Monthly Archives: April 2009

Poem and identity crises

Inspired by an urban legend I learned about here last night, I wrote this poem while watching The Seven Samurai tonight:

He slinks along the tender ground
His long nails make a scraping sound
He lost his legs while fleeing the law
Now they’re stitched-up stumps all bloody and raw
The other day a throat was slit
The wound was filled with pus and spit
His beard is thick and dirty and white
He coughs and cackles in the crisp, cold night
So if you hear some scratching and you think it’s just a tree
He’s probably out there, coming for you, just like he came for me.

Other than that, I’ve had some thoughts gradually congealing in the corridors of my brain. Oh, what to write about – I was considering briefly identity. And… well, it’s getting fuzzy now but something about this question of, Is your identity really important? And I know the obvious answer is Yes, but I wanted to ponder this – what is identity, after all? Is identity a bunch of adjectives you can throw down to make yourself feel defined, so that who-you-are isn’t so up in the air? As I suspected, Erik Erikson postulated that “identity vs. role confusion,” in other words the identity crisis, was the 5th stage of human development – the one that we, as college-age folk, should be just coming out of. So our identities should be fairly set in stone by now; we should know who we are. But… well, for one thing, I always like for everything to be mutable. Part of my “identity,” or so I’ve seen it for several years, is my open-minded, my willingness to change or adapt to new information and situations. So although my ideas and beliefs have altered significantly, even since I left high school, that mutability (isn’t there a poem called that?) has remained constant. (Apparently there is, and it’s Wordsworth.)

So what am I getting at? Are personality and identity related or similar? What the hell is your identity? Is it entirely determined by self-identification – can someone identify, for example, as white or black regardless of their actual skin color, and what about disavowing race entirely as an aspect of identity? What if I dismissed my whiteness and declared myself nonracial? Consider ID cards. I just found out that ID means “identity document.” I had no idea what the D stood for, and if I’m alone in that, I’m going to feel really stupid. But the point is, these documents of identity are an attempt to uniquely identify one (1) human being (I always like following spelled-out numbers with numerals; I learned it from board game inventories. Seriously: “This set should contain one (1) die, sixty (60) cards…” I don’t know why they thought that people who couldn’t read the words would understand the numeral instead. But it’s a fun habit to get into. I was thinking about the word numeral today. I don’t know if I’ve ever directly thought about that word itself. I guess I just didn’t entirely realize that the symbols for numbers, 1 2 3 and so on, had a specific name, even though of course I’ve always known it. Life and language are strange.) – anyway, ID cards are governmental, bureaucratic attempts to uniquely identify a single person. You are who and what your ID card says. You think you’re a woman? Fuck you, the U.S. (or wherever) government says you’re a man. It’s supposedly objective, because it’s printed right there and it also determines how police and courts and government offices and everybody else reacts to you. A single fucking little plastic card does this. It says I’m 19. I can buy tobacco but not alcohol. I’m M. Therefore – according to our national standard of a binary gender system – not F. (Is there an “O” for other available? I feel like somebody’s already changed this.) So I can marry a woman but not a man. I’m an organ donor. I’m not 100% sure what that determines, but when I checked the box I assumed it’d mean that if I died, they’d take my guts out and give them to people who had more use for them. And my eyes, too. Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock intended to make a film about an eye transplant recipient (played by Jimmy Stewart) who learns that the man his eyes originally belonged to was murdered, and that with his eyes, he can identify the murderer? It would’ve been called The Blind Man and was to be made after Psycho. Alas, some things are not to be. I have in the past dreamed that maybe in heaven, we have access to all of the world’s greatest unproduced film projects. Also, in heaven, everything is fine. In heaven, everything is fine. In heaven, everything is fine. You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine. (Note: if you click on that link, be warned. Just… be warned.)

