29 August 2012

thinking about thinking.

I've been thinking about thinking. In general, there are two different kinds: there's thinking within the moment and there's thinking about the moment. When a crazed lunatic physically assaults me on the street (as he inevitably does), I am not thinking about a crazed lunatic physically assaulting me. I'm much too immersed in the experience of being stabbed in the jugular or punched in the stomach to bother reflecting upon the experience from a safe psychological distance. The moment, as it were, owns me. I am fully inhabiting my consciousness, without intermediary, and thinking directly, probably even without language. 

Some people would be reluctant to call this immediacy of consciousness 'thinking'—because we tend to think of thinking as something communicable, something we can translate into approximate words. In this sense, if I am kicked to the ground in a dark alley and thrown into a dumpster, they would say that I am not thinking properly, but merely reacting—operating on a purely instinctual level that doesn't require the agency of human thought. Admittedly, this is a gray area—probably shaded as much by semantics as by real difference of opinion, but it is difficult, I think, to imagine the waking mind doing nothing at all. Even if it isn't consciously aware of itself, it's still locked into some experience, processing it either in ordinary words or in some native, untranslatable language. By this definition then, what the waking mind is always doing is called thinking. Right now I am thinking about thinking—I am strategizing a way to make my thoughts apparent to you, the reader. You, as a reader, are either apprehending what I say and immersed in the unreflected ideas contained herein, or else you're thinking about something else entirely. Maybe you are thinking about yourself reading this. Now that I have introduced the idea and put it front and center in your mind, chances are that you'll think about yourself thinking at least for a moment—to test the waters of reflected thought, so to speak—to be the efficacious embodiment of the idea. The idea insists upon itself, however briefly.

Here, we have touched on the other kind of thinking: reflected thinking. If I enter a room—let's say it's a grand ballroom, opulently decorated, and it's crowded with people in formal attire—if I enter this room, and suddenly all conversation stops, the players in the string quartet still their bows, and everyone turns to look at me, then there's a good chance (after the initial shock, the insistence of the experience) that I will reflect. What is it about the person that I am representing to these people in this manner (i.e., these clothes, this haircut, this physical bearing, this demeanor, this identity itself) is causing them to take such dramatic notice of me? (Other than being incredibly gorgeous, of course.) In other words, I start to think about myself as something other than myself. It's as if I'm looking at myself from another vantage, outside myself. I recognize myself as an object for others, an object that can be judged and understood without recourse to the intimacy of my selfness. I know myself in a specific way, but when I reflect, I remember that there are other ways of knowing and seeing myself—some of which are contradictory to my own  way. My consciousness is one perspective among many—none of which is authoritative. I have more information about myself than any other person in the world  (except perhaps in the case of extreme mental illness or incapacity), but what I do with this information is only interpretation. I use my reflective thought to create a story about the self that I am, but often these stories are myths or fantasies or a misunderstanding of facts and how they relate to who I am.

Who am I? What is it that defines me or sufficiently guarantees the me-ness of me? Am I  more fully myself when I am engaged in non-reflective or reflective thought? Who is the real me? The one who is experiencing things firsthand—or the one who is watching or thinking about myself in relation to the experience? But then again, we could say that reflected thought is also non-reflected thought because it's the immediate experience of our thoughts about ourselves. I think that might be taking things too far though. Non-reflective thought should, by definition, be the kind of thought that ignores the thinker. For example: 'The sunset is beautiful.' Am I thinking about myself looking at the sunset or am I experiencing the sunset and letting it overwhelm me with its sunsetness? Is it possible to characterize the sunset as beautiful without the aid of reflective thought? I think so. After all, we don't usually analyze our aesthetic standards when we go around the world describing this or that as beautiful. We don't compare this sunset to other beautiful things we have seen; we don't set up an explicit contrast that enables us to judge the soundness of our claim that this particular sunset happens to be beautiful. Beauty is, in most everyday cases, a shorthand. We don't need to resort to critical insight to assert our sense of beauty.

But wait. When we speak, when we process thoughts into words, doesn't this necessarily involve reflective thought? I mean, this reflection is so automatic, so abbreviated, so wordless in itself that our attention isn't called to it, but isn't it there nonetheless? On the other hand, isn't the fact that we don't notice the reflective process indicative of its immediacy? In this sense, we could claim that when a deranged lunatic shivs me behind the check-cashing place, I am reflecting back on the experience—instantaneously, without notice—in order to react to it in some way? What confidence should we place in the human mind's ability to reflect upon its experience without our being aware of it or noticing it? Isn't this lack of awareness itself the criterion of non-reflected thinking—because we are talking about conscious processes here, not some unconscious underworld which motivates our actions in an unintelligible way? But am I just using a cheap semantical distinction as a way of getting out of an undesirable assertion that all thinking is in fact reflected thinking? 

