Saturday, December 12, 2009

It Don’t Worry Me

For most Americans, the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 suffered from lousy timing. In April, the prior year, Saigon fell to the Vietcong. If it's anything Americans hate losing, it's a war. If that wasn't bad enough, there was Watergate, the energy crisis, stagflation. New York City was nearly bankrupt, Elvis was weird and boogeymen were putting razors in Halloween apples. Drugs. Crime. Herpes. Yup, America was turning 200 and it was all grown up, pimple scars, STDs, baldness, skeletons in the closet— looking in the mirror maybe we didn’t like what we were seeing all that much.

Robert Altman’s film, “Nashville” holds that mirror up and never drops it. This is a movie very much about time and place, which means it is about crossroads. Nashville, the city, is located on the Cumberland River in northeast Tennessee, an historic middle point, halving the country between North and South and until the railroads reached California, lay betwixt the settled Eastern seaboard and the Mississippi frontier (it was a “border” state that fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War).

Made at a troubled junction in time (post Vietnam and Watergate), the film is curiously tied together by the pervasive presence of a roving electioneering van. It plays the prerecorded voice of Hal Phillip Walker, a fictional candidate of the Replacement Party railing against the system in populist rhetoric, articulating the era’s disenchantment with taxes, cronyism, the job market. This demagogue’s blabbering matter-of-fact rationale goes mostly unnoticed by the characters of “Nashville,” many of whom are too self-absorbed to consider politics as something worth their commitment. The 1960s are over and anyways this isn't California, this is Nashville. (Jeff Goldblum's weird motorcycle man riding around in his Haight Ashbury duds on a low riding 3-wheeler is just about the only hippie and no one takes him seriously-- the Easy Rider generation at this point was more of a caricature than a threat to the lifestyle of good o' Southern boys, who have grown their own hair long anyways.) The characters of Nashville are not interested in what might make America a better country and they certainly wouldn't want to think about logistics: these are Me Generation people with personal agendas. In their various pursuits of power and satisfaction they are sexually promiscuous, high-strung, opportunistic, and yet, often, unfailingly idealistic about one’s possible place in the world. Thus, the American Dream, for all its nasty surprises and disregarded caveats, is very much alive here.

Made with the signature Altman flair, “Nashville” has no genuine hero (“heroism:” a troubling concept in this time anyways) but follows two dozen characters in the city of Nashville during a spirited five days of music, sex, and politics. The film is populated by country music stars, political kingmakers, aspiring singers, and this being about the music industry, groupies. These are imperfect men and women, but this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—it’s honest and most of the time men and women are doing whatever they can to get ahead. This, the system may not condone but it has always looked the other way. Too rarely does a filmmaker suggest with his characters that the audience should watch their judgment, as in, “What about it? You think you’re better?”

To make it anywhere in America, talent may not be as crucial as ambition. You might even say it is more important to be than to do as in, “I’m a singer” rather than, “I sing.” Identity politics is the unconscious game as it conveys our usefulness to others. There are plenty of “celebrities” in Nashville, to whom an audience projects its sense of destiny. In Nashville this means we want to flatter them, fuck them and even murder them. Power is one of the most slippery slopes. The made-it country music stars understand that fortune fluctuates and that today’s hit is tomorrow’s oldie. They may sing sentimentally about love, but there’s not much of it to go around. Sex is about as far as the promise goes…

Typical of Altman, with so many characters to pick through, plot, at least in a classic conflict/resolution structure we’ve been weaned on, fails to materialize. There are performances at the Opry, political fundraisers, major traffic accidents, bedroom scenes. His touch is subtle. What seems unrelated, isolated, or random may be superfluous if plot is one’s goal but Altman is exploring ideas. As a result, the performances feel extremely natural, so that the experience becomes as voyeuristic as it is thoughtful. In spite of it being about the capricious and malleable quality of power, the theme never slips into darkness, for the film is too clever and humorous to make us feel awful about things. In other words, there is no “good” or “bad” in the film, there’s just humanism, which may be about doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, but surviving somehow. You may not identify with these kinds of characters but you can certainly sympathize with them.

As good as the acting is, “Nashville” may be most significant for its songs. This is the last great era of country music before Nashville as a sound became glossy, sterile, and trite. These are songs embodying the last years in which country music sounded ‘country’ in the way that it was “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Today, one rarely hears the human touch on a country music record. It sounds like music by committee, programmed for suburban Sony stereo systems.

In the opening credits Henry Gibson is recording an amusing patriotic ditty, drawling, “We must be doing something right to last 200 years.” Keith Carradine sings, “I’m Easy” to an audience that includes multiple lovers, each of whom fancy the song is a personal love letter. Ronnie Blakley plays Barbara Jean, a diva inspired by Loretta Lynn, a convincing cult of personality portrayed as a troubled angel, for whom fame is fated to be tragic.

And then there is Barbara Harris, who plays Winifred, a down-on-her-luck wannabe who is fleeing her husband. She has holes in her tights, lugs a big bag of laundry, poaches sandwiches at catering events. Moving like an animal, twitching, instinctive, looking by all conventional wisdom, a crazy. Yet, in the end, it is she who gets her big break on a stage before thousands in the most dramatic fashion possible. In a magnificent soprano backed by a black choir, she rehabilitates a traumatized audience, getting them to sing along with what might as well be a chain gang work song, whole-heartedly embracing lyrics that are upbeat, celebratory, earnest, yet completely absent of irony, “You might say I’m not free...It don’t worry me.

There, before a political rally masquerading as entertainment, the violence of American life strikes and when it does, it does not need to be explained. It just feels inevitable. Yet in the ashes of gun smoke, a star is born. The audience applauds its appreciation. The Stars and Stripes flutters gracefully in the wind. The American Dream lives for another day. This “dream” may seem stingy to most of us but when it does strike for an individual, it gushes, like a geyser in a Texas backyard.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What We Don't Talk About At Dinner or When We Go to the Movies

In America, good dinner etiquette entails avoiding certain contentious topics while suppering on Mom’s meatloaf and potatoes. Although for many Americans, it’s never the appropriate time to discuss politics or religion (at least in a manner that suggests some degree of dissent or irascibility), as a rule it’s an especial faux pas to wax your views with cutlery in hand. Whether it has more to do with possible digestive disorders that may develop from unpleasant –isms or a communal tendency towards harmonious dining, I do not know. If one diatribes too long, the pea soup gets cold. Politics—it may be more offensive to dining than putting your elbows on the table or licking your plate.

It’s fair to say that unless your politics fall within a certain spectrum accepted by the majority, audiences are not going to want to see it in a movie. Usually, only when a delicate subject has evolved into a moot point does Hollywood venture to encapsulate with academy award performances and a melodramatic score by Hans Zimmer. Exploring a hot-button issue while it is contemporary is a no-no but criticizing America is generally the nightshade in what constitutes “box office poison.” Going further, if you intend to take a stand against American hypocrisy and frame your frightening dystopian hypothesis within a pseudo-documentary format, you'll really be pushing it— in the case of Punishment Park, you’ve pushed your release date thirty years, which was how long the film was banned in America.

Made in 1970, the film is very guilty of being of its time. We’re talking now Weather Underground, Black Panthers, COINTELPRO, Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State shootings, the hyper-politicization of America’s youth and minorities and the great divide that stretched between those who thought America was the best of all possible worlds and those openly advocating social revolution. There were no two ways of seeing— there was one or the other, and the other was immoral. Were kids who forcibly shut down a draft board office heroes or traitors? In such hotheaded circumstances, objectivity was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Punishment Park takes a real deal piece of legislation— 1950’s McCarran Internal Security Act, which authorizes detention for disloyal or subversive persons in times of war or internal security emergency— and examines the theoretical consequences should this law be enforced. As the narrator of the film explains in the opening shot of an American flag flapping in the desert:

“The President… is authorized without further approval of Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and then shall be confined to places of detention.”