Is identity objective or entirely self-determined? Is it possible for someone to take away an aspect of your identity? And after all, let’s say the U.S. government says, “No, dammit, you fit in a fucking box, check M or F!” (Although the personified government would never say “fucking” or it’d have to fine itself.) Well, so what? So they make you check a box in order to get a driver’s license. Yeah, it’s bullshit. But does that mean you’re gender really is whatever you checked? And granted, this example may not be the same, but people get fraudulent library cards all the time. It’s easy, at least in Hennepin County, MN (the one Minneapolis is in): all you do is go to this website, fill out the form, click a few times, and your new library card is on its way, whether or not that’s actually your name, email address, or date of birth. I don’t know if it’s considered a crime to defraud the library (and if it is, it’s a pretty nerdy crime), but it’s damn easy to do and there really aren’t any safeguards against it. So what’s been the point of this little Anarchist Cookbook-esque lesson? You can easily convince the government that you’re someone who you’re actually not. Maybe, in this case, just for the purpose of checking out materials, but that’s something.

For my part, I think ID cards in general are stupid and I don’t like having them. I feel like each additional card I bear is another tug by Big Brother on the rope around my neck. Another stone in my pocket as I wade into the river of totalitarian bureaucracy. Another brick in the wall. You get the idea. I have a state of Minnesota driver’s license, I have a Carleton College OneCard, I have a Social Security Card somewhere, if not in my pocket. Fuck, where is that, anyway? But that’s my point. I’ve got a 9 digit number in my head and on a flimsy, flammable, easily destroyed little paper card that my mother signed, presumably upon my residency in the United States, which apparently is all that stands between whether or not scam artists get every cent I own and ruin my credit. (It’s a waste of time, guys. I’ve got like $30 total. As for my credit? Fuck my credit. Ruin away.) So I’ve got a little hypothetical (for now) question that I’ve posed before and would like to pose again: what if you were to take your driver’s license, Social Security Card, and all other forms of ID, photo or otherwise, and make a little bonfire? And, say, your insurance information, too. Any and all papers you owned to prove who you were. Up in flames. Hypothetically. What would happen? Could you reclaim your identity? Let’s say you go to some government bureau. Whatever it is that’s located in Ridgedale Center and gets all my official papers taken care of. That place. What do they ask for? “Can I have your old license, please?” I mean, people lose their licenses all the time, right? But we’re on record, aren’t we? They’ve got pictures of us to uniquely identify who we are. Of course, appearance is anything but uniquely identifying; everyone has an identical twin somewhere on this earth. No one looks unique. Not even you. Not even me. There are only so many possible permutations of the human face, and I think 6 billion exhausts just about all of them. (Granted, all this is purely speculative. I have no fucking clue what I’m talking about.)

I like to believe that once I go for it, once I burn those contaminated papers the government’s given me all to hell, then I will be free at last. (Lord almighty, free at last.) Is this an unlikely fantasy? Yeah, probably. If it was so easily attainable, I’m sure civil liberties groups would long ago have said to burn all your shit and take away all the government’s power. My point is, I guess, that ID cards fall under the category of necessary evils, except I don’t necessarily believe they’re necessary. Besides, I don’t want to drive. I don’t want to buy. I never ever fucking ever want a credit card. I’ve got so far without; hopefully this trend will continue, as it must – I visualize signing the form to get a credit card as tantamount to signing a blank check over to Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistopheles all at once… in blood. That’s how much against getting a credit card I am. Fuck. That. Bullshit. But I’m already pretty hateful toward the bank card I have. I refuse to acknowledge that Wells Fargo owns my soul. I will fight it till the day I die. Last I checked, my bank account contained approximately .44 cents (as Ashley pointed out recently, why is there no “cent” key on the keyboard? We have the fucking “at” sign, but no “cent”? Really?); also, I’ve got my plasma card, but, well, that’s not a bank. It’s a plasma center. And that’s just fucking awesome. Will I ever find a better job than lying back and reading while my blood is sucked out and poured back in? Library reserves desk comes damn close, I’ll give it that. So does quiz bowl moderator, in fact. Holy shit, in these past couple years, I’ve hit the employment jackpot. Oh, speaking of employment: tax bullshit. I feel like my antipathy towards all of this is going to lead me to disregard filling out my 1040s or I9s or whatever it is I need for next year. And then the always sour-faced IRS men are going to send me angry letters demanding that I put my drop in the bucket of government funds, and I’m going to say it’s fascism, and that just like Thoreau I refuse to pay my taxes, because I oppose the Mexican-American War, and they’re going to fuck over my life, and it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s past 2 am. I meant to be in bed an hour or two ago. I’ve got homework yet to finish and must be in class 8 hours from now. Fuck. I never did eat any ramen. I’m a little hungry. Why am I burdening you with all these personal details? Because I’ve come to the end of my rope, the end of this blog, and I wish you pleasant nightmares.

