Black Ribbon Award

ETERNITY LEAVE

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It would probably not come as too destabilizing a shock for one to know that I have a history of neuroses. And in my younger years they were, by very possibly every standard, somewhat eccentric. In elementary school I had a fear of dragonflies. By middle school I risked panic attack every time a classroom was handed over to a substitute teacher. I’m sure this is all very amusing; it is to me, don’t worry. But I can’t imagine it seemed that way to my parents, who had to shepherd me from therapist to psychiatrist and back, not to mention three different elementary schools to accommodate my learning disability, to put me on an even keel.

One of my more acute issues was some variant of separation anxiety. It proved rather resistant to the talking cure, so when I was about eight, my mom took a more proactive approach. On a Saturday afternoon, she drove me to the elementary school I was then attending, sat me at the front bench with a pad of paper, and left me there for some 20 minutes. Though it was a nice enough day there was not a soul in sight as far as I can recall, save two older girls who walked up, asked me what I was doing and, upon hearing my candid reply, looked at each other in understandably perplexed silence before walking away.

Having carried that experiment with the austere dignity of a John C. Calhoun portrait, this pattern would hold for much of my childhood and adolescence. Even in college I was propelled along through Mom forcing me, from 70 miles away, to join things and be social. Though the specific moments of “strong encouragement” were beneficial at select turns, it left an enduring impression on me. If I was to improve at all, it was through effort. Even misfired effort done in good faith, I convinced myself, would bare some reward. I don’t think I was quite right there, but even so, I took it upon myself to assume a self-presentation that was outgoing. I accepted invitations, solicited my time and services, developed personal charm, and traveled alone more often to unfamiliar places, all in the hope of forging a network where I didn’t always have to be so fucking gregarious.

Success was not always consistent, but every time it came it left me wondering why I hadn’t done this sooner. What a revelation it was that being normal wasn’t very hard at all with some practice. In fact I had come to realize that I enjoyed talking to people and could even be very easy going in new company. It was a slow but illuminating education on how humanity kept moving.

But every time I think I have the norm pegged, its mysterious keepers pull the rug up from under me.

“Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day,” writes Jonathan Rauch. “Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk?” This is the opening passage to his 2003 Atlantic article, “Caring for Your Introvert.” In it, Rauch declares himself and others as part of a little-known, perhaps even oppressed “orientation” (emphasis his), who are neither consistently shy nor misanthropic but who are nonetheless tired by people. And they would like some goddamn recognition.

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

There’s quite a bit of tongue being planted in cheek here, but it’s hard to otherwise see this as a catalytic document for an emergent national mood. I had known nothing of introverts or the Myers-Briggs test until a few years ago. Now the content farm is bountiful in the introversion crop. Psychology Today gives “Nine Signs You’re Probably an Introvert.” The Huffington Post boasted 23 more. The process, it seems, is to confirm one’s introversion and to report to Buzzfeed in perpetuity. A joke that Buzzfeed assures “will make introverts laugh more than they should” is a tweet that simply reads, “Can’t. On eternity leave.”

I suspend judgment as to whether the wave of introversion is sincerely felt or part of an ongoing trend (I can’t recall where the Myers-Briggs classifications were likened to astrology for the Neil deGrasse Tyson set, but it works). Its impact is more certain to me, and it’s proving at the very least to be competitive with other social phenomena (Trumpism, heroin) for long-term tangibility and consequentialism.

Ever since it was profiled in Fast Company earlier this week, the service startup Bodega has been pilloried without relent on social media. Founded by former Google employees, Bodega “sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the ‘store.’” The pantries are designed for multiple locations: gyms, offices, apartment and dorm complexes, etc.

The outcome, as it is framed in the article, is to offer a more convenient alternative to the convenience store. But Bodega was very quickly taken down several pegs by the fact that Bodega sounded like a glorified vending machine, and that similar, less convoluted pantries are already in place in offices and hotels. Helen Rosner at Eater agrees that Bodega is ridiculous. Its business model is a mess. But Rosner pushes back against critics saying it’s just another redundant product like Juicero. “I think a better analogy is Blue Apron,” she writes:

Like Bodega, Blue Apron took something that involved leaving the house and engaging in moderate human interaction — in their case, grocery shopping for dinner — and slickly repackaged it in a way that it seemed actually to be selling a balm for recipe anxiety. Bloomberg’s always very smart Matt Levine called it “a tech company in the sense that its product is not meals, or ingredients, but simulacrum.” The problem was that the simulacrum wasn’t proprietary. As soon as it became clear that there was a demand for meal kits, everybody else got in on the action, too. (Emphasis mine.)

Companies like Bodega and Blue Apron are, as Levine puts it, “virtual-reality companies,” curing modern life of once-unavoidable daily hassles like shopping. But as Rosner points out, Blue Apron is struggling in an oversaturated market, and so will Bodega. I would not dare to question the more immediate and far more sophisticated analysis of these two, but I find the essence to which they cut both services down hard to overlook. Indeed, to look at the creators of Bodega as actual businessmen, with a practical strategy to turn a profit, is a mistake. Many entrepreneurs go out of their way to pose simultaneously, perhaps primarily, as visionaries. For once this might actually be the case.

If the Bodega creators and other internet and tech titans lack any feasible way of doing actual business, they have at the very least a coherent understanding of where society wants to go: nowhere. It wants to stay in, to curate, and to exclude. The problem of overstimulation is eased by the ability to manage stimulation. The freedom of access gives way to the power to mute, even to block. The global village of Marshal McLuhan gives way to E.M. Forster’s machine-dependent, physical interaction-repulsed cell dwellers in “The Machine Stops”:

There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

This is the shut-in economy. It will come about gradually of course, and with little to no enabling of a devastated earth as it had been in Forster’s story. One botched beta test or sunken IPO will, in time, give way to a genuine article. And then another. And then another. Each inconvenience falls like a profane icon. Soon the personal population of one’s life is brought down to the most brutal of bare minimums. Soon neighborhoods will become quieter, and homes less lively, evinced with no greater activity than the glow patterns in the windows. Soon no one may notice when one goes completely dark.

The shut-in economy is not steeped in laziness but in hyper-minimalism, first of the material kind. “The cyber-lords have already convinced us that maps, paper, pens, and even push buttons are somehow incredibly inconvenient and clumsy, leaving us scraping and pawing like drooling bug life on their flat digital dildos,” writes Ian Svenonius. “Google’s search engines and applications have likewise taught us to refrain from using our apparently out-of-date and hopelessly inefficient brains.” And then of the emotional kind. We would be cleaned of all unnecessary strain on our social graces and patience. This hits service, retail, and shipping first and ruthlessly. Then it eats into relationships. What is a relationship? It is at once right next to you and passively filed away somewhere, to be accessed as need dictates.

We’ve become accustomed to a great deal of this already. The power to while away weekends with whole televisions seasons that melt time almost in an instant is an impressive gateway drug. But people looking for a sudden reversal or “cure for convenience” are encouraged to read, I don’t know, Matthew Crawford and not me.

My history of anxiety is ongoing. And though my current afflictions are less comical than they once were, they remain burdensome. I am afraid of driving, not the right thing to be in the suburbs. My journey to get my license was long, ending after two attempts on the road and as little as five attempts on paper. But anxieties can invigorate as much as cripple. One thing I didn’t see coming as I sat stiffly on the school bench was my aversion to inertia. These are never easy to reconcile, but a world with far fewer people and far greater space might be the surest way to their management.

Even with easy sociability I still take pleasure in near-empty consumer spaces. I go to the diner, the grocery store, the library, and sometimes the movie theater outside of peak hours. I am tantalized by the prospect of a society where all hours are off-peak, and where the new norm is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Not that this is sustainable, of course. Each business will vacate in time, leaving plaster and concrete husks to the elements and to a social being made new thanks to the retiring multitude. I will miss their company. But if they want to live vicariously through my Instagram feed that is their choice. Thankfully for them I would be able to take it further than I thought possible.

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THE MOTHER OF ALL TEACHABLE MOMENTS

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To Whom It May Concern,

Greetings and salutations!

Well, I bet you never thought you’d end up here. But, to be fair, I guess that makes two of us. Or all of us, depending on how many of you are hearing this. Are you hearing this? I wasn’t sure if there would be any kind of disabilities or sensory limitations for anyone who finds this, so for the hard of seeing I recorded this message, and for the hard of hearing I provided a written transcript. For those who are both, or who are illiterate of my or any English somehow, I apologize in advance and hope you have the time to read this eventually. If it is useful, that is; which I doubt it will be.

Anyway, it’s possible that you have been finding a few of these since you have arrived. So you’ve probably listened to many, many previous messages that aren’t broadly distinguishable from the one you are now playing back. That’s totally fair! But whether you are new to this or thoroughly jaded by the whole thing, I implore you to hear me out. It is worth your while, I swear.

So … some background. This is my entry in what is called the #StoryofYou challenge. When it was revealed that the #GreatCataclysm—well, some called it that; others called it #TheFinalCountdown, and a few more called it the #EverlovingEarthFuck—was confirmed as imminent, there was a shit ton of panic. The burnt wreckage you’re seeing around you may have been the result of the #GreatCataclysm but honestly it makes no difference when your neighbors just reflexively start fucking pillaging one another and burning their goods to prevent more pillaging. So some goodhearted, branding-savvy folks set up this time capsule project as a kind of—I’m not actually sure—diversionary measure? It was kind of weird, and everyone just kind of took it as this navelgazing all-about-me thing. Like any of that fucking matters now. No. When I heard “you,” I took it to mean you. Yes, you; whether you are deformed brethren scavenging for scraps, extraterrestrial spelunkers getting a feel for the place, or celestial squadrons tying up loose ends. This time capsule has been carefully assembled for your benefit. This comes with a set of themes with which I had to find a corresponding item. So I shall list all the items and explain their significance to you, not to me.

First item is … an empty gesture. We went through all our cans, so here are some white cheddar Cheez-Its, which no one ate because even in the old atmospheric conditions they were pretty subpar.

But seriously … the first theme called for three essential books. So … a guide to nautical code that my grandfather left us. Just in case you … make it to sea, I guess. A high school yearbook from 1998 that I got at a flea market. No signatures that I can find. Kind of sad. So in case the ‘90s revival survives Armageddon with you. Now I cheated here and am counting the Neapolitan novels as a single book. I haven’t read these, but I have it on good authority that they will fill the vast amount of time you now have to pass.

