Surrender

kveikurI’m never been much for podcasts. I can’t tell if that’s my own biases against being introduced to a new medium or a problem with the medium itself. Did people dismiss early cinema as nothing more than a novelty because they hadn’t yet seen what it could become? It’s quite possible. A lot of podcasts, to me, sound like a bunch of friends shooting the shit. That’s it. I’m sorry, but you need to have more than that if you want me to listen to it. I don’t even have that many friends and I think listening to other people and their friends talk about nothing is boring. Seriously, I don’t get it: What is the appeal of listening to people you don’t know go on random comedic tangents for an hour or more without ever coming to a point? I’m not trying to be dismissive here, but I honestly do not understand why people like some of this crap. This American Life is about people’s lives, and the stories are organized around a theme. Savage Love is relationship advice. WTF With Marc Maron is interviews, although he opens with a story. Even with a podcast, there has to be a point.

Maybe I’m weird, but I like to think of everything as a potential learning experience. Even if I’m just going down the street for a burger, I feel like I’m cheating myself if I’m not looking for a chance to be enriched, entertained, or educated. A lot of new media doesn’t do it for me: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. That probably does have more to do with the fact that those platforms are relatively new, but I don’t particularly like any of them, which means that I’m kind of an old fuddy-duddy even though I’m in my 20s. I’m getting left behind, but admittedly, it is by my choice. Since I’m straying into well-trod territory here, let me shift gears and talk about a story that is constantly updating: LGBT equality. Specifically, let’s talk about the wide world of sports. More and more athletes are coming out, and while very few of them are doing so at the professional level, it’s only a matter of time. I think what’s holding us back is that even though there are parallels between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement, there are some differences, and we have to acknowledge that as well.

There is something very primal about sexuality that race and possibly even gender don’t touch. It’s not something that you can often tell just by looking at someone, and that confuses a lot of people. More importantly, it causes a lot of LGBT people to think that there is something special about them if you can’t tell just by looking at them. Sometimes you can, but that’s not the point. It’s been such a lazy stereotype for so long that gay men aren’t into sports that now that we are learning that some of our athletes are gay, we need to stop acting like it’s that big of a shock. Yes, some gay men love sports. And some straight men love fashion. Could you seriously not have figured that out on your own? It’s ironic that sports are typically held up as a bastion of masculinity, because really, what is gayer than slapping on tight pants and shoulder pads and slamming into other guys for a while? Football’s pretty gay too, come to think of it.

I’ve learned by now that people will never leave you alone if you let them do it on their terms. This does not mean that you have to shut everyone out for fear that they will hurt you, only that you have to own your own words and actions, whatever they are. As I’ve probably said before, I have a million regrets. But I’m not sorry for anything. I just don’t have the time. You can roll your eyes when I say that I’m the greatest human being who ever lived, but as far as I’m concerned, I am, and who are you to tell me I’m wrong? It’s all about living in the present, not that I’m all that good at that. I spend most of my time brooding in my room. The only person I can name who hated humanity more than I do is Bill Hicks, and he died at 32 because he didn’t take very good care of his body. I’ve heard multiple people quote George Carlin as saying, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that leave you breathless.” Bullshit. Carlin didn’t say that. That’s from a chain email that somebody claimed was written by him. He would never have said something so trite and meaningless.

I have decided that there is one thing about California that I’m going to miss when I eventually get out of here, and that’s In-N-Out Burger. There is no other fast food chain that compares to it. It’s not the best burger around, just the best burger you can get for under $10. Double-double animal style, there is no competition. New York has Five Guys, but aside from the fries, there’s nothing too remarkable about them, and I say that as somebody who used to eat there pretty regularly. We all have our fast food, I suppose.

I’m not a very good judge of what will take off and what doesn’t. This blog has never climbed very far about 1,000 hits per month, and even then very briefly. Whatever. What I have to say these days doesn’t quite fit into this format, and maybe that’s for the best. Because I want to push outward. I want to find out just what I can get away with and what I’m capable of. And when that’s done, I want time to watch season two of Orphan Black. I go at my own pace, is what I’m trying to say. Don’t try to stop me.