"In heaven..." - Eraserhead (1977)

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Gazing into the frantic melange

Where to start? Where to start ever? It’s all cyclical anyway. “a last a loved a long the… riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” and so on. Today I had one of those moments of enlightenment where I saw the world as being chaotic, jumbled, confusing, and incoherent. I had two sources prodding me to write today: the experience of watching the disappointing History Channel show UFO Hunters, and reading Chris Turner’s intriguing tome Planet Simpson. Now, I’m slightly drowsy, so this might all come out entirely incoherent, but that’s the way I like it. My thoughts (more or less):

Turner’s book makes me think about questions and problems that repeatedly come back to plague me, inevitably, as facts of life in the part of time and space I happen to occupy. I want to live life as a creative person and none of us has a choice about when we’re born. And beyond that, it’s thrilling to live in an age where… well, all this shit happens. Let’s confront some of these facts-of-new-life: for one thing, in 2009+, I think that media studies (i.e., my field of study) is the place to be. Lot of reasons for this. One is that, well, we people of this new age that’s dawning tend to learn, process, think, and understand our world and our selves through media.

When we were born roughly 20 + or – years ago, the Internet was just gradually coming into being. It had not yet insinuated itself into the technological mainstream. In 2009, I don’t know if a day has passed in college that I haven’t used the Internet or a computer. It’s fucking invaded every aspect of our lives. But we can’t escape. The world has permanently changed; it’s different now. Maybe we’re headed to a technological singularity. Maybe people can study this from a computer science, political science, sociology, or history standpoint. Me? I look at it in terms of media. So I feel like I’m in the right place, intellectually. When I was interviewed for the yearbook in my senior year of high school, I said that in 5 years I saw myself “on the cutting edge of something.” I have 3 more years to accomplish this goal. I, like everyone else, have this unquenchable thirst to do something new. But it’s a brave new world we’re inhabiting, of our own (collective) design. And it’s hard to wrap your head around. One thing I know for sure? I need to watch the other 2 movies in Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy. Koyaanisqatsi is a masterpiece of coming to grips with our strange breed of modernity. Trying to reconcile the natural world and our place as part of it with the synthetic nature of computing technology. (Why am I saying this? I’m not going to break any new ground, probably. But at least I’m coming to grips with all this shit for myself.)

Considering this topic, I thought of a few major subtopics: the Industrial Revolution (which has been on my mind a lot recently for some reason). Postmodernity. Globalization. And again, the Internet. I have no real interest in being on the cutting edge of anything really high-tech. I just want to light out for the territories like Huck Finn, wherever these territories are, and then seek out new life and new civilizations, like Capts. Kirk & Picard. When did the Industrial Revolution take place? Mid-to-late 19th century, if high school history textbooks are to be believed? Think of everything that’s changed since then. My beloved movies? All of them are post-Industrial Revolution. I was thinking about this: mass. The masses. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoreau. Mass production, mass-marketing, mass media, mass murder. The approach to large quantities of human beings, lumped together as a “mass” – prior to the 19th century, human beings couldn’t be economically targeted by corporations as if with heat-seeking missiles. Now they sure as hell can.