Okay. Second theme is one essential album. I got Cum on Feel the Noize: The Essentials by Quiet Riot. It has “essential” in the title as you can see. Moving on!

Two essential films. (I don’t know how they got at these amounts, but whatever.) My stepmom’s DVD copy of Zoomba for Beginners—unopened. And a link to a YouTube compilation of Vines by Riff Raff.

Next is supposed to be something indicative of your spiritual life. I don’t really know what that means, and since I’ve already bushed the book strictures to their limit, here is a Polaroid of The Turn of the Screw.

Next it calls for something to remember the world as it should have been. This is a wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ. It has no hands, though it is supposed to. Why it has no hands and why it was sculpted to begin with are at this point equally inconsequential. Also, this is a picture of the only man I ever loved. What his name was and whether I was worthy is something I’ll be keeping to myself. (I mean, I wasn’t.)

Something to remember the world as it was. My phone wiped of all data save 32 dick pics.

Something you can’t do without. My phone charger. Also some tampons. Couldn’t hurt.

Lighting round! Something old: expired Xanax.

Something blue: Blue Lives Matter decal.

Something borrowed: my former best friend’s haaaaaaaaaaaaaaair. (Also blue, as it happens.)

Something new: Fidget spinner. #obligatory.

And, finally, something that meant the world to you. This was one I had to think about, and in choosing it I kind of broke with my stated purpose. But only a bit, and with good reason! Obviously I’m not going to be around by the time you find this. So consider this my reaching out, through the bounds of time and existence, to you directly … sort of. I consider this a gesture of hope, of solidarity, and of comfort. So … just give me a sec here …

Mom, Dad; despite your best efforts, you were always somehow destined to end up together again. I’m just sorry that neither of you could be together in one piece. Ah well.

So, thus concludes my contribution to the #StoryofYou challenge. I end this with more than a few regrets under my belt, more perhaps than I had really planned on amassing in one lifetime. Though I can’t say I’m going to regret not being around to see this capsule opened. Not, let me be clear, because of the condition, whatever that may be, of the beings opening it … well, maybe that’s part of it, I assume you understand … but mostly because this is not about me. If there’s one lesson I can take from the mother of all teachable moments and give back to her children, it’s that.

And on that note … holy shit, guys, even in fractions you’re heavy … on that note, peace! #StoryofYou #GreatCataclysm #EverlovingEarthFuck #blessed [praying hands emoji] [grimace emoji]

THE BLACK VELVET BUTCHER’S APRON

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In David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, a woman is placed under the care of an experimental psychologist whose confrontational therapeutic methods cause the traumas of his patients to manifest physically, often in the form of boils or tumors. But the woman’s trauma is so advanced that her growths are not only very large, but sentient. Though they possess no navel or genitalia, they bare easy enough resemblance to children that they may safely sneak into a classroom to her daughter’s teacher or enter through the windows of her neglectful mother’s house. Their existential cognizance leads them to murder these people, and to attempt to do the same to her former husband, with whom she is engaged in a bitter custody battle.

The Brood is a very personal film for Cronenberg, and my fondness for it is derived in part for similarly personal reasons. But I couldn’t help recalling it again today after reading Laura Miller, who in Slate used her review of Frederick Crews’s demystifying book Freud: The Making of an Illusion to pay homage generally to the critical hatchet job. “Every critic knows that readers love a spirited hatchet job,” she begins,

whether or not the author being chopped is one whose work they’ve hated—or even read. Much of the public seems to possess an ambient belief that the literary world is filled with frauds and self-styled geniuses whose reputations have been propped up by venal publishers and the reviewers who toady up to them. In this light, anyone who dares to challenge the allegedly phony consensus by ripping apart one of the unjustly elect gets hailed as a hero.

Surely the next most common subgenre of the review after the hatchet job is the review that praises the virtues of hatchet jobs. As a practitioner of that form, Miller does not deviate one iota from the platonic model. She points out that “much of the public” “loves” reading certain kinds of reviews. She distinguishes between good attempts at hatchet jobs, such as when David Foster Wallace DEMOLISHED John Updike for his elegant male solipsism, and bad attempts, such as when William Giraldi, an author so comically insufferable as to not always seem entirely real, punched down on Alix Ohlin.

I cannot broadly disagree with Miller. Invective is one of the most astounding and dazzling of the human inventions, and when done well in the confines of criticism, or other shortform works, it allows us to consider a less limited idea of what constitutes a classic. The literary hit piece has an imposing Valhalla: James Russell Lowell on Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, H.L. Mencken on Thorstein Veblen, Renata Adler on Pauline Kael, and Robert Hughes on just about anyone. To want to enter that pantheon as a permanent resident is a temptation that understandably does not fade easily among reviewers, not least of all on the young ones, but certainly age knows no limit here.

That I, as someone reviewing books for a few years now, was never enthusiastic about hatchet jobs was always a source of anxiety. No writer wants to come away from their work with a stigma of “good nature,” for all the reasons on which Hazlitt, who would know, has written. No writer similarly wants to submit to Prince Posterity in the chainmail of aloofness. To convey either is to mix a more potent outwardly appearing cocktail of frivolity, arrogance, cowardice, stupidity, and dishonesty. No writer, ultimately, wants to appear disconnected from the Spirit of the Age.

It may be that I possess any of these corruptions. Even so, I would like to table an alternate proposal that hatchet jobs have a design flaw.

Essaying is nothing if not a verbal distillation of a thought process, and at times even a full personality. It is a declaration that something needs to be said and that a certain person would be most effective in saying it. Reviewing is at once an intensification and a restriction of the essayistic function. Knowledge and taste clash with authority in order to persuade readers of the relative value of a consumer product within X-amount of words. It risks devolving into formula. Hatchet jobs are seen as a way to break out of formula, to speak wholly and unabashedly for one’s own self; to be as Antonin Scalia, leaving readers dizzy after explaining that a wolf is, after all, actually just a wolf. And yet just as one has read every defense of hatchet jobs, one, too, has read every hatchet job. Acidic elegance stitches well into other acidic elegances creating the same black velvet butcher’s apron. It is more mood piece than persuasion. The Theory of the Leisure Class is one of the most delightfully odd books in American literature. Henry David Thoreau’s iconography is less unjust than James Russell Lowell’s obscurity. People will still find Freud useful for something. The hatchet job reviewer is always the cloaked assassin, but for whom precise aim is secondary to the glimmer of the blade.

When Jim Goad published the first issue of his zine ANSWER Me!, the critical pushback that irked him the most was that of its supposed edginess. “I expected people to dislike ANSWER Me!,” he later wrote, “but it never occurred to me that anyone would think I’m only kidding.” It was a frustrating quibble, which he took in stride … sort of:

I draw a stick figure of one critic. In childish handwriting I scrawl, “Little Mikey McP. was a jealous boy—jealous boys get MURDERED.” I slice my leg open with a razor blade and wipe my blood … all over the page. I send him the letter via Certified Mail. He calls me up, voice quavering, saying he’s sorry.

Out back behind the Hatchet Job Hall of Fame would probably be the compost ditch of rage. There, the collective prose of a rancorous, infernal vanguard—Swift, De Maistre, Bierce, Goad, Valerie Solanas, Westbrook Pegler, John Osbourne, Karl Kraus, probably Auberon Waugh, maybe also James Baldwin, and others—is left to rot. In a mass heap it will probably not be all that attractive. But it might be more compelling to visit. Anger as a tone in literature is underrated—and perhaps for good reason. It requires a level of commitment that happy warriors and soft assassins cannot readily take on. It is at once more brutal and more precise. Imagine not the assassin, or even the hatchet man, but the torturer:

I entreat you, my dear countrymen, not to be under the least concern upon these, and the like rumours, which are no more than the last howls of a dog dissected alive, as I hope he has sufficiently been.

It is a tone I can appreciate, and even enjoy reading. But it is not one I can endorse as deliberate practice. Sure enough, I’m not without my hates, particularly when it comes to other writers. The contemporary scene is cluttered with dream weavers of glorified cocktail party monologues, content farmers bringing mutant produce to market, rationalist sorcerers with all the charm of an urgent care clinic, and whatever Michael Robbins is. But these are not burning furies so much as abjections growing from within and wreaking (figurative) havoc where they can, guided by the distemper I bequeathed unto them. (I didn’t feel like changing the introduction so bear with me.) This is an urge that bristles, at best, under the dignified constraints of criticism. It promises to say nothing constructive that can’t be said by others with more cognizance and principle, assuming criticisms of such kinds are called for at some point. And that feeling produces a kind of pop-up crossroads for a writer. Is a gripe, even a learned and substantial one, really all that central in my thinking? Or is it an ogre lumbering mindlessly in front of some priceless, jagged and/or poisonous relic?

But this is to read too much into what I can and cannot do with the few tools I’ve been given. I lack the graceful joy necessary to wield a hatchet; I lack the volatile righteousness to dissect a dog alive. Culture is not an embattled golden pavilion that I am bound to defend, or burn as the case may be. Culture is the leaking ship, the breaches of which I try to patch and the ornaments of which I try to polish, all the while getting constantly sick all over myself because I don’t like even metaphorically being in the ocean.

And no matter what the effort, time and ignorance are the final and wholly unfeeling arbiters of execution. So at least the hatcheters know how to pass the time well before being called to judgment.

IN PRAISE OF NORMALCY

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Hilary Mitchell over at Buzzfeed has published an article that is peculiar in two notable ways. First in that it is an expectedly .GIF-strewn piece that I unexpectedly found myself not only compelled to read but to readily agree with. And second that it was written far past its point of relevancy. Of course relevancy as a hook is usually a death knell to anything of potential interest, but in this case, a rightly timed posting would have granted the piece and its message a higher register above the usual noise. But as they say: nice things, this is why we can’t have them.

The Office ended its nine-season run on NBC four years ago. But this sad fact did not stop Mitchell from putting all of her professional energies into taking down, .GIF by .GIF, one of television history’s most beloved characters. “Pretty much everyone considers Jim and Pam Halpert to be the most perfectly suited TV couple of all time,” Mitchell writes. “But guess what: you’re all wrong. Because Jim is a dick.” After the windup comes the beating, in which every fault of John Krasinski’s character, at least relating to his interactions with women, is exposed with a cruelty that would be enviable in its precision if it were not directed against someone who does not exist.