This narrator is a member of a West German/ British documentary filmmaking team covering the trial of accused subversives as well as the punishment of another group. Over the course of three days, defendants are brought before a citizens’ tribunal where they attempt to justify the morality of their actions (there being no tangible evidence they are a genuine, violent threat, their charges are based on words, ideas, abstracts) and are even offered in some instances to recant their beliefs by signing loyalty oaths to the government.

Scenes from this trial are intercut with coverage of a group of prisoners struggling through ‘Punishment Park,’ an area in the California desert, where prisoners can win their freedom if they “capture the flag.” The flag they are to reach is 53 miles from their starting point. If that weren’t challenging enough, the detainees are sent into the desert with no food or water in stifling meteorological conditions, all the while being pursued by police and National Guard troops, hunted if you will. The park serves a two-old purpose: it becomes a training exercise for troops as well as a “punitive” trial for “subversives.” Moreover, if some dissidents are killed in pursuit, their deaths save the taxpayer money and keeps prisons a little less crowded. If convicted, they are “criminals” and thus their worth as human beings has become negligible.

The accused standing trial is a motley bunch, white and black, male and female, hairy, bearded, bell-bottomed, yet bespectacled and somber, suggesting intellectual habits. In fact these defendants are not garden-variety hippies or Sunday afternoon activists at all; rather they represent the philosophical voice of protest. Leroy Brown is an author, broadcaster, and political activist. Jay Kaufman is Cofounder of the Committee Against War and Repression. James Arthur Kohler is a conscientious objector. These people are thus organizers, pamphleteers, and pacifists. It is they who provide the intellectual arguments of protest. Prosecution makes perfect sense in this context. Cutting off the head is pure Machiavelli.

On the other hand, the tribune is entirely white with but a single woman affecting the demographic singularity. None of them are elected officials. They are amateurs working in a jurisprudential capacity wielding indiscreet judgments on lifestyle choices eminently unfamiliar to their own, in effect running a kangaroo court or star chamber in which the game is fixed before it’s even started. It is true that they are generally older, though it's not necessarily a generational gap thing— whether Frank Sinatra is more of a man than Jimi Hendrix, say-- but rather has everything to do with preferred paradigms. After all, the soldiers and police who enforce the decisions of the establishment are the dissidents’ contemporaries and are very much of the opinion that the “criminals... get what they deserve.”

In the deliberations between the court and the accused, everyone’s talking, no one’s listening. The exchange veers dangerously between philosophy and churlishness. Generally, the prisoners are derided for their immorality, as to the tribunal minds a crisis of conscious is intimately connected to the repudiation of American “values.” More than an authentic trial, the back-and-forth reminds one of bitter family spats, summed up perfectly when one tribunal member complains the kids could have used “less Spock and more spank,” a hit against the baby boomers’ parenting guru Benjamin Spock (who, incidentally, was a major figure in the anti-war movement and was arrested for attending numerous demonstrations). Because of their emotions they cannot rise to their responsibilities nor realize how hypocritical it is that they should imprison those who deny America’s claim to being a “free” country.

You could argue this is the filmmakers’ polemic. Or you might say Main Street is being defensive. Whatever the case, their inane remarks become fodder for the accused to define their dissent in very strong, if not poetic language. Leroy Brown, the black author comments, “America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only thing that can command your goddamn attention.” Allison Michener, an activist elaborates on this during her session, arguing, “People become violent when they are deprived of their basic human needs.”

In the field, the prisoners running for their freedom are tailed by the documentary cameramen who query them on their condition, disposition, attitude. A young man in a ragged shirt, dirty, bruised, asks, “If they kill me now what difference does my politics or any politics make? I’ll be dead.” Another prisoner on the run clarifies, “My view is not committed to revolution…it’s committed to sanity.” Was this sentiment not famously reconstituted by comedian Stephen Colbert when he suggested, “Reality has a liberal bias.” It is one of the field’s pacifists that puts the plight of the accused in the most accurate moral context when he says, “Right now, the honorable thing to do is to be a criminal.” It is a fair extrapolation: if the government’s laws are unjust and it cannot justify its wars or violation of civil liberties, then individuals who break those laws whether it is draft evasion or persuasive agitprop are arguably the moral example.

When the dissidents are running for their lives in Punishment Park, the narrative of survival becomes a treatment on the various approaches to protest. The prisoners quickly disperse into factions choosing very unique survival techniques: basically they can meet the system with violence or nonviolence. Thus philosophy materializes in a simulated environment with real consequences. What is the right way to reform society evolves into a matter of life and death. In very tense scenes in which police and National Guard troops apprehend the activists in various stages of flight, the answers prove disastrous. These are probably the very best moments of the film as they are rife with confusion, anger, desperation, and madness. The cameramen too, cannot remain neutral. They become hysterical at what they perceive to be injustice and spar with the police.

One speculates on the casting— these are non-professional actors working from an outline rather than a screenplay— were they chosen for their beliefs? The acting, if amateur, is good. It never feels put-on, even when the dialogue is occasionally outrageous (the character of Leroy Brown has two of the best lines in the film: “How the fuck are you gonna overrule the constitution, man?” and “You just want to sit on your fat dividend-drawn ass and draw dividends!”) Did the director play off the actors’ beliefs in order to maximize tension? (The Stanford Prison experiment was conducted around the same time.) There is an us-and-them feeling to the actors that is hard to fake. As far as pseudo documentaries go, Punishment Park feels frighteningly historical.

In his closing statements, the defense attorney reads a quotation that best illustrates the inherent dangers the tribune is engaging with conviction and arbitrary sentencing. The speech seems straight out of Richard Nixon’s playbook: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. The communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, in danger, from within and without. We need law and order or our nation cannot survive.”

But it’s not Nixon speaking in 1970, it’s Adolf Hitler in 1932. Once a country begins cutting civil liberties in the name of national security, the consequences of compromise are far-reaching. As one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, so aptly put it, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

What does it all mean now? Quite a bit, actually, even in the post-Bush years. The drama of Punishment Park is very much alive today, nearly forty years later. Even in the age of Obama, Guantanamo Bay remains open and an escalation of troops in Afghanistan is called a “surge.” And a “terrorist” is still very much a catch-all phrase for those who might try to fight the system, whether through violence or otherwise.

The director of Punishment Park is Peter Watkins, an Englishman. A number of individuals were offended that a foreigner had the gall to dramatize our society in such critical terms. But someone's gotta do it if we won't. There are some very important problems in our country. We would do well to talk about them, if not at dinner, at least over dessert and coffee.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Defense of Self-Centered Young Men

The title of the first chapter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, warns the reader that our hero might be a real-deal momma’s boy. It’s called, “Amory, Son of Beatrice,” and deals with Amory Blaine’s delicate childhood and ends with him enrolled in a prestigious prep school, precociously formulating a “sort of aristocratic egotism,” that would enable him to “‘pass’ as many boys as possible and get to a vague top of the world…” Well, even for geniuses this road is never easy and you’ve got to take a few spills before anyone is going to say you've made it.

This novel— an episodic mélange of prose, stream of consciousness, poetry, correspondence, and theatrical dialogue— is about one man’s quest for identity by means of love, work, and philosophy. This patchwork technique Fitzgerald employs is called “modernistic” by its defenders since it defies accepted conventions of structure. But it is because of careful structuring that we become emotionally involved in fiction; otherwise we forget the point of the reading and in this day of diminished attention spans, language alone may not be enough to guarantee the commitment of the reader. Thus, the precarious existence of This Side of Paradise today: it is famous for making Fitzgerald famous rather than for the work itself.