And consider another subtopic that plays into my media obsession: visions of the future. Futurology, and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which I once owned 3-4 copies of in different colors but only read small bits of (collectibility of intellectual material? Oh, brother…), and The Jetsons, which I watched an episode of earlier today: “Viva Las Venus” was far from the show’s peak, but at the same time, I think it illuminates something about the phoniness of the show’s futuristic visions. I joked about how someone should point out how the Jetsons’ world is really an Orwellian dystopia. George and Jane drop off the kids from the upper atmosphere down to their relatives in the United States (which is never shown). In this far-future world, the “ground” of earth is never once shown or trod upon. Has mankind forgotten how to walk? It’s an unrealistic vision – George’s car seems to be powered by about as like a source as Fred Flinstone’s feet; there is no energy crisis in the Jetsons’ world, but the ability to freely move about the solar system – as long as you stay within two lanes, apparently. Why are there highways in outer space? The Jetsons wasn’t big on answering such obvious questions. It relied heavily on the suspension of both disbelief and natural curiosity. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good show; it was just as entertaining as any 1960s cartoon sitcom, I guess. But I think how Hanna-Barbera viewed the world to come reveals something about all of our expectations. Especially since, if you ask someone about a cultural representation of the future, they’re just as likely to say “The Jetsons,” as anything. They think of the motorized treadmills that serve as George’s every sidewalk, and of course of Rosie, the sassy robot maid. Sassy? A little sour taste of humanity to give us something to sympathize with. Robot? Technology, wave of the future, sentient AI – glory of glories. And maid? Even amidst the suspended space-bound platforms that form the Jetsons’ humble abode, someone must be condemned to a life of servitude. Otherwise, no work would get done. Rosie’s just another one of the wonders of technology. Consider that: she’s a wonder of the machine age, yet she must be a she, and endowed with a personality. And what of HAL and that computer from the movie Demon Seed? Apparently we just have to give humanoid speech patterns to our machinery. So, what does The Jetsons teach us? God, I have no idea; maybe that the people of the 1960s wanted to see their lifestyles transplanted into a glittery, slightly easier World of Tomorrow where they still have to slave for The Man (Mr. Spacely) and suffer through empty bourgeois lives (that’s you, George Jetson), but at least they had mechanized sidewalks. Thank God for that.

What was I even talking about? I was contemplating whether the Industrial Revolution led to the advent of advertising as we know it. The large corporations, after all, naturally view the large media that were born as, if nothing else, an excellent way to transmit messages about their product. Thus commercials were born. Think of the word commercial – it’s one of those funny little adjectives-turned-nouns. Do I doth dissect too much, probing into the deeper meanings of words as if that’ll tell us something about the broader world? Sure. Sure as hell I do. But if there’s anything my time in college so far has taught me, it’s that one essential piece of (over)analysis, to produce any meaningful results, is close reading (or viewing, depending). All I’m doing is some close reading of the language we speak now. As I was: commercials. Noun form of the adjective “commercial.” Which means? Pertaining to commerce. So a commercial is some tidbit relating to commerce. Commerce… Commerce Blvd. was the name of the main road through Mound, where I sadly hail from. Towns like to encourage commerce. Commerce, trade, exchange, the busyness of business. The point is? Commercials are inherently trying to sell you shit. One way or another, every single commercial must at its heart be saying: INSERT $$$. It’s a pretty fundamental message. All my talk about the Industrial Revolution makes me think of anarcho-primitivist, mathematician, and murderous terrorist Ted Kaczynski, whom you may know better as the Unabomber, whose infamous manifesto had something or other to do with the Industrial Revolution. I, however, do not advocate mailing bombs to people. Hand delivery gives it that personal feel. (Black humor? Yes. Advocating terrorism? Not quite. Insensitivity to victims? Ask again later.)

I guess my big point is one that, as I said earlier, has plagued me and plagues all of us. Dilemma: I want to create [something beautiful for others to enjoy]; however, living in the year AD 2009, it feels like it’s all been done already over and over and over again. Our output now is reduced to copies-of-copies-of-copies. And worse yet, everyone’s an artist (everyone’s a superhero; everyone’s a Captain Kirk) so we’re all simultaneously trying to unearth that last New Idea in a big frenzied struggle that plays out over all media – television, film, music, books, and of course as always, the motherfucking Internet. There’s Google. Wikipedia. YouTube. The websites no one can live without because they’re so damn universal and they alter our perception of reality – any image or knowledge is a few keystrokes away. But that’s another blog (self-restraint?). Hell, this fucking blog itself is an example. I’m repeating myself and countless others all trying to puzzle out the nature of the media in a rapidly-changing, insane, technomaniacal world torn from the pages of William Gibson (or maybe I’d say that, if I’d ever read any of his work); it’s just all kind of, well, like gazing up at the sky and stumbling backwards and getting dizzy. How am I any different than anyone else; how can I assert my identity? It’s harder to do when all culture and knowledge is thrown together in a frantic virtual melange that turns every string of art or education into one worldwide pastiche. And imagine if you will that as of now, no children will be born who have not heard of the Internet, or likely even used it on a regular basis. Is this good? Bad? Neutral? How the hell should I know? I’m just trying to get a vague idea of what the fuck is going on.

