Saturday, April 20, 2013

Equus

A child is born into a world of phenomena, all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole, uncountable range. Suddenly, one strikes. Then another. Then another. Why? Moments snap together, like magnets forging a chain of shackles. Why?” -- Equus (1977) United Artists


Equus is art that manages to be about violence without adding to the culture of violence.  Neither the Peter Shaffer play nor the 1977 film adaptation by Sidney Lumet are likely to provoke copycats to act out the violence that is the subject of their art.  Alan Strang, the boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike, doesn't inspire admiration or contempt, only pity.  His cruel attack on demigods of his own creation is a desperate act, performed in the midst of despair and excruciating mental pain.

Alan Strang's parents are unable to explain their son's madness and they're not willing to shoulder any responsibility for Strang.  While Shaffer hints at the roles Strang's mother's religiosity and repressed sexuality and his father's hypocrisy may have played in Alan's descent into a secret world, ruled by improbable gods, ultimately, Shaffer lets the parents and society off the hook.  The connections are just too complex.



Self-flagellation.  Equus (1977)  United Artists  Peter Firth as Alan Strang

One of the reasons Equus works is that it grounds itself in antiquity and refers to fundamentally important things like the struggle between reason and emotion, the Appollonian versus the Dyonesian in culture. The role of psychiatry in Shaffer's Equus is to civilize the child, to bend the individual's will, even his grasp of reality, to the demands of society, even if the unique and creative individual is destroyed in the process.

Equus distances us from the violence it portrays by beginning and ending with: "Why?"

As a play, Equus naturally involves the viewer as spectator more than participant.  And, being a British play by a British playwright, it lacks the cultural references to the Westward Expansion that are so readily available to American artists. But even the film version by American director Sidney Lumet, though it occasionally adopts a subjective point of view and graphically depicts the blinding of the horses, manages balance.  It doesn't just dramatize the struggle between nature and civilization  -- between what Levi-Strauss called the raw and the cooked -- it honestly wrestles with the dilemma and achieves, if not a solution, at least a resolution to the conflict between freedom and conformity.  It wraps the action of the film up in literate and reasonable discourse about a difficult subject.  For better or for worse, it is a cerebral film.  And it's an honest one, because the author doesn't pretend to answer the unanswerable.  He -- and we -- must settle for stasis -- as painful as that may be.




Richard Burton as Martin Dysart  Equus (1977)  United Artists

Ultimately, of course, it is not Alan Strang but Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist appointed by a British court to ease Alan's pain -- and the one person in the film who has a moral dilemma -- who ends up in chains.

Account for me, Equus demands.

Dysart can no more account for Equus than I can rule out the possibility that some word of mine, some thought, floating loose in the blogosphere where everything is connected to everything else, will forge the last link in a lethal chain some sad day.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's A New World

I woke up this morning in a new world.

Last night, I learned Michigan used to be on the equator. It was completely covered by warm, salt water just 350 million years ago. My attitude toward the Great Lakes and the little town I live in changed overnight.

I live where a great ocean used to be.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shamananana Nanananana

Winter lasts longer on this side of the lake. At least it seems to. And we've been traveling in the ice and snow more this year than we usually do. If I had a ceremony or an incantation that would end the winter now, I'd use it. If I were a shaman, I'd construct a complicated mechanism, a string of batteries maybe, to jump start the sun.

My father died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four beautiful women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.

When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath. We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.

I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.

For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place. And he was a very ordinary man.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Cyborg

We resolve conflicts between opposites like good and evil by reconciling them within the fabric of myths. For me, the struggle of human against the not so human, which has been the subject of myth since Homer, comes closest to being resolved in the myth of The Cyborg, a creation that is part human and part machine.  The Cyborg re-unites humans with characteristics we projected onto the world of machines and set ourselves in opposition to around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Machines are cold, dead and hard, but living human beings are warm and, compared to machines, very soft. The fragility of human beings is revealed in war, murders, car wrecks and plane crashes, the art of Schwarzkogler, Burden and Mark Pauline, the reproductions of Andy Warhol, and the films of motion picture directors whose forte is the action sequence, and, piling action sequence upon action sequence and genre upon genre, the Action Adventure Science Fiction Fantasy film.

