God, the Devil, and a Literary Agent Walk Into a Bar

After watching a Darren Aronofsky movie I often feel the need to scrub with a loofah, sit in the corner of the room holding my knees to my chest, weeping and rocking back and forth. Requiem for a Dream was one of those, and I came away from it feeling grateful for my ordinary, uneventful existence. (I mean, I’m not a hermit, but, you know.) My suburban drudgery notwithstanding, I find some guilty pleasure in the dark and the bleak. I like the show “Black Mirror” on Netflix, although some of the episodes are not so dark.

Recently, I saw Mother!, starring Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. I have to say I was prepared going in, having read about the symbolism and allegory. I approached it as a moral play, of sorts. The movie takes place all within the confines of the large, solitary house in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is the husband, with Lawrence as his young wife. A series of misadventures and tragedies befall the couple, and the house, all corollaries of creation, life, sin and much more. At times the imagery was pretty heavy-handed, like the blatant disregard the guests have for the couple’s home. Lawrence’s character is constantly being forced to retreat into her inner sanctum, which is nevertheless violated as well. Over and over again, the mistress is intruded upon, succumbing to bouts unidentified illness only to be remedied by drinking some mysterious sunshine-in-a-glass concoction.

Bardem’s character is not very attentive to his wife, instead turning his attention to his adoring public. His “writings” are cherished by passionate sycophants, who begin to “interpret” them and quickly break off into factions. Allegorical figures with names like “Philanderer” and “Bumbler” enter and leave, returning and reappearing as the scene spirals out of control into madness and chaos. Lawrence’s character is continually mistreated, all the while Bardem and his worshipful yet disturbingly misguided agent (played by Kristen Wiig) float in and out of view. Eventually, Lawrence’s mother earth figure will get her revenge. And it’s not pretty.

Many people hated this film. I think they might have been better prepared if they had read a few works beforehand: Genesis through Deuteronomy and Luke, Paradise Lost, Cosmos, The Divine Comedy, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. To be perfectly honest, I did fine only having read part of the Divine Comedy, and only part of Milton’s magnum opus. You should be okay.

In all seriousness, the film is entirely metaphorical. None of the scenes should be perceived as literal depictions of anything. What starts out as a seemingly innocent visit of passers-by quickly turns into a hideous bacchanal, then a catastrophic breakdown of civilization. The allegorical figures of the Zealot and the Defiler make their appearance. Many, many others soon follow. Chaos ensues, and it gets ugly soon after.

I like dark things. Dark chocolate. Dark beer. Dark roast coffee. And I like the darkness in Aronofsky’s works. I probably won’t watch this one again, however. Not that I didn’t like it. I have only seen Avatar once. Meanwhile, I’ll watch Die Hard anytime. Go figure.

Now to finish reading Frankenstein.



What You Find in the Garbage

A little over 25 years ago, I saw a movie called The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. Perhaps you’ve seen this film. In it, Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio talk host whose bravado and hubris come to a head when he makes an off-hand remark, as these personalities are wont to do, but his tirade inspires someone to go on a mass shooting rampage, killing many. One of those killed is the wife of Parry, played by Robin Williams.

To me, by way of the many times I have watched it – studying it, actually – the themes in Fisher King revolve around the simplicity of baser aspects of human nature, but intertwined with the unsightly, the lovely, the agonizing, and the superb qualities of the human condition. “The Fisher King” explores our callousness and compassion, our lack of mercy, and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we make alliances among most unlikely of people. Parry (Williams) is rendered destitute after the death of his wife, and leads a small army of the disenfranchised through the uncelebrated streets of Manhattan. Lucas (Bridges) also hits bottom, and finds a savior in Parry, who in turn needs saving from Lucas. Their symbiotic relationship makes each one stronger, allowing them to forgive themselves and each other.

Robin Williams at one time mentioned this was one of his best roles to perform. It’s difficult to nail that down, because he had so many great performances (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society). But he seemed to express some real admiration for this project during a brief and somewhat disappointing interview with one Jimmy Carter (the other one). Carter asks Williams about his role and about the themes in the film, or at least a single dimension of the film, not getting too deep (it was only seven minutes in length). It is cringe-worthy, especially when Carter insists on doing a “video greeting card”.

“The Fisher King” was directed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alum Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s other features include Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few. The style of Fisher King is typical of Gilliam’s other films, where we see a grittier, less sanitized world, making it look almost alien and unsuitable for human existence. Color is an important

Parry to the Recue
Parry (Williams) saves Jack (Bridges) from an attack.

part of the scenes. Red symbolizes the heart, complete with passion, agony, and love – romantic and otherwise; the Red Night, the cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter, the Chinese restaurant. The light in the Grand Central Waltz scene is both eery and magical. Figures glide in small circles, while Lydia (Plummer) sails amid the dancers, followed unbeknownst by Parry.