A concluding note: I listened to Nena’s 99 Red Balloons after linking to it, and it reminded me that German women have sexy voices, especially when singing. And I think of Marlene Dietrich, and Nina Hagen, the Germanic influence (via Grass, Brecht, Weill, et al) on Amanda Palmer, and the beautiful, self-possessed Franka Potente from Lola rennt (potentially a postmodern masterpiece itself, and very relevant to this discussion). Falling in love again, wha am I to do? I can’t help it…

(I didn’t get a chance to write about UFO Hunters. Maybe later. This was a fun entry to write. But as always I bite off more than I can chew. I’ll try to correct this in the future.)

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Birds do it, bees do it, bonobos do a lot of it

[Article about animal sexual behavior, first published in the Carleton CLAP 4/24/2009]

“There was an old miner named Dave
Who kept a dead whore in his cave.
You have to admit
He hadn’t much wit
But look at the money he saved!”

This limerick is the namesake of Davian behavior, in which animals live and copulate with deceased mates. Yes, inspired by Isabella Rossellini’s recent short film series Green Porno (viewable on the Sundance Channel’s website or on YouTube), here’s a handy guide to animal sex, taken mostly from Wikipedia’s article on “Animal sexual behavior“:

-Masturbation: horses (even when castrated), goats, camels, elephants, walruses, zebras, killer whales, vampire bats, etc.
-Mutual masturbation: bears and hyenas
-Autofellatio: kangaroos, bonobos, squirrel monkeys
-Sex toys: porcupines, ferrets, orangutans
-Homosexuality: giraffes, penguins, cattle, bonobos, sheep, dolphins, dragonflies, etc.
-Rape: dolphins, spiders, ducks, water beetles, elephants
-Pedophilia: moles, stoats, hyenas, bonobos
-Necrophilia: ducks, toads, squirrels

[Etc. = pretty much everybody does it. This list is far from exhaustive.]

Apparently the generally accepted term is “sexual cannibalism,” but I still prefer using “connubial cannibalism” to refer to the tendency, especially of female mantises, to bite off their mates’ heads in the midst of coitus. It’s nutritional, too! As we learn from Prete and Hurd’s enlightening text The Praying Mantids,

males are renowned for their ability to initiate copulation while being eaten. The organization of a mantid’s central nervous system will allow both copulation and spermatophore transfer in the absence of descending input from the cephalic ganglia.

In other words? Male mantids can fuck without brains. When you’re dealing with bedbugs, the phrase “All sex is rape” takes on a whole new meaning. Like a number of other invertebrates, they practice “traumatic insemination”: instead of simple genital-to-genital contact, the male uses his penis to pierce the female’s abdominal cavity and inject his sperm. Bedbugs conveniently evolved an organ called the spermalege, designed specifically as a sexual target for the male, but females of other species are not so lucky and have to deal with the health consequences of this brutal penetration.

The more we know about animal sex, the more we know about ourselves (maybe?). After all, Freud himself spent his early years in medical school studying the sex organs of eels. Moral of the story? Bonobos are some polymorphously perverse little apes.

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Pondering faith & spirituality

Last night, trying hard to get to sleep in the midst of watching Sergei Eisenstein’s October, I started having a lot of interesting thoughts. I bolted out of bed, sat at my computer for a few minutes, and typed a few of them up (and then briefly edited them just now):

“I do believe in God.

An omnipotent, omniscient God who loves me. I don’t believe in a petty, more or less human God who gets pissed off and kills people or sends them to eternal torture for minor infractions. I believe in God and his son, Jesus. I believe his nature is confusing to us, and that we’re not capable of fully understanding it. I don’t believe that he wrote and inspired the translation of every single word in the King James Bible, and one thing I believe absolutely for certain is that the God I believe in would never toss out eternal punishment for something so simple and natural – and which causes such a basic pleasure – as questioning, learning, and thinking about every aspect of life, including his nature and what is right or moral.

