Black Ribbon Award

Month: March, 2018

THE ANTI-HORROR OF NEIL HAMBURGER

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In a previous post, I alluded to the fact that I have a soft spot for upbeat viewing. In that specific case, it was as a way of unwinding from my cerebrally taxing endeavors. But even before I was knowingly engaging in criticism, I always found comfort in the light and cheerful. In fact it is possible that I consume these products more correctly than I do the graver materials. There is no shortage of good media that is also optimistic; just look at Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, or Clueless. But their quality is a secondary matter to the escapism they offer. Left to my own devices, my mind is that of a hyperactive, neglectfully attended child atop an Action Park waterslide that slopes into darkness.

That in itself is bad, but these thoughts are of such power that I always feared they could sniff me out of hiding. And my fear was vindicated following an umpteenth viewing of Napoleon Dynamite.

Jared and Jerusha Hess’s 2004 debut feature is eternally polarizing. Some love it for the excessive quirk of its world and the almost childish guilelessness of its characters and some do not. I was perfectly at peace the first time I saw it the summer it was released, with my father and one of my brothers in tow, in a Montclair movie theater that no longer exists. All three of us were delighted and remain so. At the time it seemed quite appropriate that it was contrasted against Todd Solondz’s similarly styled but far bleaker depiction of awkward adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse. But lately I’ve come to realize that this was an error.

My error is twofold. First, Welcome to the Dollhouse is not similarly styled. It is a realistic portrayal of a gawky, inept child stuck in a suburb whose alternating hostility and emptiness is rendered with a classical sculptor’s precision. Second, Napoleon Dynamite is actually the bleaker of the two films. This might seem ludicrous, but it makes more sense when you see what Napoleon Dynamite is presenting: a tightly contained ideal. It is a kind of rustic snow globe where the depravity of the outside world is prohibited, and this is portrayed with delicate suggestion. “I don’t know how they do things down in Juarez,” the school principal tells Pedro, “but here in Idaho we have a little something called pride. Smashing in the face a piñata that resembles Summer Wheatley [his rival for class president] is a disgrace to you, me, and the entire Gem State.” The film does end on an upbeat note, with Napoleon playing tetherball with his love interest Deb, but we are left with the suggestion that things go downhill the moment he stops playing.

This interpretation was given greater illumination when I recently watched Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment. It tells of a standup comic, simply identified in the credits as “The Comedian” as he goes on tour through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, performing to audiences in bars, restaurants, and prisons who are varyingly unreceptive. He is played by Gregg Turkington, and is actually a revival of his character Neil Hamburger, a dark parody of a night club comedian, with a cheap tuxedo and a greasy comb-over, who seethes with unfunny one-liners (“Why does Madonna feed her baby Alpo brand dog food,” goes one of his “jokes.” “Because that’s what comes out of her breasts.”) while clutching multiple cocktails in his arms as he holds his microphone. When Norm Macdonald lambasted the performance criticism of anti-comedy, Hamburger is doubtless the example he had in mind.

Turkington was initially approached with the idea of playing Hamburger as interacting with people on the street. But rather than risk devolving into a Borat knock-off, Turkington preferred “a Two-Lane Blacktop art film kind of vibe.” Its conception was not so much ambitious as it was shrewd. It is at once a kind of lyrical road film and an upending of the character vehicle. It demystifies Hamburger’s persona even further by showing him out of character, so to speak. Off-stage, Hamburger’s grating register reverts back to Turkington’s more introverted tone and manner as he shuffles through venues, tourist traps, guest rooms, motels, party houses, and endless stretches of hot desert road. The most time he is seen speaking, outside of performance, is into his phone as he leaves rambling messages to his estranged daughter Maria, who does not answer or reply.

Like Napoleon Dynamite, the film is framed in static but beautiful establishing shots of vast western wilderness and tacky, time-abandoned interiors. But whereas Napoleon Dynamite’s Idaho was a safe enclosure of expansive blue skies and knick knack-filled homes, Neil Hamburger’s California is an endless scorched waste of airplane graveyards, sterile lodgings, strung-out hipsters, a very creepy Michael Cera, and minimal—seldom warm—human contact. Entertainment comes closest to a kind of spiritual sequel to Napoleon Dynamite, in which a singularly odd character is stranded from his home, trying to survive in a much less hospitable world. It is Napoleon Dynamite in exile.

Entertainment is neither a comedy nor an anti-comedy, nor is it really a drama. It tows the line between the realistic and the absurd and leans deeper in either direction. But no matter which way it leans, the result is always a variation on emptiness. The story is more of a series of incidents strung together than a narrative. He is patronized by a more successful cousin (played by John C. Reilly) on his expansive ranch, he has an ethereal but opaque session with a traveling chromotherapist, an eye doctor forgets about him mid-appointment, he agrees to, then abandons, a shoot for an internet comedy video in the middle of the desert, his opening act is a silent clown. His most receptive audience is politely laughing convicts. His strategy for interruptions is to verbally lacerate. A drunk woman cuts off his train of thought and he proceeds to call her a “whore” with “syphilis breath” as she stares back at him with a mix of shock and familiarity. She accosts him outside and breaks his glasses. When you see Neil go low, he goes lower still. When a private party requires him to jump out of a large cake, he breaks down and jumps into the pool.

Entertainment was little seen upon its release while being more praised than not by critics; with an 82 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. One dissenter was Vulture’s David Edelstein, who watched it twice but couldn’t be convinced “that Alverson and Turkington had made an authentically punk art movie.” For all its willingness to examine “the skeletal remains of a snobbish, viciously exploitative America,” it lacked a compelling explorer. “Neil is quite a character—he’s unforgettable. But he doesn’t have the stature for tragedy.” He’s not wrong. Excessive cynicism can be every bit as unpalatable as excessive whimsy. But maybe that’s not really the intent of the film—or anyway it’s not its most interesting attribute.