But this piece retains value for two reasons. First, it offers further proof that binge-watching is changing how we see weekly television. It is quite clear that Mitchell had been using her spare time to fire up Netflix and marathon The Office for as long as she could tolerate it—and given her examples, that tolerance was high. And in so doing discovered a pretty damning truth that is only found through such a televisual keg stand. In the traditional viewing schedule, it is easy to see Jim’s flimsy work ethic and diverting antics as charming, and his targeting of Dwight as deserved. One can also see the at best chilly interactions between the office and warehouse staffs as innocent misunderstandings rather than ingrained condescension to the latter by the former. But watched in centipede-like succession, The Office assumes a harshness exceeding that of Seinfeld. Perhaps Office writers could retroactively defend the show as a bleak social satire à la its UK ancestor, but that would require overlooking the earnest appeal upon which the show’s endurance was dependent.

Second, then, is that The Office is given a new lease on life with its ever evolving depiction of normalcy. In innocent times we could see easily the demarcations between normal (Jim, Pam, Kelly, Oscar, the Temp) and abnormal (everyone else). We guided our sympathies accordingly, Jim and Pam embodied our highest ideals of happiness and homeownership—however ill-gotten theirs was gained—and everyone else embodied traits and personalities that to some degree unsettled us. With time, we’ve added some nuance. Indeed, Venkatesh Rao at Ribbonfarm analyzed the characters on a three-tiered, economics-based MacLeod hierarchy of sociopaths, clueless, and losers:

The Sociopath (capitalized) layer comprises the Darwinian/Protestant Ethic will-to-power types who drive an organization to function despite itself. The Clueless layer is what Whyte called the “Organization Man,” but the archetype inhabiting the middle has evolved a good deal since Whyte wrote his book (in the fifties).  The Losers are not social losers (as in the opposite of “cool”), but people who have struck bad bargains economically – giving up capitalist striving for steady paychecks.

Rao deems Jim a “will-he-won’t-he Sociopath-in-the-making,” and I could similarly never place him in the way Mitchell more stridently does. He was this unremarkable white male who was somehow unique. Though he did not boast the rich family history of Dwight, the cultural interests of Pam and Oscar, the purity of Kevin, the contradictions of Angela, or the ceaseless if often misguided positivity of Michael, he was deserving of our attention. His thoughts, whether verbal or not, were monumental. Yet he was most animated by his sense of misfitness. Jim was defined by his impulse to elevate his place in his world, which tended to be through petty acts of rebellion at the expense of team players. My only tried and true “fan theories” were based on making Jim more interesting. He was the fantasy version of a more pathetic, awkward reality in which Pam and Roy are still together and Dwight is competent; or that The Office was an adaptation of Paradise Lost in which Jim was Lucifer before the fall.

Jim’s status is much more apparent when Rao talks about the office loser, who “pays his dues, does not ask for much, and finds meaning in his life elsewhere.”

For Stanley it is crossword puzzles. For Angela it is a colorless Martha-Stewartish religious life. For Kevin, it is his rock band. For Kelly, it is mindless airhead pop-culture distractions. Pam has her painting ambitions. Meredith is an alcoholic slut. Oscar, the ironic-token gay character, has his intellectual posturing. Creed, a walking freak-show, marches to the beat of his own obscure different drum (he is the most rationally checked-out of all the losers).

It used to be that establishing the norm was based on what didn’t fit with it. The one neat trick here was that, generally, the “weird” people were not always privy to their being weird. Much of Jim’s appeal was rooted in this practice, which he weaponized with a sadistic glee. This continues in less cruel fashion but to no more helpful ends outside the show. Christian commentator Rachel Held Evans, for instance, advocated for “keeping the church weird.” Though I’m not sure that Evans would know weird if it burned her church to the ground, this tack, much like the current vacillating vogue of normalcy being at once oppressively overbearing and perilously endangered, is not normal.

If normalcy is a vague concept determined by negation, it helps that normal people are not prone to sticking their necks out to be affirmative. This is not out of some ironic posture or subcultural ritual, to do so simply does not register in their circuitry. As much as I find it subversive on my part to expose them, there’s something to be said—and might even need saying—about those who practice normalcy not as imposition of stability or stasis but as an acceptance of, if not a pride in, limitation. Normalcy is about proportion rather than practice. Normal people have a ken that is not very large but not wanting in basic comfort. More than that they possess a sensitive awareness of when they have ventured beyond that ken, which instills a reflex for immediate reverse.

Certainly to someone prone to distemper this type of thing is justly accursed. But it is not so to the normal who don’t even have enough interest to see that they have a profound gift. It is the gift of the simplistic. Those enlivened by obfuscation are not attracted to the normal mind. Those thirsting for honesty, however, are more apt to find its appeal. The normal person has no need of lying. What stakes could possibly be in play for such a person whose needs are few and whose wants are obtained without straining reach? For the normal, circumstances are good or they are not and are dealt with no less than forthrightly, but often with as upbeat a resolution as possible. In this light even the most resolute cynic might consider, however fleetingly, adopting a normal person and giving him or her a new name. And I would not hasten to say that the normal person would object out of hand.

But of course we did more than that, we gave them run of the place. Because the normal are at once trusting and instill trust in others, and they are far more numerous in any case. Even if what they are given to control is somehow dysfunctional, the impression of impending functionality that they proffer perpetuates our reliance. People who are not normal will react to this arrangement in different ways. Some will go along with it in bland resignation. Some will see opportunities to enrich themselves by it. Others, however, will bristle at its demands, mostly out of incomprehension than of antagonism. And with that in mind, I’d like to wed Mitchell’s and Rao’s assessments of our favorite mop-haired white male.

Whether Jim Halpert is a dick or a sociopath proper I don’t know, but Jim is certainly weird. His behavior implies a broad understanding of an order imposed but he fails to see its logic. No one else really sees the logic either, but it bothers Jim to an extent that he can’t overlook the flaws. Pam’s preference for Roy over him and the power granted Michael Scott in the office are errors that need correcting. But Jim is also not evil. So rather than confront the errors head on and risk needless chaos, Jim prefers common method of coping for the weird: adapt or die. Jim’s presentation is go along-get along, accepting the pervasive order while masking a deep discomfort with its workings. But it can only bury his true feelings so far down. Like undrilled oil it slowly seeps out from his surface as bizarre behavior, such as blankly confessing love, confessing again after the first rebuff then being standoffish to degrees so extreme and time so extended as to constitute psychological torture. The distinction in his poor treatment is plain, however. When he mistreats Pam he is as Michael Vick; when he mistreats Dwight, an unrepentant and blissfully unaware eccentric, he is as Jeffrey Dahmer.

Jim is a sad example of a dilemma most of the self-consciously weird understand and fear becoming. The weird have a duel obligation to cope with the unshakable norm and defend against their inevitable disgust. The disgust, for everyone’s sake, is often turned inward conveyed through self-deprecation and irony. But can these defenses somehow be turned into preemptive weapons? With Jim, who acted out in sheer rage, this seems unlikely. But Jim’s creative capacity was also limited and mostly reactive. Perhaps, then, the better example of how to cope is found in Michael Scott, who embraced normalcy with gusto while giving his flights of fancy, for good an ill, some breathing room. His film, Threat Level Midnight, which Jim bitterly mocked, was awful in nearly every respect, yet he marshaled the entire office to see its realization, and to everyone’s mutual enjoyment.

Upending the norm is always fleeting. Normalcy, for all its simplicity, is a heavy force that one can never lift. It can only be nudged in small pushes. But the normal are sensitive to those pushes, so one’s subversive ends must be leavened with a certain level of delight.

I am so sorry.

TAYLOR SWIFT AND THE LOST ART OF REVENGE

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I think, at long last, that we might dispense with the notion that Taylor Swift is in any degree a good person. Certainly she may earn credit in putting up a good, or at least passable, showing to the contrary for as long as she did. But her stamina could only be spread so thin, and the mask inevitably had to slip off.

For shrewder observers, this came as no surprise. Swift-watching is among the most exacting and intense of the critical subgenres, the one which comes closest to a spectator sport. Practitioners are ruthless in cataloguing every instance of bitterness, pettiness, ignorance, antipathy, greed, opportunism, false modesty, and meanness ever carried out by this person. Which is to say, all of the characteristics that make humanity distinct among the living organisms of the world. I mean, I think many of us go through life encountering one person out every 30 or so who we would just as soon not see instantly transferred to the nearest warzone/galactic outpost/existential dimension with or without protective gear.

And yet, I am disappointed in Taylor, and with her new single, “Look What You Made Me Do.” Not because, as others are pointing out, that it is a bad song. Many of Swift’s songs are rather lackluster, or at least lack the staying power of those by Aaliyah, Dolly Parton, Elliott Smith, or even Michael Bolton. But one thing Swift is not is stupid. Everything she does is predicated on careful judgment and deliberative execution. For once, though, I wish she would set aside using it to enable her raw id and assume the mantle of intelligent villainy as per her obvious destiny.

“Look What You Made Me Do” is being touted—or rather, harangued—as a song about revenge. Alas, this is not the case at all. Yes, it makes references to revenge, of lists with names underlined in red ink, of karma, and so on, but that is a byproduct of the larger obsession at the song’s center. Taylor is very unhappy, presumably, with Kanye West for any number of transgressions committed against her over the past eight years. Even though the song is not well written it surely ranks as one of the most relatable in pop history. But that is to aim low, and to prevent Swift’s ascension to exemplar and tastemaker in the joys of revenge.

It might be, though, that the nature of her job as a celebrity, dependent as it is on quick-rotating news cycles, prevents this from happening. Swift may forever be a romanticist of revenge, exalting an insular, almost masturbatory form. She will hence propagate several misconceptions about revenge: that it is theatrical, that it is impulsive, that it is morbid, and that it is served with one decisive stroke. Perhaps these are, somewhere, attitudes applied to undertaking revenge, but hardly could they ever be successful in any meaningful sense. To wit, revenge is about the result, not the intent. And so it is methodical, it requires patience, cunning, and commitment. If Swift possesses any of these latter traits they are grossly misplaced or disproportioned.

Let me illustrate with a better example, which I know through secondhand experience.

A friend of a friend, who for the sake of his privacy I will call “Jeb Bush,” had a falling out with another friend, leaving him in a state of inconsolable abjection. What the precise nature of the rupture was remains unclear, perhaps even to “Jeb Bush,” who had to clear out considerable mental space in order to plan for his retaliation. It very quickly became an all-consuming activity for him, requiring all other life obligations to be coordinated around reaching that end. Indeed, so involved was it that I don’t think “Jeb Bush” ever properly called it revenge, but rather counteroffensive psychic interior redecoration (COPIRD, for short). To better understand what that means, here is what he did.

