25 June 2011

On the Road with Jack KerouApp

In my former home of San Luis Obispo, CA, there’s a boarding house in which Jack Kerouac briefly lived. The place still stands, centrally located and easy enough to access. But though I’ve been a fan of Jack and the Beats throughout my life, I never went inside, or even walked by it. That might have changed the story for me, the one I carry around in my head: the writer hunched over his Underwood, boxers and white wifebeater, Lucky Strike hanging from his lips, bottle of Gilbey's, small dingy room with metal-barred twin bed, books on the nightstand, bathroom down the hall… The romantic images I call to mind--and the fact that everyone else who’s read On the Road has their own set of mental pictures—these are what hold resonance for me.

When a friend told me that he’d bought the new iPad On the Road app (which is now outpacing the previously #1 selling T.S. Eliot Waste Land app), I had instantly mixed feelings. Not unlike the jolt I’d felt earlier in the day, when I learned of the new Wuthering Heights video game.

I’m an English major. These things hurt.

And while I do, of course, have my kneejerk negative reaction to ebooks in general, this seemed to go a bit further in the pangs-of-dread department. The app not only provides the book’s full text, but also offers photos of the characters and the territory Kerouac passed through, historical details, an interactive map, and an entire section about the Beats.

I’m quite sure Kerouac would have hated it.

OK, in the realm of reading, I am somewhat of a purist. Books are exciting because they spark the imagination. In my mind, I know exactly what Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise look and sound like. Writing, if it’s any good, brings characters to life. Authors do their best to describe them, and our part of the bargain as readers is to make them our own. What people and places actually looked like is pretty much irrelevant. And is often a letdown. Our mental conjurings are far more dynamic.

Another charm of reading a plain ol’ book is that it trains the mind to follow a narrative without distraction. In these days of constant ADHD, multitasking, doing way too much at once, that’s hard to…imagine. A book is a great excuse to focus on one thing only, and get lost in a story in that rare and beautiful state known as flow. If you’ve ever read a book with copious footnotes and have attempted to read each one, you know how much that can distract from maintaining engagement with the narrative.

I realize that younger people who have used computers their entire life have differently wired brains and a far greater affection for doing multiple things at once. (Doing them well is another story…) But for me, that sort of manic multitasking inflicts both physical and psychic pain. My brain starts to throb, and I quickly feel like a hungry child led around at a state fair just wanting to get back to that hot dog. Flow is a need in everyone’s life, and long periods of it make us very happy humans. Just ask Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose name itself demands flow.

As for making classic books into multimedia experiences, I won't go into my rant about the vast Disney-fication of American culture. I understand the impetus: offering fans backstory, prodding kids to learn more, providing context of time and place. All legitimate. And of course I get the fun factor. Who knows—I might just end up playing with this toy myself someday. But my main concern is that when graphics are introduced, the power of naked, unadorned words to move our minds could become diminished. And that would be a shame. Words have incredible power—the pen being mightier than the sword and all that. It’s important to continue to experience that power, without embellishment, without distraction.

24 June 2011

The Tree of Life, or at Least a Big Pine Cone

I had such high hopes for Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. And part of me still does, thinking that maybe something will click in and I will realize that it’s as profound as I want it to be. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. The Malick films I’ve seen are both beautiful to look at and emotionally taut. The man knows how to engage via dramatic tension. I’m thinking of Badlands and Days of Heaven. Gorgeous, unforgettable cinematography with a very edgy core. This one is no exception.

I had read numerous reviews, seen the trailer, and thought the theme sounded fascinating. Malick has directed only 5 films in 38 years, and this one had been many years in the making… Cannes both awarded him the Palme d’Or and he was booed by its audiences...  I was ready for a ride.

The Tree of Life is a film largely about faith, specifically faith in God. Among its themes is how one can believe in God as “loving father,” when one’s relationship with his human father is frequently difficult. I find this a compelling question, as I do believe that our notions about a “higher power” derive from our experiences with our earliest caretakers.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a father raising three boys in 1950s Texas. His oldest son, Jack, struggles with his dad’s strictness, arguments with his mom, authoritarian stance, and repressed creativity. Dad is chasing some demons, and in his quest to exert neverending control over the boys and command their respect, he has made them walk around with the hunched shoulders and hushed voices of those living in fear. Mom (Jessica Chastain), ethereal and angelic, is a pre-Raphaelite nymph spouting unconditional positive regard, almost a Madonna figure.

