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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 single-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 unprecedented 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.

HIGHWAY TO THE INDETERMINATE DANGER ZONE

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SCENE: An empty road at the edge of a desolate forest, a man is hammering a large sign in place. Another man enters carrying a fire extinguisher.

Man 1: Hello.

Man 2: Oh dear, hello! You startled me.

Man 1: Sorry. May I ask what you’re doing?

Man 2: Oh, of course. I’m just putting the finishing touches on this sign. How does it look?

Man 1: It looks like a sign.

Man 2: Well I know that but does it serve its purpose? Is it clear? Here … let me step back and have you read it.

Man 1:DANGER!! … Entry beyond this point may put you at risk of exposure to any or all of the following: Skinwalkers, Amazon Queens, the Children’s Crusade, or variations of Chimera. Please consult your most recent edition of the Contingency Map for the nearest point of safety.”

Man 2: I was worried that the double exclamation point would be rhetorically excessive.

Man 1: I would change “point of safety” to “safe area.”

Man 2: You would?

Man 1: It’s more efficient, I think.

Man 2: Oh … yes, of course. I agree.

Man 1: I have questions about all this stuff here.

Man 2: Oh … such as?

Man 1: Like, what is it?

Man 2: Perhaps I should explain.

Man 1: Please.

Man 2: You know when, in the early days of the catastrophe, the Contingency Committee saw it fit to color-code the terrain?

Man 1: Yeah.

Man 2: Green for an area that was safe, red for an area of precise danger, and orange for an area of indeterminate danger. There were no problems with the first two. Green, red; pretty clear-cut. But orange was more ambiguous. Some people didn’t know if it was the same as red, other people thought it was basically okay, and went in none the wiser with little good coming of it. And since the Contingency Committee is more or less in dispose, I took it upon myself to clarify the matter.

Man 1: So you’ve been going in and letting people know of the danger?

Man 2: I haven’t been going in exactly.

Man 1: So how do you know about any of this?

Man 2: Well … I don’t, technically.

Man 1: You made this stuff up?

Man 2: Not so much as “made up” as “deduced through a painstaking qualitative analytical process.” No one knows what’s behind this sign. So, given the various events since the initial catastrophe, I sat down and thought of what could possibly exist within these territories, and gave them names that I thought had really good branding potential. You know, stuff that really sticks in the memory.

Man 1: Okay, so what are they?

Man 2: Ah, very glad you asked! Let me just get out my notebook here. Ah! So … Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are roving gangs who set traps in the woods hoping for a poor sap to wander in and ensnare him or her for their sustenance.

Man 1: Cannibals?

Man 2: Yes! And not only for digestive but also for aesthetic sustenance, replacing conventional textile adornments with the hides of their kill.

Man 1: And who are the Amazon Queens?

Man 2: Ah, yes. The Amazon Queens are an all- or predominantly female offshoot of the Skinwalkers.

Man 1: Roving female cannibals who eat only men?

Man 2: Not at all! They are a vegetarian group who use men in elaborate rituals to assure bountiful harvests. They also take certain trophies, so to speak, as tokens of good fortune. But as the soil is infertile and no one has any fortune, they do, much to their considerable regret, resort to cannibalism.

Man 1: And the Children’s Crusaders are also cannibals? But children?

Man 2: Gah! Get your head out of the gutter. Of course not. They are a puckish cohort predisposed to capers and schemes, which largely entail the fleecing of green zone rations. But they cannot, or will not, be held down by the strictures of green zone protocols.

Man 1: Sounds kind of charming.

Man 2: I mean, yes, if you cross them they will use your head as a rugby ball.

Man 1: Rugby?

Man 2: Very impromptu and idiosyncratically guided rugby, but still!

Man 1: Ah ha. And dare I even ask about the Chimeras?

Man 2: Mutant beast hybrids! Very imposing and powerful.

Man 1: Why can’t the cannibals just hunt them?

Man 2: Are you crazy? The Chimeras rule the night, come in unpredictable combinations, and are more than novice at camouflage.

Man 1: My mistake.

Man 2: I excuse you of that error. It’s a very complicated ecosystem I’ve devised.

Man 1: And they all live right over there?

Man 2: I can’t say for certain, nor will anyone else be able to, because even before revisions this is the perfect deterrent.

[Pause.]

Man 1: Is there something wrong.

Man 2: It’s weird, you haven’t disappeared.

Man 1: Pardon?

Man 2: You are a parabolic figment of my imagination, right? Sent to tell me that this is all going to work out?

Man 1: No, my name is Kurt.

Man 2: Oh. Well, I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with your car trouble then.

Man 1: Oh I don’t have any car trouble.

Man 2: Then what’s that fire extinguisher for?

Man 1: This is not a fire extinguisher.

Man 2: What the hell is it?

Man 1: It is an eraser!

Man 2: What?

Man 1: I am Kurt of the Eraser Brigade. You see, like you, we had the same concern that the coding system was flawed, and also like you we took it upon ourselves to correct it. But unlike you we decided to just turn the orange zones into red ones, spreading the Pestilence to whatever the hell dwells within them. It’s more efficient, I think. Frankly I’m disappointed you hadn’t also “deduced” us. Ah well, maybe the element of surprise is better.

Man 2: Probably yeah.

Man 1: Well, I do appreciate you saving me the trouble of having to go further in than usual. You’re right that that’s some scary shit. So I’m going to need you to move back for me.

Man 2: Back?

Man 1: Yeah, a little scooch.

Man 2: Like this?

Man 1: A liiiiitle more. A little bit more. No, like, behind the sign.