Dim Sum
Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia

The film is full of strange moments and a bit of insanity, mostly on the part of Parry, who is being pursued by his own demons, manifest in the form of the menacing Red Knight. At times, Parry seems to be in control, especially when Jack is with him. Other times, the knight chases Parry mercilessly. Eventually, Parry must face the demons from his past and attempt to make his way back from his own personal hell. Is he allowed to move on after the tragic death of his wife. Can he forgive Jack for his incendiary comments that may have led to the tragedy? Can Jack forgive himself? Redemption plays a big part in the relationship between the two men, and their relationships with Anne and Lydia, respectively. How do we count ourselves worthy for any love or kindness that comes our way? The answer to that question might be that we deserve nothing. We should never consider ourselves entitled to anything. Meanwhile, any gifts offered to us should be received with gratitude. We should not be above asking for help. And we should not debase ourselves with self-loathing, instead allowing others to come into our lives.

What I take from Fisher King mostly is that we are our own worst enemies. We beat ourselves up for offenses others would forgive. We deny ourselves joy and fulfillment. And we reject people who want to be with us, both out of longing and out of compassion and charity. At one point in the film, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) finally tells Jack how much she loves him. You can see the pain in her expression, probably because she knows he does not love her the same way. Parry is motivated by is erstwhile unrequited love of Lydia, and as soon as he confesses his long-time obsession, here comes the Red Knight. Tragedy and heartache seem to follow immediately after finally letting down their guard, exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but baring your soul is often the most painful thing you will do. Broken ankle: sure, that hurt. Oral dry socket: hellish. Revealing your inner self, this is the riskiest move you can make.

I find myself quoting Fisher King all the time with my wife. We’ve seen it so many times, we can and do recite dialog from memory. But more significantly, we find ourselves comparing the movie’s themes to our own situations or something we have seen or heard. It is for us one of the best films we’ve ever seen. Not everyone agrees, but even though Roger Ebert in 1991 gave Fisher King a negative review, he later reconsidered the merits of the film, shortly after Williams’ death in 2014. Robin Williams was in rare form for this movie, and he is sorely missed. His on-screen lunacy brought energy to what otherwise might have been a dull movie, Jeter’s Gypsy rendition notwithstanding.

If you have never seen “The Fisher King”, give yourself permission for the indulgence. The soundtrack is a nostalgic romp, and there’s this sense of the 80’s coming to a close, complete with land line phones and video rental stores. You will probably find yourself at least humming “How About You?” and shouting “yo, Lydia!” as a result.

As the four main characters are walking to dinner, Parry picks up something from a trash heap, and Jack attempts to correct Parry’s apparent habit. A moment later, Parry presents a delicately rendered tiny chair out of a champaign bottle cage, explaining to Lydia that you would be surprised what you find in the garbage. In other words, maybe something people thought was worthless is perhaps a treasure.



A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com


Back to the Drawing Board

I was walking through the parking lot to my car after work when I started daydreaming about all the people who had been there before me; earlier the same day, or perhaps a month or a year ago, meandering to their cars, stopping to check messages, and standing, talking to coworkers. Science fiction writers love to explore this “space” when they write about time travel. Michael Crichton, for one, tended to incorporate more science in his sci-fi than others, introducing the idea that while time travel is not possible, travel to other dimensions might be. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the notion of being able to journey to another time in the future or the past was first popularized. In his story, the Time Traveler was able to travel to a very distant future version of earth, while staying in the same geographical location. Aside from Doctor Who, most other time-travelling narratives stick to this point. And so, as I perambulated and wondered about the past lives that, if only on the same timeline, would have crossed my path, or bumped into me if I weren’t looking.

But while it’s proper to consider that time travel, if it were possible at all, would limit the voyage moving in time, it is not reasonable to assume the traveller would also change position, geographically. Or is it? As my daydream began to mutate (as they often do), it dawned on me that if I were to travel backward one year, I might end up somewhere else. You see, 365 days ago was not 19 September, but instead 20 September 2015. But ignoring the very predictable results of Daylight Savings changes in the Gregorian calendar, we must shift our attention to the fact that where you are, right now, in space is unknown.