Todd Solondz has dodged accusations of his own of being misanthropic, but as The AV Club points out, that is a gross simplification of his work. Though his films examine “the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable,” not only pitiful adolescent nerds but also pedophiles and anti-abortion terrorists, he does so with an aim towards humanization and empathy. “Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had.”

Looked in this way, the effect of Entertainment might not be in how we respond to Neil Hamburger, but in what Neil Hamburger reflects back at us. Hamburger may not have “the stature of tragedy”—but we might. Indeed, Turkington’s creation is not a very effective commentary on standup comedy hackery—compared, anyway, to someone like Dan Nainan. Instead he strikes more broadly at the sense of exhaustive despair that is either felt or feared but never easy to articulate. Neil Hamburger is a kind of manifestation of our greatest weaknesses, our laziness, our vindictiveness, our drift into mediocrity, our isolation. He embodies Ambrose Bierce’s definition of being alone: “in bad company.” Rather than a jester of anti-comedy, Neil Hamburger is a specter of anti-horror.

But through all this, Entertainment reasserts itself as two films in one. It is a brutal trek through the American frontier’s social excrement. It is also a character study of our encroaching moral and emotional solipsism. It is suited for a warmer reception now that the rest of the country has more or less caught up with its corrosive pessimism and now that the film is on Netflix. Yet Entertainment does have one thread through which it could have stitched a timeless, or at least more coherent, work.

In one of his several calls to his daughter, Neil, drunk and on the floor, sings “Ave Maria” into her voicemail. Edelstein points out that these iterations of Maria are not accidental. Over the course of the film, the invitations to conversation assume the cadence of prayers to a being he can’t quite distinguish. In one call he asks her point blank if she believes in God. Yet these read less like a thematic undercurrent and more like a missed opportunity. With the amorality of the era well established by now, the creative curiosity not just for moral narrative, but religious narrative, has been on the rise. If mother! was an imperfect entry, it was also an indicator of further commitment. Neil Hamburger’s Dark Night of the Soul might have elevated the broadly tragic and shocking non sequiturs into more classically grotesque observances of the suffering and humility that can give way to grace. Michael Cera’s menacing but pointless cameo could have made an unsettling case for the demonic presence. “Neil is desperate for salvation,” Edelstein writes. He could have had it.

It is possible that I’m reading too much into this with the religious road movie I already have in my head. But Entertainment at least understands more concretely, and with far less words, what most proselytizers can only speak of in the abstract: we are exhausted trying to fill our spiritual absence with empty calories. At the film’s best, Neil Hamburger’s hopeless binge veers on the poetic. The power inherent in finding one is no longer hungry remains unrealized.

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POSTERITY BITES

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When I take actual stock in what it means to be a millennial, I find myself always settling on the image of a floor of a burning skyscraper. The floor itself is not burning, but the floors just above it and just below it are one by one being engulfed in flames. These dual infernos, I suspect you will have gathered, are meant to represent the animosities of the surrounding generations. The top-down flames are the boomers, possibly also a select chunk of generation X. The bottom-up flames are the succeeding generations.

This metaphor functions on a certain level of speculation on my part. Compared to the animosity of the baby boomers, little can be said of the generations to follow us—that is to say, “generation Z” and anything after. The flames coming down are certainly much closer than those coming up. But I’m placing my bets squarely on the likelihood that the rising flames are in fact rising.

Of the older generation’s laments, we hear about them often. Their thinkpieces of avocados, selfies, pornography, and narcissism speak volumes. Time, you see, is a great obstacle course of struggle. It is not up to the elders to tell you just how those obstacles are placed or when they will appear, but only to be ready when they do. But then some obstacles appeared that not even they knew how to overcome, and so the only reasonable solution was to place a greater onus upon us. Up went our potential, up still went our destiny, and with that all outside hopes and expectations. And yet by all appearances we dithered and floundered.

If this is worth responding to at all, I suppose it can be along these lines: lay the fuck off, you prigs.

As with any other generation, the millennials are a complicated lot gathered together by the fortune—or misfortune—of the temporal lottery. For all the overlap we share there is a far greater reserve of difference between one another in how we approached our bizarre age. Some, when the War on Terror had commenced, reacted to it by volunteering to fight for it, while others endeavored to protest its excesses if not its entire existence, and others plowed forward regardless of either for various reasons. Some are excited by the sudden explosion of technology and its revolutionary implications and others are not. Some are ennobled by the liberal order the previous generation established and want to usher it into their own age in their own image while others would rather not do that and wish to consider less favored alternatives. Some can thrive amidst the shifting economic plates beneath them while others are still trying to figure it out. Some are invested in cultivating stability and family life and others are just not. To hound us for our failures to rise to the occasion seems, firstly, to be very rude to your children and, secondly, to plead blindness to human experience, which guides itself by no one social framework.

The ire of the subsequent generations is another matter, especially as it is starting to take shape as the new one coming into adulthood.

Those who make up the Parkland teens were born in or around 2000. As victims of or witnesses to one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States, they are both symbols and leaders of a mass movement to bring about greater gun control laws in the country. They and other young people have proven remarkably savvy in carrying out their message. They made the cover of TIME magazine this week in anticipation of the March for Our Lives, which took place on March 24 in 800 cities around the world, with hundreds of thousands of attendees in Washington, DC alone.

Those sections of the media not antagonistic to the phenomenon have explained it with an air of destiny. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students were “trained for this moment” thanks to a curriculum that includes forensics and public speaking as well as high-quality drama and journalism programs. They have also been reared in the morals of young adult fiction. “Emma González’s extraordinary, uncomfortable, unexplained silence was one of the most transformational political moments of my lifetime,” Dahlia Lithwick writes on an instantly iconic moment of the march.