Some of the film explores what this strong-willed, self-absorbed father and far more graceful, freespirited mother teach their children about the nature of life. As an adult, Jack (Sean Penn) states how his mother and father still “wrestle” inside him. Yet the tension generated from that wrestling is all that seems to happen in this film, leaving it feel, for all its content, ultimately unfinished.

Throughout the film, the characters whisper many questions and assertions about faith in God, enough to make a nonbeliever woozy ("Where are you? What do you want from us?"). This can feel overearnest or New Agey (“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”), and the philosophical inquiries behind these questions, which usually burn when we are in our teens or twenties, feel rather young for a man of Malick’s age to be plumbing as if they were new discoveries. Voice-overs are tricky; whispered voice-overs, trickier; whispered God-questioning voiceovers, almost impossible to pull off.

To sum up the entire experience, one adjective I keep returning to is “overwrought.” Another: “overreaching.” And then there’s: “trying hard to be profound.” I can't fault him for attempting what he does, but I prefer being engaged in a narrative versus feeling so manipulated that I shut down.

In the beginning (as it were), Malick strings together a lengthy string of Emmanuel Lubezki’s luscious images of the heavens and Earth in all its beauty and pulsating drama. It is sort of a Koyaanisqatsi-like moment, when we are simply asked to awe the natural world—perhaps in Malick’s view, what God has created. It’s a lovely montage that goes on far too long, accompanied by crescendo-ing choral music, to the point that even though I generally enjoy pretty pictures, I began to fidget in discomfort. Because these images are random and undefined, they must be taken abstractly, and that can be fine for a short time. However, because the sequence is so lengthy, it comes across as gratuitous and not well integrated into the storyline. And a few shots are simply ridiculous, like two dinosaurs clomping around like refugees from Jurassic Park. Certainly there’s visual homage here to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but why it exists is beyond me.

A similarly overwrought sequence occurs at the end. I suppose some would call it dreamy or theatrical, but frankly, it felt like a clip from a very different movie, unrelated to the 1.5 unsettling hours of Brad Pitt and the boys we’d just endured. I was somewhat embarrassed for Malick, who seemed to have plunked his faithful audience squarely in airy-fairy land. I suppose there is, somewhere, a New Age universe in which mothers give up their children to death in a whirlwind of choreographed ballet on the beach, but… I don’t want to live there, or even buy a day pass.

And this is, in a nutshell, one of the film’s biggest flaws: Malick is trying to slam together two very different beasts: intense, dark, psychological realism and symbolic, out-there, gauzy art-filmy metaphor. Perhaps this was the director’s way of alluding to the very different characters of mom and dad, but to me it felt disjointed and, as my screenwriting teachers were fond of saying, “unearned.”

Somewhere in all of this, there’s a good and possibly even profound piece of art. But this is a big, bushy Afro of a movie that desperately needs Brad Pitt’s Waco barber to give it a trim. Unfortunately Malick was not working with an editor skilled enough to rein him in, to find the meat of the story and leave the other parts in another basket, for another day.

And yet, I’ve read many reviews in respectable publications like the New York Times that simply adore the film, find it loaded with extreme Meaning, etc. Lots of gushing from these folks, who were apparently not the ones doing the boo-ing at Cannes. The only one that didn't feel feel obsequious was Rex Reed’s thorough trouncing in the NY Observer, which concluded with, “The whole thing reminds me of what Pausanias, the skeptical second century Greek historian and travel agent, said about the hysteria surrounding the relic in the alleged tomb of Orpheus: ‘Those who have not seen a miracle, have at least seen a big pine cone.’ ”

19 June 2011

Making My Way in the Land of And

e·nough [ih-nuhf]
adequate for the want or need; sufficient for the purpose or to satisfy desire: enough water; noise enough to wake the dead.

sur·feit [sur-fit]
1. excess; an excessive amount: a surfeit of speechmaking.
2. excess or overindulgence in eating or drinking.
3. an uncomfortably full or crapulous feeling due to excessive eating or drinking.

One ubiquitous TV commercial here asks a question that we all can relate to, "Why say 'OR' when you can say 'AND'?" It is an ad for a big, brawny buffet, instantly bringing to mind a target demographic that never has had much of a problem saying "AND," as it's loading its far-too-small plate with all manner of gooey damage. But I digress. As they digest.

Americans have always been rather obsessive-compulsive around matters concerning freedom of choice, which is one reason why our floor-to-ceiling supermarkets look a bit...well...fuller...than those of our Russian counterparts. Why we somehow need to have 1,000 different cereal options in each grocery store. Why it can turn into a seriously bad day when we hit the gelato stand and they offer just 65 varieties. I mean, come ON! This is, like, gelato stands in, like, a Siberian winter.