The struggle of humans against machines, as it has played out in our best films, has two main variations. In the first variation, machines are evil. In the second variation, machines are just dangerous and it's the "mad scientists" who create or use them who are evil or insane. Machines have a potential for evil, but they usually include a built-in safety mechanism to protect people -- the first law of Robotics is not to harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm -- but, of course, the safety mechanism doesn't always work. Forbidden Planet (1956) is an especially bleak rendering of the mad scientist myth. After thousands of years of rationality, with the assistance of a machine to end all machines, the Krell are destroyed by monsters from the id. Morbius, in his pursuit of the knowledge and power of the Krell, is transformed into a monster who, subconsiously, seeks to destroy anyone who opposes him.  In masterful renditions of the myth like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both the evil machine and the mad scientist versions of the struggle between human and machine resonate at once. Dangerous men are caught up in dangerous machines. We can see the Strategic Air Command as a machine out of control, we can see it as a machine in the hands of a mad general, or we can see SAC as a cog in the menacing machine we used to call the Cold War, a concept that comes close to what the Hindus mean by karma. A clockwork.

Until the Eighties, most Science Fiction films, and in particular the ones in which the machine is a robot, cyborg, or some combination of human and machine, favored the evil machine story and reflected the ambivalence and caution toward machines that had informed the Science Fiction film since Fritz Lang created the evil robot, Maria (the original material girl) in Metropolis (1926).  These films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969),  Westworld (1973), The Demon Seed (1977), Alien (1979), and, finally, James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Terminator (1984), the genre's last solid rendition of a truly evil machine. The machine in T1, like Skynet, the Artificial Intelligence that created it, is bad to its alloy bone.

The separation of humans from machines in popular culture began to close in the 1980’s. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), more physical damage is sustained by replicants than by people, the replicants have pitifully short life spans, and, in fact, all of the women in the film are replicants.  Scott's film stands Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on its head. Dicks’ novel is about a bounty hunter who is so human he is capable of empathizing with the ruthless machines he hunts down and destroys. That capacity almost destroys him. Fourteen years later, in Blade Runner, the machines are more human and compassionate than the humans. It's the machines who recite poetry and philosophy and who have "seen things you people wouldn't believe," and it's pain that keeps Roy Baty alive long enough to redeem the bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.  In Robocop (1987) the human, torn down and reconstructed with machine parts replacing limbs and organs, sustains massive injuries in his first encounter with a killer robot. And, in Cameron and Hurd's Aliens (1986), their sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the robot or "artificial person" is ripped in half by WATCH OUT! A XENOMORPH! Cameron and Hurd's word for a non-human life form. The humans and the machines are on the same side, and, at the film's climax, it is the badly damaged "artificial person" -- his legless torso resembling a broken, plastic doll -- who saves the human child from being sucked into space.

By the time Cameron and Hurd released the sequel to their first Terminator film, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), the chasm separating people and machines was gone. T2, like The Terminator, is set within the context of an apocalyptic war between humans and machines that follows a 1997 nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The nuclear war begins when Skynet, the U.S.A.'s computer-based defense system, achieves self-awareness and attacks the Russians, hoping the human race will be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. In this, both films are consistent with each other, and with Dr. Strangelove, Colossus: The Forbin Project and other films of the Cold War era.  And Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Terminator have the same basic plot. Skynet sends a Terminator from the future to kill Sarah Connor or her son John before John can be born, grow up, and lead the humans in their war against the machines. In both films, the humans send a warrior back through time to protect John and his mother. It is at this point that T1 and T2 diverge. In The Terminator, the protector is a human being, and the Terminator is a machine. In T2, the protector is a machine, and the Terminator is neither human nor machine. He is something else.

T2 is a brilliant rendition of the mad scientist myth.  Three heroes, John Connor, his mom, and John's cyborg protector, hustle to stop the mad scientist before he can invent the basic technology that leads to Skynet. To stay alive, they have to stay out of the clutches of a new kind of Terminator who, though Cameron and Hurd call him a machine, is depicted, especially in his grotesque death throes, as essentially organic or worse. Unlike the Terminator in T1, who is a machine disguised as a man, the Terminator in T2 is an organic whole, not an assemblage of parts, and, although it's possible to read "machine" into his strength, agility and relentless focus, when he's consigned to a caldron of molten steel at the climax of the film, he shape shifts, writhes and bellows in agony like a monstrous animal or demon.