The coverage is instructive more of the people doing the covering than on their subjects. The teens are not just aggrieved high school students, but keepers of the progressive flame that others have failed to kindle. It is not simply arms legislation they seek to change but The Culture. In other words, they make up one branch of the continued assault on the Trump presidency (the other, currently, being Stormy Daniels). As of right now, the teens and their supporters share the same target, but The Culture is vast and entangled. At some point, another rising young person of equal command will have sharp and impassioned things to say about others. Quite possibly us.

It will doubtless look typical that a millennial should wonder whether anyone is thinking of him and his cohort in any intent way. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to do so. Seeing as how millennials, quite against their wishes, achieved their own quasi-mythical status, it would make some sense for the next crop of thinkpiece fodder to assess us with their hindsight. I can’t say that I’m incurious. I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine shooting took place killing 13 people, four less than the deaths at MSDHS. If there was any mass student-led movement in its wake it is not remembered. “There’s a part of me that says, ‘You could have done more. You could have been more active,’” Columbine survivor Andy McDonald told Vox. “One of the things that crossed my mind was, what if there were changes that were made after Columbine on a policy level? What could have been different today as a result? Would it have become part of the culture? That was part of my frustration.”

Columbine was something of a transitional moment, as with any other major millennial event. But it was the transition of one form of backlash—politicians blaming popular culture for violence—giving way to another—politicians arguing the how versus if of gun control. Columbine was when the cycle as we’ve known it for years was created and calcified with each new shooting. What student protestors could have done at the time is unclear. The media, for one, was much more controlled than it is now, and social media was rather … limited. I defy anyone around my age to remember his or her first AOL screen name. Moreover, the character of the time was much different. Even after Ruby Ridge, Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots, Waco, the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the Seattle WTO riots, the era was an optimistic one. Trust in government was considerably higher than it is now. In fact, Bill Clinton’s approval rating was hovering around the mid-60s in the first half of 1999. The idea of protesting and moral outcry seemed less attractive than simply processing the trauma and letting the kids be kids again.

Seen less generously, the millennials look to those younger like an age demographic reared, willfully, into an age of complacency, with some even longing for a return to that complacency. This perception would not be any more deserved than the one lobbed from above, but it is more understandable.

There is a greater rift separating the millennials from generation Z than the rift separating the boomers from the millennials. Our recent culture and politics have been framed by and to the benefit of those who witnessed the 9/11 attacks in real time. Little has been thought of those born just before or immediately after the attacks. It is entirely plausible, likely even, that their views will be markedly different from ours. They look much more skeptically toward power structures, or at least those structures that exclude them. With greater means to participate in social activity, they are less passive or curious. To that end, the internet is no longer a wondrous novelty but a functional tool. I won’t say that they’re unsentimental, but they might have less patience for the sentimentality of millennials.

Millennials are left to wonder: how are we to respond if they come calling? My answer is: we don’t. Not out of callousness, mind you, but out of acquiescence. It’s become clear in the last several years that millennials are not actually going to Inherit the Earth as each generation has in the past. The bill of damages racked up by those generations had to be handed down at some point, and it fell to ours to default on the debts. The generational wars are over—in stalemate. History is bored with us. Millennials in this sense, and only in this sense, are free. Free, anyway, to address their responsibilities in different ways. Say, for instance, in managing multigenerational homes, which will reassert age divisions not as cultural signifiers but as levels of experience in carrying out familial and communal roles. For many millennials, the world is looking smaller than it was initially promised, and so retreat from worldliness into something more local may be more attractive, or at least more sustainable.

The experience of a millennial, then, is still a burning building but with different accelerants: the contradictory expectations of the recent past burning from above and the succession of social and cultural upheavals burning from below. Yet the millennials are in themselves a singular phenomenon, in the sense that they can exit the generational structure, walking away as the building burns down.

HANNIBAL BURESS AND THE HEIGHTS OF LOW ENERGY

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March 4, 2018 was for America the night of one of the most momentous and paradigmatic Academy Awards ceremonies in recent memory. Weeks, months even, went into the building up of its immense proportions, which were as much historic and social as they were artistic. It was designed as a monument to all the hopeful and vibrant things that managed to escape from the vortex of negativity long roving across the land. A commemoration, simply put, of emerging voices and relevant stories. So revolutionary and radical were the circumstances surrounding it that they caused a horror film to be nominated for Best Picture and a fantasy film to win it. To have missed the events of that night, then, constituted an act of malice in the eyes of right-thinking people.

We are ever a nation drunk with malice, it turns out. The 2018 Oscars broadcast was viewed by a mere 26.5 million people. That seems like a lot but is actually a 19 percent decrease from last year’s viewership, making it the lowest-rated Oscars ceremony ever. For those to whom the direct avenues of power are closed off, the next available detour is often the power of refusal. As is often my fortune, I never go out of my way to seek power; it’s just something that falls before me offering its embrace freely. This instance is no exception, and so I feel it is my obligation to disclose the responsibility, wisdom, and prudence with which I wielded my power.

I was very tired at the close of that Sunday. Some time before dinner I’d finished and sent off a long essay that I had been writing over the last week, and so I was not interested in the grave matter of validating cinematic history. As with the conclusion of similar undertakings, I want to lighten rather than leaden my mind. I resolved to dive headlong into what scribes of online call “guilty pleasures.” So instead I put on last year’s film adaptation of Baywatch.

The effect that comes with watching a bad film can really only be equated with the effect of taking recreational drugs. Every bad film promises for viewers an intensification of their senses and an elevation of their well-being. The sorrows and stress that brought them to their viewing are vaporized in an instant. These effects are in some cases quite cheap and dirty, with short-term sharpening giving way to long-term dulling. Some viewers never quite recover from seeing Troll 2, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence), or We Are Your Friends. It takes a shrewd sense to know which bad films will waste you and which will spark the fuse of your third eye consciousness. Baywatch did not, at first, seem like anything special. It looked mostly like a sure thing that curiously misfired. I soon found that I was mistaken. But rather than Helen Hunting myself, I was fortunate to traverse the cultural-space continuum and attain enlightenment.