First “Jeb Bush” needed to study. Not so much the movements of his friend every day, but his profile, let’s say. He made peace with his target so that he might be able to spend time with him, to get a more substantial grasp on his interests and aspirations. The more intently he listened the more comfortable the target was able to confide in him about the truly important material: fears, anxieties, failures, stressers, and so on. In his off time, “Jeb Bush” would read all of the male fictionists: Richard Yates, John Updike, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Rick Moody, and Tom Perrotta, with Nicholson Baker, Nathanael West, and Philip Larkin for good measure. This went on for about a year.

With the intelligence gathered, he put his plan into execution. First he got a better job. Though “Jeb Bush” was reasonably satisfied as an advertising designer, he knew some advancement would do wonders for his plan. It took some time, but he used a competing job offer to parlay his way into a departmental leadership position and, within about six months, as creative director, overseeing not just print visuals, but internet and television. Now it was the target’s turn to listen, about “Jeb Bush’s” improved life, about his job perks, extra vacation time, and monumentally improved healthcare benefits. The target, as I recall, is a sectional executive at an accounting firm, but the message would still be clear he could be doing better. When the target asked what he did to accomplish all this in so short a time, “Jeb Bush” credited Emotional Intelligence, and recited the book’s back matter verbatim.

With the extra income, “Jeb Bush” acquired a membership at Equinox. This leaned his physique somewhat and boosted his confidence. At weekly spin class, he met a woman, a paralegal, and started seeing her casually. Once they became official, however, he took her on sojourns to see both the target and his wife for dinner and brunch. The girlfriend and wife, a freelance marketing consultant, became fast friends. “Jeb Bush” and the target routinely played a game to see which one could insist more strongly to paying the entire check before “Jeb Bush” inevitably persuades to split it. Fun, generally speaking, was had.

The target’s wife enjoyed the girlfriend’s company to such an extent that she sought Equinox membership as well. It was not quite within the confines of their budget but they agreed to make it work. Pretty soon, the target’s wife gained a new set of city-based friends. While the target attended wealth and wellness seminars in hotels off of route whatever, his wife quit the book club in town and attended readings, opening parties, and park events.

Over at the coffee table, the target met a woman. Stilted small talk revealed she “worked in sales” and “went to a state school before dropping out.” They ditched the affirmation chants and trust falls to watch Hot Rod in her hotel room before falling asleep. The target woke up at three in the morning and cried in the bathroom.

The target’s wife missed the last train and stayed over at some loft in Greenpoint. There, she met a six-year New School PhD candidate who looked vaguely like Drake. They talked into the early hours about Dick Hebdige and meditation sessions at the Swedenborgian church he attended. While watching a documentary on Ana Mendieta, the PhD candidate went in for a kiss, which the target’s wife rebuffed before thanking him for the perspective. He nodded and left, more Drakishly than ever.

A few weeks later, the target met “Jeb Bush” in a bar, beleaguered and bewildered to no end. He was beside himself; his life plans seemingly in disarray and his job situation as inert as ever. He’d developed an addiction to wellness seminars, in which watching Pay-per-view with saleswomen became a regular occurrence. The breaking point came midway into You Drive Me Crazy when his wife called to say she’d resolved to get her MFA and kept talking about being a “proud grey wolf.” “Is that a white supremacist thing? Is it a drug thing?” he asked before asking for lawyer recommendations. But “Jeb Bush” just calmed him down, gave him the business card of a marriage counselor, and told them that it was just a rough patch they need to work through.

This puzzled me when I heard it. But “Jeb Bush” clarified: “If I can make this go another generation or two I think I’ll be set.” And to better monitor the plan’s progress, “Jeb Bush” came up on the right side of a firm merger, gained accounts for Pantene and Magic Hat, and moved into a converted warehouse loft in Jersey City with his girlfriend. He then pointed his index fingers to his mouth and blew at them as if they were guns, and walked away.

In that moment, the line between entertainer and artist had never been bolder.

SKULKING IN THE DARK: AN APPENDIX

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Last week, Jacobite magazine published an essay of mine centered on fra Girolamo Savonarola. The essay served a couple of functions. First to make the case that Savonarola, who was burned at the stake in 1498, has an undervalued contemporary appeal, specifically in his zeal for Godly moral reform of a society steeped in corrupt secular worldliness. I did this by showing the similarities between the friar and certain strains of the punk movement—not only in his unvarnished righteousness but also his use of youth to implement his agenda. Second, then, was to demonstrate how a predictable pattern social rebellion emanates from unpredictable sources. This made for confusing reading, no doubt, not least of all because many readers were forced to wrap their heads around Krishnacore. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. An essay can balance multiple priorities and still be coherent. Though I still feel that there is room for expansion on the broader point.

One of the few responses I got pointed out that, for all the moving parts involved, the scope of the essay was still very narrow. I had, according to this tweeter, overemphasized the strident earnestness of Fugazi at the expense of the more ironic critiques of Dead Kennedys. I may yet write on Dead Kennedys, whose Swiftian brand of punk appeals to me and is vital, but that entails a different essay entirely as they—like their even more idiosyncratic Bay Area peers Flipper—were more literary than movementarian. But something did go unwritten, so I’m going to write it here.

***

I wonder if there is an alternate timeline where Thomas Merton had not died suddenly by freak electrocution in 1968. That cynical adage—maybe originated in Johnny Rotten, maybe not—that death is a “good career move” for once does not apply here. Maybe that’s not the case for Merton himself, but in exiting the earth as he did, the work he left behind has, like the Vatican II reforms then being undertaken, become prisoner to a generation. He exists now as an icon of a limited triumph rather than as a guide one might seek through endless troubles. How Merton would have weaved through the mutating turmoil of the 1970s and beyond is a seductive speculation. He would doubtless have been more challenged, but I think not fruitlessly.

Much of what we know of the classic stereotype of punks—their filth, their rudeness, their sloganeering mode of speech and thought, their radicalism, also their filth—is derived primarily from Crass, a band which existed from 1977 to around 1984. Yet Crass was very unusual among its contemporaries. The band’s founder, Penny Rimbaud (nee Jeremy John Ratter), then age 34, had spent the previous decade in a cottage commune in the Essex countryside so isolated that it took days for news of the moon landing to reach them. In that time, Rimbaud and his fellow artists had several bands, happenings, festivals, and poems behind them. Crass was less a musical act than it was a multimedia articulation of a political program. Indeed, compared to the more tonal politics of other bands—Sex Pistols were contrarian, The Clash romantic, Killing Joke existential—Crass was a concise, if brute, argument for anarchism, pacifism, direct action, feminism, and rabid anticlericalism. Their albums were manifestos that included screeds, careful visual language, and pranks that nearly destroyed the planet. More broadly, however, was their ideal of living outside society, subsisting on their own means to reach their own ends. “There is no authority but yourself.”

“[T]hey were in a certain sense anarchists,” Thomas Merton wrote in 1960, “and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively ruled and guided by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values.” Merton was assessing the character of what is generally referred to as the Desert Fathers, men (and women) who, following the birth pangs of Christianity, dropped whatever they were doing as citizens of the Roman Empire or thereabouts to pursue a reduced state of seclusion, manual labor, prayer, fasting, and meditation. “Driven by furies out from men and lands,” wrote fifth century Roman poet Rutilius Namantianus, “A credulous exile skulking in the dark/Thinking, poor fool, that heaven feeds on filth.”

The Desert Fathers, like Savonarola, are an easy mark for projection and allusion, perhaps easier because even the most illustrious of their number—St. Anthony the Great—rises only so high above the cluster. But they’ve been making it easy for centuries. St. Augustine was moved to tears by their example and then to Christianity. St. Benedict formulated his Rule after them, organizing and perpetuating monasticism by leaps and bounds. Ditto Sts. Jerome and Francis. It is either too easy to overstate or to overlook how meager their backgrounds and ambitions were in comparison. Some came down from nobility, others up from slavery. Some had spouses and others were prostitutes. Many could not read, but somehow managed to internalize the Scriptures. They did not seek ordination or ministry, and if so then with the greatest reluctance. They were not interested in institutionalization, but in living out the Gospel.

As such, the Desert Fathers were not a doctrinal group. Much of their teaching, such as it is, survives in the form of homiletic bites, nearly all recorded secondhand, passed down and spread around for centuries. Merton has translated a selection of them. A truncated edition of Benedicta Ward’s translation for Penguin is somewhat more comprehensive, dividing sayings by subject: quiet, compunction, self-control, lust, humility, non-judgment, fortitude, discretion, unceasing prayer, hospitality, visions, etc. Some are quite straightforward:

Some brothers ask Marcarius, “How should we pray?” He said, “There is no need to talk much in prayer. Reach out your hands often and say, ‘Lord have mercy on me, as you will and as you know.’ But if conflict troubles you say, ‘Lord, help me.’ He knows what is best for us, and has mercy.”

Others are a bit more involved:

A brother was tested by temptation in Scetis. The enemy brought into his mind the memory of a beautiful woman which troubled him deeply. By God’s providence a visitor came from Egypt. When they met to talk, he told the brother that his wife was dead (she was the woman about whom the monk was tempted). When he heard the news, he put on his cloak at night and went to the place where he had heard she was buried. He dug in the place, and wiped blood from her corpse on his cloak and when he returned he kept it in his cell. When it smelt too bad, he put it in front of him and said to his temptation, “Look, this is what you desire. You have it now, be content.” So he punished himself with the smell until his passions died down.

It’s very easy to give a certain pathological reading to such passages, as the Amazon reviewer who inspired my purchase of the book clearly did: “The Desert Fathers are concerned with their own souls, but they are okay if the rest of the world goes to Hell. In fact, they seem more concerned with avoiding Hell than going to Heaven.” Fair to an extent. Not everything included is a source of wisdom, but some may read the second passage and still take something from it. Finding, perhaps, that it articulates the pressure and struggle to maintain chastity in a culture that has discarded it. One of the challenges of religious life today, and also of reading this book, is picturing the folly, fervor, and difficulty of early Christianity. Not simply the state of persecution—though that is often conjured—but of living by the Good News itself. The Desert Fathers lay bare the wild vicissitudes of holiness in practice.

“They did not reject society with a proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men,” Merton continues. “The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over themselves. … The society they sought was one where all men were truly equal, where the only authority under God was the charismatic authority of wisdom, experience and love.” In the end, a thesis’s true strength isn’t that it can be confirmed or reconfirmed, but that, once confirmed, it can be pushed. To declare something as the “new punk,” even if that punk is centuries old, is to do a disservice to the spirit that compels it and the other destinations that it could reach.