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Nightwatching

michigan j frog

I would love a singing, dancing frog. Not to make money off of, just because he seems like he’d be good company.

I find that the more I watch The X-Files, the more I stick with it just for Scully. She’s the most nuanced character on the show, being the one who actually has stuff to learn. Mulder is almost always right about the mystery having a paranormal explanation, and Scully is almost always wrong about it being more mundane. I don’t care about Fox Mulder. I am much more interested in people who turn out to be wrong just because the deck is always stacked against them than people who turn out to be right because the TV show they’re starring on depends on it. Scully is the audience surrogate, but unlike some audience surrogates, who are blank slates existing primarily for self-insertion, she has a personality. If she were a real person, she and I would be very close friends. (I have said similar things about Kira from Deep Space Nine.) And on the rare occasion that the mystery has a mundane explanation, it’s nice to be reminded that sometimes, things are exactly what they seem. Kind of like the episodes of House where the patient dies.

I’ve been watching some old MLK speeches on YouTube lately. I’m posting this one, which is not a speech, just a joke. Let it never be said that you can’t be a fearless human rights crusader and still be funny.

I’m currently reading a book called Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It. It was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Related Work, and is a follow-up to the Hugo-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It. To my knowledge, nobody has written similar books about Star Trek, and that makes sense. Star Trek has never had the feminist/gay following that Doctor Who does, probably because its ideas about gender and sexuality are sadly quite dated. Yes, Gene Roddenberry deserves credit for putting the first black woman in a regular role on prime time TV and casting an Asian man in a major role (something that is fairly uncommon even today). But he also made that woman little more than a glorified secretary.

The best essay in Queers Dig Time Lords so far is one called “Longtime Companions”, a deeply moving piece by a lesbian who met her partner through Doctor Who and continued to watch it with her until her partner’s death from a brain tumor 27 years later. Her partner never got to see Jack Harkness, the first out LGBT character in Who history. But that doesn’t matter, because all Harkness did was make explicit something that had always been implicit. Doctor Who isn’t gay—at least, not necessarily. It just isn’t straight. Star Trek is almost aggressively straight. The original series, for all the ground it broke, was basically about your typical straight white male hero tooling around the galaxy and seducing alien babes. The Doctor’s sexuality is somewhat ambiguous. His relationship with his companions was, in the original series, always strictly platonic. Now, we have him kissing Harkness on the mouth and sorta kinda not really falling in love with Rose, but even then, it’s hard to tell just how deep his attraction runs. Is he asexual, but with the occasional stirring of desire? Is he straight, gay, or bisexual (but chaste)? I’m still leaning towards asexual, but I’m old school that way. I know people who think his relationship with Rose is one of the all-time great love stories. (They’re wrong, by the way.)

John Waters said that his movies are for minorities who don’t fit into their own minority. That’s how I feel as a Whovian. It used to be that Doctor Who was a cult sensation. According to some of the people in Queers Dig Time Lords, it wasn’t always cool to like Doctor Who even in England. Until relatively recently, most Americans hadn’t even heard of it. But now, it’s mainstream. The bookstores I frequent have stands set up devoted specifically to Doctor Who memorabilia. It’s cool to be a nerd, so long as, you know, you don’t actually challenge the status quo. Because nerdiness is the status quo now, and I feel the need to rediscover my athletic side.

It’s important to understand the difference between self-identifying and appropriating someone else’s identity. Somebody I follow on YouTube pissed me off recently by identifying himself as a recovering alcoholic. Rock bottom, for him, was getting drunk and being a little nasty to his friends, then realizing that he automatically reached for a bottle whenever things got stressful. That’s not alcoholism, and calling it such is offensive to actual alcoholics. You aren’t an alcoholic until you’ve lost a job, a house, or a car and have alienated at least some of the people close to you. No, almost alienating them doesn’t count. You have to go all the way.  I think it’s wonderful that people are watching comic book movies and Game of Thrones in such great numbers, I just think that if you really want to consider yourself a nerd, you have to do a little bit better than that. Someone is going to accuse me of being a gatekeeper, but that’s just not fair. I don’t think something is bad because it’s mainstream; I just think that if you have to add a love story to make it mainstream, don’t be surprised if some of us pull away. There is more to life than romance. Believe me, I know.