T2 is remarkably misanthropic and predictably iconoclastic in its assault on the usual people and institutions, including Ma Bell, bank machines, cops, bikers, foster parents and the city of Los Angeles, which is flattened by a hydrogen bomb. But T2’s rendition of the cyborg who is sent back through time to protect John Connor is heroic. And, just in case we can't follow the sub-text, T2 spells it out for us in a voice-over by Sarah Connor. Watching the cyborg and her kid, Sarah says: "Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."

In the film's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the cauldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron and Hurd use a series of close-ups to create a beautiful portrait of The Cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.



But there is more.  In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron and Gayle Anne Hurd gave us our first glimpse of a new, still unformed technology that might replace the machine as the not-us adversary upon which we project our worst fears. Having united human and machine through the myth of The Cyborg, having accepted the machine model of human intelligence and anatomy to the extent that we understood ourselves better as machines than as animals, having realized that we are evolving, not into angels but into machines, we have joined with The Cyborg to face the uncertain, and, because our paranoia stays one step ahead of us, always dangerous natural and supernatural worlds. The myth of the evil machine is dead. We are ready to confront, in myth and in art, the potential of bioengineering and of our own over-heated subconscious minds.



Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unit D

My daughter was home today, complaining about having to get out of bed because the maid was coming. The maid's a woman from Brazil. Her husband's a divinity student at the Adventist college in a little town down the road. He helps her clean the house now and then, making her a maid service or cleaning service I guess, which is what we called our maid in Brooklyn, even though she was just a woman from Guatemala who brought her daughter with her sometimes and showed her maid tricks like storing the garbage bags in the bottom of the garbage can. The word maid was a problem in Brooklyn because my wife was ashamed that a woman was cleaning our house. There were programs on NPR about that in those days. Ways to get by without a maid. We lived with the guilt. Now I don't feel guilty about having a maid, just uneasy about being able to afford a maid when so many people are out of work sometimes, but never when I'm picking up the house before she comes, because I know that without the Friday pick up and the maid we'd slowly sink beneath a rising sea of kipple. When the house is picked up enough for her to start cleaning it, I get out of her way.

This morning I took the kid to Big Boy for breakfast. On the way, she told me if she had been born in the old days we would still be in New York where her name was written in the book. People couldn't move around back then she said, couldn't leave New York the way we did right after 9/11, a move we'd planned to make to the Midwest, made easier by the dust in the air and the smell like a burned out motor or lamp and the scorched pieces of paper that floated into the courtyard of our co-op the day after the towers fell down. That was the day I got back to Brooklyn, drove all night in a rented car, came in across Staten Island with the heavy trucks, ambulances, and military vehicles of all kinds, everything but tanks. The tanks were just in my mind. But I heard the helicopters when the rental threw a rod a couple of blocks from my apartment and I parked it in front of a corner grocery and walked the rest of the way home.

If it had been the old days, we'd have stayed in New York instead of laying in a supply of Cipro and Amoxicillin and flying out to the Midwest, and I never would have put that guy's eye out at the dump. It was about the time Saddam's sons, Uday and the other one, were killed, gunned down or blown up, and right after I took the wood from the kitchen cabinets we tore out to make room for the new refrigerator down to the dump. Right before that, the night before or maybe the night before that I dreamed I was trapped in the basement and the house was on fire, and I was yelling at my wife to throw the .357 magnum through the narrow basement window so I could blow my fucking brains out to keep from burning alive, the kind of dream that stays with you all day. And right after that dream I took the wood to the dump. Long pieces of wood with nails sticking out that I tried to hammer down, but they kept bending and sliding under the hammer and I couldn't get them all out or bent down flat, and I had to be careful not to jam one into my hand when I was loading the wood into the back of my truck. When I got to the dump, the attendant helped me pull the wood out of the back of the truck and throw it over the side of the walk-in dumpster. And when we were almost finished a guy came out of the dumpster, holding his head and saying what the fuck were we doing, and the attendant told him he wasn't supposed to be going inside the dumpster like that. You're lucky you didn't get killed the attendant told him. I could see the guy had a cut next to his eye, and he was sticking his finger through a hole in his baseball cap and saying you ruined my fucking cap. Then he went over and got in his car and his wife was looking at his eye, and I backed out and drove off, thinking they were probably writing down my license plate number, or maybe they would come back to the dump every Saturday and try to find me. But I was thinking maybe he wouldn't have much of a case, even if he lost that eye, because he probably shouldn't have been in the dumpster. But just to make sure, I called a lawyer so he could set my mind at ease. They say when you leave a place you get a unique perspective on it, see things the people who stay behind don't see. All I get is homesick now and then.