In the annals of bad film, the status of Baywatch is pretty plain, and not in the camp way of the show on which it is based—it is simply a mistake. A strange mistake, to be sure. It was a safe concept wasted either by poor writing or by not casting it with more improvisation-friendly performers. (I am also quite certain that at least some part of Zac Efron’s musculature was CGI-enhanced.) Baywatch is that rare beast of an error whose charms have no effect on the contrarian fairy. The initial critical response was the correct one. It was not wasted for me because I found one bright spot, a North Star tearing a small but easily spotted rift in the film’s otherwise tepid void.

Hannibal Buress Is listed in the cast as playing “Dave the Tech.” I know this because as part of the not even five-minute stretch of his performance in the film, he is sitting behind a laptop, discussing some tech-based exposition to the film’s villain, Priyanka Chopra. He is there to keep the plot moving, which is another way of saying his character is killed off somewhere at the film’s midpoint. I remember his line-reading more than his actual lines, laconic and indirect, like any stranger at a party. His two modes aside from being dead are standing stiffly and sitting stiffly.

In a film that is predicated on physical prowess and movement, he is an energy sinkhole. The critics noticed. “Hannibal’s talents were terribly underused in a movie that needed some genuinely funny comedy,” Megan Schuster wrote at The Ringer. “Underused” might not be the right word. Oscar Nuñez was underused. Misused is more accurate. A better film would have cast someone who was at once unmemorable and more tonally compatible in the role—say, a Curtis Armstrong type. But this is no such film, and so “Dave the Tech” is a needlessly unusual addition, contrasting rather than complementing Baywatch’s beachfront utopia.

Buress’s persona in the film is detectable to anyone who watched The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. As with their sibling shows, Eric Andre relies on absurd, surreal, and discomforting forms of comedy, but here it is more deliberately framed within a late night talk show format. Eric Andre is the manic, volatile host, who starts every show by destroying the set before it is quickly replaced. His guests—who don’t seem to know where they are—are more objects to prod or bounce off of then people to inquire about. Buress is the sidekick, who is more introverted and awkward. There is only one chair next to the host’s desk, so when a guest appears, Buress stands beside them and looks down.

The Eric Andre Show’s genius is not in its random antics like Doc Chicken but in its approach of the host-sidekick dynamic as a sort of parody of physics: Andre is the unstoppable force to Buress’s immovable object. It also highlights, if inadvertently, the distinction between people who disregard social mores and people who don’t understand them. In interviewing Lauren Conrad, Andre asks dismissively about what she does and later starts dismantling his desk with a buzzsaw. Buress asks her if she likes Waka Flocka Flame and then eats a head of lettuce. Buress’s deadpan delivery recalls Steven Wright and Bob Newhart, and in some respects Maria Bamford, for whom the tone is as much the joke as the content. “I have a question,” he says to porn star Asa Akira. “Do we have enough porn?” Akira replies, “No.” “I think there’s enough,” he muses back. That is not the limit of his style, of course. His standup is more spirited, with one of his sets more or less catalyzing the Bill Cosby rape allegations into wider attention. And his role as Lincoln the dentist on Broad City is more conventionally funny. But even there his presence shines a beacon on a virtue much maligned in our present atmosphere.

Few people understood or cared to know what constituted “low energy” until Donald Trump lobbed the term against Jeb Bush in 2015. Though as with anything Trump touches, language itself is servant to his own purposes. It strikes at the heart of what seems to disgust Trump the most: self-abnegation over self-assurance, apathy over enthusiasm, inertia over velocity. Surely if Trump had the ability of detection and power of execution, he would scour America and its territories for every person with a trace of low energy to rehabilitate them and to cordon off from the rest of society those whose rehabilitation do not take. Buress’s example, as seen on Baywatch and Eric Andre, does not deny cause for Trump’s revulsion. But it does show how low energy is often a valid social phenomenon.

Perhaps what went most wrong with Baywatch was that it got lost in translation. Instead of poking updated fun at a ridiculous ‘90s melodrama, it reverse-engineered the concept to convey an ideal world. Much of what was portrayed in the movie are things sincerely hoped for by most Americans: sunny surroundings, filled with positive and active people, for whom physical appearance is somehow both prized and not a big deal, and who are protected by the benevolent authority of The Rock. Nothing in it would cut against the grain of Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” In that sense, the only plausible joke landed in Baywatch is Buress himself, who stands in the middle of The Rock’s hyperkinetic dominion as a weather reporter stands in the middle of a hurricane.

Less is left to the imagination with The Eric Andre Show, where there is more of a balancing act being performed. Andre’s love of chaos is met by Buress’s tolerance of it. Each feeds off the other in equal measure; yet while Buress is more in control, Andre is more dominant. It would be a most unusual paring if it did not so acutely reflect the true character of the American situation as it is now. In Baywatch every moment he appears on screen he averts the audience gaze, tempting them with thoughts of a world that does not subsist exclusively on charm, can-do attitude, wit, or conventional notions of beauty. That world is our own.

With this I mean not to pigeonhole Buress himself. As The Ringer points out, Baywatch’s ultimate crime was treating “2017 Hannibal Buress like he was 2013 Hannibal Buress.” I suspect that the “2017” means “more famous” and therefore more multifaceted. Far be it from me to say conclusively what Buress should be going forward, though it would not be a grave offence to suggest “better used.” If that means more conventional and mainstream work—maybe even a talk show or Netflix series geared to his own idiosyncratic charms—it would be no detriment at all to the wider world. But, if somewhere down the line it includes an ingenious and revelatory adaptation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I, for one, would be more than delighted.