And questioning whether the vision of God insisted upon by fundamentalists could ever lead to a universe that contained any happiness at all. If the God I’m supposed to believe in is spiteful, insecure, quick to violence, and cares about a select group of people while forsaking the rest, well, then, fuck that. That’s no God I will ever be willing to believe in. Why believe in an all-powerful being who’s never given you any proof of his existence, who requires your faith to believe in him, and yet who wants to cause endless, inescapable pain, to you even, at the drop of a hat or the slightest sign of weakness – if that’s the God there is, we were screwed from the beginning, the universe is inherently horrible, and heaven and hell are pretty much indistinguishable.

I wonder if it doesn’t seem more likely that there is no God. But I think even if it that’s the case, he’s still worth believing in. Especially if he’s good, loving, wants only the best for all of His creations, and is willing to give us a chance if we’re willing to try to be good people and leave his earth a little better than we found it, if we can. But the unforgiving, absolutist, sadistic, and generally hateful God that fundamentalists believe in? If he’s the only choice, I give in any day to the nagging feeling that an afterlife in paradise is just too implausible given the world we’ve seen so far. I believe in God, but only if he’s the one who cares about us, wants only the best for us, and loves us deeply. I don’t see why it would be worthwhile otherwise.”

I was raised in a Christian family and educated in a Catholic school, but my relationship with religion has been an odd one. There are some questions where I just can’t find satisfactory answers: for example, if the sins you commit can cause your damnation, why aren’t they more clearly enumerated and in greater detail, so that we know God’s word on every possible action? Also, if you have to believe in Jesus or you go to hell, well, what about the billions of people throughout human history who were, because of their time period or environment, never exposed to Jesus? Are they all fucked over by default? These are quandaries I’ve never had sufficiently explained. But, going along with what I wrote above, I think another big question is this: there are many, many mutually exclusive conceptions of what God is and wants, so why should I automatically go with what the fundamentalist Christian or Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon evangelist is yelling at me from across the street? (This really happened when I was standing in line for a concert at 1st Avenue; he was screaming, but the traffic drowned him out.) I could believe anything, so why should I specifically side with the minority belief that tells me everything I enjoy is sinful and I’m going to hell, unless I devote every last moment of my life to prayer, or unless I give lots of cash to this megachurch, or unless I pass this letter on within 24 hours, or etc., etc.? I think religion is a powerful thing that can give a lot of help and guidance in life. But I just don’t see why endless amounts of good, selfless, and hard-working non-Christians should be condemned to hellfire forever just because they weren’t lucky enough to be born to Christian parents, whether good or not. That seems like the worst kind of ethnocentrism. (And has led to brutal ethnocentrism, too – the Crusades, the conquest of the New World?)

I have long enjoyed this thought experiment: what if the way the world works is that everyone, when they die, goes wherever they feel they should go, whether heaven, hell, the ground, being reincarnated, or anywhere else? It may not make much sense – and it may suggest some kind of eternal segregation of mankind, which would be sad – but it’s just a thought. Or maybe we all, every one of us, join together for one eternity-long carnival like the end of 8 1/2. Or maybe, speaking of faith-related film, we should just watch more Ingmar Bergman movies. The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring, Winter Light, The Silence – these are some deeply religious movies that probe into questions of God and man, of heaven and hell. And as David Thomson reminded me the other day, while 1950s Hollywood was making bombastic biblical epics like The Robe and Ben-Hur, full of showmanship and swords & sandals, anything but actual faith – Robert Bresson was off in France making quiet little films that are deeply spiritual in style and substance (he’s been called “the patron saint of cinema”) like Diary of a Country Priest (1951), about a poor and sickly young priest who’s rejected by his own new congregation. I haven’t examined Bresson closely enough. I know vaguely, at least, a couple things: obviously, his movies aren’t nearly well-known enough outside of people already well-versed in film. I didn’t learn his name until after I started college. And then, that his movies generally concern a protagonist who suffers, endures, is tortured by the whims of fate, and eventually, for the most part, dies. His films are entirely unconventional, very low-key, and he even made an entire movie about an abused donkey (Au hasard Balthazar [1966]) that never once stoops into the realm of exploited sentiment in which virtually every other movie about animals dwells. So as I tend to do, I suggest turning to films like those of Bergman and Bresson for some measure of spiritual guidance. Movies can perform many functions, and one of those is giving insight into how the world works, physically and spiritually, and how we can come to terms with that.