Interestingly enough, rather than feeling it was written by Fitzgerald it has the atmosphere of several writers—the writing has Wilde’s pithy wittiness, Waugh’s schoolboy sentimentalism, Joyce’s philosophical diatribes, even Sinclair Lewis’s radicalism, held together by Fitzgerald’s mischievous turn of phrase.

The story hinges on a hypothesis posited to Amory at a young and impressionable age. Every apprentice philosopher has his mentor and Amory’s is in the Catholic Church, described thus:

“Monsignor was 44 then, and bustling— a trifle too stout for symmetry… When he came into a room clad in his full purple regalia he resembled a Turner sunset and attracted both admiration and attention… He was intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate, and rather liked his neighbor.”

Although he doesn’t share his faith in the Church, The Monsignor is Amory’s intellectual hero. He is put to quest, Candidelike, when the Monsignor describes the difference between a personality and a personage and why the latter is most preferable:

“Personality is a physical matter almost entirely; it lowers the people it acts on—Now a personage, on the other hand, gathers. He is never apart from what he’s done… When you feel that your garnered prestige and talents and all that are hung out, you need not bother about anybody.”

It’s rather pretty, delicate, and incoherent but enough for Fitzgerald, at least, to build a novel on. The idea is put to the test at Princeton among the co-eds where Amory encounters a variety of “personalities,” that Fitzgerald doesn’t develop well enough to constitute a “personage.” In the case of Amory Blaine, his own lack of something substantial beyond the realm of ideas fails him at work, play, and love.

When a crisis is absent in a novel, it’s critical that we sympathize with the character. It’s not always easy getting along with Amory Blaine. He’s middle class middle American trying to make it in Princeton and New York in the late teens, early 1920s, a time just after what was then known as The Great War, when opportunities were opening up for ambitious young men. He runs with a literary set in college, writes poetry, falls in love. He is a thoroughly self-conscious individual, sensitive to class and caste and as his fortunes fail, feels acutely dissatisfied that he should be so powerless in spite of his rhetorical flair.

Never is this clearer than when he loses his love interest, Rosalind. Although this young debutante loves Amory’s wit and her chemistry with him is superb to all suitors she cannot commit to some advertising copywriter earning just $35 a week no matter how much potential there is in his pipe dreams. In other words, she willfully chooses money over love. Fitzgerald is at his most delightful when describing his characters and he has fun detailing Rosalind:

“She is quite unprincipled; her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez-faire for others. She loves shocking stories: she has that coarse streak that usually goes with natures that are both fine and big. She wants people to like her but if they do not it never worries or changes her.”

This is beautiful stuff. He may as well be describing America itself but it’s supposedly based on Zelda Sayre, the Zelda, famous of all flappers, from which Fitzgerald was drawing inspiration. This Side of Paradise was cobbled together with an earlier draft of a novel called The Romantic Egotist, as well as unpublished poetry and scraps of prose diary entries—his and Zelda’s— in order to compose a salable novel that might win her favor. It’s no wonder that this was the same guy who could come up with Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, and the fashionable parties of West Egg.

Jazz Age Cats

Its flaws aside, This Side of Paradise, can be enjoyed for the insight it yields into a great American writer. Rosalind could be describing the Fitzgeralds’ untold future when she laments, “I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.” Amory goes on a self-destructive two-week alcoholic binge once she breaks things off for good, an incoherent, solipsistic misadventure; the kind that Fitzgerald would become notorious for. “To hold a man a woman has to appeal to the worst in him,” Amory muses on the Atlantic City boardwalk, a line of thought that excuses our worst excesses in the name of love.

In a series of reversals, both self-inflicted and the fated kind, Amory has received his comeuppance, but in becoming a wandering, lovelorn derelict, he discovers his artistic sensibility and what it means not only to be a man, but a personage: "He found something that he wanted, had always wanted and always would want— not to be admired, as he had feared; not to be loved, as he had made himself believe; but to be necessary to people, to be indispensable.”

As a truism to live by, it’s as good as any, but worth the effort of the modern reader when there is so much tempting us? This Side of Paradise is too episodic to be a great novel; and any book that climaxes with a debate regarding the merits of socialism betrays its literary value as well as its narrative truancy. But there are many fashions in which to consider art. It must have been exciting when this declaration of intent was published with its pretensions towards power, greatness and wealth, signed by ambition. This Side of Paradise sold through its first printing quickly, earned the praise of H. L. Mencken, and put F. Scott on the map for good. And though his more famous novels are associated with the Jazz Age, it's this early effort that more clearly attempts to speak for his generation’s dissatisfaction with contemporary American life as they were finding it and ready-set to change it. It begins with recognition from within: “I know myself… But that is all,” so goes the novel’s famous last words and they tell all.

If it took writing the novel to get the girl, getting the girl meant, eventually, The Great Gatsby. As far as very public love letters and tell-all memoirs disguised as literature, this means the whole damn enterprise was well worth it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Darger and the Artist's Ego

If it is important for an artist and his work to demonstrate the unknowable to us, what are the lessons we can learn from the life of Henry Darger?

For those unfamiliar with Darger, he lived most of his eighty-plus years in Chicago, a friendless, anonymous man who did custodial work for a Catholic hospital. In his spare time, he created a complex parallel universe consumed by an epic conflict known to him as the Glandeco-Angelinian War, in which child slaves known as the Vivian Girls rebelled against their masters, fierce soldiers resembling Dixie grey coats in uniform and run by John Manley, a school bully Darger once had to contend with as a boy, now infamously immortalized for his tyranny. The story, a magnum opus if there ever was such a contender for the term, runs over fifteen volumes, totaling 15,145 pages, alternately typed and drawn, traced, painted, or collaged together, creating a dreamlike effect aesthetically unique: the vivian girls are androgynous creatures marked by lovely girlishness and small penises. They are violently tortured by their captors in explicit detail, often utilizing christian symbology, especially tragic martyrdom.

The work is beautiful, bizarre, and incredibly idiosyncratic, yet there are many such works of art that convey the wondrous details of the imagination not quite so universally celebrated. Darger may be the greatest embodiment of art brut--a movement describing artists who work outside institutions such as museums and galleries and have learned their craft independent of any apprentice work or university system-- but today he is anything but an outsider. Very few modern artists have bigger household name value.

Is it simply the beauty of the work itself that makes Darger so beloved? Or rather is it the purity of his intentions, his championing of innocence and childhood? Or perhaps it's the single-mindedness of his vision, that a whole life should be committed to a single project? Or is it possibly that Henry Darger, lonely and emotionally isolated, composed his epic narrative because he had to-- out of love, passion, or catharsis-- and its acceptance by the general public had nothing to do with it?

Darger did nothing in his lifetime to publicize his creations nor to advocate himself as an artist, a quality of indifference very unique among creative people. Most need to show their work and be congratulated for it. Because of the internet, today's artists are not so dependent on the fickleness of gallery owners in order to get their work out. In spite of its intangibility and inherent limitations, the internet means "space" can exist anywhere, in any room in the world and can exist there indefinitely. Nevertheless, with the creation of counters for plays or views, our egos are more than ever intertwined with being seen, heard, noticed. Most of us are all too human and attach self-worth to the attention, accolades or value our work receives. The unknown artist can only google his or her name with extreme caution. This is because for most of us, our work cannot exist on its own merits. Satisfaction is contingent on recognition from an audience. Is this a very human quality, the need to be appreciated? It's a matter of love, isn't it? We need it and the fact that Darger could be so creative for so many years while keeping such a marvelous work to himself must seem incomprehensible to the Myspace generation. In this sense, he was operating like an immortal, beyond the realms of the real, someone whose superhuman discipline, patience, dedication, fanatical detail, talent, and self-assurance is something worth our admiration.