The Dogs in My Head Are Still Barking

It’s always easier to be direct when talking to someone indirectly. How often have you rehearsed something really confrontational and blunt, only to be polite or even friendly when you finally see the person? We all wish we could say exactly what’s on our minds all the time, but if we did that, we wouldn’t have any friends. At the same time, who wants to carry a grudge around? Even if we were right to feel angry about some perceived slight, we might have to wait so long for an opportunity to bring it up again that by the time it comes, we sound petty, like we’ve been obsessing over something minor for months or even years. As I always say, seemingly mundane incidents that stick in your figurative craw are almost always representative of some larger problem. But teasing that problem out can take a while.

I often find that in order to move on from something, I must first indulge in it. I experienced it in late 2011 when I was lured back into acting for one final go-round. The role I landed was a Shakespearean fool, which was quite a leap for a guy like me. Shakespeare often used his fools to make a sort of meta-commentary on the whole story, adding perspective to the plot by pointing out how ridiculous the whole thing was. Touchstone was no exception–loud, extroverted, amoral and pleasure-seeking, he was the exact opposite of me in just about every way, which is exactly why it was so much fun to play him. I’d never had a role quite like that before, having auditioned for the Shakespearean fool several times before, but this one seemed like a pretty good fit. Part of my arc involved seducing a simple country girl just so that I could abandon her once I’d slept with her a couple times, but the actress playing the role was such a committed professional that in rehearsals, it looked like she was seducing me. It took me a while to grow into the part. I had fun, though, which is why I kind of had to move on.

When I first set my sights on becoming a movie buff, I focused mainly on established classics. The films I saw were, in the beginning, the sorts that most first-year film students would be expected to know. Now, I’m specializing a little bit more, dabbling in kung fu and, if I get around to it, possibly even blaxploitation. It’s been my experience that the more fun I have, the slower time moves. It’s exactly the opposite of the conventional wisdom. My masters program lasts only twelve months–I arrived last May, and am set to graduate this May. The others in my class comment on how quickly time has moved, and how these past six or seven months have just flown by. I wish they’d stop. In some ways, I agree with them, but for me, that thought is more depressing than anything. Carry that sentiment to its logical extreme, and by the time I’m old, I’ll feel like 70 or 80 years just flew by. That’s incredibly frightening. I would much rather feel that the years went by at just the right pace.

I’ve been told by some of my friends that I should consider trying my hand at standup comedy. I respect their opinions, but have decided not to. I am, as anyone who has ever engaged me in a lengthy conversation will hopefully tell you, a gifted conversationalist. Some people suggested I become a vlogger rather than just a regular blogger, but I decided against it, partially so that I could maintain a certain level of anonymity, and partially so that I would not have to deal with the exhausting, thoroughly draining experience that is performing for an audience. If I did it, the dogs in my head would only bark louder. Pity. I might have made a decent comedian.

I’m currently fine-tuning my resume and working on a cover letter so that I can finally begin my job hunt. I met with my adviser to discuss this back in September, but was distracted by other things. I suppose now is as good a time as any to finally get around to doing what I’d meant to do all those months ago. According to the woman who officiated our career seminar, it takes six to nine months to find a job. I have a little over four. I guess I should really get cracking. I have only one goal with regards to my career search. The only job I ever had was the canvassing job, which was challenging and stressful, but rewarding in a way that no other job I’ve ever had was. I remember being completely honest in my interview, which is something that I almost never do. So I’ll try being honest in my resume in cover letter. It might not work, but then again, few things that I try ever do. So there’s that.

I’ll leave you with this video, which is genuinely moving, and the sort of thing that I might have done when I was a teenager were I infinitely bolder and more talented. So as always, stay strong, try to enjoy yourselves, and most importantly, avoid dying, if possible.

Bye now.

Voice of a Generation

Nobody asked, but he was great in "Drive".