The Internet has brought all this choice to our fingertips. Options seem infinite, and another choice can always be teased out with a few more clicks.

With the result...if you're anything like me...of not utter joy, but...paralysis. I hear about a book. I go on Amazon to check it out. I read the review. Then just beneath it comes the parade of its cousins...the "Customers who bought this item also bought" list. Surely, you cheap bastard, you're not going to waste Amazon's time with a mere one-book purchase! OTHER customers--in fact, ALL the other customers we've had today--have shoveled at least 10 items into their shopping carts. And when the thought of having to decide between titles troubled them for a second or 2, they remembered that they live in The Land of And, and tossed every last one of them onto their platinum card.

Unfortunately my platinum card is living in the land of NOT. It landed there after I lived in The Land of And a little too long. And thus, I must make a choice. Which I cannot, in good conscience, make.

I pacify my kicking, screaming, book-wanting child by adding all the cousins to my wish list, which currently contains 360 items. It is the Las Vegas buffet of wish lists. And I am the bad martinet of a Weight Watchers' mother suggesting that choice is an appropriate...choice.

Someday I'm gonna win the lottery, and by God, I am going to buy every last book, CD, DVD, and audio download on that list. I'll show them what AND means! Amazon is going to send me a plaque for the biggest order ever entered on their system. I will rule and OWN Amazon! When they see my name, they'll shiver. They'll even name a tab on their drop-down menu for me.

You see, while having a choice is powerful, not having to choose is ostensibly even more empowering...or at least, broadly appealing. And after living with all this Internet-fueled choice, I think a lot of us have broken pickers. Compromised. Severely ill. On the critical list. In this Web-created delusion of surfeit, we get overwhelmed by so many possibilities, so much potential. If that doesn't work out, try these 20 things. If those 20 things don't work out, try these 40. OK, I'm KO'ed. No. More. Options.

My mom once proved this theory with one of our most neurotic cats, Princess, whom she'd classically conditioned to be a royal basket case. Princess would walk into the kitchen, sniff the food, and turn up her nose at it, in classic cat style. My mother, a textbook kitty codependent if there ever was one, would then grab the can opener and pop open another can.

Princess of course would give it a quick sniff and turn up her pert, pink nose at it. This continued until my mother had exhausted most of the cans in the cupboard, a parade of dishes lined our kitchen linoleum, and a multifarious fishy smell informed the immediate neighborhood of her dark deeds. Had Princess taken the bait on any one of them? No, she had not. Was The Land of And being very, very good to her? Yes, it very much was.

Princess was overstimulated. (And a bit of a bitch.)

I am overstimulated. (Ditto.)

What we're looking at is a tapeworm. Our society has this long, ravenous, nutrition-sucking parasite slinking around its collective digestive tract, encouraging our natural human tendency toward, to use a very old-school but perhaps not inappropriate word, gluttony. Because we're not getting what we really want, we tend to fill up on cheap substitutes that may trick us into thinking we're full. Yet, like the hungry ghosts of Buddhist lore, we remain insatiable. We do not grasp the concept of enough, and then our not-enoughness eats us alive.

If I had to choose--which I hope I don't--I'd prefer the buffet.

Not Knowing - In the Zeitgeist?

I was very pleased to see essayist Tim Kreider's op-ed piece, "In Praise of Not Knowing," in the Times today. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/opinion/19Kreider.html?_r=1  And a bit surprised at the synchronicity, after my post just last week (see directly below) about the very same phenomenon. It's obviously a markedly different piece, but still manages to echo some of my sentiments about this topic.

Interesting how we both link to childhood, innocence v. experience, children and wonder.

I really enjoyed his conclusion:
"Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know."

11 June 2011

On Safari in the Jungle of Knowability

Mourning the Death of Mystery

It’s hard not to notice the absence of mystery in life these days. There’s simply not a lot of je ne sais quoi. Little could be described as arcane, hermetic, or hidden from view. Thinking back to the years before the Internet, we used to enjoy a state seldom encountered these days: wonder. A time when questions loomed long enough that our fantasies had time to fill in the blanks. A place when not knowing the answer was a perfectly possible and reasonable state.

These days, not knowing is equated with not Googling. And not Googling appears both lazy and … mysterious.

Why don’t you know if you could know with just a few keystrokes and a mouse click?