Although his childhood was particularly Dickensian, his methodic channeling of sadness and the themes he explored therein were particularly American. Poverty-stricken and orphaned at a young age, he never quite got over his unhappy childhood and was perhaps trying to resolve that dilemma with this mammoth effort, drawing from ideas of war, christianity, and most especially the battle between good and evil. Though childless and too destitute to qualify as a candidate with adoption agencies, Darger followed the travails of children in his imagination, the only place in his life where he had absolute control. Many of us Americans suffer various maladies of Peter Pan syndrome in our own childish ways-- we don't want responsibilities, we want to look, feel, stay young-- yet if only more of us could so selflessly express these anxieties in art and be happy for the effort, we might be so much better off.

When Henry Darger died in a hospice in 1973, his life's work was discovered by his landlords, Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko. Lerner, an accomplished photojournalist, recognized immediately the value of Darger's vision and took careful measures to ensure it was preserved and shared with the world. Likely, there are many landlords who would have tossed out the entire shebang and thus today we wouldn't have the amazing paintings composing In the Realms of the Unreal.

If you want to go back further, if Darger had had a happy childhood, maybe he wouldn't have been inspired to create what he had.

Everything, it seems, then, exists as a trick of fate and we should be thankful for what we've got. What we've lost--through the failure to acknowledge or preserve the work of artists who had no name or reputation to speak of-- is something that we will never quite comprehend.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Fine Easy Peace

Before Jack Nicholson became a caricature of himself as the irrepressible bachelor-- grouchy, creepy, unserious, baffled, flippant-- he had a dazzling run deconstructing the modern everyman into a moral situationist. This was the early 1970s, the age of Vietnam and Watergate, when the template for role models had been tweaked by war and social upheaval. No longer was it clear what constituted the ideals of a hero-- hell, it was hard enough to say what made a man a man. Thus Hollywood, in an era of permissive genius, played the dialectical game with the society at large, attempting to answer the unanswerable, and speaking for the cause of elusive heroism, among many great actors of that time, was Mr. Nicholson.

The character Nicholson plays in Five Easy Pieces, Bobby Eroica Dupea, is not easy to love. Bobby is a blue collar oil rig worker who drinks beer, goes bowling, and screws around on his needy girl, Rayette (a bizarre, yet likable performance by Easy Rider muse Karen Black), basically leading the kind of life today's Brooklyn hipsters stylize in pretense. Bobby's not faking it, of course; he just doesn't seem to know what else to do with his life and has accepted that work is something that funds the good times, which for Bobby have a generally masculine, if not anti-intellectual flavor. To the "carpe diem" type, it does seem a meaningless life, measured in sexual encounters and poker winnings. But as we observe the pleasure principle failing him, we discover that his appetites stem from a reaction to the sterile background from which he sprang.

Essentially, this is a story about family and like all the best stories that deal with the uncomfortable intimacy related to blood relations, Bobby doesn't necessarily get along very well with his kin. Interestingly, it is a clan of musical geniuses, but whose interest and virtuosity lie in classical persuasions, particularly piano greats like Chopin and Bach, indicating their personalities to be anachronistic and eccentric. Bobby's sister, though well-intentioned and kindly, is the spinster type. Bobby's brother--oafish, arrogant, clever-- has embraced the lifestyle as enthusiastically as Bobby has brazenly abandoned it. There is no mother in the picture but the family patriarch has had a stroke and though it's implied Bobby's father never quite forgave his son for walking away from a promising career in music, the prodigal son has come home.

The Dupea family live on a vast and beautiful estate on an idyllic island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. It's an isolated place, funded by old WASP money one supposes, and immune to the cataclysmic forces destabilizing the 1960s individual. In such a place rock and roll simply does not exist, and neither does the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, or the uncertainty of the times. In such an environment there is no counterculture, only culture. Bobby, alone in the family, has put Dr. Pangloss's utopian theory to the test and besides the ephemeral joys of beer, gambling and sex, his wanderings have left him a slightly ruined man. What makes the character so interesting is that he is neither here nor there, a classic outsider, a classless American, who knows too much of either world to fit in properly and to like it. Neither social context works for him, leaving him essentially homeless, alone, and drifting.

And that's precisely why I find Five Easy Pieces to be one of the great archetypal 1960s films although in truth it's one part sex, zero parts drugs and rock and roll. But the 1960s were more than just Andy Warhol and Tim Leary. There was a whole generation of Americans that had nothing to do with Woodstock or Shamanism that found themselves at the end of a postwar boom, divorced, jobless, possibly derelict and if they didn't go for pot or long hair, probably lonely and alienated to boot. Bobby is not some stupid trust fund kid getting off his rocker. He is a strong personality who has found nothing to recommend any system. Too smart for his own good, he lashes out against pretentiousness and ignorance equally, often getting into physical scraps that leave him humbled. He just doesn't seem to have any good fight in him; or perhaps he just doesn't know what he's fighting for.

Bobby Dupea has no great loves or hates; if there is no American Dream, conversely there is no American nightmare. There's just the day-to-day attrition of trying to make an unbearable life bearable. That's where the beer and women come in--they're palliatives, not salvation, which to some temperaments will always remain suspect, and therefore disposable. He loses the one girl who really captivates him (his brother's girlfriend, played by the lovely and mostly forgotten Susan Anspach). She breaks things off because for a woman of expressed passionate views, Bobby's indifference is incomprehensible; there is no real future with him. She believes he is insensitive to beauty in life, but that simply isn't true. The difference between them is that sensitivity has destroyed him. While she loses herself in music, he has lost himself in the world.

In the film's famous monologue, Bobby explains to his ailing father, now mute but perhaps alert yet, "Most of what I do doesn't add up to a way of life that you'd approve of. I move around a lot, not because I'm looking for anything really but because I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay..." It's a sentiment that Bobby lives by to the very end, resulting in a contentious ending that some viewers find quite objectionable. But it's an honest telling and it suggests so much about the uncertainty of that time.

It's not every character that needs to learn right from wrong. Sometimes, they're one of the same thing. And that's that.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Atomic Proportions

Halfway through Jack Arnold's "The Incredible Shrinking Man," it becomes clear how utterly dangerous your average 1950s household really was, Good Housekeeping tips aside. Visualized or at least idealized as hygienic and ordered, your average 1950s home was in actuality a very Darwinian place should you be a man contaminated by radioactive gasses, resulting in your ceaseless shrinking or as I saw it, the atomization of man. Terrorizing house cats, hungry spiders, and the "primeval plain" of the cellar floor tests the ingenuity of Scott Carey, who once enjoyed pie-in-the-sky Life Magazine quintessence-- the beautiful blonde wife, the cushy job, the spacious suburban home-- and in his unenviable condition must now learn to contend with creepy crawlers for breadcrumbs.
Made in 1957, "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is very much a film of its time. It was written by Richard Matheson, a frequent contributor to Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. The actor portraying Scott, Grant Williams, a trained opera singer, has the perfect narrator's voice to build audience empathy and the handsome everyman looks that would lead anybody watching to nod sympathetically, "he's one of us." What seems on surface a popcorn picture is actually a very complex and fascinating examination of the marginalization of the modern man and a bizarre conception of his redemption.