So to bring this all together: I am extremely open-minded and, in my case, therefore easily confused, about religion and everything else. But after all is said and done, I really do believe that there’s someone, something out there who loves every one of us and will use, in some way, his infinite wisdom and power to help us along. I’m not saying the world doesn’t suck. It does, and then some. And sure, there very easily might not be a God. But so sue me, after all these years, I still think it helps me to believe.

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Madness and rebellion

Today, I think, was a well-spent day. It should feel more satisfying, but alas, it feels strangely disappointing in a way that many days feel, and what can I do about that? Human emotions are strange things. Oh, are they ever. We sacks of meat, bone, and nerve tissue go around having feelings, and these feelings mean so much to us. They determine how we view the world – if we’re sad, the world becomes sad, and if we’re happy, well, the world laughs with us. No one is objective; no one really has an unbiased view of their environment. Hell, even though lobotomies do severe damage to higher brain functions, they still don’t take away all emotions, or anything that people will little leucotomical knowledge would tell you. I recently watched a documentary with my family about Walter Freeman, the innovator of the lobotomy, who spent years touring the U.S. giving icepick lobotomies, where he’d just stick it up someone’s tear ducts, hammer away, and BANG, problem solved. With new ones created. Psychosurgery? It has a bad rap these days, and for a reason. The documentary, based on Jack El-Hai’s book of the same name, was called The Lobotomist and is available for viewing here. I highly recommend it as examining a piece of America’s medical and social history. I should watch more documentaries. They provide easy access to a variety of subjects. In time, it’ll happen.

Lobotomies have always intrigued me. Look at the word itself: lobotomy. (And if you’re like me, you automatically hear the Ramones chanting it.) Basically, it comes from the Greek (I believe; take my every nugget of wisdom with a grain of salt): lobe, as in frontal lobe, plus -otomy, which means “cutting.” Like the atom? That means “uncuttable.” Which is ironic in retrospect, but dammit, they didn’t know that then! Lobotomy, taking out a part-o’-me… one of the interesting nuances I learned back when I obsessively studied Greek word origins around age 13 was the difference between “otomy” and “ectomy.” Appendectomy, hysterectomy? An -ectomy is a removal; an -otomy is a cutting.  However, I don’t know the medical details well enough to say if the lobe is entirely removed or just has its link to the rest of the brain severed. In any event, the rise (and fall) of the lobotomy is an interesting case of interactions between general public attitudes and changing medical technology. If there’s anything advertising can tell you, it’s that people crave a quick fix. Years of therapy, coupled with medication? Fuck that. Let’s go in through his eyes, hack out part of his brain, and make him safe to take home again. Psychiatric trends affect us all, dammit. Whether or not they’re willing to admit it, everyone has a mental health, just as everyone has a physical health. Worth noting: I’m fairly certain that “insanity” is a meaningless word, both medically and legally. Is someone “crazy”? Are they “insane” or “nuts”? Some people suffer from clinical depression; others are schizophrenic (although what does that mean? Another source of immense controversy which was brought to my attention by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s My Mom Was a Schizophrenic; I definitely recommend reading it). Psychiatry is still, more or less, in its infancy. Maybe its teen years? My point is that the study of mental health, as we know it, pretty much took off only around the turn of the 20th century. There’s a lot humanity as a whole still has to figure out about how the brain works. Dear reader, take a moment to consider what a bizarre, high-tech piece of equiment you have stashed between your ears. It’s so well-designed it’s even capable of contemplating its own mechanical workings. Unfortunately, there are still some bugs to work out, so occasionally the wiring short-circuits, and sometimes we can get it fired up again, but other cases are not so lucky. Whole lotta trial and error involved, as with every human pursuit. Happiness does not come easy without the sacrifice of many, many painful and difficult lives obstructed by bad chemicals fucking up the brain, as Kurt Vonnegut would probably put it. I think he had some mental illness in his family – his mother, I believe, committed suicide like Celia Hoover in Breakfast of Champions, the novel to which I’m referring with the “bad chemicals,” and Vonnegut himself went through crippling depression at a number of points in his life. I used to have a book containing testimonies from a number of people who’d gone through Minnesota’s mental health care system. I wonder where that is now. One very scary point it reinforces is this: it can and likely even will happen to you. Your mind, so often a faithful friend who aided you in all pursuits, suddenly deciding to take a nosedive into darkness and agony – it’s a possibility built into the electrochemical framework by which you, like everyone else, function. It’s horrifying and it’s a fact.