Man 2: Behind the sign? But—

Man 1: Yes, exactly. Now let me just … [straps on gas mask] … There we go. Alright. [pulls pin and sprays diseased solution]

Man 2: Hey, what fu— [hacks and chokes]

Man 1: Very good! Now walk in that direction if it’s not too much trouble.

Man 2: I feel kind of fuzzy all over.

Man 1: That won’t last.

Man 1 packs up his things as Man 2 stumbles into the forest. Standing before the sign, he takes out a marker, and writes “point of safety safe area.”

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN PUT-ON

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1990 stands in history as the last time the English were well and truly mad at us. True enough, there may have been moments since when we as a nation had perturbed them for one reason or another. But in such occurrences there is something trifling, they are like misunderstandings in comic error, careless blunders that inevitably extend from countries being countries. What I’m thinking of is altogether more momentous, nigh on unforgivable. It is an instance of trust betrayed, boundaries callously breached, an affair’s bliss wholly upended into cruel tragedy. Between the two nations it may not, on the surface, bear any lasting effects, but I find no event more revealing of their respective characters and ultimately their irreconcilability.

“Mudhoney are not the pig-fucking sulphate-rotten greasy biker Viking stormtroopers with one foot in the grave and the other in a nun’s entrails their music suggests,” wrote NME’s Steve Wells. “If Mudhoney had been sent to Vietnam,” he goes on, “they would have all been Radar from M*A*S*H. Mudhoney are geeky motherlovers, all matchstick arms and legs and horn-rimmed glasses and small bottoms and boyish fun. They are far too intelligent as individuals to believe in the rock ’n’ roll woah, they seem to be making a career out of one huge elongated piss-take.”

That probably needs some context.

In 1989, American media was an unfriendly place for independent music. If an underground act wanted any substantial exposure, it was much more likely to be gotten in the United Kingdom. Understanding this arrangement, Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman wanted to maximize coverage for its roster in the burgeoning grunge scene. And they were willing to stake their precarious solvency on it, flying Melody Maker’s Everett True to Seattle, wining and dining him and giving him full access to bands like Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. It was perhaps the first indie rock presser, and it was a complete success. According to Michael Azerrad, True wrote “a glowing, if slightly condescending, roundup of Sub Pop’s roster.” Pavitt suspected that Seattle’s “white trash” garage lumberjack aesthetic would only sweeten the appeal. The rugged Americans, like the raccoon-skin cap pioneers of yore, were authentic representations of the colonial spirit: beer-sodden, half-crazed forest dwellers who perhaps confused their guitars for chainsaws. Things worked out well for Nirvana in short order, but Tad and Mudhoney did not fare so well. As soon as it was discovered that Tad Doyle was a university-trained musician and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner also had college degrees, the mystique had been lifted, revealing, as any Irish writer had done in so many centuries past, the prime defect of Englishness: the mood that sours on finding a joke they are not in on.

Though it can’t be said that Arm, Turner, or Doyle suffered at the hands of English turnaround, the drubbing they took must connote some measure of sacrifice meriting even modest declamation of heroism. For this was not a simple matter of executing a flawless troll but also, by some measure, a stance of principle in defense of the most enduring American ideal: tastelessness.

Perhaps on the part of the English press there was some wishful thinking in its discovery of grunge. But in defense to them it was thinking rooted in safe assumption rather than in wrongheadedness. America’s culture is flat even while its geography and its society are not. There are no heights anyone may climb so that one may see farther out than anyone else or breathe more rarified air. As such, vulgarity of so authentic a type as to border on spiritual is often assumed to be every American’s default setting. Refinement in America is a kind of put-on, a commentary; Jay Gatsby staring at his stupid green light.

But if there are no cultural peaks there are also no cultural valleys. We accept that Dwight Macdonald had failed in his crusade against “Midcult,” but I don’t believe we ever understood quite in what way he failed. Macdonald typified middlebrow as the leveler of the refined high culture and folksy low culture. But his trifecta rests on the assumption that American culture can comfortably accommodate it, and keep its components at arm’s length at all times. It rests moreover on the assumption that Americans have the wherewithal—indeed the moral obligation—to resign themselves to this imposed boredom. This is not so simple. Susan Sontag wrote as much four years after Macdonald with “Notes on Camp”:

Aristocracy is a position vis-á-vis culture (as well as vis-á-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is the history of snob taste. But since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class … who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.

She goes on:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.

Sontag had initially singled out homosexuals as the primary “self-elected class,” but real estate on the American flatland is rather limitless, and people of all stripes have as much opportunity to refine and play with the contents of their culture, and to do so as slyly and subtly as they wish, free of airs and agitprop. The English see Americans as being tone deaf to irony, and are shocked when they see us practicing it like a natural, if not fully aware, rhythm. Jay Gatsby is putting us on, ball culture is putting us on, the Kennedys were putting us on, Sub Pop was putting us on. Put another way, there will never, and should never, be an American Roger Scruton.

Though the flatland is vast, it is also not safe. It is as subject as anything else to development schemes. Even if one, like Macdonald, cannot build upon it, one can dig into it with much greater ease.

Vulgarity is talked about as if it is monolithic, but it is not without its own hues and dimensions. Vulgarity can be crass and ignorant; it can also be impatient and indifferent, clumsy and obvious, or just really dull. These types have gotten beneath our sensitivities in various combinations, though never to the point of suffocation. If at times they seemed on the verge of being totally pervasive there have always been escape hatches if one knew where to look. It’s an arrangement one can appreciate in hindsight, however, as vulgarities now seem to be in active and bitter competition with one another for our space. They are large, lumbering creatures, offensive to the ecosystem but with callused, impenetrable hides.