At Big Boy, we ended up in a booth next to some kind of old timers' breakfast club, four guys from the local VFW, talking about draft dodgers in the Seventies and a local doctor who did a tour on a medevac plane, flying critically hurt GIs from Iraq to Germany, the kind of old men and the kind of conversation makes you want to say if I get that way please put a bullet in my brain pan. But just to show you how confusing free association can get, I sat there thinking all at once about four or five things, all jumbled up, that I have to put down in some linear way here, because the narrative won't let me tell it all at once. The VFW has to let you use their big, portable barbeque pits if you're a veteran. You just reserve the pit. Tow it home with your truck. Leon told me that at Leon's World Famous Barbeque in Galveston while I waited for my take-out ribs, reading the menu on the wall, reading cold yard bird, a phrase my wife picked off the menu and put in a poem, you cold yard birds, I know the names of poets in high places, while Carmen, whose craziness landed me in the Army, waited for her order, standing alongside me at the counter, wondering who I was. I made the mistake of going to see her at Unit D, you don't even have to explain to anybody what a place called Unit D is about, after she slashed her wrists, and the cops, doing me a favor, figuring me, an officer of a local bank, for a respectable guy who happened, unwittingly, to be mixed up with the criminally insane, took me down to the station and showed me her rap sheet. How were they to know that inside that thick file was where I longed to be?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Time Machine (The Ice Is Breaking Up)

In 1926, the Russian film maker, Vsevolod Pudovkin, created one of film's most famous metaphors by cutting back and forth between images of the ice in a frozen river breaking up and workers storming a prison. The montage starts with the ice-clogged river, cuts to marching workers, back to the river, beginning to flow, marching workers reflected in the water, the water and broken ice cascading down river.

I wonder what a modern day Pudovkin would juxtapose with the river thawing and slowly turning into a torrent of water to create a metaphor for the financial system thawing out. Start with the Spring thaw maybe. Water dripping from the trees. I got a phone call from the bank that holds the mortgage on my house the other day, offering me a line of credit. Cut to a rivulet of water flowing downhill into a stream. Today, the bank offered to refinance my mortgage for free and give me a half-point discount if I open an account and let them deduct my monthly payments automatically. Cut to mail going into mail boxes, people calling the bank, kids trying on new shoes.

I can't wait for the part where the ACDs at the banks start to light up and we get to film those flashing lights on the computer consoles and data flying across the CRTs, images that took the place of tapes spinning back and forth to show those big computers working.  Money piling up in corporate accounts.

The hyenas have started buying "distressed" properties in Detroit, Florida and New Jersey. Cut to those jagged black cracks streaking across the ice.  Millions of people drowning in the cold water.  Bodies swept out to sea.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Power Failure

The power went out in our neighborhood late this afternoon. Still light enough with the shades up to search for candles and the kerosene lamp that was our main source of light during hurricanes when I was growing up. I don't know how I ended up with the lamp. I think I dug it out of my mother's attic when I got back from Germany and moved into the upstairs of an old house in Galveston's historical district with a friend from Seattle. We had some statues and some big scheffleras that looked good in the lamplight. A grey kitten that attacked our feet when we were sleeping. Bach on a reel to reel tape deck I blew my first paycheck from ANICO on. And a big staircase down to the front porch that had a way of ending halfway down, like something had pushed it in against the wall, so I couldn't get out of the house. I slept in a room off that staircase, and later, after I was married and my son was born and we had spent some time in Arkansas making films, when we moved back to Galveston, we rented that same upstairs apartment and my son slept in that room. The ceiling of his closet fell in one night.

This afternoon, I found the lamp oil right off, but it was almost dark by the time I found the lamp and the glass chimney, and some of the time I was looking with a flashlight, its narrow beam highlighting the TV, some books, the top shelf of a closet, and, finally, the kerosene lamp. I showed my daughter how to fill it, trim the wick, light it and adjust the flame, then how to put the chimney on. The lamp oil burns with a whiter flame than the kerosene did, and it has a different smell, but the light is still soft.