In the early 1990s, Justin Marler of the stoner metal band Sleep quit his music career and spent seven years as an Eastern Orthodox monk. During that time he published a zine called Death to the World to evangelize to other punks. “The last true rebellion is death to the world. To be crucified to the world and the world to us,” Marler wrote in the first issue.

This counter culture of Punx is something that a handful of truth seekers can easily identify with, for it is very clear that the world is coming to a close. To be a true punk is to have nothing to do with that element which kills, hurts and causes pain, but to cauterize wounds. To be in the world but not of the world.

If anything ties these strings together, it’s in leading to a way out; or if not a way out, then to a way up. People are attracted to punk by a sense of disquiet. Certain other people are attracted to the idea of punk through yearning for disquiet. But one cannot go from disquiet to disquiet and expect growth, let alone autonomy, just as one cannot go on inventing norms just for the purpose of shattering them. Disquiet and yearning, moreover, are not hostages to one mentality; they require their own nurturing, because they are not useless. In fact they are essential, equal to if not greater than certainty and righteousness. Humanity would atrophy without them.

In the previous essay I had already taxed myself pretty desperately beyond my ken in making religious prescriptions. But the point I made then remains unchanged here. Young people are seeking religious renewal. Churches may rejoice that the time of being “spiritual but …” or imbibing in ritual with no strings attached is going into its death throes. But churches with their own forms of stasis, whether in struggles with modernity or petty fractiousness, might not be the immediate sources of correction. Renewal does not automatically entail a return or a “reform of the reform,” sometimes it is an assemblage or an exploration, a kind of rewinding in order to fast forward. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen because it’s the kind of thing that always happens.

WHO OWNS THE ROOM?

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Like everyone, I am subject to fits of what some call “black dog” moments. Moments in which the various tribulations life throws my way are less bearable than usual. They press on my skull, slow my pace, paralyze my thoughts, and embank me in so low a state that redemption seems if not impossible than hardly worth the effort. Again, like everyone. And like everyone I have my method of coping. Maybe it’s not the best, but it’s likely not the worst. I like to find a quiet place, a nice spot by a creek, for instance, where I close my eyes and run through a series of what-ifs. What if things had been different? What if I had been less neurologically afflicted? What if I was more socially aware? What if I was charming? What if I was better looking? (Or just had better hair?) What if I was more ambitious or disciplined? What if I was less fear-stricken? What if Queen Elizabeth had not defeated the Spanish Armada?

I’d like to think that such an alternate timeline is out there for these questions. One where this blog, and all the writing that preceded it, does not exist because I have a more suitable profession, maybe as a programmer for a startup, based in Santa Monica with a ragtag bunch of coders. After working on our sure-to-be-game-changing app, we head out at 3:30 to longboard down Venice Beach and drink some Lagunitas. We each play our best devil’s advocate in favor of single-payer healthcare. Then I hit the I-10 back to Echo Park to the bungalow I share with my long-term girlfriend, a gestalt therapist who writes essays about our open relationship for Hello Giggles and Salon, and two cats. I listen to Uncle Tupelo on vinyl before I hit the gym (Equinox is the wrong amount of phony so I just go to the Y). I meet some friends later at the bar where we drink more Lagunitas and lament the younger generation’s addiction to screens. A girl from Pepperdine confuses me for a member of Parquet Courts, but I “respect women” and play it cool. I’m on Twitter but only tweet maybe twice a week, most of those are retweets of Alain de Botton, Stephen Colbert, Christiane Amanpour, and Nietzsche quotes. My name is not Chris but probably Bradley or Webster. I go by “Dane” for reasons I cannot recall. I was raised Episcopal but prefer to go the Interfaith Atrium to meditate and discuss karma over Lagunitas. I don’t need therapy, but I like to go anyway because I think perspective is important.

But of course alternate timeline does not always mean preferable. Soon, Los Angeles would be in chaos. Its citizens running rampant in the streets, looting shops, burning piles of tires, and attacking and maiming one another with no rhyme or reason. My bungalow would be ransacked, my laptop smashed, my two cats impaled in the yard on sharpened croquet sticks, my records disordered and defiled. I’d escape north with my girlfriend provided I did not bargain her away already for some gas and Lagunitas. As the chaos spreads, I’d be last seen roaming Death Valley in search of an outlet for a smashed Android. The cause of this breakdown would be hotly debated for decades to come, but I’d know precisely the source. None other than Tommy Wiseau, director, writer, producer, and star of The Room, who in a fit of ego decided to let the cat out of the bag, preferably with the utmost subtlety, that he knew it, all of it. The joke? He was in on it. His masterpiece? Not “the worst film ever made” but the spectacle of it all: the cult obsession, the books, the films about the film. All of it.

I hope, anyway, that that is the exclusive fate of my alternate life, for I fear that such a devastation is every bit as possible here. Because on top of climate change, supervolcanoes, and thermonuclear war, the revelation that Tommy Wiseau is not the entertainingly clumsy outsider artist of international renown but a cold and guileful showman is one last disaster we do not need. The workaday normie may chuckle at such an insinuation, but a whole swath of the creative class, and their sophisticated millers-about, have their perceptions so wired to the former that it fortifies a worldview unto itself. Any slight suggestion to the contrary acting like a Death Star-level design flaw.

When I first saw Tommy Wiseau, I did think he was a creation. It was in 2009 and he was appearing on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! as himself. Tim and Eric had an almost Arbusian flair for filling their show with awkward and unconventional performers, for which Wiseau fit the bill in spades. Even when they showed the incomprehensible flower shop scene from The Room I still wasn’t sure if it was real. When I read about the film on The AV Club later that month, I was finally filled in. By the time I actually watched The Room in a friend’s basement I understood the ins and outs of it and its phenomenon.

The experience was less fun than if I had been flying blind, but I was still amused. How could I not be? Watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a primary mechanism for getting through my inept childhood. And like all nerds who were finely attuned, for good and ill, to their imperfections, I leapt toward all things imperfect, regardless as to whether they reflected me or elevated me. It was through this portal that I discovered many of my present interests: noir, horror, drive-in culture, punk rock, zine-making. All of independent culture lives in this nether realm, and because The Room is more independent than most, its sophisticated audience was practically assured. In fact, Room fandom has become a paradoxical marker of sophistication, like being blocked by someone kind of famous on Twitter.

In narrative terms, The Room is a mercifully straightforward film, telling of a relationship that deteriorates and leaves a man so hurt and isolated that he commits suicide. In production terms it is less simple. Everything that has been said about how poorly made The Room is has been confirmed over and over again. It is demonstrably bad in almost every aspect. Tommy Wiseau possesses neither technical training in nor natural talent for the cinematic medium. Many, in fact, look on the film as though it should not exist, or that its existence is the result of a collective cultural unconscious being made flesh. Things just don’t happen without a reason.

In the 1999 Simpsons episode “Mom and Pop Art,” a botched attempt to build a backyard barbecue pit gains Homer entry into the art world when it is mistaken for a sculpture. He is hailed as a genius by the likes of Jasper Johns (guest appearing of course) and much to the dismay of Marge, a trained but unsuccessful painter. But when his repetitive work wears on his admirers, he wows everyone—Marge included—by flooding Springfield. The accidental genius trope is a common enough one in comedy; in fact The Simpsons revisited it from a literary end with Moe as a brilliant poet. It speaks to the peculiar relationship that sometimes sparks between artists who may or may not be outsiders and outsiders who make art. The difference doesn’t seem very stark or significant on the surface when one has a grasp of arts vast and general history, and even in the face of classic examples of the relationship it still doesn’t seem very unique. That’s mostly because the relationship has a use so limited it seems almost protected.

While I hesitate to declaim certain forms of art to be more legitimate than others, it is unavoidable that certain forms of art have a broader, more consistent appeal to the point that standards of some form are made clear. Art is the extension of the artist’s priorities, experience, and skill, but artists also recognize a canon, which they invariably comment upon whether in homage or defiance. Francis Bacon, for instance, had no formal training as a painter, but used classical portraiture and photography to refine his craft. Art also has “things” to “say” about “life” that can be easily registered, even while not wholly correct, through the unique framing of the artist. If imagination can be chained by discipline and still walk, then it is canonical art. “Outsider art” recognizes no such strictures, existing entirely for its own sake, and hence gives off the impression of naivety. Sitting as outsider art’s patron saint is Henry Darger, a Chicago custodian with a history of being institutionalized. His magnum opus is The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which he worked on for most of his adult life. At over 15,000 single-spaced pages it is both beautiful and disturbing. It was also not known about until after Darger had died when his landlords discovered it and his other manuscripts. Free of the drive or knowledge of the promotional arts, there is an air of the happenstance, even the fateful, in the outsider artist. While Daniel Johnston is without question a good songwriter, I’m left to wonder how his present notoriety would have played out had he not been working at a McDonald’s in 1980s Austin.

Wiseau is not gifted to the same extent as Darger and Johnston, but his cluelessness makes him appear as though cut from the same cloth. The original 2003 release of The Room was marked by a single billboard ad over Highland Avenue in Hollywood displaying Wiseau’s unsettlingly vacant stare. Of Wiseau’s background we have little to go on, but we know at least that he is not from the United States and gained just enough understanding of American norms to know that they exist but not how they function. The Room is painfully earnest; in fact that is its one artistic saving grace. “Viewers leave The Room with a raw impression of Wiseau’s alienation from (and hostility toward) the women who have bruised him,” Scott Tobias wrote, while “viewers leave Birdemic knowing nothing about [director James] Nguyen that can’t be broadcast through a megaphone.” Whatever The Room’s faults, there’s no overlooking its purity of vision. And purity is a creative attribute prized by the impure. In addition to Tim and Eric, Wiseau has developed a following among generation X and millennial comedy performers like Kristen Bell, Alec Baldwin, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. A cynic has an ideal climate. He or she can revel in its unadulterated vulnerability while reframing it with in his or her own joke as he or she sees fit.