One is quite well known, serving as our national advocate, an unenviable position that also offers much leeway in how it is carried it out. Donald Trump’s style is one of familiar carelessness and idiosyncratic awkwardness. This had always been singular in his gold-plated personal presentation, which was not so much a natural tackiness as a piling on of clarifications. If Donald Trump fears anything, it is being misunderstood, a common enough worry but one he chooses to focus on the most obvious fact of his life. It makes him at turns irritating and relatable. It has carried over into his propaganda aesthetic, consisting of “poorly-edited digital content in which serious and significant subjects are given bad color treatments, low resolution, and carelessly incorrect accouterments.” And as with anything Trump does, the line separating intention and incompetence is debatable, but the Trump White House’s visual style was picked up on by Tim Heidecker well before Trump even declared his candidacy. Heidecker’s skewering of Trump’s public access populism (rooted as it is in his mockery of Herman Cain) has become an elaborate obsession—his Decker series, itself a spinoff, has produced spinoffs of its own—but is instructive in highlighting the opposing vulgarity, from which it stands refreshingly apart.

Much controversy has been swirling around Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park. Caesar has been unambiguously modeled on Trump and the play features an assassination that is said to be notably violent. Right wing media has been in a fury over it in the past week and corporate sponsors such as Delta have withdrawn support. I suspect the fallout was an intended, or at least expected, outcome, even if “notably violent” is relative in Shakespeare, let alone in his immediate successors. Nevertheless, critics assure the play’s quality. It is “mind-crushingly good,” according to Jessica Vanasco, “in no small part because it speaks precisely to our times. Images of the Constitution and the American Founding Fathers loom over the set. … Protesters wear pussy hats and ‘Resist’ armbands and wrangle with the police in a ‘Black-Lives-Matter’-style. Those police are clad in riot gear.”

Eustis has defended his production not as an attack on Trump, but as a warning to the public that, if they just so happen to want to unseat someone who is perceivably tyrannical, they must do so wisely. The play may indeed be adequately staged and performed, and certainly this is not the first Shakespeare production to be skewed for contemporary commentary, but Eustis’s didacticism on and offstage is revealing in what little faith this production has in the intelligence of its audience. As Richard Loncraine, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Joss Whedon, Andrew Fleming, and Steve Bannon know, there are many levels at which Shakespeare can be modern. This past November, as Noah Millman positively cites, brought a less explicit but still recognizable update of Coriolanus[1]. Eustis’s Trump framing, however, makes this Julius Caesar rather claustrophobic to the imagination. Perhaps that is the point. Trump, having seemingly state-mandated the lowbrow has put culture in crisis mode, and the Trumpified Julius Caesar amounts to a Patriot Act for the creative class. Subtlety, playfulness, even joy, are suspended to make space for relevance and utility until further notice. As much as we cannot overlook the challenges Trump poses with his day-to-day idiocy, cultural agitprop poses its own, at once overstating culture’s use and undercutting its possibilities. “The ‘universality’ of [The Crucible],” Robert Warshow wrote, “belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for comment.”

Eustis is at least correct to place onus on the people for things being as they are and for those things to be righted. But the people, even on a good day, are a confused lot. Politics buckles under confusion; culture is sustained by it. When the latter is made subservient to the former, particularly to a generalized and abstract variation of it, it circles the drain. To be sure, proselytizing that culture remains vibrant, ironic, and porous is far easier than maintaining it, and doing so would not solve political conflict. In fact it may just as easily worsen it. But to determine what does and does not edify a people, to effectively erect a dam in culture’s stream, is tantamount to saying that the people’s personality is its own worst enemy. To my knowledge no one’s life has been given a new lease by having heard “Jack Pepsi,” but a culture, mature and confident, knows that “Jack Pepsi” is a fact of the American situation, and could not be of any other.

1 To be entirely fair, Millman saw and liked Julius Caesar, finding insights on power and violence in its most controversial direction.

WHAT SHOULD ADULTS WATCH?: A COUNTER-LISTICLE

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Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein, senior editor and father of a son on the verge of adolescence, has assembled a list of films and television shows meant to serve as a bulwark against the intrusions of modern commerce and culture that flank his son and other boys in all directions:

Every time he encounters a television screen (we don’t have one at home), hears a hip-hop song blasting out of a car creeping down the street, spots a billboard or posters peddling clothes, new movies, the NBA and NFL, or automobiles, or goes to the web and catches ads for the latest games and videos of scandals and embarrassments, he observes bad behavior and bad words and bad values.

His solution, then, is a steady diet of media, dating largely from the early-to-mid-20th century studio system, which reinforces proper masculine attributes and moral attitudes. That is, “courtliness, strong silent types, men of substance, or sprezzatura” as opposed to the current youth culture that encourages being “loud, sarcastic, effeminate, touchy, vain, smart-alecky, and raunchy.” To his credit, his selections don’t seem to evince much of the latter. 1939’s Jesse James is “short on history but long on character.” The List of Adrian Messenger shows “the resolute pursuit of a killer without all the lurid silliness of today’s murder mysteries.” Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments “is a living lesson in the pitfalls of stubborn authority.” And so on.

Having only seen the very good Get Smart series I cannot quibble with the rest of its contents, though Dad Movie completists might be scratching their heads at the omission of Bridge Over the River Kwai or, say, Tender Mercies (which my own father claims is the greatest film ever made). That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a list of my own, because why not? As I am not a parent I’m not going to step in and tell other parents what their children should be watching. So I turned the concept on its head and developed a syllabus for adults.