When my wife got home, we went out to dinner. For some reason, during dinner and on the way home tonight, the three of us were exceptionally gay.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Unity

Sitting in my wife's car in the garage tonight, lights on, windshield wipers going, it's easy to see how people get depressed. I'm just back from the store, and had to maneuver past my old 4-Runner to get into the one-car garage. I left the truck's lights on when we came back from the PTO pancake breakfast this morning. Thai soup for lunch. I made the soup last night because I went down to the faculty practice at Northwestern by myself Wednesday, and my wife and daughter missed out on lunch at a good Thai restaurant. I had a glass of champagne at lunch today. An ounce of cognac in the champagne. The same grape. And I fell asleep reading Nial Ferguson's The Ascent Of Money. When I woke up, I knew I'd left the lights on and I knew the battery would be dead when I went outside and tried to start the truck.

This is the first winter we've had a one-car garage. We park my wife's VW in the garage and leave the Toyota in the driveway, close to the furnace exhaust where it's a little warmer. The battery is probably finished. I'll jump it in the morning and drive the truck tomorrow, but I'm not hopeful the battery will hold its charge. Getting my daughter to school Monday may be a hassle, I'm thinking, sitting in the warm car, staring at the odds and ends stacked on the shelf at the end of the garage, above the bicycles and the snow-blower. A yellow sprayer I used to spray nematodes on the grubs infesting my yard back in Wisconsin in a futile attempt to avoid chemicals. The "for sale" sign from the lot we bought down by the beach here in Michigan last summer with the address and the outline of the lot on it. When we bought the lot, down near the water where a Jack Nicklaus golf course is under construction, I distinctly remember saying "how can we lose?"

I grew old reading John Updike's books. I read Rabbit, Run the first time in a reading room at the Student Union of the University of Texas in 1960. I think I puzzled over the punctuation of the title for an hour before I started reading the book. Updike is a little older than me, but close enough in age for us to have seen and done some of the same things at the same time. It was Updike's genius to take his time with Harry Angstrom, to let him live, taking him up every ten years or so when the world had changed enough for new things to be important. Updike saw the end of Detroit coming. And he knew it would not be the foreign cars that undid us, but the easy money, the fast deals and cooked books. If I never quite believed Rabbit was real, I always understood him. I could relate to him as he got older and richer, then poorer and, finally, died.

The jump start worked. The battery held its charge. Fat Boy, my 1993 Toyota 4-Runner, is parked in my driveway, charged up and ready to go, icicles hanging from his shiny grill like frozen snot.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Wolf Of Winter

A long time ago, I told my son, I think he was in the first grade then, that Kenneth Patchen's The Wolf Of Winter was about the winter cold killing poor people. I doubt we got into nice distinctions between body and spirit or into the idea that there is a pessimism born of winter that afflicts boys who grow up in the South. A winter depression that settles into your bones and makes it hard to move.

Economic hard times are bound to hit people in the North, in the big frozen cities, harder than they hit people in the South. Finding a way to stay warm, a place to sleep, has to be tough. In Seattle, they open up the public buildings at night and the homeless sleep in the halls. For the poor, winter is hard. During a depression, it's going to be deadly.

The first panhandler of the winter turned up on our street yesterday. It was recycling day, and, in retrospect, I imagine she was working the snow-covered sidewalk for bottles and saw me dragging my little green tub of bottles and cans to the curb.

Her story was one I'd heard before. Just moved into the neighborhood. Family in trouble somewhere. Gas money to get to them. Pay me back in a couple of days. God bless me. Can she give me a hug? We settle for shaking hands.

I've never turned a panhandler down. It's a deep superstition of some kind. The way I buy off the bad luck that stalks me, just out of sight. Like a wolf.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Was Born Too Soon













A new female condom is coming on the market.

The FC2 Female Condom is made with a soft material for quieter use. Its original version failed to gain a foothold in the U.S. marketplace because it was too noisy to use, as well as too expensive.

Too noisy? Hell, why not make them even noiser, but with better sounds?

How about the Flight Of The Valkyries? Or something wet and squishy, like rubber boots slogging through the mud of a rice paddy?