The earth is currently orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 km/h, or about 30 km/s. Therefore, if you travelled instantaneously to 1 second in the future, and you didn’t change your location, you would be 30 kilometers away from your current position. You would have teleported on top of travelling in time. Also, consider that the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way, around 800 km/h. So, if you wanted to travel in time, but you didn’t want to move, you would have to predict where the earth would be at that time. Since the earth and the sun and the galaxy are all moving at the same time, this would require some awesome math. Now, considering that we are already in the possession of some awesome mathematical principles, created by some equally awesome mathematical geniuses, we could extrapolate and get a pretty accurate calculation of where you might end up. But it wouldn’t be perfect, and so you could still end up in the middle of a mountain or floating in space, but within tolerance (inside the orbit of most satellites.) This is assuming we have a good idea of what a fixed point in space looks like.

If you wanted to travel forward in time to 2150, you would need to know just where the earth and the sun would be at that time, that second. But assuming we could overcome this obstacle, there are other problems to consider, like exposure to pathogens that do not exist in our time, or the increase in pollution, or incomprehensible dialects. Naturally, not having nearly enough money to get around would pose a serious problem (someone from the late 1800’s would be absolutely shocked at the idea of spending $40 on a meal). No doubt, the increase in population and significant lack of privacy would be disturbing to our time traveller, not to mention being completely ignorant of 130 years of history. In the Back to the Future series of films, several characters move backward and forward through time with very little difficulty, aside from having to fuel the time machine, but it would most likely be traumatic.

Of course, time travel is not a reality, except for the slow, day-to-day type with which we are all familiar. That’s alright with me. Gradual change is much easier to accept. The changes we face now are quite dramatic enough, and most of us are barely able to keep up. History reveals that civilizations have embraced change, and then violently rejected it. Swings in public opinion seem to come back to their starting point after a generation or two, or a millennium. But before we presume we have come so far in our modern civilization, we should look at our current form of entertainment and make sure it is not worse than gladiators fighting to the death. It may look truly bizarre to future historians, our taste for pugilism might be horrifying, or charming, whichever the case may be.

I guess we’re fortunate that there are things that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Otherwise, we would have very little in the way of fantasy. Science fiction would be nonexistent, and our daydreams would be pretty dull.


While You Were Out

Not long ago, not as long ago as most people realize, we lived on a different planet. It looked very much like this one. The sky was blue. Seasons changed – winter, spring, summer, autumn. Children played. Well, you see. That’s where you might notice something. I realize I betray my age when I start a sentence with, “when I was a kid…” If you were born in the 1990’s you probably haven’t said this phrase much. But I’ll bet you have once or twice. I’ve been hearing my parents say it all my life, and they were young when I was born – in their early 20’s. You will notice you live on an alternate world when you look over your shoulder at the past two decades. That’s a good line of demarcation. I’m not sure that I noticed the world changing underneath my feet when I was 25. But here I sit exactly where my parents were when I knew I was an adult.

A few days ago I mentioned to someone that the film “Independence Day” came out in 1996. That someone replied, “that’s like 20 years ago!” We both just paused. It was weird to think about that much time passing. And how the world has changed since. Back in ’96 most Americans did not have a mobile phone. Shopping online involved a phone call. Netflix, Google, and Wikipedia had not been invented. There was no TSA, no iPod, no Twitter, Instagram, no Facebook or Myspace (yes, it’s still a thing) and no Youtube. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the world as we know it did not exist.

Facebook has only been around a little over 11 years. That’s hard to accept, since now it seems everyone and everything, including Easy Lunchboxes, has a Facebook presence. Nowadays, I would be surprised if a business or any enterprise didn’t have a Facebook page. Eleven years! Not bad, Zuckerberg (and you too, Saverin). It makes you wonder what the world will look like in another 11 years. We’ll all have to wait. You won’t notice it while it’s happening, the entire world being replaced beneath your feet.

When my brother and I were kids, we played outside most days. In Texas you can do this like 11 1/2 months out of the year, especially when you’re young. We played outside in the snow (yes, it snows) and in 40º C heat. These days, people seem to be allergic to weather. “It’s too hot!” Bullshit! We stood on the surface of the sun for sixteen hours a day all summer long. The people on this planet are, as we would say, pussies.

The world I knew is essentially gone, replaced with this softer, squishier one where everyone gets a participation medal. There are no winners or losers. And there is a continual dumbing-down of our citizenry going on here, and a very few individuals seem to have taken notice. No one reads the newspaper anymore. We get sound bites and talking heads and call it journalism. And it makes some of us want to scream obscenities on the nearest PA system, and I’ve got one, by the way. Oh, maybe I should start a podcast. (FUCK! Now I’m part of the problem!)