“Adulthood” has become a confused term this day and age, as Bauerlein might agree, but I’ve decided to revel in that confusion a bit, embracing nuance in theme and time of release, finding examples which address different questions and instill different lessons. Some films depict the relationships between adults and children, some address society at large, and some are youthful TV shows that have stood the test of time. There is more than enough opportunity to point out my own omissions—It Follows, RushmoreThe Candidate, etc.—but hopefully these works are sufficient in their own ways. As with Bauerlein’s list, I offer them in no particular order.

Repo Man (1984) – I’m not sure if the greatness of this film can be attested by Alex Cox’s casting instincts or Emilio Estevez’s lack of range, perhaps a bit of both. While someone like Sean Penn or Patrick Swayze could finagle the role of the spiritually and materially bereft Otto into a second-coming-of-James Dean star turn, Estevez instead gave us the boorish, immature, awkward, clueless, and, therefore, most accurate portrayal of teen aimlessness in recent memory. This film is perhaps the most sympathetic to Bauerlein’s own argument, depicting southern California as a wasteland of apathy, sterility, greed, and burnouts. Also aliens. It moreover depicts how that aimlessness drifts into a dark, preemptive critique of mentor culture under Harry Dean Stanton and his band of blue-collar misanthropes (all named after cheap beers) at the repo lot.

The French Connection (1971) – I watch William Friedkin’s cop drama every Christmastime. I suspect because it prepares me for the brutal New York winter it renders with greater starkness than any violence. And it is a violent film, fumblingly and disastrously so. While its contemporary Dirty Harry depicted a central detective with the moral fervor of Martin Luther and the procedural scruples of a Jesuit, French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle possessed even less of the latter and none of the former. Indeed, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Gene Hackman’s Doyle is after aside from chasing an obsession at the expense of property and life, let alone justice.

The Long Goodbye (1973) – In which Robert Altman takes Leigh Brackett’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel and spins it into a kind of Rip Van Winkle tale. Phillip Marlowe embodies classic manhood and morality somehow adrift in a Los Angeles that is freer but also more brutal and corrupt than he seems able to comprehend. Elliott Gould’s proto-slacker portrayal is blackly comic as he stumbles in and out of danger as a pawn in entangled schemes with all the bewilderment of being on the outside of a cruel in-joke.

Hardcore (1979) – I never could get into Taxi Driver but I’ve always liked Paul Schrader’s voyeuristic, under-the-radar morality tales. George C. Scott is a Calvinist business owner in the Midwest whose daughter disappears into the porn industry, and who’s resolved to gain entry into its grimiest corners with a spiritualist sex worker sidekick, and extract her, come what may. That plot, a pornographic fantasy all its own, serves as a dressing for Scott’s descent from his bubble and seeing just how fallen the fallen world can be. It is a lot like The Long Goodbye, only Scott’s outsider has a safe place to escape.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Charles Laughton’s debut film was so despised upon its release that it became his only film. To be fair, it does make some sense that no one at that time would be chomping at the bit for an English outsider to turn the American countryside into an expressionist battleground between good and evil. But he did, and we are the richer for it. Good, in the guise of the pious Lillian Gish, triumphs of course, but not before getting the full measure of Robert Mitchum’s satanic Rev. Powell as he relentlessly pursues two children of an old cellmate unknowingly hiding a fortune. It is a story of innocence as well as a dualistic rendering of the wonder and mystery underlying America’s inseparable religiosity.

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – In the decade that brought us Kids and Doom Generation, it’s hard to imagine that those might not have been the darkest youth-themed films of the time. Not that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Though it contains no drugs or sex, and in fact presents itself like a harmless quirky teen comedy, Todd Solondz’s indie classic is wholly unrestrained and far more wrenching in its portrayal of the very painful and lonely trials of female adolescence. We follow Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener as she is ignored at home and tormented at school. Gawky, socially tactless, and generally unremarkable, Dawn seeks to overcome that common desire to be anyone other than who she is. Solondz offers her no respite, but no comic expense either, trading exploitation for empathy, which he would carry into subsequent films to pedophiles (Happiness, Life During Wartime), anti-abortion extremists (Palindromes), and the man-child archetype (Dark Horse).

The Last Days of Disco (1998) – While I’m happy that Whit Stillman finally achieved his dream of adapting an actual Jane Austen work with Love and Friendship, I’m of the opinion that he was at the peak of his powers with this film. The Last Days of Disco is Stillman at his most fun and most realized, and perhaps least off-putting to people who aren’t wealthy or naturally wry. Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny exude enviable chemistry as newly minted young urban professionals trying to maneuver early-1980s New York City with mixed success. It is a more mature and more lasting generational rejoinder to Reality Bites; indeed, it may be Stillman’s remarks to the graduating class of whenever.

The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1992-1996) Nickelodeon never seemed entirely sure of what it had with Pete and Pete. Outwardly, it is a kind of starter kit for cult obsession. It is the first show, at least among people of a certain age, to instill the notion that not only was it okay to be a bit weird but that almost everyone is. In fact Pete and Pete subverted Nickelodeon’s “kids rule” marketing of the time by portraying adults as well-meaning but misunderstood, whether it be parents, teachers, crossing guards, or the ice cream man. Airing just prior to the internet’s dawn, the show never gained a network post-cancellation, but fans always manage to find one another as if by some strange unseen tether. And it is a joy when they do.

Daria (1997-2001) – For a while, Daria was living in the shadow of the show from which it spun off: Beavis and Butthead. Daria now lives in the shadow of its own protagonist, by no fault of its own, of course. Coming in as fans of Pete and Pete—and Clarissa Explains It All for that matter—were entering high school, precocious teens with misanthropic but hyper-vulnerable streaks were few and far between on television in the late Clinton era. The Daria type is well known even to some who haven’t seen the show, and viewers can identify with it with some pride. But that is to overlook the depth of the show’s world, which like Pete and Pete found empathy and humanity in even its most vacuous characters. And it was not reluctant to call bullshit on Daria’s own cynical affectations.