If I say that all of my thinking is reflected thought—even if I'm not always immediately aware of the reflection involved because it's accomplished in an abbreviated, non-linguistic spasm of sorts—haven't I arrived at an essentially religious position? I am then putting faith in a hunch that the interstices of my experienced thought contain an entire world of compressed reflection—but on what basis? How can I be convinced that my consciousness is haunted by my past experiences in such an immediate way that I don't even need the time to extrapolate from them?

Clearly, this thinking about thinking is more involved and problematic than I originally anticipated. I was intending to set up a clear distinction, if not necessarily corresponding to reality, then offering a model of the way we experience or interpret reality. For instance, Freud thinks that boys have a latent and innate desire to murder their fathers and marry their mothers. The motivation for this theory is to explain frequent egoistic conflict between sons and fathers that was observable. The underpinnings Freud offers—the Oedipal Complex—are not in any way observable—so might we not just as well create any theory (neither provable or disprovable) which seeks to explain the reality without contradicting observable fact? What Freud created—whether he was aware of it or not—was not a plausible explanation, but just a model. This model allows us to cope with a problematic reality in such a way that we glean some sense of understanding from it; that the understanding may not or does not correspond to reality is irrelevant—because nothing strictly speaking can disprove it. We only encounter problems with models when they contradict reality or the explanation they offer does not yield satisfactory results. 

This writing was an attempt at building a model (—not a theory). It is presently being abandoned, due to the complexities involved in navigating the demands of reality. 

28 August 2012

johnny guitar.

Last night I watched Olive Films' newly remastered Blu-Ray release of Nicholas Ray's strange and fascinating 1954 western Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Sterling Hayden. All the washed-out colors and bleariness of the Korean DVD version—previously the only version available in the U.S.—have been replaced by the startling colors and crystalline clarity of the film as it was intended to be seen, nearly sixty years ago. Johnny Guitar probably won't convert the most resolute detractors of the western, but it is likely to disorient viewers expecting a familiar, assembly-line treatment of the genre. 

You can go ahead and forget about the title—because this film isn't really about the tall, guitar-strumming tough-guy played by Sterling Hayden—who probably sensed he was only part of the set decoration here; it's the story of Vienna (Crawford), a ballsy entrepreneur in a burgeoning western town who whored and wheedled her way into the ownership of a saloon-casino bearing her name. Always savvy and calculating, Vienna realizes her gin joint will be a huge success once the new rail line comes through and sets up a depot in town, so she's intent on waiting it out.

Enter the villain—a sexually-repressed, blood-thirsty dyke named Emma Small (McCambridge) who hates Vienna for a jumble of reasons, ranging from the economic to the  baldly Freudian. (Anyone who's familiar with the voice and appearance of Ms. McCambridge knows that she was born to play this role. She's wound up so tight that her corset fasteners might fire off like bullets.) Emma organizes an angry mob in an attempt to frame Vienna for aiding and abetting crimes committed by the Dancing Kid and his gang. (Yep. The Dancing Kid.) But just about then, Vienna's old lover Johnny Guitar (Hayden) strolls into town; she's sent for him to protect her from the (some might say McCarthyist-style) witchhunters. Soon we discover, however, that a tough broad like Vienna doesn't need much help from men, most of whom are weak, easily manipulated, and not very smart. 

So this is one interesting thing about Johnny Guitar: both the main protagonist and antagonist are females, and both are stronger (at least mentally) and braver than their male counterparts. At the beginning, with a crowd of men led by Emma invading her saloon, Vienna—wearing pants, a holster, and a fuck-you glare—calmly descends the stairs, fires off a few melodramatic verbal sallies, and challenges any one of her accusers to shoot her down—if he dares. She defiantly aims her gun into the mob and never breaks a proverbial sweat. It's just more dirty work that has to be done—and there are certainly no men around who are capable of doing it.

Joan Crawford as Vienna.

For many viewers, Johnny Guitar will register as a triumph of kitsch rather than a straightforward, earnest western. The film is simply too outrageous in many of its particulars—the bright surreal colors, the scenery chewing, the flouting of genre conventions—to be interpreted as just another gallop through the dust. Whether intentionally or not, the film seems to embody the western and offer commentary on it at the same time. This is a difficult balancing act to pull off, and it perhaps explains why Johnny Guitar was not successful when it was originally released and was met with much critical perplexity. It took the critics (and, later, filmmakers) of the French New Wave (like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) to recognize Johnny Guitar as a masterpiece of auteurist cinema, which saw a director's oeuvre as a personal expression of his distinct outlook and style. Godard even once famously said, 'The cinema is Nicholas Ray.' (It's a shame that most people today only know Ray from A Rebel Without a Cause, one of his least interesting films. Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, and Bigger Than Life are all exceptional films, characteristic of Ray's unique style.)