 

CHEAP SHOT YOUTH MEMOIR

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The last few years of my life have been tyrannized by an embarrassing predicament. It is clear that I make a portion of my income through writing. More often than not, that writing is focused on what my fellow Morris and Essex rail line denizens Naughty By Nature call “OPP”—other people’s published[ work]. I don’t believe I am bad at it. In fact, I have something of an aptitude for it, or what one friend described as “a calling.” All well and good, of course, but I often wonder how much easier that calling could be responded to if I had an at least an equal aptitude for reading itself.

Let me clarify: I know how to read. Granted, I had to learn to read differently from others thanks to one of my neurological hexes, but I can get through more than one sentence from start to finish. Rather it is the discipline of reading that fells me every time. I suspect no one is more surprised at my career path than anyone with whom I shared a literature class in college. Particularly the two Education majors who would very visibly roll their eyes every time I spoke in class about a text with which I obviously hadn’t familiarized myself. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but my surplus of nervous energy is difficult to overcome. I’m fidgety and irritable when still, and filled with anxious thoughts. Meditative practices for me require extensive or routine movement like miles-long walks or washing dishes. I did not inherit the temperament of my father who after dinner every night sits at the table for an hour at least working through a new thick tome (Middlemarch, Little Dorrit, or the Neapolitan novels). He was even diligent with the rigors of college reading, talking of Moby Dick as if he vanquished a gladiator in the Coliseum. Sometimes I think maybe he deserves my bookish friends more than I do.

Needless to say, this has given me something of a complex. Though I’m not sure why this should be. Literary history is at least moderately populated with well-regarded, even revered, writers who were also reluctant readers. Thomas Hobbes, according to John Aubrey, “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” Virginia Woolf wrote of William Hazlitt that “he never read a book through after he was thirty; that indeed he came to dislike reading altogether. … [A]ppetite, gusto, enjoyment were far more important than analytic subtlety or prolonged and extensive study.” I make no claims to be anywhere on par with these two authors (or at least to ever be on par with Hobbes) but there is something to this that appeals to me. If my writing has any distinction, I would think it is for how I try to integrate extra-literary elements into it. Put another way, the essays of mine I most esteem are those that hew closest to the tone and structure of Cave In’s “Juggernaut.” But I digress.

Of course I do read, even for pleasure. It just takes certain situational factors to make it more possible. As with alcohol and God, reading is more agreeable to me when there is a void that requires filling or a tribulation that requires endurance. In this case it was “having a job,” though it had to be a particular kind of job, with apathy practically form-fitted into the description.

Growing up in my corner of Union County, there was one place where a certain type of young person in need of money could work and get some enjoyment out of it. Scotti’s Records was the local hub for the punk in-crowd. As with the fabled alcoves of interwar CCNY, young cultural luminaries would convene to debate the pressing issues of the day—just swap out the encroaching threat of Stalinism with actually, Bivouac is better than 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, tyvm. Depending on who one was, one either liked or hated Empire Records for precisely this dynamic. I liked and got on well enough with the people who already worked there, running into them at shows and, occasionally, parties. I applied for jobs there three times, and each time I failed. The process was a bit strange. After a standard application, you were given a “test” to prove your cultural expertise, including a question to list what the top five bestselling albums were at that time. In hindsight, the test seems very much like an exclusionary tactic for reasons both practical and petty, but fair enough, I went next door and down the stairs to the movie theater, which shared employees with Scotti’s and caught a lot of its spillover. I was promptly hired in 2004, the summer after sophomore year in college, leaving behind Empire Records and settling for Ghost World.

Writing in the era of streaming services highlights many novel experiences of the business of getting people to leave their homes and sit in a dark room for two hours. Not all of them are really worth remembering, but I’ll do so anyway.

On my first day I stopped a screening because, when being shown a projection room, I neglected to notice the convoluted process of the projector that loops the celluloid across the floor. It was my good fortune that the film in question was in the end credits. On the opening night of Anchorman, a fight broke out in the middle of a packed screening because some kid brought in glow sticks. On a particularly busy day, a customer held up the concession line by rubbing his chin and asking in a Grey Poupon commercial cadence, “What do you recommend?” whenever I asked him what he wanted. A group of mid-2000s-style hipsters were the only people in a screening of Land of the Dead, when the film ended, one of them proceeded to lecture us on our poor choice of projection lens. He did not appreciate my mockingly asking him which film school he attended. The fire alarm system went off for no reason once, and as the fire department went through the building, my coworkers and I had to sit up front and wait. One of them went on an exegesis on Dr. Strange, and for a hot minute I was intrigued by the Marvel extended cinematic (whatever) universe. I only saw four people see Catwoman, and most people walked out of Before Sunset. I imagine I would hate Potterians less if they cleaned up after themselves better, but not by much. One positive: as befitting the town that counted Jon Corzine and Jim Cramer as residents, our patrons were so careless with money that I personally found just under $100 on theater floors in a single summer.

In spite of these annoyances, however, I managed enough downtime to actually read. I believe I managed to get more reading done during my theater shifts than any other time in my life. Part of it was in my choices. Red Harvest and The Big Sleep are not very intensive, neither are Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I had something of a southern kick that summer, going through Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes, Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marijuana collection, and, I shit you not, The Sound and the Fury. Also there was a Howard Hughes biography for good measure. I never finished that one. Much of this was done during sunny matinee days, with two of us working. Once or twice in a shift would come a sweet spot where multiple film times overlapped and I could read uninterrupted as my coworker napped in one of the armchairs.