I started watching Mad Men not too long ago. Shortly after that, I began watching Breaking Bad. Those two shows have nothing in common except that they share a network and are possibly the two most critically acclaimed dramas on television. Whether someone is more of a Breaking Bad person or a Mad Men person says a lot about their tastes. Do you like rich, deliberately-paced period pieces or fast-paced, compulsively watchable crime dramas? I’m more of a Mad Men person myself. To me, it’s a textbook example of great drama that does not feature likeable characters. They run the gamut from conflicted (Sal) to downright horrible (Roger Sterling.) But Breaking Bad bugs me. It’s not a bad show by any stretch. Bryan Cranston is phenomenal, and Jesse Pinkman just might be one of my favorite characters on TV. But I don’t like Walter White, and I get the impression I’m supposed to. I understand why he does what he does, and yeah, he’s more sympathetic than most drug dealers I’ve seen in fiction, but he’s still not a nice person. And I don’t think he’s trying to be.

Call me a moralizing asshole if you like, but I really don’t think I’d make the same decisions if I were in Walter White’s shoes. I just might be the kind of person who would rather die and leave his family with nothing than compromise his principles. Does that make me better than Walter White? Not necessarily, but there’s an undertone in Breaking Bad that glorifies its protagonist, seeing him as a tragic hero rather than a selfish-but-brilliant man who used his personal issues as an excuse to run roughshod over laws and human decency. I don’t approve of that. Of course, I don’t approve of what Don Draper does either, cheating on his wife simply because he can get away with it, but I don’t think I’m expected to. Mad Men is a non-judgmental show; Breaking Bad goes out of its way to avoid judging anyone.

Speaking of judgment, is anyone else tired of hearing Radiohead referred to as “the Beatles of our generation”? The Beatles weren’t a once-in-a-generation band, they were a once-in-a-century band. There is no band of this era that is comparable to them. It has nothing to do with taste. The Beatles aren’t my favorite band of all time, or even of their generation. I’d rather listen to The Who. But they spoke to people on a level that has not been equaled by any rock band before or since. That’s a fact. Radiohead does not match that. Nirvana didn’t either. And I really, really like Nirvana. This is not to say that Radiohead is not a great band. In Rainbows is easily one of my favorite albums of the last ten or fifteen years. If I had to pick a favorite of this generation, I’d probably go with Sigur Rós. What can I say? I like the ethereal stuff. So stop putting Radiohead up on a pedestal, everyone. They make speak for a lot of you, but they don’t speak for me.

It fascinates me how dependent so many artists’ popularity is on the time in which they rose. My father has often wondered aloud what would happen to Mozart if he were born today. A genius like him would stand out in any setting, but would he still write classical music? What about rock? Two of my favorite examples of this are Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks. Sam Kinison, roughly speaking, is the metal of standup comedy, screaming and yelling his way into the hearts of 80s audiences just like Metallica and Judas Priest. Bill Hicks was more confrontational, digging deep into the faults of late 80s/early 90s society and channeling it into one long, misanthropic screed. In that way, he’s like the grunge of his medium.

I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about who’s “better”. It’s absurd to pretend that one artist can be objectively “better” than another. You like what you like. All I’m trying to do is ask why people like what they like. Let me use just one more example. Every time a Studio Ghibli or Pixar movie comes out, critics argue over which animation studio is better. This does nothing but waste everyone’s time. Pixar movies are, well, more American than anything by Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s movies are more spiritual, having fewer pop culture references and less crude humor. One difference I have noticed is that in Miyazaki’s movies, the villains usually turn out to be decent people underneath it all. This has yet to happen in a Pixar film. In everything that I have seen by them, the villain is an irredeemable louse, willing to sell out their own mother if it means getting ahead. On one hand, this gives the audience more reason to hate them. On the other hand, it makes their characterization feel a bit one-dimensional. I’m not even going to tell you which animator I prefer. Why don’t you figure that out for yourself?