Mercedes McCambridge as Emma.

The film's background adds another dimension to the experience of watching it. Reportedly, both Sterling Hayden and Mercedes McCambridge hated working with Joan Crawford. Crawford tried, unsuccessfully, to have McCambridge fired and replaced with her friend; McCambridge later went on to publicly characterize Crawford as 'a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.' This may or may not have contributed to the occasionally hyperbolic intensity of McCambridge's on-screen confrontations with Crawford in the film. Either way, it's a extratextual note that makes these scenes even more fun to watch. Hayden meanwhile disliked both Crawford and the film itself. Apparently he didn't agree with Truffaut's characterization of the film as 'The Beauty and the Beast of westerns.' 

Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar.

Popular critical opinion has indeed shifted—as it often does—and Johnny Guitar is now considered a classic. I'm still not sure everyone will know what to make of its unabashed artificiality, but it certainly isn't your father's John Wayne movie. In fact, I'd love to hear what John Wayne thought of this movie, if he ever saw it. I'm sure his response would have been just as colorful as Johnny Guitar's production design.

26 August 2012

catholic razzle-dazzle.

I have an irrational, ridiculous, and (yes) complex relationship with Roman Catholicism. I realize this claim is somewhat misleading, however, because it seems to imply that I still maintain some sort of formal (or, at least, regular) dealings with that particular brand of faith. But for the most part, my attitude toward Catholicism remains one of conspicuous disregard. If the pharisees were eager to be seen in temple, then I am correspondingly eager to be seen anywhere but worshiping in a Catholic church. My spiritual life—to the extent that I have one—is defined by willful omissions. It isn't that the Catholic god is essentially crueler or more irritable than his Islamic and Judaic counterparts—I haven't actually worked up a Consumer Reports-style comparative chart to arrive at a proper judgment—but that I have a special personal grudge with the Catholic god that refuses to be mitigated by the similar failings of competitor gods.

On the other hand—living side-by-side with this resentment for Catholicism—is a disproportionate loathing for Protestantism which exceeds just cause. This is where the complexity comes in. We're all familiar with the recurring impulse to defend members of our family—even those whom we may openly despise—simply because they are being attacked by outsiders. Likewise, when these small-town, spittle-flying pastors, in their churches like barns or, else, shopping malls, decry the heresy and idolatry of Catholicism, I have an incredible urge to bitch-slap them. Repeatedly. 

When I was a Catholic—as a child and by default—it was the very things that distinguished Catholicism from Protestantism that appealed to me. (And, no, I'm not talking about institutionalized child molesting.) I loved the massive, echoing cathedrals—those ornate behemoths whose great expense was itself an affront to the church's mission to help the poor and needy. These gothic palaces, fortified, it would seem, against reason, were comforting in their history (or their seeming history) and their literalized imagery: the snake-stomping Mary, the hippie Francis, the CGI heart of Jesus... Maybe it was more exciting to me because I loved Greek mythology—and these statues and rituals recalled those absurd myths. I saw the original Clash of the Titans more times than I could count, and as a consequence I pretty much pictured God the Father as Sir Laurence Olivier, in his flowing satin robe, with those blue neon lights radiating from his head in the distance—the marks of his divinity blinking like Times Square at dusk.

Another major East Coast-West Coast beef that Protestants have with Catholics is that the latter places far too much emphasis on the Virgin Mary—even that they 'worship' her, which is clearly blasphemous or heretical or at least very, very bad. In response, Catholics, in a legendary fit of hair-splitting to rival Clinton's 'not inhaling,' claim that they venerate the saints; they do not actually worship them. Now, you're welcome to consult a dictionary to seek out the difference between worship and veneration if you're really interested, but frankly I had no problem with worshiping the Virgin Mary. Whenever I prayed—you know, those kinds of Santa Claus prayers when you wish to be miraculously given something good—I always prayed to Mary. Let's face it. She's infinitely more approachable than that Jesus dude, who too often resembles Devendra Banhart. (Yuck.) In the same way you knew that your mother was usually a lighter touch than your father, you also suspected Mary was more accommodating than her emotionally distant, goody-two-shoes son. I mean, do you remember when Jesus went postal on those merchants in the temple? If he pulled that shit today, you can bet TMZ would have the footage on tape and it would be remixed to dance music like the Christian Bale rant. 

I always imagined the Virgin Mary to lie somewhere on the temperament spectrum between Barbara Billingsley and Betty White. She'd be the one to tell your father (God the Father, that is) how you fucked up big-time, but she'd soften the blow and deflect some of the force of the punishment with her maternal protectiveness. (It's interesting that this particular view of motherhood didn't exactly match up with what I experienced at home. My mother was far more fiery-tempered than my father and more apt to smack the living shit out of me. But I learned all that I really needed to know about the mythos of motherhood from television.)