The Innocents (1961) – Depending on who you talk to, this ambiguity rich Truman Capote adaptation of the already ambiguity rich Henry James short story “The Turn of the Screw” is either gothic horror or psychological thriller. It is either the story of a godly governess trying to protect her charges from the menace of two dead lovers or of Victorian repression embodied trying to wrap her head around the notions of sexual agency and children being sinister entirely of their own cognizance. I mean, it’s a masterpiece either way you split it.

The Go-Between (1971) – The final of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, The Go-Between seems to go hand-in-hand with The Innocents. Though ostensibly a period romance and a coming of age story, based on the L.P. Hartley novel, the film also functions as a kind of prelude to a ghost story. A boy of low social standing spends the summer at his much wealthier schoolmate’s family estate where he develops and infatuation with his friend’s older sister (Julie Christie) and befriends her lover, the rich but common neighbor (Alan Bates). The two use his naivety to coordinate their affair. That should end well. Anglophiles are welcome to savor the pitch-perfect aristocratic gentility provided they can withstand the slow burn of traumas being passed on and lingering without end.

Morvern Callar (2002) – Admittedly I could put any Lynne Ramsay film on this list, but Morvern Callar seems to me her signature achievement. Samantha Morton is a Scottish supermarket drone who finds an escape by replacing her dead boyfriend’s name on his novel manuscript with her own, road trips in southern Spain, and gets a £100,000 publishing advance. That’s about it, really. Lynne Ramsay is one of the best filmmakers working today; Morvern Callar establishes her mastery of visual lyricism. It also has an aces soundtrack. Think of it as the timeless and understated Other to the dated and garish Trainspotting.

The Brood (1979) – The Brood is not David Cronenberg’s best film, but it is his most personal, something uncommon for a filmmaker otherwise thought to be rather aloof. In addition to its satirical commentary on experimental therapy, The Brood is an illustration of the traumas of divorce and the perpetuation of patterns of abuse in that typically graphic Cronenbergian style, in which a father in a custody battle over his daughter must protect her from homicidal childlike creatures asexually birthed from his ex-wife as an embodiment of her rage. “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic,” Cronenberg said. Roger Ebert initially wrote off the film as an “el sleazo exploitation film,” but The Brood declare’s Cronenberg’s vision that the personal is every bit as horrific as the otherworldly, in fact more so.

Little Sister (2016) – Addison Timlin plays a nun in 2008 New York City on the verge of taking her first vows, who returns to North Carolina to face old family traumas, including a brother deformed by the Iraq War and a suicidal mother. I’m not sure the backdrop of Barack Obama’s election was necessary other than illustrating something that seems so long in the past, but the low-key indie film was a hopeful bright spot in the wastes of 2016. It demonstrates that depictions of family and faith need not be saccharine or cynical in SXSW cinema. It is also worth noting that it features Ally Sheedy as Timlin’s mother and Barbara Crampton as her Mother Superior.

THE END OF THE BEGINNING OF THE TOUR

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Host: Okay guys. Guys? Trish can you turn the music down? Thanks. Guys? [puts microphone against speaker]

Audience: [howls at feedback]

[pause]

Host: That’s better. Uhm … so this is our third Justice Action assembly. So on behalf of the Omaha chapter of Food Not Bombs I’d like to thank you for taking your time, taking the interest, and wanting to make real change possible. Give yourselves a hand, I guess.

Audience: [politely claps]

Host: I’d like to thank Mootopia for providing these excellent, excellent vegan doughnuts. Oh, uhm, announcements. The signup sheet for the resistance demonstration next Saturday; we need a rough headcount, we also need transportation volunteers, legal counsel or people who know legal counsel. So just make a note next to your name if you have those or any additional qualities I can’t think of right now. The Black Hundreds need a place to crash for Friday’s show.

Audience: [boos]

Host: I know, I know their reputation. But Lance has vouched for them—

Audience member: Lance is a shithead.

Host: Anyway, we’ll also be passing around a donation bucket for rental fees, gas money, and general upkeep so … please be generous. Demos are not donations, people.

So tonight’s speaker … uhm … it might be better to have him tell you. His name is Brad. He’s a freelance … activist. He came in from, I think, Des Moines … maybe? Anyway we heard about him because he made a stir out there and has an important presentation on maximizing our grassroots impact. Anyway, please give it up for Brad.

Audience: [claps politely]

Brad: Thank you. [pause] For the past couple of months I’ve been going around to groups like these. Meeting in venues, in community centers, basements, and occasionally—often regrettably—in bars, and I’ve been talking to people about indifference. We know all about indifference. We are here because we have to constantly confront it or maneuver around it. It’s very powerful to exercise on a mass scale. And that’s kind of how it works, doesn’t it? The more power you acquire, the more room you have to turn your gaze any way you wish. It’s a nice cold reality check. Because power always looks away from the same direction: away from the broad and toward the narrow. And if you happen to be in the narrow it’s fantastic. But, to varying degrees, we often find ourselves behind institutions. Government is indifferent, the schools are indifferent, the police—on a good day—are indifferent. The family, too, may be indifferent.

So what do we do here? Each of us has different terms, different applications, and different methods to battle mass indifference. Resistance, opposition, progress, liberation. Action, generally speaking, but I prefer care. It’s sort of a better contrast. True, care is kind of a nothing term on the surface, like niceness. If it means anything it means something babyish and coddling. Think self-care, whatever that is. It takes a lot of tenacity to scrape off the liberal lacquering over such language, but once you do something entirely unrecognizable but entirely arresting is shown to you. There’s something awesome about care, something even devastating about it. When you care for something or someone, or when you or your cause is cared about, even on some passingly trivial level that the caregiver is soon to forget, it means the world. It sometimes even shakes someone’s assumptions to their foundation and must then be rebuilt with new schematics.