But much of this was done just up the stairs in the ticket booth, at once the best and worst place to be in the theater. It allowed for significant isolation from everyone else downstairs, with few distractions and an almost enveloping silence, comparatively speaking. And the job was not very demanding in concept, with the computer doing the difficult parts. Even long lines were a breeze provided two things happened: the ticket dispenser didn’t get stuck, which did happen from time to time, and the costumers observed the regulatory mandates of the MPAA.

I’m of two minds when it comes to rules. Generally, I understand them to be feeble, arbitrary, and rife with temporal and institutional bias. But I also know that once they’re there they stay there and it is easier that they be followed rather than subverted. I guess in that respect I am very much like Hobbes. A cavalier attitude toward rules, even stupid ones, is a very quick way for me to lose respect in anyone. Then again, to be an effective custodian of those rules, one must have a certain authoritative self-possession that I found myself confirmed to be lacking.

The summer of 2005 saw the release of Wedding Crashers. With a $209 million gross from a $40 million budget, it is considered “one of the most commercially successful R-rated comedies of all time.” Now 13 years on, people are able to look back on it as a cinematic milestone, an R-rated film with as much maturity, wit, and heart as vulgarity. I thought it was a mediocre bro comedy at the time and was popular just for that reason. Long lines and sold-out screenings were frequent, and the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson pairing was guaranteed to bring out the two variants of male teenhood they each embodied: perpetual senioritis and middlebrow soulfulness respectively. And if one was under 17 in the Summit area who went to see this movie while I was manning the booth, there is a sure certainty that unwonted entry was gained.

I had many ways of facilitating that entry for them. There was sheepishly asking for ID, which was grudgingly given, then not really looking at it, or forgetting what the chronological cutoff was. There was asking for it, getting it, and then enforcing it, only to indifferently accept their money through an adult intermediary a few feet behind them, an arrangement made in my view. (To quote the superior movie of my tenure: “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”) Then there was simply aging youngish customers in my head out of sheer laziness. This backfired once when I carded a girl who turned out to be in a woman in her thirties, her frustration indicated that this was a frequent occurrence. Or it was a fake ID and she was a good actor, who knows?

One might be tempted to ask if I am haunted by my days as a diffident corruptor of youth. If I made the job of my superiors more difficult then yes. But I’m not sure if that was ever the case. It seems that the most trouble I got into was for taking the tedious closing inventory way too early or for failing to upsell on certain obscenely priced concession items, which they monitored using a spy.

Occasionally, though, I wonder what might have gone differently if I had been more of a stickler than I was. Working the ticket booth necessitated a sharpening of my observational skills. But these were another method of passing the time, more fruitful perhaps than even reading. I cannot imagine the kind of person I’d have to be to weaponize it, however trivially. Even if the rating system wasn’t as laughable as it now is, it still doesn’t seem worth it. A rule seems less compelling when it is not practical. Moreover, I imagine vigilance would have denied me both the instance and the amusement of turning away a woman because Wedding Crashers sold out again, seeing her turn to me as she was leaving to tell me in a huff, “My nephew wrote it,” and the subsequent teachable moment of wondering whether fame of that kind was ever worthwhile, before proceeding to get more reading done.

The movie theater has since closed, along with most of its nearby branches. It and the carpet store that was above it are now a West Elm. Scotti’s remains open, of course, subsisting largely, I suspect, on the fumes of vinyl. The last time I was at the theater was three years ago to see, of all things, the Skype-based horror film Unfriended. It was a Sunday night and I was the only one in the theater. They were selling tickets downstairs by the concession stand. The interior and the technology had improved in the decade since I’d been there, as did the character of its staff; or at least the one staff member who asked me for my ID before selling me a ticket. I obliged and he did not even blink when he saw that I was born in 1984.

Before going into the theater I wanted to commend him for his adherence to the rules, and to tell him that he was a better class of human than I have been and will ever be. But I refrained. Ultimately I crave nothing greater than respect. And I probably wanted his a little too much to risk it with candor.

SMOKER’S HUBRIS

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Of SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket last month I had two reactions. The most immediate was of bitter amusement. It crested just after the rocket breached the firmament and released its payload of a Tesla car and a space-suited dummy strapped into the driver’s seat. How wonderful, I thought to myself, that Elon Musk found a proper use for his comically impractical toy cars that had previously evaded them on earth. And nothing could be better than for it to traverse the far reaches of space to another civilized planet with hostile intent toward us, whose citizens shall gaze upon its late capitalist glory and assume no harm could be dealt to such a planet that hasn’t already been self-inflicted. Then I forgot about the whole thing.

Upon being reminded of it a few weeks later I was more delighted. I began to appreciate the ingenuity of the launch and Elon Musk’s bottomless drive. I care not a lick about Mars or whether or not it is livable, but the future potential of SpaceX to dispatch my enemies is too thrilling for me to wave the whole enterprise off. My thought now was not of one gimmicky luxury car floating into the cosmos, but hundreds—maybe thousands—of gimmicky luxury cars in space, each carrying a former obstacle on my path toward personal betterment. Whether they are moving as aimlessly as the current one or on a more direct path—say, into the sun—is no matter to me at present; a bridge to be burnt and all that.

In admitting this vision there comes with it not a little embarrassment, though there is a matter of placing its source. It is not in its “cruelty,” which I’m certain does not deviate from the thoughts of any other person on a given day. Nor is it in its “hubris,” which can only be so if it was impossible to carry out even if the means were available to me. If my dream of power was made real, little would prevent me, no doubt, from sending loyal toughs to the SpaceX headquarters to commandeer its technology and its inventor while the show trials commence elsewhere. In time I would be easily another link in the Chain of Greatness that holds Queen Boudica in Camulodunum, General MacArthur in postwar Japan, and Dr. Cotton at Trenton State Hospital. Consider me one of those people who, as a child wasting precious homework time in the library, saw the posters on the wall with, say, Cal Ripken endorsing the belief in my own potential for achievement and did precisely that. My embarrassment, then, is rooted in the equal certainty that my potential will go unmet.