One thing that honks me off about Protestants—and, yes, I realize that this is a huge generalization—is that they seem more passionately committed to their faith. All of that fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, rapturous sermonizing, evangelism, and religious assertiveness seems to come from the Protestant side of the church. Have you been to many Catholic masses? You'd almost swear the zombie convention was in town. A lot of people just stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, kneel and don't ever say a word. Sometimes they move their lips to a hymn or two, but they're about as convincing as Ashlee Simpson on SNL. Fortunately, Catholic churches often make use of a cantor who sings loudly and off-key into a microphone in the hopes of covering up the fact that nobody there seems to give a flying fuck about any of this.

You'll never see anything more Dawn of the Dead-like than a procession of psychologically weary Catholics trudging to the front of the church to cannibalize their Lord and Savior. Could the imagery be any more complete? Since so many of the devout tend to be elderly and physically impaired in some way, these flesh-eaters often hobble stiffly to the chow line, just like your garden-variety zombie. All we need are cheap prosthetics and some spirit gum and George Romero would be good to go.

I guess what I'm saying is that I am not a fan of enthusiastic or, worse, angry worship. The impenetrability of your average Catholic churchgoer will never upset your peaceful daydreaming about what you're having for lunch or what the woman two pews ahead looks like naked. You can go deep inside yourself with your thoughts, close the panic room doors—and you usually will remain undisturbed. There's something so distasteful about these Protestant shucksters with their undignified ravings. During Catholic mass, you can be like C-3PO in Star Wars when he says to Luke, 'Sir, if you will not be needing me, I'll close down for a while.' And then his eyes go dark. 

I would be all for Catholic ritual if it were somehow unattached to a religion. It would be fun in a Halloween sort of way to dress up in a long flowing robe like those statues pleure [i.e., memorial statues of cloaked weeping women, usually found at grave sites] and perform meaningless rituals in one of those imposing, intensely atmospheric European cathedrals like Notre-Dame de Paris. It wouldn't be all that much different from the innocent thrill you experienced that one week in your adolescence when you discovered the writings of Anton LaVey and wanted to paint your bedroom walls black and buy a human skull candle holder.

25 August 2012

the man on the street.

Okay, I know that trash-talking America politics is a lot like saying Mariah Carey's vagina could double as a bus shelter. It's just too obvious—so why bother? 

Plus, the longstanding American pastime of kvetching about politicians and blaming them for just about everything under the sun—excepting, of course, their occasional accomplishments—has the sour-milk stench of populism about it. I've never much cared for populism; the word itself conjures images of wandering mobs—their wifebeaters gone sepia with day-old sweat, their damp, bulging flanks commingling in fraternal intimacy, their voices bent into hard rural accents... (If my consciousness were a material object, I'd give it a once-over with an antibacterial wipe right about now.) 

Whenever a local newscaster draws the short straw and ends up with the unenviable assignment of speaking with the rabble about the state of American politics, Joe Average—like most of his political targets—usually trots out his set of shopworn talking points: indignant and toothless, he decries the partisan bickering, the pervasive ineffectualness, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the deceit, and—of course—the economy, the economy, the economy... 

And there is no discernible trace of irony in his voice. Is he really unaware that these same deficiencies he identifies in political culture (vague and formless as they are) are derived from the greater American society itself—which he and his Hatfield or McCoy relations, in part, comprise? Does the learned constituency really suppose that their political representatives are sprung headlong from the cranium of Zeus or delivered beneficently from some hazy Platonic wonderland in the sky? (Of course, because this is American and because many voters actually believe—in this, the twenty-first fucking century—that the force of their prayers will summon up a religious messiah in a navy blue suit with a flag lapel pin to save us from the throes of moral decadence, these hypotheses are certainly not beyond the pale.)

As you may have noticed, the herd has a similar attitude toward 'Hollywood'—and by 'Hollywood' I don't mean a specific zip code, but rather the machinery of celebrity and entertainment culture, wherever it may reside. They regard Hollywood—with its insidious liberal politics, its moral decay, its godlessness, its greed, its cynicism—as a mutation within the otherwise healthy social body. They don't properly diagnose Hollywood as the terminal case of a disease that has spread its contagion on Main Street, U.S.A., since ever there was such a place. Before that even, the religious men of Medieval Europe craved power, wealth, and fame with a hypocrisy that reality television stars of today couldn't imagine—because at the very least their ambitions are transparent, not cloaked in the higher ideals of religion.