But The Room has its own fateful aspect: what if Tommy Wiseau didn’t have any money? Wiseau has been coy about the precise source(s) of his funding for The Room, the budget of which ballooned to $6 million. There was mention of importing clothing form South Korea, as well other entrepreneurial and real estate ventures that suggest phenomenal business acumen, but it is all pure speculation until Wiseau decides to articulate himself. More fascinating than the film itself is the process by which it was made. Thanks to his costar Greg Sesteros, who wrote a memoir of the experience, we have a better idea of it. Wiseau exerted total control over production, with no one to overrule any of his decisions, such as filming completely gratuitous scenes and repeatedly firing cast members and whole crews rather than just himself from either (though there is a bizarre feud over directorial credit). It’s almost as if, for Wiseau, product mattered less than production. That he had the ability and resources to wield power on set makes him a filmmaker. And here, Wiseau has a point.

True independence is hard to come by, and the feeling is often better than the results. James Franco has channeled the fruits of his talent as a comic actor into a series of wasteful vanity projects. He acquires advanced degrees like designer handbags; he published a collection of sub-writing workshop-quality short stories and starred in the adaptation; he directed forgettable cinematic carnival rides of out Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. He appeared on General Hospital over the course of several episodes and wrote it off as “performance art.”

Wiseau has one thing in common with some of the most revered cinematic stylists today: he is not very prolific. Once The Room was reborn into its current infamy, Wiseau rebranded it as a “black comedy,” albeit with little success. A decade after his debut, Wiseau produced a series called The Neighbors, a sort of bizarro Melrose Place by way of the multi-camera sitcom in which he stars as the both the building manager and a petty criminal. Originally considered for Adult Swim, it is streaming on Hulu. “[Wiseau has] become a beloved midnight-movie staple, a carnival barker who plays up his ‘mysterious weirdo’ persona for monetary gain and fan service,” goes the F-grade AV Club review. “As a result, he seems to be counting on his many devotees to unquestioningly follow along on The Neighbors’ misguided experiment in low-budget entertainment. But whatever lightning in a bottle that birthed the man’s unprecedented success is long gone.”

Agency, in a way, is more crucial to the artistic life than independence. For those who are steeped in creative industry—with firmer ambition, clearer direction, and a supply of good fortune—following instincts has few obstacles. The outsider artist has less maneuverability, however, being dependent on various “mentors” who understand the world into which they have stumbled. Escaping them seems impossible. Critics plucked Jean-Michel Basquiat from graffiti art obscurity, dubbing him with honors like “the radiant child;” he jumped from art dealer to art dealer producing numerous but increasingly predictable paintings to fund the heroin habit that killed him at age 27. Not that actually finding agency is any better. For decades the identity of the reclusive Texas musician “Jandek” was a matter of notable if not heated speculation. After the release of the 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, interest reached a fever pitch, the redhead frequently seen on the record covers—Sterling Smith—started performing live for the first time. A tribute album followed, then everyone lost interest.

Whether Wiseau was trying to improve his work or capitalize on his notoriety, he hit a wall in doing so. His talent, to be sure, played a significant role here, but so too did the onlookers who erected it in the first place. No one asked for The Room to be made. But once it was made, people gladly accepted it for their own whims. Assessing Joy Division, Peter Saville said, “The two works are Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and that’s it. Everything else is just merchandising.” The same, for all intents and purposes, applies to Wiseau and The Room, though switch out merchandising with commentary. A film like The Room never seems truly finished, at least not until everyone has had their say, whether from spoon-throwing fans, The AV Club, RiffTrax, the Nostalgia Critic, or myself.

But to let Wiseau comment on anything, let alone through his own work (admittedly he never clearly comments on his work), seems unfathomable. We need not hear what he may have to say on, I don’t know, the state of cinematic art, the role commerce plays in it, or even the emotional extremes to which we are pulled by love. That’s too much noise, and also quite dangerous, particularly now that James Franco is directing and starring in an adaptation of Sesteros’s memoir The Disaster Artist. Perhaps the alternate timeline is the preferable timeline after all, one where I would be spared a world destroyed several kilotons over by the most catastrophic chain reaction of meta in the history of postmodernism.

Funding for this post has been provided in part by Pabst Brewing Company.

TRUDEAU’S GHOST AND MACDONALD’S REVENGE

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On July 1 of this year, the members of the sizeable polity directly to the north of ours assembled under their leafy banner to pay homage to a momentous event. 150 years ago, the British North America Act granted the colonial satellites of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to confederate into a dominion of provinces. The arrangement granted the newly formed nation comparatively greater sovereignty in determining its social destiny, provided, of course, that the monarch may appoint their head of state and that they submit any constitutional amendment they may want to the British Parliament for approval. Such triumphs, however limited, are not won alone or without considerable struggle, but one must wonder how things would have otherwise gone had Canada been bereft of John Alexander Macdonald at that moment a century and a half ago.

John A. Macdonald, born in Scotland, was a British Columbian lawyer of exceptional alcoholism. Also he was a formidable colonial politician, serving as Attorney General of Canada West on and off from 1854 to 1867. After several years of complex coalition juggling, his stewardship of confederation granted him the inaugural position of Prime Minister of Canada for nearly 19 years. The parentage of this success can be derived from Macdonald’s earthbound political pragmatism and his very simple vision. He was able to weather harsh opposition to his designs in part because they always seemed so quaint compared to the conflicts being borne out just below them. He and his allies looked on at the events of the Civil War in utter horror. What was an amusing if brutish sports match to the British was to their moose-cohabitating subjects a cannibalizing failed state. With the Union victory, his fears simply went from chaos to invasion. He looked upon Abraham Lincoln’s genius and said, “No, no we don’t need that. Thank you.” Not that Lincoln would have blamed him.

But out of Macdonald’s triumph came a tragic irony. Maybe not tragic exactly, but at least a nagging condition that formed a symbiotic relationship with its neighbor. One looks upon Canada with a sense of dispirited inevitability in its legacy as a nation of contrast. It is as if a law from the cosmos itself governs that we see Canada and America side by side as we would see mediocrity and genius, caution and risk, near-sightedness and 20/20 clarity, Daedalus and Icarus, and so on. This arrangement seemed more or less amenable to Canadians for much of their history. It took nearly a century to find someone who would try to transgress against the cosmos.

Before Pierre Elliot Trudeau became the 15th Prime Minister of Canada in 1968, his notoriety rested on being an independently wealthy, intermittently employed, unabashedly radical, devoutly Catholic, and singularly Quebecois intellectual. He once showed up to the 1949 Asbestos strike driving a Jaguar and at Murdochville in 1957 wearing shorts and sandals. He wrote an essay defending a people’s right to assassinate their tyrannical sovereign. Maurice Duplessis, authoritarian Premier of Quebec and friend of Trudeau’s father, called him “a subversive.” He would not read anything on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books without a Bishop’s permission. He sat out World War II. His election to parliament, and subsequent appointment as Minister of Justice, in 1965 at age 46 may well have been his first real job. Charles Taylor, his New Democratic opponent, was forced to keep his day job. That such a person could ascend so quickly in Canadian federal politics seems rather fanciful, but like Macdonald his moment was well timed.

The 1968 Liberal leadership convention saw Trudeau compete against eight other parliamentarians, some with many decades of experience on him. One, Paul Martin, had been a member for over 30 years and served in multiple cabinet posts including Minister of National Health and Welfare and Minister of External Affairs. By the fourth ballot, Trudeau had won with 1,203 votes. A few factors contributed to this, one being the spirit of the 1960s, which not even Canada could resist; in fact many seemed quite pleased that they, too, could have a Kennedy. The Liberals were also unable to win majorities in the last two elections. Though more salient was Trudeau’s background. The Liberal Party has a tradition of alternating between French and English leaders. Trudeau was not only French, but also a sharp defender of federalism in a province becoming increasingly antagonistic to it. On the eve of the election separatists stormed the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade, pelting him with bottles and rocks as he sat on the grandstand. He refused to budge, however, and the stunt backfired. The Liberals gained 26 seats to win a majority.

The resulting character of Trudeau’s premiership can be summed up by Trudeau’s own guiding principle of governance: “reason over passion.” The slogan’s oddness is twofold. Whether Canada is reason poor, it could hardly be accused of being passion rich. Moreover, Trudeau governed himself almost entirely through passion. In fact “reason over passion” is exactly the principle a passionate person would seek to emulate. “Coldly, let us be intelligent,” he put it more strangely. Sure, he was quite put together in his speech invoking the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970, which gave police power “to search and arrest without warrant, to detain suspected persons without the necessity of laying specific charges immediately, and to detain persons without bail.” “These are strong powers,” he said almost mournfully, “and I find them as distasteful as I am sure do you. They are necessary, however, to permit the police to deal with persons who advocate or promote the violent overthrow of our democratic system.”

But those remarks have been overshadowed by Trudeau’s more defiant, off the cuff statements to a reporter on the street. “Well there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of—“ The reporter interrupts: “At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?” “Well, just watch me,” was the Prime Minister’s infamous reply. Outbursts such as these would be increasingly relied on throughout Trudeau’s 15-year tenure. Some, like his pirouette behind Queen Elizabeth, were carefully rehearsed. Others, such as telling a protestor in Saskatchewan that if he didn’t stop throwing wheat at him he’d “kick you right in the ass,” were not.

To be Trudeau in Canada, it seemed, was to be restricted. Perhaps even to be imprisoned. He loathed parliamentary debate and one time became so frustrated that he allegedly told members to “fuck off,” though he denied it. “What I overlooked was the fact that he himself had absolutely no administrative experience whatsoever,” said Trudeau’s Minister of Communications, Eric Kierans who quit the cabinet in 1971 and later joined the New Democrats. Trudeau relied more on civil servants than his party and lost his majority when he opted not to campaign during the 1972 election. His political survival can be in some way attributed to a feckless opposition party that could never conclusively game him in votes. The only rival who truly challenged him was René Lévesque, a broadcaster turned separatist firebrand and Premier of Quebec.

When surveying Trudeau’s achievements, one finds a few home runs rather than many base hits. Though many more factors were in play, Quebec’s first “sovereignty” referendum failed on his watch. He patriated the constitution—and brought a farther reaching Charter of Rights and Freedoms—while derailing Quebec’s derailment attempts in the process. He entrenched multiculturalism as a fact of Canadian life, as well as the metric system. Trudeau was at his most assured when enacting a sweeping gesture or imparting a grand vision of Canada’s place in the world. But assured does not always mean best. Canadians seemed mostly to tolerate his civics lectures, but world leaders were much less impressed. His attempts to mediate in the Cold War during his final term came off as naïve, to say the least.