The common complaint against my generation by those older—and soon younger—is that we lack any clear endgame with which to guide our lives, yet at the same time are expectant of the riches that come with a life well-ordered. I will not deign to speak for my cohort, but if the complaints have merit, then I would be an outlier.

More than well-ordered, my life is crafted to perfection. Tireless years went into carving out my arc: a precisely curved mound, rising steadily to its peak before a most elegant downward slope—more of a glide than a decline. It is a masterstroke of self-knowledge, a span of existence in no conflict with my intellect, my charm, and possibly even my personal appearance. Perhaps my chronological brethren really are a little too reliant on destiny, or at least on the hope that things have a way of sorting themselves out in time. This is not my way. I’ve always held to the truth that one gets nowhere without a sure plan of action, and the ethic of strife, consistency, and integrity that must go with it. But just because I accept something as true doesn’t mean I have all the faculties for living it out.

Though my arc is constructed with care, marshaling the materials for my ascension of it is a different matter. Every time I think about realizing my life vision something stops me from going forward. Obtaining power requires amassing influence; this requires networking, putting myself out in the social circles to promote and to persuade others to invest in my vision. But what if my pitch is ill-formed? What if it falls flat on the ear? What if my assurance masks my sophistication and I look the dumber for it? What if it does all these things and alarms someone so much that they mount resistance against me? And if so, do I have the bodily courage and the mental resilience to endure the consequences? If I endure the first time, can I repeat the process until I get it right? Am I prepared to sleep less? Eat poorly? Have fluctuating body mass? Have no friends, no consistent income, no leisure time, or comfortable living space?

Surely if all these requirements were actionable and all the adversities easily overcome, nothing would stop me, and those who’ve given me offense over the years would be in some trouble. But they aren’t. Whenever it came to deciding whether my arc was better as an elaborate, if plausible, fantasy or a worthy life commitment, my conclusion always fell toward the former. Why? I don’t know. Fantasy seems far more fruitful than the effort to make it real. Is this not always so? Maybe not for some, maybe not for the hard doers of times past. Maybe this is what is meant when a Boomer lambasts a lesser for being “low-energy.”

Make no mistake: I never lacked for confidence, but confidence is more of a blanket than a shield. I wrap it tightly around my person as if a caterpillar wearily reverted back from its butterfly stage. It’s a pure, self-satisfied confidence, demanding no answer or qualification from its possessor. It is among the last well-kept secrets of our Age of Disclosure. Above all else, however, it is a confidence that does not worship in the church of effort. It does not sacrifice for the liturgy of trying as one might. In the past it might have been called something like “smoker’s hubris.” Whether it is willing or able to prove itself equal to the robust it is not going to, there is no law compelling them, it is no one’s business but its own.

Such talk is obscenity for certain Americans: those who can’t conceive of restraint, reticence, or prudence as anything short of modern seppuku—ancient seppuku, ironically, being too much for today’s quitters to take on. They do not take kindly to mere suggestion. Anything less than confirmation, no less of struggle, leaves an existential wound on one’s being. It is not enough for me to want to and believe I can launch miscreants into the sun; I must take action, and be proven. And they’re not wrong. To shirk the realization of my arc is to deny the simple catharsis of a cleanly checked-off to-do list.

My confidence is at once my disappointment and a little gift I give myself from time to time for bearing the burden of crippling reluctance. Sometimes in those moments I do wonder if I’m just like the other millennials after all, that all this happens for a reason and that I’m being guided to the right conclusion to be reached in due time. I’m not as keen on an answer as others might be. Often I pacify these moments by looking up at the night sky, imagining other possibilities.

REASONS, IF ANY, TO BE HAPPY

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As with most people, it was not until recently that I’d come to know about the 20-something social media star siblings Logan and Jake Paul. And as with most people, it was not a pleasant introduction.

Last December, Logan Paul took a trip to Japan. After spending a few days running around Tokyo throwing stuffed Poké Balls at policemen and thrusting raw fish in people’s faces, he made a stop at Aokigahara, Japan’s breathtaking “sea of trees” that is infamous for its numerous instances of suicide. Its reputation did not disappoint. Within 100 yards of the parking lot, Paul happened upon a dead body; though he implored to call the police, he also took 15 minutes to film the corpse and prod it with probing inquiries like “Are you fucking with us?”. He then uploaded the video on New Year’s Eve, warning his 16 million-odd YouTube subscribers that it was “the most real vlog” he’d ever posted.

The outrage was widespread and instant; indeed, it was as if people could not be outraged enough. “Go rot in hell,” was the simplest advice from Aaron Paul (no relation). But the outrage was understandable for two reasons. The first was the very fact of the video’s content, which needs no real explanation assuming we all have some residual decency. The second reason seems more unique to our time and place. There was hope that last year would ultimately be like all others, when the usual obtrusions of bad news and obnoxious personalities abated somewhat in December for some fantastical and inoffensive social aloofness. This was not to be, and 2017 made its uniqueness plain in its final hours in a moment that was as grotesque as it was stupid.

Troubling as it was, though, the situation also left me somewhat curious. For deep down something prevented me from fully accepting that the Paul brothers are in any way real. They are, of course, real in the sense that everyone else is real, with desires, personal contexts, blood types, and so on. But all that aside, there remains something about them that is very exceptional, and in fact quite intentionally so. Though much of their notoriety can be attributed to media savvy, there is something more to it; something that is actually quite beneficial rather than antagonistic to the pervading social spirit.