What I'm claiming here—again, not without some measure of obviousness—is that when Americans look to Washington (or to Hollywood) for heroes or saviors, what they always find instead are funhouse-mirror versions of themselves. And usually they fail to see any connection. To protect their piety or their self-esteem, they manufacture a crude fiction that these politicians and celebrities are anomalies rather than apples fallen near to the tree. The quaint argument they proffer—although it does not properly deserve the name 'argument'—is a raised arm, gesturing toward their simple lives: their foreclosed houses, their double shifts at the factory, their churchgoing, their humble, dirty-faced families, their moral clarity. In some exceptional cases, these people would always be this way, regardless of temptation—but in many, many more they've only lacked the opportunity for the extravagant vices of their Washington and Hollywood cousins. In other words, you have these presidents and senators and representatives because this is who you are. To hope (realistically) for very much more is to embark upon the religious course. Maybe, in this light, we shouldn't be surprised that so many Americans attach all their hopes to god; they want politicians who are descended from the clouds and who have renounced the very motives that have brought them here.

22 August 2012

aaron spelling baked my madeleine.

Phyllis Diller died the other day. You probably met this news with either mild, passing interest or the question, 'Who?' Although Ms. Diller's career predated my birth by quite a few years, she's always been one of those low-grade or late-career celebrities who you thought would always be around, somewhere on the periphery of our cultural consciousness—no longer a marquee name or a tabloid fixture, to be sure, but an instantly recognizable relic from the pop culture scrapheap. 

So many high wattage celebrities who enjoyed their heyday earlier in the twentieth century slummed it on crappy television shows during the 1970s and 80s (when I was growing up). You'd almost suppose anthology series like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Hotel were conceived with the charitable intention of keeping B-listers and washed-ups like Ethel Merman, Charo, Carol Channing, and Wayne Newton off the dole and gainfully employed. How many lines of coke were snorted off Captain Steubing's table in the Pacific Princess's dining room between takes by Mariette Hartley and Ricky Nelson? We can only tally the kilos in our imaginations, I suppose, but the cultural residue of those decadent days still haunts me. The fond memory of Lauren Tewes wielding her clipboard recalls the lost securities of childhood—when I'd put on my pajamas, bask in the euphoric knowledge that I didn't have school the next day—The Love Boat was on Saturday nights for most of its run—and settle in for some hokey television featuring old celebrities on a ship. (Or on an island. Or in a hotel.) I didn't even know what a lot of these guest stars were famous for; to me, they were just famous for being on these dumb shows. Did Helen Hayes and Olivia de Havilland do something remarkable before they ordered a strawberry daiquiri at Isaac's well-tended bar? If so, it was news to me. 

Needless to say, Phyllis Diller was no stranger to The Love Boat herself. I can't say I remember her episode, but nothing seems more natural to me than Ms. Diller poolside in a feather-fringed robe cackling her inimitable cackle at some non-joke delivered by Fred Grandy. Just the thought of it transports me back to those far-off days when I was buffered from the cruel and unknown world both by my parents and by the sweet, irretrievable ignorance of childhood. 

Marcel Proust had his madeleines, and I have my bad television. His talisman was surely more poetic than mine, but we can't control what our memories attach themselves to. Sometimes it's the strangest, most inconsequential things—artifacts that we can't even trace back to their source.

When Phyllis Diller dies, time is glimpsed in motion. My childhood stands shoulder-to-shoulder with who I am now. Those overwhelming impressions of youth have shrunken or dissipated, leaving my adult self wandering through the haziest memories with only faint recognition. But I still remember what the security of a home feels like—fortified by those invincible guarantors, my parents... who have also grown old now. Sometimes I want to dig in my heels and hold time down, so it can't move anymore. I want to strongarm the forces of nature into keeping still—even for just a while. I don't want to give everything up. I don't want to be an orphan. I don't want to be an adult. I don't want to be the next in line.

Sometimes I have dreams that all of this is a game. This isn't really the way things are. We don't grow old or die or lose anything. We just haven't been told yet. We're just waiting for the punchline.

Those are some wonderful fuckin' dreams... while they last.

20 August 2012


My memory, as always, is sketchy, but I think in the very first episode of the television series Louie the eponymous protagonist has a disastrous first date with a woman who gets so bored and irritated that she actually flees Louie's company and takes off in a waiting helicopter. Louie is left behind sitting on a bench by the river as the commotion of the helicopter disappears on the horizon—a victim of one of the most emphatic and surreal rejections imaginable. 

I think this sequence epitomizes the patchwork appeal of the innovative series, which is an often uneasy blend of comedy, drama, and ridiculous flights of fancy. It is in fact this destabilization of genre that is perhaps the series' most jarring quality. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian who writes, directs, and acts in an ostensible comedy series which often willfully refuses to be funny. 

One of the most remarkable episodes of the series featured Parker Posey as a bookstore clerk whom Louie (after much preambling) asks out on a date. Much to Louie's surprise, this pretty, seemingly sane woman says yes—but the date which follows offers a glimpse both into the psychological chaos lurking beneath her staid appearance and into the real heart of New York City—not the caricatured Greenwich Village streets built on a studio lot in Southern California for an episode of Friends, but the strange, unpredictable, and often lonely streets of that imposing metropolis. 