Having those sides established we like to think we know where we stand. And that’s generally how these talks go, right? We care. And we affirm our caring ways using tidied up platitudes from a generation that might as well be from another universe, we take them out into the streets through engagement, awareness, dialogue, demonstration, and so on, and the cycle perpetuates. How does that feel when you do it over and over to the same effect? Whatever good intentions and principles these acts started out with, over time they wear down gradually until they become yellowed kitsch items that we rediscover at an estate sale and hang up to accentuate our personal space for added authenticity.

I blame no one for this degradation. Indifference is among the most easily communicated viruses. But that doesn’t excuse the obligation to confront and accept one’s indifference to, if not the stated goal at hand, then any wider vision or consequence on which any goal might depend.

[pause]

Audience member: And?

Brad: I don’t actually know.

Audience member: What?

Brad: I never could quite nail down the rest because by that point the audience would revolt and run me out of the venue. I guess this was one way of saying I was bringing the wrong message. You see, I came from back east with a sudden but vague sense of affecting change from the dregs up. I didn’t know what compelled me to do so at the time. I had never done this before and had only a hunch as to where I was to go to do it. So it’s been haphazard to say the least. It was not until just last week that I had found out what the right message was. My last attempt to speak in Des Moines went expectedly south. With nowhere to go I washed some dishes at a diner and holed up in the warmest corner I could find at the bus depot. I was woken up at two in the morning to two cops dragging out someone who claimed had lost his ticket and was soliciting donations for a new one. He was giving some resistance and they were giving back. My original instinct was to do the acceptable thing and pretend nothing was happening, but this time was different, and I can’t explain adequately what caused this. But I got up and sought to deescalate the situation. Or at least pay for the man’s damn ticket.

This didn’t go well, because it was only a matter of seconds before a white light came over me. Then I found myself walking in the middle of what I think was I-95 in what looked like a summer traffic jam. There were cars lining every lane in both directions but they weren’t moving, because they were empty. The silence was absolute, no motors, no horns, and no voices, not even from birds. I looked up and saw a blanket of red come above and block the sky. It came over like a wave and came down like a swarm, but of rose pedals, covering every inch of the earth. And then a great wind gusted and blew everything away, clearing the road. I awoke in a cot in the break room. I’d been tazed, apparently. Maybe people who get tazed see this all the time and think nothing of it, but I couldn’t let it go. On the bus to the next city I pored over every detail I could recall. And by the time I had reached Omaha City limits I’d come to what I accept to be the appropriate conclusion.

Audience member: Which is?

Brad: Peace.

Host: Our task is to work for peace?

Brad: Yes.

Audience member: Like … inner peace?

Brad: Peace in total. Peace for humankind and from there, the earth.

Audience member: Okay, sounds good. How?

Brad: I have no idea.

Audience: [howls and boos]

Host: Hold it, hold it. Shut up! This isn’t looking like much of a talk.

Brad: Well it’s not quite so easy. You can talk about justice because justice has substance. You know what you’re getting and you sure as hell know what you’re being denied. But peace is impossible. Sure, there have been movements for peace in the past, but stopping war is not quite the same thing, good though that is. Peace in its own way is terrifying. What does it mean? To make all of humanity quiet. But what does that entail? Often it just means a more equitable indifference. I need to tread carefully.

Host: So why speak on peace at all? Why not just justice? That seems more within our realm. More manageable.

Brad: Because maybe justice is only a part of it. And maybe it’s not enough. Maybe peace is so immense that justice is a kind of parasitic appendage. It’s minutiae. Anyway I come telling you what I am told to tell you.

Audience member: Who tells you?

Brad: I’d just as soon not say.

Host: It’s not Robby Mook, is it?

Brad: No! Fuck off.

[pause]

Audience member: Holy shit. Is it God? Daryl did you bring a cult leader here?

Host: Okay, hold on. Hold on.

Brad: See, this is what I was worried would happen.

Audience: [jeers and swearing]

Audience member: Get out! Fuck off!

Brad: So what if I am? [pause] And you think I enjoy this? You think this is something I just woke up and decided to do? To leave my job as a video editor and my friends and family for dumb fucking Eat, Pray, Love vision quest? Fuck you. It’s not a new t-shirt I put on, or some gift I willingly received. It’s really fun ending every day with vomiting fits and night terrors.

Host: About what?

Brad: About consequences. It’s like I’m being shown all the ways this thing I said or that thing I said gets twisted into some monstrous new form and perpetuates the very pain I’m trying to undo. Not out of malice but out of simple habit. I don’t know if being conscious of that makes it better. I hope it does. But really, beware certainty and self-confidence, they are blinders. The false visionaries are easy to spot. They are not the purveyors of sinister intent or impure principle, but of coziness in the knowledge that what they do may be precisely what people want or need now, but doesn’t ultimately make any difference hereafter. Affirmation without responsibility is no good answer.

Audience member: You’ve given us no answers.

Brad: There’s no one answer.

Audience member: Pray?

Brad: That’s a start.

Audience member: Abstain from sex.

Brad: If that’s what helps.

Audience member: This is bullshit.