Scott's Lilliputian condition is caused by exposure to radioactive gas while enjoying a lazy summer day on his brother's boat. At the outset, thus, he is prostrate, indulgent, bored, requesting his wife, Louise, go below deck and grab him some beers. It's obvious that he's a made man but nonetheless susceptible to the winds of destruction. The source of these mysterious gases that contaminate Scott are never explained, though its assumed they were leaked by the military, likely through incompetence. In 1957, postwar confidence in American supremacy was waning for the first time. The economy would begin contracting that summer, the Sputnik would be launched into space, and the Russians were on par with the U.S. in the arms race for mutually assured destruction. That our efforts in science might not necessarily protect but threaten us was an idea being explored best in the science fiction, fantasy films and comic books of the time. What afflicts Scott Carey is literal "blowback," a random balancing of karma against our destructive material and militaristic philosophy. Scott is a good American husband, faithful, dutiful, innocent, who has his life inexplicably ruined. The suggestion is explicit: It could happen to you.

The film is composed of two parts, the first half dealing with the social and emotional ramifications of his incessant shrinkage and the latter segment detailing the return of his animal instincts-- the quest for food and self-defense in a primordial universe.

When he is about three feet tall, doctors at a research facility treat him with a serum that interrupts the degenerative process. Having lost his job and needing money, Scott publicizes his story, selling it to a newspaper. The resulting media coverage, even by 1950s standards is humiliating and Scott struggles to rationalize his “freakishness.” He befriends Clarise, a lovely midget of a traveling road show who helps lead him to acceptance of his condition: “The sky is as blue as it is for the giants.” The relationship ends all too soon when the serum fails and Scott continues to atomize.

Having retreated back to the care of his loyal wife and living within a dollhouse in a suicidal condition, the monotony of his declining stature is shattered by the attack of a housecat (the performance of the tabby doing more harm to the reputation of felines than Garfield ever could). Scott survives, only to wind up a prisoner of the basement-- a barren, harsh place typical of fastidious American disposal habits. A leaking water heater is his only water source; stale bread his only resource for carbohydrates; for protein does he dare risk dismemberment and an ignoble death for a piece of old cheese sitting on a classic mousetrap? Luckily, there were no rats to contend with; giant spiders being enough of a nuisance, especially when your only weapon in defense is a threading needle. But this discarded needle (isn't everything stored in our basements one motivated Sunday away from the dumpster?) is the difference for Scott between being prey and predator and just as importantly on an abstract, spiritual level, it connects him to man's warrior heritage. It's not for nothing that the movie climaxes with his slaying of the spider, whom he had tried to defeat with ingenuity but in the end, relies upon instinct and simple strength. His prevailing over the arachnid proves Randy Newman may have been wrong about the little guy. There's one dude in 1950s America who's instincts are working full tilt.

There is no classic happy ending due the travails of our hero. Science changed him and when he needed its help, science failed him. There would be no reversal of fortunes, no more of the good, rich consumeristic life. Instead, the character has managed to recover a humanity lost to his peers, an understanding of the world, one's place in it and ironically enough, a physical presence that he lacked in normal conditions. Is Scott Carey the last warrior or the argonaut into the infinitesimal? It's a question that he answers in full in a monologue closing the film that is as beautiful as any text ever written about spirituality and is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the beauty of the language, as well as how it sums up the qualities of a surprisingly poetic film:

"So close the infinitesimal and the infinite... but suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens-- the universe--worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature that existence begins and ends as man's conception, not nature's and I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance, all this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something and then I meant something too-- yes smaller than the smallest, I meant something too-- to God there is no zero. I still existed."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Getting Along

In mid-summer, 1941, following the Nazi incursion into the Soviet Union, German soldiers entered the small Ukrainian town of Jedwabne. Instead of resistance, they were welcomed by the local Christian community. Once they met with town authorities, the Nazis had no trouble organizing local mobs to engage in a bloody pogrom slaughtering various people of Jewish descent: old men, young mothers, newborn babies, many of them incinerated in the barn of the town baker. What was most remarkable about this was not just that half the town’s male population was involved in the carnage but that until the chaos engendered by the Nazi invasion, the town had enjoyed peaceful religious heterodoxy.

This gruesome account is one of dozens of such episodes described (often referenced in detailed first person accounts) in Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World. It is an ambitious work that attempts to explain the violence of the 20th century, the cataclysms of which led to the decline of the West in military, economic, and moral terms. Regarding the causes of violence itself, he cites economic volatility, ethnic conflict, and the nationalism that spurred the decline of the great royal empires of the 19th century.

Ferguson finds it ironic that in a time of so much progress— not only scientific and technological but artistic and liberal as well— that the century, particularly the first half, should be defined by violence so wretched and thorough, it defies contemplation. Technology, of course, made genocide more systematic and quicker (the huge numbers of casualties listed repeatedly chillingly recall the words of a prominent mass murderer, Josef Stalin, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”)

Throughout most of history, ethnic conflict was often a contest of land, food, wealth, and resources, vied for by peoples of unique language, culture and customs. But the beginning of the 20th century saw the popularization of eugenics adopted by megalomaniacs and fanatics, who would argue that not only color and physiognomy, but also intelligence, aptitude, character, and even morals were hereditary, rather than environmentally influenced. Thus miscegenation, or racial interbreeding, would dilute the genetic quality of superior races. It was this ability to create a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” that enabled normal, young, perhaps intelligent men to commit atrocities. If the “enemy” is so dehumanized, then it is no different than slaughtering swine or poultry, or as the Hutus called the Tutsi, “cockroaches.”

What fascinates Ferguson about the Nazis is that the war and genocide were carried out by highly educated people in the most industrialized state of Europe under the dictates of a government elected by primarily democratic means. The extermination of the Jews, in particular, utilized the genius of German science and logistics, and the examples Ferguson cites are psychopathic:

- A PhD thesis from Breslau University, titled, “On the Possibilities of Recycling Gold From the Mouths of the Dead.”

- Fares charged by German state railway for transporting Jews to extermination camps were half price for children and discounted for groups of 400 or more.

- Victims of gas chambers had their screams drowned out by songs mocking their execution, like, "Highlander, Have You No Regrets?

The man responsible for human experiments at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele, had doctorates in medicine and anthropology. How could highly educated men running this extraordinary killing machine not know better? Was it conviction in Hitler’s racial war, peer pressure, or were they simply “following orders” like Eichmann, the logistical mastermind of the Holocaust? This commitment of a professional, educated class to the wholesale destruction of a certain ethnic group is both astonishing and frightening. The Nazis were very modern in the engineering of their philosophy— the radicalization of these professional classes is one of the great enigmas of the Second World War.

Nazi Propaganda Poster Painting the U.S. as Some Strange Robot Monster

This hatred of the other was notably inorganic, specifically a product of state propaganda, yet accepted by majorities of the public as fact. This was true in Imperial Japan as well, which fought a war of aggression in Asia that was racially motivated and thus comparably violent. What is commendable in Ferguson’s approach as a historian is that as much as he finds the Nazis’ behavior reprehensible, he demonstrates that although the plans for a “final solution” were beyond contempt, their methods of constructing a monstrous, bestial enemy were not unique. The so-called victors of the war, the Americans and British, utilized caricature in order to demonize the enemy and mobilize popular support for a conflict in which the Allies adopted the practice of Total War.

The Big 3 at Potsdam

Many historians (and pundits especially) call WWII a “good war,” (oxymoronic, anyone?) fought valiantly by the “greatest generation.” I suppose they see it as such because the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought on ideological grounds rather than against a demonstrably evil, dangerous, and threatening regime. There is no question that Hitler needed to be stopped. That is not debatable. But how much did we need the “means” in order to secure the “end?” Total War meant beating the Nazis at their own game, the slaughtering of civilians. In order to push through victory, cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo could be justifiably firebombed and Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be rationally atomized. Ferguson does not suggest there was a moral equivalence between Auschwitz and Hiroshima as the former was meticulous slaughter as a goal of war while the latter, an indiscriminate mass killing in order to end the war. Some justified the bombing as payback. Others saw it as a demonstration of Machiavellian terror that would demoralize support for the regimes. Whatever it was, it resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians, people who had been dehumanized to the point where they were just meaningless statistics obliterated for the sake of victory guaranteed to the “good guys.”