Many of the hijinks in this date from hell wouldn't be out of place in, say, Scorsese's After Hours or early Jarmusch, but the last few minutes—obscure and mysterious as the human psyche—distinguish the episode from the standard-fare Adventures in Gotham schtick. 

The reason I'm talking about Louie is, first and foremost, because it's something different. Even if you end up hating it—and many will, primarily for its failure to follow the rules—you have to admit that it's trying something new. Sure, its ancestry can be traced back, dimly, to Seinfeld and other shows which gradually shook off the constraints of traditional narrative, but Louie isn't afraid to be gloomy or portentous from time to time either. The triviality and pettiness of life that Seinfeld deftly trafficked in aren't its only stomping grounds. Loneliness, failure, and death are other preoccupations—but Louie's isn't the glib, wholly cynical approach of Larry David (or at least it isn't always); it revels in the endless and irreducible difficulties of modern existence.

All of this isn't to say that Louie can't also be cheap, childish, and crass. That's the point—it can be absolutely anything. When Melissa Leo smashes Louie's head into a pickup truck window under (shall we say) curious circumstances, we know that we're not cozying up to a connect-the-dots sitcom. Actually, Louie is much more 'sit' than 'com,' so if you're accustomed to the straight-ahead approach of much of Louie's (admittedly very funny) stand-up material, I think you'll be surprised by this strange kaleidoscope of a television series. 

the last decision you'll ever make.

Tony Scott's suicide has given me a lot to think about. Not so much about Tony Scott—but about suicide. 

Because I'm currently taking two antidepressants, my doctor requires me to have biannual med checks. These are essentially worthless, profit-generating appointments, during which my vitals are checked and the doctor asks me some scripted questions, such as: 'Have you been having any thoughts of suicide?' To which I forcefully—perhaps too forcefully—reply, 'No!'

Methinks I doth protest too much. But I'm worried that if I offered up anything even resembling an affirmative response, a team of straitjacket-brandishing orderlies would be immediately summoned on an internal hotline—and I'd be wheeled to some windowless underground bunker only to be heavily sedated and then neutralized with military-grade cognitive 'therapy.' Clearly, I've seen too many movies.

Yes, I do think about suicide. Occasionally. When I was a teenager, I avidly fantasized—as I think many teenagers do—about the tragic scene that would play out when my cruel, authoritarian parents stumbled upon my dead body. Of course, before I lost consciousness, I would have smeared the blood from my wrists on the white drywall, spelling out the accusation: 'You did this!'  (Try to paint over that guilt, fascists!)

I'm happy to report that since my emotionally turbulent teenage years, my attitude toward suicide has become more measured. I no longer engage in such morbid Harold and Maude-style fantasies because I understand the world better now; I realize that I wouldn't in fact be there to enjoy my grisly tableau if I were dead and, more importantly perhaps, that the world would go on (however unthinkable that may seem) and the memory of my gruesome leave-taking would quickly fade into the foggy recesses of time. 

Harold and Maude.

When I think about suicide today, I don't think of it as something desirable or even relevant to me personally, but it still holds a grim fascination. I just find it incredibly odd that the very existence which enables the human will should (or even could) seek to nullify itself. It's something akin to a democratic vote to empower a totalitarian dictator. How can you use the rules of one paradigm to justify another (opposing) one? But then again, I suppose it's stupid to expect suicide to answer to reason.

My aunt—my mother's sister—committed suicide when I was very young. The memories I have of that time are so elusive that I can't really trust any of them—but I think her suicide was prompted by her husband's serial infidelities and his later prosecution for embezzling—although I'm not quite sure if I've crossed my wires somewhere with an episode of Hart to Hart. The point is that none of this is ever discussed in my family, and I would never feel comfortable asking about it. I feel that it's much too personal, and it's a memory that doesn't really belong to me. And I don't really want it to.

When I was young and still under the spell of Catholicism, I very much wanted to ask my mother if my aunt was in hell because she killed herself. According to the nuns, suicide was a mortal sin, but I wondered if there was some minor technicality in the rules I wasn't aware of. It seemed unfortunate that my aunt should spend an eternity writhing in agony amid the lapping, insatiable flames of the godless underworld merely because she had been inconsolably unhappy on earth. Thankfully, a rare childhood instinct for restraint prevented me from asking about it. 

In truth, I have as little chance of committing suicide as I do of parachuting out of an airplane—which is to say zero chance. Perhaps even negative chance. It just isn't how I deal with misery. Plus, I'm terrified of death, as any properly functioning human being should be, I think. Self-preservation is one of the strongest instincts in living beings of every order. If your self-preservation instinct happens to be on the blink, you should get yourself to a doctor or a clinical psychologist as soon as possible. 