One of my favorite movies of all time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Aside from featuring a tearjerker of an ending, a tightly-plotted nail-biter of a script, and a deliciously scenery-chewing villain, it features something unusual: a good performance from William Shatner. Apparently, the director forced him to retake every shot until he became bored with it, the result being that Shatner stopped hamming it up in his usual highly entertaining fashion and began to, well, act. If you haven’t seen the movie, you really should. It’s quite remarkable. What I like most about it is that for all of its brilliance, it’s still just a Star Trek movie, accessible to non-fans, but manna for Trekkies. It may not be for all tastes, but it’s just right for mine.

Something in the Way

What is the purpose of art? Sorry, that’s a bit grandiose. There is an avant-garde filmmaker who baffles me. His name is Peter Greenaway, and he makes films that, to me, look like moving paintings. They are, to borrow a phrase from an anonymous Internet commenter, basically pornography for people with OCD or Asperger’s. Their structures are so rigid, their visual compositions so formal that more often than not, the human element tends to get lost in Greenaway’s elaborate intellectual games. One of his films, Drowning By Numbers (which I haven’t seen), reportedly features the numbers one through one hundred concealed within the frame one by one, in order, over the course of the film. What is the purpose of hiding such an Easter egg in one’s film? Peter Greenaway’s films can be analyzed at great length, but if they leave you feeling cold, it’s probably intentional. Greenaway is famously disdainful of “narrative cinema”, believing that films can and should be used for so much more than telling stories. To me, this is like saying that a conversation can consist of so much more than just words. I could sit here and spout gibberish at you all day, but if I want to hold your interest, isn’t making sense the best way to do it?

Good Lord, is anyone reading this? This blog averages about ten hits per day, at least a few of which come from me. If you even bothered to visit the site, hopefully you’re willing to read a critique of an art-house filmmaker that you likely haven’t heard of. But that’s not what’s bugging me. Peter Greenaway, to some, is challenging conventional wisdom about the definition of cinema. To others, he’s just an asshole. I’ve enjoyed some of his films, but I’m leaning towards the latter. What gives him the right to tell the rest of us what cinema is about? He likes David Lynch, but hates Martin Scorsese. If you can’t appreciate the work of one of the greatest artists in the history of the medium, Mr. Greenaway, has the thought occurred to you that the problem might be you rather than the medium? His reasoning is totally backwards. He seems to believe that because cinema was, in its infancy, not exclusively about telling stories, that means that everything that has happened since is hogwash. I call that evolution. Apparently, he regards himself as a crusader. I say he’s an arrogant fool who is trying to turn movies into something that they never were and really shouldn’t be.

So if anyone is still paying attention, let me answer the question that I posed at the beginning of this article. The purpose of art is to make the appreciator feel something. That is true of painting, music, theater, literature, and just about every other art form that I can think of. If I want to play a game, I’ll buy a fucking puzzle. If I want to engage in a lengthy discussion about the shifting role of women in 17th-century England, I’ll attend a goddamn lecture. One of the highlights of my cultural education was attending a screening of Chaplin’s City Lights. If you haven’t seen that film, you really must. It’s beautiful, funny as hell, and deeply moving. The man who organized the screening moderated long group discussions after the movie, but that night, it lasted less than five minutes. We looked at each other, said, “Wow, that was a great movie”, and went home. I’ll take that over Peter Greenaway’s 60-plus films combined.

I tried to love his movies. Really, I did. But no matter how close I got, there was always something in the way. Why make movies if you don’t love them more than life itself? I don’t write because there’s nothing better to do; I do it because when I don’t, I can barely sleep at night. People appreciate art for all sorts of different reasons. They make it for all sorts of reasons as well. But if you’re not going to dive headfirst into it, no matter which side of the divide you are on, I have no use for you. I know many talented writers, actors, directors, and musicians, and the one thing that they all have in common is commitment. They share an obsessive need to get even the most minor details just right. Whether anyone notices is irrelevant, because they’ll know, and that’s all that matters.

There is a give-and-take that must exist in any healthy relationship. One must not make movies with the intention of changing movies; one must make movies to see them grow and develop. In other words, the artist changes with the medium. Otherwise, the relationship becomes static, like a painting. Let’s not make movies a medium through which to scold audiences, but to challenge them, to make them think, and lastly, to give them a sense of release. Hell, they’re paying for it.