Canadians were less pleased with Trudeau’s management of what they actually cared about. To have David Frum tell it, he vastly overleveraged government spending amidst inflation and recession. After promising not to impose wage and price controls in 1974, he did exactly that in 1975. More controversial, though, was the National Energy Program:

Most other Western countries redirected themselves toward more fiscal restraint after 1979. Counting on abundant revenues from oil, the Trudeau government kept spending. Other Western governments began to worry more about attracting international investment. Canada repelled investors with arbitrary confiscations. … Under the National Energy Policy [sic], Canada was up-regulating as the US, Britain, and West Germany deregulated. All of these mistakes together contributed to the extreme severity of the 1982 recession. Every one of them was Pierre Trudeau’s fault.

The NEP was also Trudeau’s most damning testament of his federalism-over-provincialism bent. Oil producing provinces, namely Alberta, took the NEP as an imposition by the federal government on provincial control of its resources. Relations between eastern and western Canada chilled markedly, resulting in a regional right wing wave of the Reform Party, the Canadian Alliance, which propelled Stephen Harper, and the provincial Wildrose Party.

Pierre Trudeau considered himself a “citizen of the world” and carried himself as such, with a wanderlust that was unquenchable. (I can’t tell if his 1960 jaunt to Maoist China, at the CPC’s invitation, was utterly clueless or wryly self-aware.) But in truth, Trudeau’s most important constituent was not the Canadian or the Earthling, but his past self.

One of the few reminders of the politician’s humanity is the incessant need to shake off their pre-election civilian identities, if not to conceal a flawed shame then to at least accept that they’ve ascended—or descended—to a new level of being wherein little of what they learned or experienced really applies anymore. Not so Trudeau, who spent his political career more or less confirming his theoretical past. His tenure was successful provided he did not betray himself. “Canada” was a neat idea that didn’t properly exist outside of his own head and so sought to make it. Why it was called “Canada” or why it had oil-soaked prairies on the one end and the French on the other or why it was bound to such shackles as “commerce” were bewitching but trivial mysteries compared to the possibilities of birthing his thought experiment into a higher realm of transcendent genius. Of course one person’s “genius” is another person’s “Americanization.” “The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms],” Seymour Martin Lipset wrote, “makes Canada a more individualistic and litigious culture, one that will place more stress on the enforcement of personal rights through adversary procedures.”

But it does not matter in the end whether Trudeau had discovered the Canadian capacity for genius or merely cribbed it. He tampered in such a way as to undo a regional balance, not altogether intended or easily understood but delicately maintained all the same. The Daedalus state had gone Icarus, and if the damage from the sun could not be reversed then the balance needed to be restored through other means.

To speak of the American genius is not to speak of the United States in rarified terms at the expense of Canada, but only to reconfirm what is factual. Genius is as dangerous as it is rare, but the American social engine can be fueled by nothing less. Indeed, Americans have subjected themselves to something akin to a lottery system combined with a guessing game in teasing out who will be best suited to meet this demand. But the United States is either unwilling or unable to come down to a more modest level for any reason, so then it must be brought down.

In February, Lana Del Rey pledged her support to a national effort to remove Donald Trump from the White House by way of occult ritual. This effort will fail not so much because witchcraft is false but because there are far greater forces at work. Imagine a force hardened, embittered, and restless; a force that has divined its power from being more aware of the faults of its nemesis than the nemesis itself. Such a force will be in search of the most proper vessel to unfurl its designs in restoring the continental balance. It will fortify the vessel with whatever means can be mustered until it has ensured total debasement. The vessel will not be a genius but will possess a certain charisma to carry it over any potential obstruction, preventing the attainment of proper knowledge of its limits. Whether or not such a vessel is presently in the halls of American power is something that, if all goes according to plan, will not be figured out until it is too late. But any such vessel would be instantly recognizable to Canadians to the point of being uncanny, and they will know that the weights are shifting and that for Americans “too late” is still very far off.

DAVID LYNCH’S MOMENT OF CLARITY

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There are two ways, as I see it, to process the eighth episode of Showtime’s third season—or return or reboot, whatever you wish to call it—of Twin Peaks. One way I admit is quite petty, consisting mostly of marveling at The Atlantic’s James Parker for showing us how language, like a model rocket made while inebriated, can detonate without leaving the launching pad. “We will watch it, at any rate, not anchored to time and the boxy television set, but weightlessly adrift in our personal viewing cells,” he writes, whatever that means. “It might be great. It might be a disaster. But it won’t blow our minds. It can’t, because that already happened.” (Emphasis mine.) The other way, then, of piecing together what it was that one has just watched, why it is that one cannot readily let it leave one’s mental space, and precisely to what permanence did it upend one’s expectations and assumptions of a medium (but so much more than that) one thought to be in one’s effective control, is fairly self-explanatory.

In fairness to Mr. Parker, I agreed with him at the time. For as much as I enjoyed Twin Peaks I didn’t think anything needed to be added to it on top of what was already there. True enough, I understood the reviled Fire Walk With Me to be underrated, and I was glad that Lynch was picking up where he left off in its tone and its plot points. But I took to the new season generally with little more than curiosity. I was quite glad to see that Bobby and Shelly, seemingly no longer together, have found maturity, perhaps even contentment, in middle age. I was happy that Hawk is still Hawk, Agent Rosenfield is still Agent Rosenfield, and that the pine weasel is extinct. And I like knowing what New York City looks like through the Lynchian lens. Otherwise I had accepted that no depth, old or new, would be plumed, no mystery uncovered, no grander order of things revealed. So much for that.

When I last wrote about Twin Peaks for The American Conservative, I admitted my disappointment that I was unable to understand the experience of seeing the pilot episode when it first aired. All that can be said about once-in-a-lifetime milestones applies to it hand-in-glove, of course, but it had been a little over 15 years since I’d experienced a cultural black swan like that in real time. It was 2001 and Converge’s second album, the long-awaited Jane Doe, had been released. I remember it well because it was the week of September 11, it came a few days late, and listening to it while walking to my afterschool shift at Pizza Hut, the batteries in my Discman gave out not even a minute into the first song. Listening to it in full later that night, though, I felt that I’d been given a rare privilege of expectations being vastly exceeded, of aesthetic sensibilities being finally validated, and of old ideas being unrecognizably reborn. Even as the global situation was in chaos, what a time it was to be a certain kind of teen in a certain moment in time.

Even then I sensed that that was a feeling I may never have again. Certainly I’d be tricked—and I was, many times—but at some point the reality would set in that, while there may yet be something new (or newish) under the sun, it may not shine on anything in my periphery. And that’s fine, not everything is going to be about me. In fact, forcibly erecting cultural monuments has been something of a problem for many years now, not least of all when it came to television. Alan Sepinwall has made a career as media criticism’s Edward Everett, waxing profound on every Sopranos Easter egg, every pensive stare of Don Draper, like an Athenian triumph in battle. So imagine my shock, indeed my embarrassment, of having been caught in a moment many a critic have been not even halfway-convincingly rhapsodizing for so long. That, anyway, is how I justify writing about something that has been recapped to death since Monday morning.

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“Part 8,” as I shall call it henceforth, frustrated people at first as it was a marked detour from the many other storylines the series has been juggling over the previous seven episodes, with many of those carrying frustrations of their own. But viewers familiar with the series mythology, especially as it is presented in Fire Walk With Me, understand that it is not a gratuitous detour. Simply put, it is Lynch’s attempt at the origin story and at contextualizing the supernatural order that surrounds and haunts the northwestern town, and now the world. As it turns out, Bob is somehow humanity’s fault, having either been birthed or empowered by the Trinity atomic bomb test, recreated in a terrifying five-minute sequence. Moreover, the martyr complex of Laura Palmer, long a point of contention with Lynch’s feminist critics, was more or less confirmed. There is also the matter of the fly-frog hybrid who enters the mouth of a teen girl at episode’s end who may or may not be a young Sarah Palmer. And how any of this takes us forward into the remaining nine parts is anyone’s guess, but Lynch has done a strange thing by bringing a lot of elements, once unclear and jumbled (was The Man from Another Place good or evil? Frankly I have no fucking clue) into the forefront and somewhat more carefully positioned.

When surveying the vast critical consensus of “Part 8,” I agree with two things. First that it is among the most audacious, most radical episodes of television ever broadcast. Second is that it is not very original. The visual language of “Part 8” comes as echoes from art and underground cinema’s fairly distant past. Some echoes are quite loud, 2001: A Space Odyssey came in for immediate recall. Some, however, are rather faint, such as Stan Brakhage and, to me anyway, Carnival of Souls. But perhaps the most obvious visual touchstone is Lynch himself. Both a friend of mine and another critic used “full Eraserhead,” Lynch’s debut feature released 40 years ago, to describe the overall tone.

One point that I cannot agree with, however, is that the episode is, as some have said, “abstract” or “bonkers.” These designations have followed Lynch from Eraserhead and onward with varying aptness. We have some idea as to what Mulholland Drive was about; we may never conclusively know what Lost Highway or Inland Empire were about. That is part of the fun of David Lynch, who lords over the obligation to not explain himself as stridently and assuredly as Joe Arpaio lorded over his power to dress his prisoners in pink underwear. But the merits of “Part 8” cut a different way. Indeed, if the episode simply repeated the same fan theorist-friendly guesswork, we would be in a much different mood.

David Lynch has sustained himself for four decades not because his work is weird. To be weird doesn’t take much effort, as the many Twin Peaks descendants have shown. For Lynch it was always a means to an end. That the ends were never more than broadly certain was not his problem, but they always tied back to the thing he understood most: postwar America. This is hardly new, of course. Depicting the stark conflicts of American life and its ideals was always Lynch’s most obvious point of reference. But his due as a moral artist, let alone one with any sort of long game, has been inconsistently given. It was always there but often accompanied by various problematics, or plain perversity. But “Part 8” is distinct as a Lynchian moral document depicting a perversion that he did not exclusively script.

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Learning about the atomic bomb is a significant event in the life of the American, though it is one that no American precisely remembers taking place. For my part, I remember in early childhood seeing a vague mushroom cloud in the Harry S. Truman (!!!) section of a guide to presidents. And even there I am not entirely sure. We better remember periodic gestures made by social studies teachers to suggest that maybe dropping the bomb over Nagasaki was a bit excessive. No matter, I suppose. Those watching the episode, many of certain late-Cold War generations, have effectively received a comprehensive recircuiting of how to understand the bomb. Or if not that, then at least “Part 8” allows for comfort in discussing it more directly. As Emily L. Stephens at The AV Club writes: “There’s a grotesque righteousness in the suggestion that the evil of Bob isn’t some external force visited upon humankind, but something born from our corruption, from our willingness to pervert our greatest intellects and abilities to bring about terrible destruction.”