But I still enjoy thinking about suicide from time to time. It isn't a full-fledged hobby or anything, but I can't help being interested in such a paradoxical human impulse. (Just don't tell my doctor, okay?)

tragic day.

As you may have heard, yesterday film director Tony Scott killed himself by jumping off a bridge in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, two sons, and an oeuvre of mostly bowel-churningly awful films. Sure, he didn't enjoy the (occasional) artistic credibility of his brother Ridley Scott, but if you had $95 million to burn on a runaway choo-choo train movie, then—by god—Tony was your man.

Ignoring much of his long, shitty filmography, most news sources are referring to Scott simply as 'the director of Top Gun,' a 1986 homoerotic naval aviation film starring Tom Cruise and some lesbian broad. (Yup, apparently, in a thirty-year directorial career that was as good as it got.) 

In response to the news of Scott's death, director Ron Howard tweeted: 'No more Tony Scott movies. Tragic day.' (Howard's sense of tragedy is in desperate need of recalibration.) No word yet on what Denzel Washington will be doing for the remainder of his life now. I was hoping for a 'Tony, how could you do this... to me?' tweet, but Denzel's probably already on the phone with Brett Ratner.

But I come here to bury Mr. Scott, not to roast him. He actually shat out a couple of great films in his time. (Okay, maybe not great—but the truth becomes a little malleable at times like these.) Remember True Romance starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette? Or, as you might know it better, the Tarantino film that Tarantino didn't direct? You could find worse ways to kill a few hours.

The career-justifying film of Scott's career (for me), however, was his directorial debut—the stylish, widely excoriated modern-day vampire film The Hunger, starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and Dan Hedaya (Nick Tortelli from Cheers). Where else could you turn for a lesbian sex scene occasioned by a stubborn sherry stain? There are also notable cameo appearances by Bauhaus, a topless Ann Magnuson, and Willem Dafoe (as a street tough, who delivers the line 'How 'bout it, lady?' with gusto). And let's not forget—no matter how hard we try—the rapidly-aging David Bowie, who goes from goth clubs to the geriatric ward in twenty minutes flat.

I've seen The Hunger more times than I care to admit. I think it might be one of the chilliest, most stylistically overdetermined films in cinematic history—and that's part of what's so great about it. You can't sit through the whole thing from start to finish without feeling like you're in some profound drug haze.

So if you, like Ron Howard, are trying to come to terms with tragedy today, I'd recommend you skip right over the distinctly less gothic Days of Thunder and park your grieving keister in front of The Hunger. It's a movie that will almost make you forget why you should jump off a bridge.

19 August 2012

obscene chewing readers poll.

Our opinions and our taste are two things that make us feel uniquely ourselves—even if willful individuality is something of an illusion and we are in fact biochemically-determined corpuscles within the universe. To this extent, I think it's a good thing when our best-of lists don't coincide with the average or the so-called authoritative opinion. After all, who wants to have the median opinion—or even the 'correct' opinion? It's more fun to fly into a rage at how clueless other people are and to inflict our own idiosyncratic views on the world. 

So far three blog readers have submitted their lists of the fifty best films or their fifty favorite films (or a hybrid thereof) in response to the 2012 Sight and Sound critics poll. I'm happy to share them here with you (in order of submission), and I invite opinionated lurkers out there—even the weird German Doris Day freaks—to submit their own lists to obscene.chewing@gmail.com. 

NamasteMuhfuh's List (unranked):

The 400 Blows (1959), Francois Truffaut.
 (1963), Federico Fellini.
A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick.
All About Eve (1950), Joseph Mankiewicz.
Angela (1995), Rebecca Miller.
Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Frank Capra.
Barton Fink (1991), Joel & Ethan Coen.
Before Sunrise (1995), Richard Linklater.
Blowup (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni.
Blue Velvet (1986), David Lynch.
Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Robert Wiene.
Caché (2005), Michael Haneke.
Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles.
The City of Lost Children (1995), Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro.
Cries and Whispers (1972), Ingmar Bergman.
Dressed to Kill (1980), Brian De Palma.
Duck Soup (1933), Leo McCarey.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Irvin Kershner.
Exotica (1994), Atom Egoyan.
Fall (1997), Eric Schaeffer.
Fargo (1996), Joel & Ethan Coen.
For All Mankind (1989), Al Reinert.
The Graduate (1967), Mike Nichols.
Happiness (1998), Todd Solondz.
Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino.
Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola.
Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Woody Allen.
Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier.
Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang.
Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch.
The Navigator  (1924), Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton.
Nosferatu (1922), F.W. Murnau.
Opening Night (1977), John Cassavetes.
Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman.
The Piano Teacher (2001), Michael Haneke.
Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Jean-Luc Godard.
The Pillow Book (1996), Peter Greenaway.
Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock.
Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino.
Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock.
The Silence (1963), Ingmar Bergman.
Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz Luhrmann.
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese.
The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), David Lynch.
Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Jean-Luc Godard.
The Wizard of Oz (1939), Victor Fleming.