Dresden, 1945

Ferguson makes an interesting contestation about who really won the Second World War, as the map of Europe was redrawn at the end of the conflict to one nation’s titanic advantage: the Soviet Union, who draped their infamous Iron Curtain over the Eastern Bloc from the Baltics to the Balkans, as well as instituting rigid control over East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Albania, the so-called Soviet satellites, thus replacing the totalitarianism of one government with another. But Britain refused to take a stand against Soviet imperialism, as it had gone to war to protect Poland from Germany, not Russia, so that its loss of sovereignty was regrettable but not in its best interests.

Did Churchill and his Allies thus regret their collaboration with the Soviets? It’s clear that this had been a Faustian bargain struck under conditions of extreme duress but a deal with the devil nonetheless. Without American supplies, i.e. rations, radios, tanks, and bullets and British intelligence, the Eastern Front would have seen a lot more attrition; had armies been bogged down there, perhaps the British and Americans might have liberated Eastern Europe. As it happened, with aid and logistical support, the Soviets prevailed and in their march through Germany into Berlin, looted, raped, and murdered civilians with unrelieved brutality. Once the German government capitulated, the British returned more than a million POWs to the Soviet Union, aware that these men would be either executed or sentenced to hard labor in Siberia.

The unconditional access to resources offered Stalin and the ingenuous faith that he would be accommodating in postwar development had not been the only flaw in Allied strategy. Much has been rightly criticized of Churchill for his idea of situational democracy. Believing that the Poles had the right for self-determination, but not Malays, Kenyans, or Indians is hypocritical, if not racist. The dismantling of English, French, and Portuguese empires and the kind of governments they would be allowed to have would mean a perpetuation of war, but in different theaters.

Ferguson’s primary research focuses on the great wars and the causes leading up to them. One of his principle arguments rails against the traditionally accepted length of the World Wars, arguing that the sloppy configuration of borders at Versailles meant that there had been no true peace so much as truce (and that in the dismemberment of empires, nationalism had taken an ethnic character leading to massive violence not just in the former Hapsburg empire but in the Ottoman disintegration as well). He also makes it clear that though the Cold War was ostensibly peaceful to the superpowers, the period of decolonization saw massive violence in the Third World, wars (famously Vietnam but all over) fought by proxy armies between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. And again the Americans are criticized for taking a morally ambivalent stand, proclaiming the language of peace and democracy, while suppressing democratically elected governments sympathetic to the Soviets or anti-capitalist in general. Thus their backing of infamous strongmen like Saddam, Suharto, and Marcos to protect American interests (“It doesn’t matter if he’s a sonofabitch, so long as he’s our sonofabitch.”).

And with the end of the Cold War what shall we look forward to in the new century? Ferguson’s critique on nations, ethnicity, and war ends with a caveat against Islamic fundamentalism. Curiously, Ferguson laments the declining birth rate of Europe, arguing that it will be impossible to support entitlement programs like health care and pensions without an influx of immigrants, and the likely source of this labor will come from North Africa, where the birth rate is significantly higher. Reminding us of the recent bombings in Madrid and London, Ferguson warns the contemporary citizen:

“A hundred years ago, globalization was celebrated in not dissimilar ways as goods, capital, and labor flowed freely from England to the ends of the earth. Yet mass migration in around 1900 was accompanied by increases in ethnic tension…with ultimately explosive consequences. In 1914 the first age of globalization ended with a spectacular bang because of an act of terror…”

Ferguson goes on to say that civilization, even the most well integrated ones sharing language, faith and even genes, can collapse, particularly during economic volatility. But in order to protect ourselves, what are we willing to give up? What moral values do we cede in order to be safe? How far do we rely on government and state sanctioned violence to protect us before we stop being the victim and start being the terrorist?

What the Jew, the Communist, the Nazi, the Islamist and the terrorist all seem to have in common is the specter of the Boogeyman. This is the default setting which governments and media utilize in order to rally patriotism, whether the system is democratic or totalitarian. What this regrettably leads to is simple: the dismantling of basic civil and human rights. In Germany, this meant the Holocaust. In George Bush’s America, this has meant Guantanamo Bay. Of course, what the Nazis did was much worse, but that’s not the point— the conception of the modern “terrorist” is male, Islamic, bearded. This association has already been deeply drawn by the wars and crises over the last decade so that the Muslim is shrouded in Boogeyman terror—just last week over a third of Americans polled favor a ground invasion of Iran. This is the self-destructive nature of our terror: that in our fear of the other, we debase the physical humanity of our enemy, impoverishing our own spiritual humanity.

There is no winning or losing a war, there is only loss.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


A casual examination of this blog would quickly reveal a dereliction of duty, as nothing has been posted, explained, rhapsodized, loved, or praised since mid-June more than four months past. This suggests, I suppose, multiple conclusions, as it may indicate either slothfulness or vivaciousness-- I will take credit for both. No doubt there has often been something more important to do, just as there has been much acquiescence to the pleasures of reading, traveling, and social visits. I have spent a great many evenings with nothing much to be proud of, simply one day older and worrying about the unrealized life.

Anyways, maybe there have been some lost opportunities; I have read a great many books that are consumed, digested, and forgotten like some terrific meal, whose taste I will forget if I don’t jot down the distinguishing characteristics of its fine flavor. So I’d like to try to use this forum more often, perhaps to review or discuss literature and history, even cinema, if only to provoke questions that lead not necessarily to concrete answers, but to even more interesting questions. So great attempts will be made, but with life accelerating in all its pleasures and obligations, I am capable of no promises, only hope.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chatting With Your Ferns About Love and Weather

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight.

In the southern state of India's Tamil Nadu, an enormous banyan tree in a dry, dusty plain had been the original inspiration for the experimental city that has become Auroville. A large meditation center was built nearby and all roads in Auroville generally run to this tree, heart and soul of a utopian village populated by eco-conscious foreigners and likeminded Indians. A no-noise zone, the shade under the canopy is a pleasant place to gather, rest, and contemplate. It's not unusual to see the banyan's trunk embraced by visitors, literal 'tree huggers,' whose state of grace smiles seem to suggest they are being hugged back. And perhaps, as I later learned, they are.

I recently watched a 1970s documentary called, "Journey to the Secret Life of Plants," one of the weirdest psychedelic movies ever made, the apogee of the flower-power movement (pun intended). Its soundtrack was arranged by Stevie Wonder who appears briefly in the movie in an incandescent dreamcoat traipsing through a similarly effulgent landscape. Star power, sure, but the real interest here is the idea of plant life having a higher consciousness.

This idea is not at all novel. For centuries, Hindus have believed in the unity of life. Man can witness his spiritual flowering reflected in flora, understanding the elements of the human body as being one with the "infinite cycle of creation." This belief in the unity of existence is reaffirmed through chanting of Vedic hymns (at this point, those familiar with the inequities in India's social caste would likely reference Mark Twain's famous assessment, "In India, all life is sacred, except human life.")

One could convincingly argue that Christianity makes the same argument, as in funereal rites: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return."

This complementary relationship between man and flowers was for centuries founded upon faith. In recent years however, we have learned that the cognizance of the green world is more alert than we could have ever guessed. In 1960s San Diego, California, an inquisitive member of law enforcement, Cleave Baxter, decided one night to investigate what would happen when he attached a polygraph's sensors to his house plant. His intention was to record the plant's nervousness if he were to approach it in the most threatening manner: with fire. A non-smoker, the administrator would have to retrieve some matches from his secretary's desk. However, the moment he consciously decided to burn the leaf, Baxter noticed the polygraph needle jerk violently. The plant, it seems, read his mind and reacted fearfully. Baxter, a no-nonsense all-American empiricist, was sold.