Take, for example, “I wonder what ever happened to the celebrity I idolized in 7th grade?” Today that’s a question easily answered via a quick search, a scan through some highly condensed information, and the almost inevitable resultant disappointment--likely involving a cocktail of DUIs, drugs, divorce, bankruptcies, and maybe even prison stints.

Pre-Internet times, that very same teen idol would have remained eternally 21 with beautiful long hair and an oeuvre of treacly but sincere love songs. But don’t take my word for it. Try Googling Leif Garrett. You remember '70s heartthrob Leif Garrett, right?

More recently, he looked something like this.

When I was a child growing up in the '60s and '70s, I remember puzzling over what kind of people my favorite writers actually were. I recall reading S.E. Hinton and trying to envision this guy who wrote so compellingly about street kids. I must have read The Outsiders five times, and each reading more thoroughly convinced me that the book was flat-out autobiography. It was not until I was well into adulthood that I found out that S.E. actually looked like this:

Yup, Susan Eloise, from Tulsa. But in 1972, there was simply no way to access even basic information like that, and publishers seemed to like it that way. More…mysterious. And frankly, I was much more intrigued creating a picture in my mind, a composite of the characters and their milieu.

My musings later extended to a certain J.D. Salinger. There again, the absence of a name, the coolness of only initials, lent an unquestionable aura. What little I could glean of him was the folklore…the recluse who never wrote again after Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters, never granted interviews, succumbed to a life of romantic literary retirement. I imagined him lingering in the New Hampshire woods near his home, alone, ethereal and otherworldly, while his characters made their ways in the world, enchanting children for generations. I adore the notion of a permanent recluse who never comes back. It is far lovelier than the one who emerges from “retirement” 25 years later, driven by penury, touring a new book and pounding the blog- and tweetospheres.

And then there were teachers, in grade school, beloved; in high school, be-lusted, all of whom I knew precious little about (sometimes not even first names!). I remember the glorious day I found out—god knows how—that my Russian high-school-teacher crush, Mr. T, was actually known to most of the world as “John.” This was honestly a big deal, and served as plenty of information for one day, week, or month. In century 21, kids actually friend their teachers on Facebook. Now, that to me is one tricky proposition. Finding out that Mr. T enjoyed bad bluegrass music, watched TV shows I did not respect, and was a member of the Republican Party and Shania Twain fan groups might have sent me over the edge.

But unfortunately, in contemporary life, these are the details with which our mind forms impressions, judgments, opinions—accepts or dismisses without any further body of experience. However, this shortcut creates three little problems: our information is insufficient, out of context, and often wrong.

Children now grow up having farrrrr more information about their idols than we ever did. They know farrrr more about Justin Bieber’s daily life than perhaps his mother does. And they can probably glimpse his very soul with an iPhone swipe. What are we doing putting so many hard facts into the hands of the so very young? How do they use it, when they hardly know how to use an iron? And what happens when their idols make that inevitable fall from grace? As children of the late Neolithic age, these events were hidden from our view, and leaving much to the imagination was a respectful choice for those thought too young to handle graphic detail. Today's philosophy seems to be reality without filters--for anyone, no matter what age. But is it really preferable to watch your idol self-destruct, to succumb to human failings (sometimes all at once), than to be allowed to hold a fantasy of your idol as somehow superhuman?

When I think back on the idols I had when I was young, I realize that I have no desire to know the "facts" of his/her existence. I love recalling a certain actress as a character in a film I saw in 1978, not as someone who was very ill with cancer for 20 years. And thus, I limit my Internet reading about her--and can still smile.

While I’m not advocating delusion or being lied to, isn’t there room for the little fantasies that keep us going?

Living in the age of the know-all, tell-all has proven, mostly, a major bummer. In centuries 20 and before, our celebrities had a certain sanctity and inspirational quality. And maybe that was utter hogwash, but it worked. Gave us something to strive for, a bit of beauty in life otherwise mundane. Allowed us to believe that a life could be charmed, like a day of gliding down 5th Avenue with Audrey Hepburn.

This month alone we have seen the genitals of our politicians, the results of those genitals, and our political campaign contributions being used to pay for the actions of those genitals. Thanks to Facebook, we know the intimate daily life of boyfriends we had in college. We witness those we dearly loved saying vapid things online and posting photos of themselves looking like lunatic fringe. We look up a potential date and realize that they’ve made contributions to far right-wing politicians, have execrable musical taste, or can barely spell simple 5th grade vocabulary words.