Brad: Look. I was originally of two minds with this. Part of me wanted to take what I had been told and craft a eulogy around it. Let’s decline, yes, but with dignity and solemnity. Even love. It would have been easy to profess just piggybacking on what I had essentially always thought. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t need to think like that. It came to me while sitting at a Dairy Queen in between bus rides and seeing a mother corral four children on the next table. I think it really hit home when one of them flung their blizzard spoon at the side of my head. Maybe we could be saved. And maybe that it’s best not to think of it was something we get to be and something we ought to be. And that we ought to be doing this in unison. Thinking of it in the abstract makes it daunting. But thinking in steps we make toward this common end makes it achievable. And make no mistake; I want this vision to cast a shadow over the whole country and then some, even if that means consigning more than a handful of people to misery.

Audience member: So why tell us? And not, like, church people.

Brad: Because eventually you’d listen. And eventually you’d talk, even if unfavorably, to anyone who would hear. And you will keep talking and take what I said more seriously than others. Whatever the source of the directive, we are our own experts. We are ever at each other’s mercy, and a lot of the time the wrong people are the ones most aware of that. [pause] Oh, I think, technically, I was supposed to follow up my proposal with the warning that if you don’t heed the proposal that untold suffering and toil will be in store for us all. But I made a judgment call and thought that might be a bit redundant. But … still.

Audience: [politely claps]

Host: Thanks, Brad, that definitely gave us something to consider. Oh! A reminder, Wednesday’s self-defense seminar will have a special tactical tutorial for the demonstration. We’ll be talking pepper spray remedies, the buddy system all that. And also, The Ain’t Rights had to cancel, obviously, so we need a new opener for Friday, leave your demos with Trish, please. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Thanks everyone for coming. Goodnight.

THE GRIND ERA

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In the late-1980s, the BBC aired a show called What’s That Noise, a musical education program geared towards children. It is not particularly well known in the United States and might not even be very well known in the United Kingdom. But to its credit, the show assumed a great deal of curiosity in its audience of the variety and sophistication of aural culture. This was most infamously evident in a 1989 episode, wherein they decided to take the show’s title literally.

After a pitch-perfect opening performance by a children’s string orchestra, then-host Craig Charles walked onto the set grinning impishly. “A little bit too angry for me, a bit too aggressive, a bit too doom-laden, a bit too subversive,” he says. “So let’s lighten the mood here a little.” The camera then cuts to a band of four scrawny men with faces enshrouded in shoulder-length (or longer) hair. They play a song called “You Suffer,” which lasts for one second and has only four words (“You suffer, but why?”). The band is Napalm Death, who had just released their second album From Enslavement to Obliteration. The segment lasts under three minutes, featuring a reserved, awkward interview with a game Charles, and one more, slightly longer, song. The BBC was said to have received numerous complaints about the episode, with many thinking the band was fabricated as part of a prank. But alas, Napalm Death was and is still real, though even at that time they had no more original members[1] and only one of those remains in the band now. The incident, which of course is memorialized on YouTube, is as instructive as it is amusing.

The grindcore movement that first emerged in the mid-1980s is, in the wider world, best left unheralded. To do otherwise, even casually, would risk having to hear it. Napalm Death’s appearance on a publicly funded children’s program was as unwelcome an intrusion into polite space as any band of that kind would ever commit. But few introductions to so unusual a sound have not been more perfect to virgin ears. Though most historians credit Flint, Michigan’s Repulsion as its originators, the Birmingham, UK band crafted grindcore to such refinement that it has been surpassed only seldom. It is incomprehensible to many and a revelation to a fervent few.

Grindcore is at turns marveled at and reviled for its sonic extremes. Of melding the primitive speed of hardcore punk, the precise speed of thrash metal, and the art damage of no wave. But those are nothing without the tonal and philosophical extremes it embodied as first principles. Though the genre owes a steep debt to the metal-punk pair bonding of Slayer, Discharge, Motörhead, and others, theirs amounted to little more than selective borrowings—and outright distortions—when compared to the pure synthesis of sound and idea that Napalm Death achieved. The political content of punk is not always its best asset. For all their clever radicalism, bands like Gang of Four and Dead Kennedys, did not venture very far beyond liberal norms. But out of the more coherent and earnest visions of Crass and Killing Joke, grindcore was able to better articulate punk’s political geist, not only seeing farther than the already extensive plain of vision of those bands, but also doing so in less time. And to the extent that it is more than political.

The concept of prophecy has taken an odd turn in our long flight from biblical antiquity. Perhaps accepting its intrinsic value, we’ve opted to reupholster it in more pristine leather instead of jettisoning it entirely with the spring-cleaning we’ve done for, say, alchemy and sorcery. On separate occasions Reinhold Niebuhr and Christopher Lasch have been called the “American Jeremiah.” Allan Bloom has been dubbed a “prophet of doom.” Cornel West has made the label central to his work. And of course it clings to the less credentialed but still rarified James Baldwin and Bill Hicks. We shouldn’t deny that these people on their own are rightly prized as independent, strident, and obsessive thinkers. Some of their work—namely Lasch’s and Baldwin’s—is currently enjoying a moment in the eclipse. But even at their most condemnatory, the status of these figures only rose, or at least never critically diminished. In a part of the world that prides itself on tolerance of dissent, prophecy, even if it is merely elevated Real Talk, is honorific. After all, as De Gaulle put it of Sartre during the 1968 uprisings, “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”

And you don’t, obviously. But every so often there might come someone having a vision to impart but no sheen or accreditation undergirding it. A vision that is bleak, with a style that is repulsive. It runs exactly contrary to the tenor of the moment at which it is heard. The true prophet shows an indifference to tact and boasts a deprivation of moral authority. He or she is counter-authority. For this there might not be harsh persecution, but there may be loud offense-taking, mockery, derision, feigned ignorance, very occasionally “constructive” criticism. Of course that makes it all the easier for any loafer with pangs of #decline to assume the mantel with pinch hits of profundity, but to say that they have not been out there would confirm that more genuine articles do exist. “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” That is God warning the Israelites and Judeans through Jeremiah. Now imagine that set to a blast beat.

