspicious – why, for example, was each success story about a boy who had evidently been voted “worst” by a shadowy faculty committee? But I innately trusted the speaker, probably because he was a more realistic beefy Midwestern type, a guy my dad might know, than the ethereal clerks of the MUM bureaucracy I had been exposed to thus far.

Transcendental meditation has elements that might be generously described as eccentric and more accurately called cultish: a professed belief in something called “yogic flying” (about which Bobby Roth did at one point joke, saying “I mean, if you really want to start thinking I’m weird…”) and the reverence for the Maharishi himself. During the weekend I encountered Helena and Ronald Olson’s His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: A Living Saint for the New Millennium : Stories of His First Visit to the USA, a memoir by the Southern California couple who housed the Maharishi on his first trip to America. The Maharishi turned the Olsons’ lives upside down, bringing in his own laundress, overstaying his welcome and hosting impromptu gatherings that lasted long into the night, and the American family responded by building an addition onto their house especially for him. The fervent devotion to a living man was too Messianic for my taste. But after two days of Lynch Weekend, I was completely onboard with the integration meditation into education. I was neither an over- nor underachiever in my primary and secondary school days, and yet I would still sometimes fall into paroxysms of guilt and worry over the mountains of work I wasn’t doing. Mightn’t a twice-daily calm down soothe so many of the problems rampant in American schools, administering a chill pill with no known side effects?

Donovan played the same setlist as the night before. Around me, people leaned closer together, closed their eyes and smiled, leapt to their feet for multiple ovations. Lynch was again seated next to the mysterious Emily, of whom I could see only a full head of dark hair. At the end of the evening, the audience walked out calmly. I felt the dangerous pull of fandom. Lynch was still in the Dome, presumably waiting to leave. I knew I shouldn’t wait. I wanted to wait. Admirers in the same position fanned out around me like trees on a barren stretch of prairie, leaning towards the director as he crossed to the side of the room, Emily in tow. She departed his side and gathered a chair. “Come on,” I heard her tell him. “Sit down.” Collectively, we began to gather forward in hope: he was sitting still. But as soon as we had the thought, Lynch and his lady were up and out the door, done with us.

The ride I was supposed to get from one of the men who had driven me to and from my hotel before failed to materialize. I wandered around the rapidly emptying parking lot, wondering how I would get back to my room. It was a quiet and safe night. I bumped into a street sign bearing my mother's maiden name. If I had to hitchhike, Fairfield was the best place to do it.