It’s a jungle of knowingness out there. And familiarity may still breed contempt.

The days of spotting someone across a crowded room and getting to apprehend them through direct experience over time have ended. The days of going home and holding them in your thoughts as a new fascination, a beautiful blank slate, are unlikely to return, unless the world’s wi-fi coughs, sputters and dies.

Our vastly knowable world leaves little room for dream and fantasy. And even less room for our highly human tendency to want things to be as we remembered them, not as they actually were. The blanks can all be filled in—often in under 60 seconds. For some, it may lead to happily gleaning discrete points of fact from which conclusions may be drawn.

Others, like me, are left wondering what to wonder.

06 June 2011

David Foster Wallace - Quote of the Day

"I have filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me."

     —  A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and  Arguments

04 June 2011

John D’Agata’s About a Mountain – Fallout in the Nevada Desert

American culture has rarely emphasized harmony with nature; that’s a relatively recent notion, dwarfed by many decades of attempting to form nature to our wills. The habitation of Las Vegas, and subsequent development of every square inch of it, even with its notable lack of water, is just one such example. However, in his most recent book-length essay, John D’Agata enlists it as the perfect backdrop for a skillfully layered story about the cost of American hubris.

One of his primary metaphors is the injection of thousands of tons of nuclear waste into a mountain less than 100 miles from downtown Las Vegas. This rightful property of the Shoshone Tribe was taken by government force, and despite incredible risks to public safety, an ill-considered plan to store highly toxic materials in a leaky vessel in all-too-close proximity to Sin City slid through Congress in 1982.

But D’Agata’s lens is far wider-angle than no-nuke polemics. Instead he points us toward greater themes: the casualties of human hubris and how it fares when pitted against the tides of nature. Regardless of the magnitude of will or scope of desire, impermanence continues to hold sway over our existence. Despite the author’s biases, often expressed with the deepest of deadpan, he ultimately offers a sense of wonder as to why we create the tableaux we do. D’Agata seems to understand that black and white is hard to come by in the grey shades of human landscape. And that the truth of our existence lies in the tension between rampant self-interest and a quest to understand vaster but ultimately unknowable truths.

The author is at his sharpest when describing the surreality of Las Vegas and its denizens—easy marks, certainly, but executed with a sharp-eyed wryness that relishes quotidian detail. Here he describes local reaction after the Nevada Test Site was established:

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce did its part during this time by distributing free twelve-month color calendars inscribed with the schedule of the site’s atomic tests.

The Atomic View Motel would boast “the best views of the blasts from anywhere in Vegas!”

At the Sands they held an annual “Miss Atomic Bomb” pageant.

And at a women’s hair salon inside the Flamingo, they lifted women’s coifs into a bundled-up creation that they called without irony “the mushroom ’do.”

Stylistically, the novel utilizes a series of jump cuts slammed directly against each other to create a collage of rapid movement—the kind humans full of hubris generally use as they shove Indians off their land and nuclear waste into mountainsides.
One of the book’s most fascinating segments describes the dubious attempts of a panel of experts assigned by the US government to create a sign warning generations 10,000 years hence of the dangers tucked inside Yucca Mountain. After realizing that all currently spoken languages will be virtually wiped out, they decide to search for a display of emotion that may be universally understood for millennia to come. One panelist suggests filling Yucca’s basin “with a mournful constant cry,” via playing music in minor tones. Ultimately, part of the solution consists of “a small engraved image in the apex of each stone that reproduces the anguished face from Edvard Munch’s The Scream.”

D’Agata deftly juxtaposes this reportage with far more personal stories: that of the family tragedies that inspired Munch’s painting, his own stint as a volunteer at a Las Vegas suicide hotline, and a boy who jumps to his death from the Stratosphere Hotel. While he never specifically connects the dots, these stories share an organic bond with the more political material. Not only is it a writerly feat to be able to pull this off and sustain coherence, it’s also refreshing to be allowed to draw our own conclusions.

Human actions opposing the natural life of the planet always generate fallout, whether in a literal, nuclear sense or in creating a platform from which humans can tumble—sometimes willingly. And incursion into the natural world creates a tension in even the most well intended of us, as D’Agata illustrates with an interesting tangent about meeting Edward Abbey’s son. Apparently Abbey Sr., for all his environmentalism, came with his own set of personally unsustainable practices. D’Agata excels at revealing such inconvenient facets of our rarely cut-and-dried world. And then asking us to make sense of the seas of contradiction.