It’s okay, you know. The world my parents were born in was replaced in the 1960’s by something illustrated by Peter Max and accompanied by a performance piece by Yoko Ono. It’s no one’s fault, I see now. They just outgrew the planet they were occupying, so it was time to molt, shedding the skin of their post-WWII world and all it’s values, in exchange for this psychedelic, strawberry-scented, down-to-earth earth. Then they all grew up and we got the 80’s. I don’t know whether to thank the ‘boomer generation or accuse them. Or we’ll forgive them, perhaps.

So, here we are, well into the 21st century, and I’m confident we still don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going. I don’t know if my generation ever accomplished anything in the way generations have been credited with great achievements. My grandparents won the war, both abroad and at home. Their children fought for civil rights. What have we accomplished? Social media?

But prior to a few years ago, self-publishing was almost unheard of. Previous generations couldn’t get stuff delivered on a Sunday. No one could work from home, really. But now there is no separation between the two. “Work from home” is blurring the line between our personal lives and our work lives. And our new planet, the one we’re still calling “earth” is open all night. We’re all available at all hours. When someone texts me, I’m expected to reply immediately. In 1996 you could be “offline” and there were no consequences, unless you were an ER physician.

That world is gone. And so soon with this one be. Change is not only painful, it is also inevitable, a juggernaut, a freight train barreling straight toward us. If you try to resist it, you will be a proverbial bug on a windshield. And the juggernaut will continue, never feeling the slightest resistance. It’s nice to look back and recollect on those days when life seemed simpler. It’s funny to think of 1996 as the “good old days”, too. (Hell, in 1984 we were afraid of Communism more than terrorism. How times have changed!) So, the next time you are talking to someone who doesn’t recognize 80% of the cultural references you mention, thank them in advance for the great things their generation will achieve. Tell them how fortunate they are. And forgive them for being so lucky. They really have no idea how good they’ve got it.

A Trip to the Moon

I just watched Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune, produced in 1902, a year before Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight in Kitty Hawk, NC. The film was “rediscovered” in the late 1920’s, but only after much of Méliès’ work was destroyed. This silent movie is only 15 minutes in length, but considering what must have been required to film it, it is really outstanding.

It’s worth watching, and I’ve linked to the “colorized” version; an original print was hand-colored frame-by-frame. It’s funny to think about how people were thinking of space travel back during a time when homes were lit by candles, and people seldom traveled very far from the place where they were born.

Méliès acknowledged the works of Jules Verne as his inspiration, especially the 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. Just about 100 years later, NASA astronauts would be the first to see the far side of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. No one really knows about Apollo 8. Of course we know about Apollo 11, the moon landing, one small step and all that. But in 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders were the first people from earth to ever leave earth’s orbit. They established orbit around the moon, where the famous earthrise photo was taken on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968.

Earthrise – Apollo 8 mission

It’s easy for us in the 21st century to imagine that we will return to the moon or travel to Mars or beyond. But unless you were a dreamer of the magnitude of Jules Verne, you could not envision such a trip. We live in an age of wonder, and yet we are obsessed with trivial things, fashion, celebrity news, and the like. I am confident that within my lifetime, people will walk on Mars. I don’t know what will happen after that, but I know what can happen. I know that we could reach other planets in our solar system. I know that colonies could be established. I know that great ships could carry whole communities to the stars. We just have to get past a few obstacles. The fact that scientists overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles allows me to have this kind of optimism. It’s just a matter of time before someone figure it out.

When I look at the above photo, I think about what was happening on that little blue orb in December of 1968. The Vietnam War was becoming less popular in the US, Richard Nixon had been elected President of the United States a few weeks earlier, Led Zeppelin in the US, martial law in Brazil, and the Zodiac killer. Looking at the picture of our little planet, it’s easy to picture the events happening on it today: Syrian refugees streaming into Europe, ISIS, the Taliban, drug cartels, and the list goes on and on. Those three astronauts must have been thinking about their time as they circled another world which offered no life, just an inhospitable, barren and cold expanse. With all the world’s problems, it is still the only home we have, which is perhaps why the three men recited the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis, the creation story, while orbiting the moon.

The film is strange yet compelling. It reminds us how far we’ve come. The moon had been a mysterious place until about the time I was born, when humans began to realize they could go there. By the time I started school, NASA stopped sending rockets and astronauts. People lost interest. It became mundane. Imagine that!

I hope we return. I hope we keep traveling farther out. I can’t imagine it will be a waste of time or effort. Where else are we supposed to get our heroes from? Sports?