Much of 2017 found media figures and outlets trying desperately to keep pace with a zeitgeist in overdrive. In the process, I would often come across a few repeat words that aimed at pinpointing at the general atmosphere. “Anxiety” was one. “We’re a culture of anxiety,” the AV Club writes. “The myriad intricacies of every relationship, every interaction, and every ‘friend’ on social media is [sic] enough to collapse even the most ironclad of constitutions.” The other word was “hellscape.” “But that advice [to be personable and tell stories] falls woefully short of the real role of science in the post-fact Trumpian hellscape of the current American moment,” goes The Stranger in response to the response to New York magazine’s controversial climate change feature of last year. “We’ve reached a weird, quiet agreement that the most potent force in our politics is, for the moment, a stew of unease, fear, rage, grief, helplessness and humiliation,” Nitsuh Abebe writes in The New York Times Magazine.

America in 2017 and for the foreseeable future is a country averse to fun and joy and afflicted with despair and discontent. And whose citizens find everything they possess and every principle they share either entirely meaningless or vulnerable to being taken away or corrupted. Strange, then, that the Paul brothers have an outlook entirely contrary to the broader one. They carry themselves with a confidence that permits them to pretend that no existing rules apply to them and to wave away any new rules that might crop up in their path. These are not court fools in the Tom Green mode, using in-born irritation to lift our spirits, they are more careless than that. Before the Japan fiasco, Jake Paul made local news when he caught backlash from his West Hollywood neighbors for having to endure his filmed antics, like setting a huge bonfire in an empty pool. His response to them was twofold: dabbing, of course, then tweeting what appears to be a guiding philosophy: “Don’t conform to society.”

The most obvious conclusion is the one already made: the Pauls are trolls of refined toxicity, combining an ease to offend with a mastery of self-promotion. But this is almost too pat to be taken seriously. For even as we lambast them for each new break of decorum, they persist. Even if their young fans remain loyal and increase, the Sophisticated Adults Who Watch Westworld (SAWWs as I call them), can turn away any time, or inveigh to stop them. Not just take away their posting privileges, but shame and ostracize them in their own perpetually adolescent playpen and move on. But we don’t. It is as if we somehow require their presence, as if they are imparting some profound omen to the rest of us. That the Pauls are inescapable YouTube sensations seems a necessary evil to their more central role as interactive PSAs against the dangers of happiness.

If Americans are in any way exceptional it can be found in their relationship to happiness, which is never casual and always shifting. We remember how it started, as a “self-evident” truth to have an “unalienable right” to be pursued without any outside infringement. Soon enough it morphed into something on par with a consumer good; not so much something found in actual goods purchased—though it was certainly thought that way—but as something with which you exchange things (energy, let’s say) for a long-term commitment. This was its most lasting form, which as of last year came to an abrupt end.

Happiness now appears more like an illness with very visible, mass-affecting derangements if it is left untreated long enough. Happiness is a kind of stupidity that clouds us of our better judgment to see the world as it really is: broken and unjust. Our joyful ignorance may not have been the culprit, but it was an enabler. These millennial test cases you see tricking people into helping move dead bodies, bear this out. Two cures are available: earnest self-righteousness or ironic detachment. At worst one can just crouch in the corner in paralytic self-mortification. But those who resist any cure to happiness are nothing short of emotional Typhoid Marys.

It takes a certain level of cynicism to both hold up this idea of happiness and to keep the Paul brothers somewhere in the public mind for its containment. And there was a time in my life when I would have been among that vanguard, to be sure. I have no taste for fun or adventure or carefree living. I tolerate life more than I enjoy it at any given time. At the height of my distaste, anyone with an opposite view was to be scorned and discouraged using whatever means available at my behest. For me it was a zine, and it was a resounding failure. Not that this feeling lasted. I found later that stupidity does not discriminate between dispositions. Cynics are easily vulnerable to it. It allows them confirmation of their most tempting biases, prime of all the notion that our reduced state is uniquely reduced and it must be accommodated in order to be endured.

Anyone who has read tough love self-help understands first that life is a struggle, perhaps not as universally brutal as gurus portend but it’s more hardship than harmony. Happiness, moreover, is not the end goal or an object of pursuit, but a modest outcome. There is no gleaming pillar, let alone a grave spire, but a polished trinket, the location of which is never known and only discovered from time to time in the midst of bypassing other obstacles.

Compared to Big Happiness, this is a much trickier kind. Pursuing it directly means never reaching it, and having reached it means that the long struggle or the arduous task, the end of which seeming unreachable in the process, has been overcome. On the one hand, it’s not a happiness that makes itself known to others, to be seen as a display of health or satisfaction—it’s private and intimate, like a haunting. On the other hand, it is a happiness that thrives on connection to others, human or animal. In fact, the happiness achieved is not always one’s own, but the object of an act of good on one’s own part, undertaken as a necessity because, again, reduced times are reduced and will be reduced whether we wish them to be or not, and we seek to elevate them through a combination of resolve, integrity, patience, and a knowledge of one’s own limitations. For instance, a regular citizen has not much power to curb any number of war crimes being perpetuated around the world at this moment. But, assuming any of the aforementioned attributes line up—and it is rare that they do—a plan might be drawn up to replace the current political personnel with personnel less keen on our involvement in their perpetuation.

What sort of happiness comes out of that, let alone in how long a time and at how far a distance, is not guaranteed. If anything is achieved it may never be seen by anyone who set the change in motion. But such are the wagers one makes if someone truly believes the Great Hellscape is worth beating back instead of observing ad nausea.

But I know happiness is possible. I felt it myself in a small way, back in late December. It was a strange uplift to which I was hardly accustomed. Hearing about Logan Paul’s now global displays of idiocy elated me as much as they despaired me. For once I was in tune with the feelings of my fellow bipeds, entirely in unison with their disappointment and their exhaustion. It brought me out from the cold and into a tepid shelter of belonging. It’s a rare feeling, but one that gives me the temptation to seek to keep the Paul brothers around for my own joyful reasons.