At best Napalm Death were a curiosity, an uncommon metal band that didn’t seem to think in centuries. In fact no one could quite pinpoint exactly in what time they were thinking. From Enslavement to Obliteration came into the market at the opposite end of punk’s and Thatcher’s codependent ascension. The pessimistic upheaval of the former and optimistic upheaval of the latter had given way to a stasis that cancelled one another out. Amidst the complacency, Napalm Death’s anger was untimely but not backward looking. Forsaking the easily responded-to sloganeering of their predecessors, Napalm Death buried their message under then-vocalist Lee Dorrian’s dual action indecipherability, switching between either guttural or throat-searing growls. Read on their own their lyrics are telegrammatic. “A chronic complaint of dimness/Prevails your profound ideology/A romantic vision of a ‘master race’/Attained through coercive forms of authority,” goes “Unchallenged Hate.” “What’s perspicuous on the surface/Is artificial inside/When views are merely symbolic/Of an image you hide behind,” Dorrian screams on “Lucid Fairytale.”

From Napalm Death, grindcore spread rapidly throughout Europe, North America, and Asia. And while some bands have managed to reach a distinction around the level of their catalyst, even a well-trained ear will not always detect those variations immediately. Grindcore is the most monolithic rock subgenre ever created. Most of them, to paraphrase one critic’s hilarious assessment, are barely distinguishable from a water faucet going at full blast for 30 seconds. There is design in this, certainly, with the prophetic rather than the artistic end in mind. Grindcore broke through the great contentment of the ‘90s with in a collective ominous blast. If there is one unifying theme of its sound it is urgency. At a time when most people thought life was beginning anew, the grindcore prophets countered that time was actually running out. Written off as vulgar and barbaric, it would be difficult to argue now that they were not simply foretelling of unforeseen but oncoming barbarism, of a stark shift away from calm functionality, away from eloquence, away from reason. As Brutal Truth put it on their 1997 classic Sounds of the Animal Kingdom: “The art of the deal/Numbers feed, life surreal.”

“The Trump Era” is a phrase that take writers have been trying to make stick since the beginning of primary season if not earlier. It is their shorthand for the culmination at the end of the steady freezing over of political and social civility over the last 15 years. But it was only going to stick if its namesake was going to win. No doubt this honor is incentive enough for Trump to persevere in his otherwise frustrating transition to public service. Lending his name to objects, after all, is a large part of how he earns his income. What greater object is there than the entire zeitgeist?

But that ownership is slippery. The failure of the experts to foresee Trump’s victory even as they tried to mark his rise gives his moment an air of novelty. But it is less impressive to the dregs of the world’s dingy clubs and basements. “The clowns are now the ringmasters backed with the arsenal of the economy,” said Assück in 1991. “Our ears are plugged when we speak the tongue of reality/Failure to accept the truths, we speak of peace but push civilization to the edge.” They understood early on the rising tensions finally giving way, and will no doubt comprehend Trump’s breakneck sense of urgency and brute intuitive approach to decision making. Grindcore saw the kind of culture that would create superweapons as objects of pure terror and knew it wasn’t a particularly radical leap to think it will actually get used. “Super powers/Threat of war,” goes a Terrorizer song released, rather hysterically, in 1989. “World wide peace/Dream is gone.”

I admit that “The Grind Era” lacks the branding punch that “The Trump Era” has ignominiously gained over the past year. But sticklers for accuracy will doubtless find the exchange an amenable one. It is, of course, no mark of triumph for us to acknowledge the reality of the visions we chose to ignore. Or at least to laugh at. More notorious than Napalm Death’s children’s broadcasting debut is Cannibal Corpse’s gross out comedy cameo. Grindcore bands still exist, some of them are even quite good, but its peak had long ago past. The medically obsessed Carcass, founded by early Napalm Death guitarist Bill Steer, had sowed controversy in the ‘90s by signing to a major label and daring to explore nuance. But this is not to say that the messages have stopped coming.

Amidst the ensuing chaos of the Roman Empire and the persecution of early Christians, someone named John on the Greek island of Patmos composed the controversial concluding chapters of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. It contains some of the most disturbing images ever committed to writing, even if one is not reading it literally, describing an all-encompassing conflict with evil that nonetheless ends in the ultimate triumph of God:

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Following his departure halfway into the recording of Napalm Death’s first album, guitarist Justin Broadrick formed Godflesh. Described by writer Dave Thompson as “Pornography-era Cure on Quaaludes,” Godflesh was far more punishing than any conventional grindcore band, going drudgingly slow, favoring agony in place of urgency. Following its demise 14 years later, he founded Jesu, which followed Godflesh’s pace but not its tone, borrowing increasingly from shoegaze and ambient with each release. This, too, has been met with derision, though largely from metalheads this time, much in the same way the Revelation was thought heretical among some early Christians. But the trend shows little relent, as clearly shown by complimentarily named Deafheaven, who straddle the line between the earthly and the ethereal in the space of a single song, and Liturgy.

This is perhaps to read too much into an otherwise natural progression of the decades-long activity of a musician going into middle age, but it’s one worth observing all the same. The call for calm is a repeat one in our history. We long for it. It often does not come cheaply. Whether we can avoid such a payment I can’t say, but it should not be billed to a single person.

1 Napalm Death’s lineup is so unstable that even on their debut album Scum only one member, the drummer Mick Harris, appears on both sides.