More experiments followed. For example, a timer drops a thimble of salt water into a plant's soil, leading to flustered needle marks on the polygraph paper. Analysis of numerous tests confirm his hypothesis. Explaining in his own words, the clean cut officer sounds not too different from a Hindu Brahmin: "even on the lower levels of life there's a profound consciousness that binds all things together."

Some progressive scientists have attempted to build on this discovery with fascinating results. In one such test, a man was connected with a plant to the same polygraph machine. He was shown a movie with various scenes designed to elicit strong emotions at selected intervals. The man became excited when viewing a sensuous breast and then despaired at archival footage of nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. The plant responded correspondingly.

(What does this say about those people who can't seem to take care of plants, for whom flora becomes wilting petals, browning leaves, crackling textures? Can we read into a man's state of emotions through the state of his succulents?)

A team of scientists and engineers was able to build an interactive greenhouse in which machinery translated the energy emanating from plants into sound; visitors to the greenhouse exploring the botanical garden affected the mood of the plants so that the "music" emanating from the speakers modulated according to the interaction between the two distinct species of life, a conversation, or a "live concert," if you will.

Similarly, engineers in Japan created a computer capable of transforming the electrical output of plants into modulated sounds. At a temple in Kyoto, the president of Fuji Electronics and his kimono-clad wife demonstrate to a group of journalists how the machine enables one to communicate with a cactus. The wife attempts to teach it the Japanese alphabet; it murmurs back to her an approximate sound (but does not titter in response to her own nervous giggling).

Even the scientists in 1970s Soviet Russia became involved in testing though their methods were a bit more torturous. For example, a scientist blows tobacco smoke on a plant to test its irritability (he seems to enjoy peeving the plant). The sentience of a cabbage plant is then tested. A scientist slices through a distinct cabbage causing the unharmed plant to register alarm. That fits accordingly with the tests from San Diego. But what is especially interesting is that when the same scientist wielding the sharp knife enters the laboratory room two hours later (sans knife), the cabbage plant becomes agitated once more.

Wow. So plants can not only read our thoughts but they may very well have memory as well... what are the philosophical implications of these conclusions, particularly for vegetarians whose diet is a protest against the cruelty of meat-eating? What might carrots, cauliflower, and zucchini feel about being boiled, steamed, sliced? The agony of the silent scream (and the end of the riddle of regarding a tree falling in the forest... if the surrounding trees are perceptive to its collapse then it certainly makes a sound, doesn't it?)

Roald Dahl, that visionary genius of fiction, has a story dated from 1953 called "The Sound Machine" in which an inventor has created a means in order to record low and high-pitched noises inaudible to the human ear. His next door neighbor, Mrs. Saunders, is creating a cacophony of howling agony with her gardening. Confronting her, he asks pointedly, "How do you know that a rose bush doesn't feel as much pain when someone cuts its stem in two as you would feel if someone cut your wrist off with a garden shears? How do you know that? It's alive, isn't it?"

The inventor takes the machine and its earphones to a tree and hacks at it with an ax: "a harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low-pitched, screaming sound... drawn out like a sob..." He feels terrible about the wound he's gashed and contemplates the horrors of agriculture: "He thought immediately of a field of wheat standing up straight and yellow and alive, with the mower going through it, cutting the stems... Oh, my God, what would that noise be like? Five hundred wheat plants screaming together... no, he thought, I do not want to go to a wheat field with my machine. I would never eat bread after that. But what about potatoes and cabbages and carrots and onions?" (The story ends with the inventor insisting that his doctor friend rub iodine on the tree's laceration.)

The idea of interconnectedness explicit in this film reminds me of the water crystal experiments of Masaru Emoto. Emoto believes that words not only give form to powerful feelings but have vibrations that affect our everyday invisible world as well. Projections of appreciation and anger are written on test tubes of water, left aside, frozen, and when the ice is melting, there is a two-minute window in which to photograph the consequences language has on the crystals. His findings, taken at face value, are fantastic.

For example, this crystal was formed from the word "happiness:"

And this one, conversely, from the word, "despair:"

Significantly different, right? Similarly, this crystal was viewed from "good job:"

And this one from, "You did it wrong!"

Emoto assumes that because humans are composed 70% of water, it's natural to conclude that our wavelengths, whether positive or negative, are projected and assimilated towards those around us. In a somewhat related experiment, Emoto photographed Tokyo tap water which looked distinctly unhealthy, contaminated as it was by chemicals. He then had five hundred people pray for its health. Following this consensus of hope, there had been a detectable change in the crystal makeup.

One can criticize Emoto for being selective about which crystals are photographed and that scientifically, his methods could be considered spurious. But if you want to examine the argument from dissenters closely, they seem to suggest that our thoughts, feelings, and ruminations have absolutely no effect on our environment.

Does this not seem as outlandish as the discoveries of Emoto and Baxter?

It's not just a crisis in imagination on their part, but an indifference to the metaphysical. You don't have to be a hippie to be excited by the vitality of the living world, its chatter and its music.

So do not forget to wish your flowers, "Good morning," when you are watering them. It might make a difference...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You Can Lead A Camel to Water, But...

"Can you teach a camel to dance?"  booms the hoity-toity voice of the English-speaking emcee on the crackling public address system. Instead of answering his question, he continues, digressively, "What you see will remain vivid in your late years." Drummers rattle bombastically and a camel gallops onto the main stage, its head swung back so that its neckline is exposed sunward, the animal staggering forwards and backwards not dancing so much as appearing to be in dire need of urination. "Bravo, what a clever beast," gapes the emcee, rhapsodic.

The city of Bikaner has always played second fiddle to its beautiful sister, Jaisalmer. Both cities are in Rajasthan, set squarely on the edge of the Thar Desert, the southern frontier between India and Pakistan, but Bikaner is never included in fly-by-night tourist itineraries: Jaisalmer is the chosen desert dream locale. Perhaps one could fault the city planning of Bikaner, which beyond the claustrophobic alleys of the Old City, is too spread out, too suburban, too dull while the fort in Jaisalmer is an inhabited relic; a few thousand people still live there, mostly Brahmin families, connecting a contemporary intimacy with a mythologized past, a sense of wonder that feels quite remote while dodging the busy buzz of Bikaner's traffic. But for three days a year, Bikaner is queen of the desert during its annual camel festival.

The city holds the first day of the festival at a stadium named for a famous local son, an Olympic clay pigeon marksman. The groundskeepers have set up three sections of plastic chairs, one for the Indians, one for the tourists and one for press. Unsurprisingly, organization spirals quickly out of control and within the first hour of the show, nearly everyone has wandered past the police line onto the field itself for a closer look.

"Look at the shine! Look at the raiment of the Pied Pipers!" When the emcee mentions Pied Pipers I immediately think of mice at the nearby Rat Temple at Deshnok but he wants to draw attention to a battery of musicians—horns, reeds, drums, bagpipes—leading the cavalcade. "Dressed in most gorgeous finery, propped lovingly to be incomparably beautiful, the camels will demonstrate a gorgeousness to silence their harshest critics." I've never met anyone critical of the aesthetic quality of camels—indifference is slightly more common. But indeed plenty of brouhaha has gone into bedecking these passive beasts—attired in garlands, tassels, confetti, bells, inlaid mirrors, plastic flowers, nose piercings, silk scarves, marigold necklaces, pink balloons, India national flags, Kohl eye shadow, even their enormous ungulate toes look pedicured— "stunning" as the emcee declares, as I like most others, bravo with our cameras. 