I find it difficult, listing back all the transgressions of the Second World War, to single out the Manhattan Project as evil; but it was arrogant. Today we attach a considerable moral weight to “the scientist,” but those involved at the creation of the bomb were either unaware of its power (some, for instance, thought the bomb might neutralize Earth’s atmosphere) or hyperaware of, but ultimately resigned to, its long term consequences. I always found the sensitivity and insightfulness of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his references to John Donne and eastern spirituality and the like, to be rather repugnant when set against his actual accomplishments. Perhaps implying his Trinity test as the source of Bob’s emergence is somewhat neat and tidy in a narrative sense, but attaching our feelings toward him and all he represents to a moment in our history was a powerful move on Lynch’s part, and certainly he must know of all possible effects that extend from that move.

David Lynch was born in 1944, but it never quite seems like it. In an era, and in the last year specifically, that saw culture turning decidedly against baby boomers, Lynch’s perspective stands entirely out of step with his cohort. Indeed, in the recently released documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch is heard recalling a moment as an art student in Boston in which he got high, went to a Bob Dylan concert, and left in the middle of it, a transgression that caused his roommate, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, to move out. His color palette favored dark Bacon-esque hues, he hates cities and is fond of small towns, and he has a stark, borderline conservative, understanding of what is right and what is wrong. He is not interested in improving America as he is in reminding us what it can be and what it too often is. And every time he veers a little too closely to Tim Burtonization, one of these attributes pulls him back, Loggia-like, from the precipice.

Lynch’s idiosyncrasies and the lack of force with which he exerts them in his art have earned him endless respect from subsequent generations eminently wise to being talked down to. But that is as much a burden as it is a blessing as “Part 8” demonstrates. Its simplest takeaway, whether Lynch intended it or not, is that the Atomic Age is not only back, it actually never left, and now it is ours.

Yes, to my surprise, my delight, and my apprehension, that was the greatest episode of television ever made.

ON NOT BEING GOOD

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“Many of the children at Eastern are chronically mentally ill. They’ll never see what we see, hear what we hear, think in ways we do.” This is narration from the Academy Award-nominated documentary Children of Darkness, produced by Richard Kotuk and Ara Chekmaya and which aired on PBS in 1983. It explores the lives of young people who struggle with mental illness, of the institutions that house them, of the parents who place them there, and of the counselors who treat them. I’ve mentioned this film in previous posts, mostly in passing and almost always in tandem with likeminded works such as Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies and Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of the Willowbrook State School. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to explore the film in detail. But then I forget that this is an era in which impossibility seems less and less rare. Sooner or later I would be given this blessing, and I was, as it so often seems to be, through Twitter.

“This is what happens when you add the voice over to an old documentary about mental illness to video of SJWs,” reads a tweet posted by Jenna Abrams. “And it actually makes sense.” Below the text is just that: a video mashup of the most comical tantrums of left wing protestors set to narration of Children of Darkness, the aforementioned lines included. I suppose it’s hard to argue, on some level, that it doesn’t make sense. Ideology-as-disorder is a reliable cudgel. It’s certainly not easy to let go of with the advent of the “social justice warriors,” whose largely emotive and performative brand of persuasion lends to them an air of hysteria. And so to wield the cudgel effectively, one must go big or delete one’s account. As of this writing, Abrams’s tweet has over 6,000 retweets and over 10,000 “likes.” And it’s a clever bit of media manipulation to be sure, almost pop art-level. But people seeing this on their timelines are left to wonder if the SJWs are being framed, as the mentally ill tend to be, as either threats to order or as pitiable. Perhaps by actually watching the film, which is available through Kotuk on YouTube, we might be able to surmise the intent of the tweet.

Viewers of Children of Darkness will find the following: Brian, a schizophrenic patient of Eastern State School and Hospital in Trevose, PA who is prone to violent, indiscriminately directed outbursts; the Elan School, a private treatment center for affluent teens with behavioral and substance problems and whose “no bullshit” approach is barely distinguishable from psychological torture; an autistic boy named Billy at Sagamore Children’s Center in New York who must be restrained to a bed for hours so as to prevent him from harming himself; and a Staten Island hospital fraught with deaths of patients due to neglect or harsh procedures. And those are just the framing devices.

“I was trying to kill myself so I could be with my mother,” says Denise, a teen patient of Eastern. “I love her a lot, and I don’t even know her, that’s what’s so funny.” Jerry, a patient at the same complex with muscular dystrophy, had not seen his parents since being dropped off two years before. “Three days after [being dropped off] … I was trying to call them at home and got somebody else who moved into our house, and six months later they wrote me a letter saying they were in Las Vegas, and they enclosed it with a check for $20.” By film’s end, both are out of the hospital, Jerry struggling to find a job and live on his own in Philadelphia, Denise’s whereabouts unknown. Children of Darkness runs the gamut of suffering, not just from patients but also from parents who are still present. “Why is this child? Why did God create it? That’s all I’ve always wondered,” says the mother of the autistic Billy.

Through Kotuk and Chekmaya, mental illness is not one easily comprehended condition, but one with many hues and intensities, never requiring the same approach to management. This is shown by the counselors in Children of Darkness, who are given substantial screen time. The Elan administrators, for instance, are direct in their harshness; students who act like “a baby” are “screamed at,” students who act “a mature adolescent” are “talked to.” The staff at Eastern are more overrun and beleaguered, both by the demands of their patients and the outside indifference that had brought them under their care.

Children of Darkness is also a film steeped in little details: Billy’s protective Giants football helmet, the charming Australia t-shirt worn by a near-catatonic Denise, an Elan student wearing a bunny costume as punishment for trying to run away, Brian smiling while his father talks to him during an outside visitation. These moments, great and small, form a parasitic attachment onto the viewer. Children of Darkness is at once irresistible and difficult to watch, and all for what it is not. It eschews the aloofness of Titicut Follies and the grandstanding of Geraldo’s exposé. It is not a work of gothic nonfiction but of colorful, unavoidable reality.

But merely expositing a film doesn’t take us very far in answering why mental illness is used in political rhetoric at all. Contrast it, perhaps, against the use of cancer in the same way. When describing an opponent’s views as “cancerous to the body politic,” or some such, the metaphor speaker seeks to render them as dangerous to the point of being fatal if not neutralized soon. Mental illness, however, doesn’t work like cancer. It is not something that a sufferer can be entirely excised of in treatment. At best it is manageable. Saying one is mentally disordered by ideology, then, implies that one is hopeless, cannot be reasoned with, and so whose ideas are out of step and ultimately invalid.

When writing about Sarah Palin’s incoherent endorsement of Donald Trump, Slate’s Katy Waldman said that the apparent stream-of-consciousness nature of her speech was reminiscent of “clanging, a verbal symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient compulsively rhymes words that bear no logical connection to one another.” Rather common, almost harmless, language. But Sam Kriss, also writing in Slate, uses Eric Garland’s infamous game theory tweetstorm to turn the tables:

Game theory models human actions on the presumption that everyone is constantly trying to maximize their potential gain against everyone around them; this is why its most famous example concerns prisoners—isolated people, cut off from all the noncompetitive ties that constitute society. One of its most important theoreticians, John Nash, was also a paranoid schizophrenic, who believed himself to be the target of a vast Russian conspiracy. (Emphasis added.)

“But I digress,” he adds. Whatever one’s quibbles with the academic validity of game theory, they don’t seem to matter because John Nash had a screw loose. Neither, it seems, does Nash’s Nobel Prize.

Keeping with the metaphor, then, what are the “symptoms” of the social justice warriors? Possibly they are lazy, less interested in being challenged by any one theory or line of argument than they are in finding the view that best fits existing moral precepts. They may also be arrogant, believing rules and manners as such do not apply to them because their truth renders them moot. At worst they are just not very intelligent. Though more likely they wildly overvalue how personal the political truly is. These don’t ring like objectionable points of critique. Indeed, they are far and away more preferable. For they do not absolve those “diagnosed” with disordered ideology of responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. They do not enable the progressive’s penchant for politicizing the therapeutic nor do they elevate self-diagnosis to a kind of craft hobby. But to indulge those arguments would seem inconvenient. Because the same symptoms that drive special snowflakes to disrupt campus speakers are also found in “free speech activists” who disrupt play performances.

But the attributes of activists do not interest me as much as the mindset that causes people to look at depictions of mental illness to find primarily, perhaps exclusively, opportunities for scoring political points. I hesitate to pinpoint what attitude propels the mindset as it does. If I’m not generous I’d say cruelty, though it may more fairly and accurately be indifference, a common enough source of woe in human failing; the readiest to indulge, the easiest to ignore, and the hardest to reverse. But on this I have flimsy authority. I only know with certainty what the mindset is not, and anyone who watches Children of Darkness can find precisely what I mean.

One of the film’s stops is the Sagamore Children’s Center, which treats young people with autism. Employed there at the time of filming was teacher Joe Romagna. He is one of the “stars” of the documentary aside from the patients, and it’s easy to see why. He works in a classroom with numerous severely autistic adolescents. The camera almost struggles to keep up with him as he moves from desk to desk trying to give equal attention to each student, some lacking basic communication and motor skills, some hyperactive, some languishing under the side effects of medication. “What I hope for for them is that they can be happy and be taken care of all the time,” Romagna says. “I don’t have hope for all of them [that] they’ll be like you and me, I don’t think that’s possible at this point.” Not that this realism deters him, in fact Romagna’s lack of deterrence is almost superhuman. “So much effort for so little,” his interviewer comments from behind the camera. “A lot of people say that,” Romagna replies with a smile and a nod:

It’s not a little to me. A kid, you know, is a kid and he deserves a chance to be here like everybody else and deserves a chance to get better, to enjoy himself. The kids need to have somebody close to them. And it’s important to me while I’m doing what I’m doing, that I’m close to the kids, too. … I have no plans to do anything but this for the rest of my life.

The viewer may feel drained while watching this segment, but more so than in other sections, which are certainly no less draining. Where we might be able to create distance between someone with schizophrenia and ourselves, we cannot do the same with Romagna, who stands as a direct challenge to the competent. His energy, though extraordinarily boundless, even for a teacher, is dedicated to the hard work of care. His constitution, moreover, refuses to see certain types of humans as burdensome or abstract. To do the opposite of this, that is, to take a condition and form it into a rhetorical construct or bogeyman may or may not be altogether indicative of cruelty or even basic wrongheadedness. I just know that it is not good.