Thinking about lobotomies also reminded me of two things I love: Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Loosely inspired by an acid trip Kesey had while working as a janitor in a mental hospital in Washington State California, the stories are about Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the convict who gets transferred into the tyrannical Nurse Ratched’s ward because he’s convinced the prison staff that he’s crazy, though he’s just faking it, and he’s really sane… right? I am a fan of Nicholson. I can’t deny it; in fact, sometimes I randomly burst into periods where I won’t! Fuckin’! Stop! Talkin’ like Jack Nicholson! And Cuckoo’s Nest was, I think, a project that was perfect for him – McMurphy is, of course, a quintessential rebel, which fits perfectly with the image Nicholson crafted starting with his renegade lawyer in Easy Rider, his renegade pianist in Five Easy Pieces, his renegade naval officer in The Last Detail… need I go on? (Granted, in Tommy, he’s not much of a renegade, but his part in it is about 5 minutes long. As Jack says, “All hope lies with him and none with me.”)

I love the film’s environment, its supporting cast – Vincent Schiavelli, Danny DeVito being endearingly demented, Christopher Lloyd being argumentative and violent, and Brad Dourif as the sadistically-named Billy Bibbit, stutteringly sucking up to the off-beat father figure that McMurphy provides. Then there’s the Chief. Since the novel is from his (very skewed) point of view, it’s a radically different experience, but I think Forman does a great job of maybe not translating, but reconstructing important elements of the novel on screen. And McMurphy survives wholly intact. And then Louis Fletcher… she may have had other roles before and after, but she will likely be remembered solely for her Oscar-winning portrayal of Nurse Ratched, and it’s no wonder. I’d have to reread the book to verify this but I have the feeling that Fletcher is a little softer and not so overtly domineering than Kesey’s version of Ratched. But nonetheless she’s a frightening presence and is simultaneously a figurehead of executive authority and a monster of institutional malice. Cuckoo’s Nest may have swept the Academy Awards, but I still see it as a very effectively rebellious, anti-authoritarian film. Although the novel may be more in synch with the Chief’s existence as an outsider on every level, I think the film isn’t too watered-down or overly Hollywoodized. Still got that downer ending, after all, that brought me from lobotomy to Cuckoo’s Nest in the first place. Still got that pool of blood surrounding a certain beloved character’s body. My opinion on this may change in the future. But one possible explanation if this is the case? It was 1975. Recent headlines had seen the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, and the Watergate revelations. An ideal national mindset for a movie like this – and while, say, All the President’s Men may have taken the topical bull by the horns, I can at least say with certainty that I prefer Cuckoo’s Nest every time. The catch? As others have pointed out, cuckoos don’t have nests. They lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Keep that in mind while watching the movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

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Testing, testing, 1-2-3

Hello world, as the automated default blog post would say. This is the introductory post for the new blog my lover and I are starting. But before we start assailing the world (which will likely remain unfazed) with our many insights, I’d like to give some background. I’m Andreas: male-bodied, free-press-loving, movie-obsessed, and about to finish my second year at a small, expensive college that I attend by virtue of a sometimes-merciful financial aid program. Since my sweetheart and I (who trade terms of endearment like barbed insults) end up constantly getting into involved, complex discussions about – as our temporary tagline states – issues of culture, society, and sexuality (and their interactions!), we decided to start a blog. Picking out the blog and domain names took about 3 hours all told because we’re perfectionists like that. And now we have a blog. We plan to post separately, whenever we want to, about more or less whatever we want to. If our ideas happen to overlap or align beautifully, well, we’re not just in love because our star charts said so. Will the world take notice of our attempt a blog and gaze down benevolently upon it? Will trolls beleaguer our every desperate word? Will my pitiful struggle for extreme self-awareness come to naught? Well, that’s what the blog is for. To find out.

Since I’m an aspiring film writer/critic/analyst/theorist/maker, I may post reviews or discussions of cinematic topics I’ve been pondering lately. Aside from that, anything is fair game. Including any of the many things I hate. I’ll conclude this introduction with a picture of me in all my toenail-clipping glory:

toenails1

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