Gentlemen of the B.S.F. (Border Security Force) enter, riding the animals accoutered in corresponding vestments but of a martial couture: epaulets, gongs-and-pips, ironed-on patches, and immaculate uniform creases. Rainbow-turbaned and armed to the teeth they brandish spears, swords, crescent knives, and goofy smiles (watch yourself, Pakistan!). Most conspicuous though are their waxed mustaches, where in this particular detail, size matters. Protected by extraordinary facial hair, they chaperone a princess in a purple sari in need of a parasol.

Following India's finest are some camels lugging a cart loaded with Kashmiri rugs. Then a camel pulls a large cardboard house reading State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, the proud local sponsor getting its air time. And then, oddly, the show progresses into real life logistical examples of the humpback experience. Camels slog past its audience tugging the most quotidian loads: wagons overloaded with bundles of broken tree branches, another with carefully chopped firewood, the next with food in open air sacks, another crowded with poor farmers and so on "in recognition of their contribution in desert transportation." The obviousness of their usefulness bores the audience, who stir from the their descending torpor only when we move on to camel acrobatics.

The first camel in the contest genuflects to the audience, a salutation not especially acrobatic despite the emcee's euphemistic encouragement: "Not an easy thing to do. Certainly not!" The next act involves a man rising to a standing position on the animal's hump as it gallops before the grandstands. ("Great sense of balance!") The next man does a headstand on a strutting camel ("The duty of the camel is to take a man to his destination no matter how peculiar his riding preference."). The following camel runs past us with a man balanced like the Nike Swoosh ("Even yoga can be performed on a running camel. Camels are so important in our daily life.") After this stunning stretch is a comedy act featuring a joker doing the rodeo clown bit, rolling under the animal, connecting an air pump to its rear, administering air, and checking the pressure. His gag ends with him riding backwards ("His own particular way of riding camels.") I glance at some Kuwaiti sheiks in VIP chairs, expressionless behind their dark sunglasses.

The camel dancing seems redundant after the acrobatics exhibition. Led by bearded men in dhotis, pulled by the reins like marionette strings, camels move herkyjerky as if they are dodging Pakistani machinegun fire. More photogenic is the camel-shaving festival in which several camels are paraded before us with intricate geometric designs shaved into their flanks, reminding the viewer of henna, mandalas, and carpets. The camels are escorted by their barbers around a circle of spectators posing at specified positions for the cameras to encapsulate the ephemeral beauty. ("You know it's like the catwalk, a real fashion show. Bravo.")

Well, not like any I have ever been to but this is India. More germane to the spirit of a fashion show is the Mr. Bikaner contest. Representing the different cities of Rajasthan, the contestants' turbans are varieties of pattern and color: red, saffron, shades of purple and green--if you even notice the colors once you've gotten over the men's outstanding mustaches, the longer ones unrolled and curling out stretched to their fullest diameter. "Just look into their faces, ladies and gentlemen, and witness…the glory," the emcee intones with situational gravitas. But glory can be superficial and the true determining factor for Mr. Bikaner is personality. Taking turns addressing the audience, their handling of the mic would be decisive. Some, despite the swagger of their facial hair, are short but sweet. One bursts into song. A bearded Mr. Bikaner wannabe shouts a maelstrom at us, blowing his chance of victory, though to be honest if one of them has the chutzpah to unsheathe his sword and feint, he would have clinched my vote (the announced judges are army officers and doctors to a chair which leads me to presume military service and medical knowledge are essential qualifications for evaluating the ideal Mr. Bikaner). Bizarrely, in a flagrant push for cuteness, a small boy and girl dressed in the height of desert fashion are brought on stage. The tiny boy embraces the tiny girl and kisses her cheek and the crowd goes nuts for this saccharine outburst (organizers manage to pull the stunt off in spite of the risk of controversy, for Rajasthan is infamous for child brides being married off in group dowries and here could have been poster children).

Following Mr. Bikaner against the backdrop of a soft, magical light, begins the Miss Meridan contest, which is named after a woman involved in a folk tale that includes drought, seeds, floods, love, and camels. "This contest is about grace, style, poise, personality." Yes and it is just like a real fashion show because the girls have to utilize their feminine charms to woo our cheering. They work mostly from the same template as the camels:  henna, bangles, jewelry. Of course, they are wearing swirling, colorful saris but the garment, like the Japanese kimono, is justly famous for the intricacies in its folds and certainly requires a touch of finesse to make it work. In fashion you capitalize on your strengths, you work with what you have, and some of the women do well exploiting the flirty potential of a veil, conjuring an aura of mystery and romance. ("Sometimes sexy is not what you can see, but what you can't!")  Like the contest for Mr. Bikaner, personality goes a long way and the women finish their catwalk performance with an address to the audience. Some sing village songs, some are cheered by local factions, but most of the girls flop the personality bit, but for this they can hardly be faulted—they are not only shy but also bewildered to be standing before such an enormous (mostly male) audience. Traditionally accustomed to modesty rather than stage events, the women betray not only their girlhood but also a lifestyle that has not conditioned them towards spectacle.

I do not stick around to hear the winners announced, nor do I return to the stadium that night when another local hero is scheduled to perform (the winner from a TV talent show—the American Idol equivalent). I worry the celebrants might have dug into their moonshine in the interim and having been to several Indian weddings, I have had enough of moshpits and juiced-up, excitable Indians, their elbows in my teeth.

My reliability as a Bikaner Camel Fair witness deteriorates from the moment the Miss Meridan contest wraps up. I do not attend the last day of the festival due to outgoing travel arrangements and the day I do go to Ladera, a desert village within the Thar Desert, I don't have the patience to decipher the slipshod scheduling of the events. A certain fatigue plagues my notetaking and without the exclamations of the ironic emcee, my enthusiasm does not respond critically to the events. Or perhaps the novelty of camels has begun to wear off.

On the way to Ladera, civilization disappears when we leave the main highway and the claptrap bus takes to a potholed dirt path. We pass mud huts, thatched roofs, idle children and village elders surrounded by a landscape of desert scrub and top-heavy sand dunes. Bunting twined on some cables indicates the festival's presence as well as a Vodafone banner in some dusty, leafless tree.

By the time I alight from the bus, the first event has already begun, a variation of Greco-Roman wrestling. One prone to conjecture has to wonder whether the source of the sport is a residual consequence of Alexander the Great's incursion into the Punjabi region. That theory can not be guaranteed and neither can a view and I don't feel like using the tourist card to push myself through the crowded male audience. I wander the dunes slightly incoherent, taking in the landscape, emptying my shoes of sand, failing in conversation with a stoned sadhu, and waiting for the next event, a foot race up a dune. This, too, lacks camels but provides an outlet for hyperactive locales to exhaust themselves for no suitable reason.

Nothing like the Indian Air Force for a strong pick-me-up. Two fighter jets practice maneuvers over the event leaving sonic booms in their wake and stunned shoeless farmers gasping for their gods. Then higher, from an aircraft built for such purposes, skydivers leap into the void, floating down on bright parachutes and who, once they land, are mobbed by impressed children.

How are the camels supposed to follow James Brown at the Apollo? The camel jockeys whip their animals across a 200-meter field, wiping out for me at least the animal's cliché reputation for slowness. Tragedy is narrowly averted on the final race when halfway through one of the camels right-turn off the course and stampede in the audience's direction, his rider perhaps aiming for a creditor he has spotted in the sands.

With the sun thus setting I mill around the trail leading back to the village, Ladera, and beyond, my hotel in Bikaner. Wandering, I see a camel's cart being loaded with what must have been the entire female half of a local family clan. Squished together, they giggle at me as the camel's handler mutters his familiar orders to the animal, a genuine moment of truth within the staged artifice. I walk along the wagon, waving farewell to the blushing ladies.

Edited from an earlier draft dated 2008