The Empire Strikes Back.

Manhattan Murder Mystery.

The Pillow Book.

The Wizard of Oz.

Velocitor's List:

1. Ikiru (1952), Akira Kurosawa.
2. Rashomon (1950), Akira Kurosawa.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Lewis Milestone.
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick.
5. Onibaba (1964), Kaneto Shindo.
6. Casablanca (1942), Michael Curtiz.
7. The Deer Hunter (1978), Michael Cimino.
8. The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola.
9. Alexander Nevsky (1938), Sergei Eisenstein.
10. The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick.
11. Cinema Paradiso (1988), Guiseppe Tornatore. 
12. Throne of Blood (1957), Akira Kurosawa.
13. Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock.
14. Saturday Night Fever (1977), John Badham.
15. The Inner Circle (1991), Andrey Konchalovskiy.
16. The Maltese Falcon (1941), John Huston.
17. Christiane F. (1981), Uli Edel.
18. The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris.
19. Endgame (2007), Alex Jones.
20. Sword of Doom (1966), Kihachi Okamoto.
21. —missing from original list—
22. Stand and Deliver (1988), Ramón Menéndez.
23. Red Beard (1965), Akira Kurosawa.
24. Ivan the Terrible (1944), Sergei Eisenstein.
25. Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles.
26. Blow Out (1981), Brian De Palma.
27. Romeo + Juliet (1996), Baz Luhrmann. 
28. Saving Private Ryan (1998), Steven Spielberg.
29. The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola.
30. ...And God Created Woman (1956), Roger Vadim.
31. The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin.
32. Being John Malkovich (1999), Spike Jonze.
33. House of Bamboo (1955), Samuel Fuller.
34. Seeing Red (1983), Jim Klein & Julia Reichert.
35. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Blake Edwards.
36. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Ted Post.
37. Three Outlaw Samurai (1964), Hideo Gosha.
38. A Patch of Blue (1965), Guy Green.
39. Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky.
40. Star Wars (1977), George Lucas.
41. —unidentified pornographic film—
42. Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen.
43. Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino.
44. Das Boot (1981), Wolfgang Petersen.
45. The Matrix (1999), Andy & Larry Wachowski.
46. Splendor in the Grass (1961), Elia Kazan.
47. Hoosiers (1986), David Anspaugh.
48. Akira (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo.
49. Alien (1979), Ridley Scott.
50. Network (1976), Sidney Lumet.



All Quiet on the Western Front.

A Clockwork Orange.


Janice's List (1-5 ranked, others unranked):

1. The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed.
2. Lost Highway (1997), David Lynch.
3. Singin' in the Rain (1952), Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. 
4. Double Indemnity (1944), Billy Wilder.
5. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Woody Allen.
The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder.
Some Like It Hot (1959), Billy Wilder.
The Game (1997), David Fincher.
Se7en (1995), David Fincher.
House of Games (1987), David Mamet.
Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur.
Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen.
Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino.
Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 (2003, 2004), Quentin Tarantino.
Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Alfred Hitchcock.
Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock.
Gypsy (1962), Mervyn LeRoy.
Down by Law (1986), Jim Jarmusch.
Casablanca (1942), Michael Curtiz.
The Last Seduction (1994), John Dahl.
Dark Habits (1983), Pedro Almodóvar.
Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard.
Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang.
Auntie Mame (1958), Morton DaCosta.
The Doom Generation (1995), Gregg Araki.
Cabaret (1972), Bob Fosse.
Touch of Evil (1958), Orson Welles.
Buffalo '66 (1998), Vincent Gallo.
All About Eve (1950), Joseph Mankiewicz.
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Woody Allen.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), David Lynch.
The Exterminating Angel (1962), Luis Buñuel.
Blue Velvet (1986), David Lynch.
Memento (1999), Christopher Nolan.
Key Largo (1948), John Huston.
Blind Chance (1981), Krzysztof Kieślowski.
New York, New York (1977), Martin Scorsese.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Robert Aldrich.
Gloria (1980), John Cassavetes.
The Lady Eve (1941), Preston Sturges.
The Big Heat (1953), Fritz Lang.
In a Lonely Place (1950), Nicholas Ray.
Jawbreaker (1999), Darren Stein.
Wild Strawberries (1957), Ingmar Bergman.
The Way We Were (1973), Sydney Pollack.
Forbidden Games (1952), René Clément.
Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Pedro Almodóvar.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Vincente Minelli.

The Third Man.

Lost Highway.

Singin' in the Rain.

Double Indemnity.

The Apartment.