Monthly Archives: May 2009

We’re not hitchhiking anymore! We’re riding!

So I’m feeling really good tonight, and only slightly tired, and “hosted” a “party” in my living space, making this the first weekend I’d intentionally done anything social in a long, long time. I’m not sure what to write a blog about. I don’t really believe in using a blog as a diary – “Dear blog, today was the best day ever…” – no, fuck that. If some random person is going to search for “pussy fuckers” on Google and find me, I want to give them something worth reading. Maybe subtly alter their worldview in some way. Maybe turn them on to something new and awesome. I feel like I’ve been overusing the word “awesome” lately. But fuck it. I can overuse whichever adjectives I want.

Earlier, Ashley and I were discussing how “stealing” factors into the creative process and the whole history of fiction. It factors in heavily. Everyone steals from someone else at one point or another – that’s where artistic influence comes in. And, as we concluded, the line between influence and thievery is a thin one, but it’s there. And after all, the whole history of progress in the arts has been a matter of one person stealing from another who stole that from someone else in the first place. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t talent involved. It just means that, well, the idea or storyline or what have you was good. Beside that, consider the disconnect between content and form: you can take the same story, but one writer might make it suck, and a writer a century later might turn it into a classic.

Also in film: The Maltese Falcon was the 3rd adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel, and the best. Dracula has been filmed innumerable times – did Murnau, Browning, Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, Guy Maddin, and more just not have better ideas and have to steal from Bram Stoker in order to make a good movie? Of course not. But the story is a damn good one. Similarly, everyone loves to make their own version of Hamlet. Is it because there aren’t any other ideas? No, but this idea works really, really well. I’d elaborate on this but I’m getting slightly sleepy and the deeper thoughts are just not coming.

Watch this first, or the following analysis will make little sense:

"Space Madness"

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, this is the “Space Madness” episode of the cartoon Ren & Stimpy, first broadcast in 1991. Recently, for whatever reason, it popped into my head that I consider “Space Madness” to be a genuinely important, meaningful, and well-made piece of cartoon art, and I want to talk about it for a little while. This is what I was thinking: certainly, everyone acknowledges that paintings, music, books, and even film can be great art. So why not a 10-minute episode of an animated television series? In his interesting book Planet Simpson, cultural critic Chris Turner describes how he considers The Simpsons at its peak to be the equal of just about any comedy produced in the 20th century. So, I figured, why not Ren & Stimpy? I feel like I could watch this episode again and again without any decline in enjoyment. It does so much in a medium that is expected (by idiots) to do nothing more than keep kids distracted, one half-hour and fuzzy animal at a time. Ren & Stimpy has the fuzzy animals, but everything after that obliterates expectations: the chihuahua Ren is, as I was saying to Ashley, as neurotic as Porky Pig and as sociopathic as Daffy Duck.

(Chuck Jones cartoons are, in fact, one of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi‘s great influences; others include Tex Avery, the Three Stooges, and Kirk Douglas – this makes more sense when you consider Ren’s breakdowns in light of Douglas’s acting style. It’s a peculiar quirk of pop culture that should lead this great but often scenery-chewing actor to have such a hold on Kricfalusi, who probably grew up seeing his movies in the ’50s and ’60s.)

Ren Höek, the asthma-hound chihuahua

Ren is a compellingly irrational, violent character, usually on the brink of madness, as likely to give Stimpy a kiss as a smack across the face. Ren has some deep emotional problems, especially for a dog in a “children’s cartoon.” He’s also hilarious. I just love the writing for this show; it’s always so right on. The non sequiturs don’t seem forced or unoriginal, but often have a strange power of their own. Consider: “I’ve had this ice cream bar since I was a child!” This bizarre dialogue inserts vague hints of pseudo-Freudian trauma into Ren’s disturbing madness. This episode really is the blackest of comedy – it’s funny, yeah, but it jokes about a horrifyingly rendered descent into insanity, as well as the erasure of all existence. It’s simultaneously very scary and very funny.

Stimpson J. Cat

Then we’ve got Stimpy – innocent, trusting, and voiced by Billy West who I’m sure you know as Fry in Futurama. Stimpy is the Curly to Ren’s Moe, the Elmer Fudd to his Bugs (if Bugs were more deranged and less self-aware). While Ren upsets every single fucking paradigm in the cartoon – both the fuzzy animal imagery and the space opera setting – Stimpy buys in completely. He’s the unsuspecting dupe (although he often casually reveals that he suspects everything). I just love how this cartoon undermines everything. Looking for animals bonking each other on the head? Yeah, you’ve got it. Except that the violence is the product of an often sad, even abusive relationship. The interpersonal dynamic here is completely unexpected – maybe I’d compare it to Laurel & Hardy, but with a darker, meaner edge. On the other hand, “Space Madness” also subverts its sci-fi setting: we get superficial suggestions of exploring the cosmos, but during the course of the episode, the cosmos only form a surreal backdrop to Ren’s declining mental state, a space to get lost in. Instead of finding a menagerie of extraterrestrial life, they find themselves crushed by the depressing emptiness of it all. It’s like Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space. The depths of the universe turn out to be just as boring and ennui-ridden as anything Ren and Stimpy encounter here on earth.

And if you want existential crises, we’ve got the scarcely believable final segment, in which Ren puts Stimpy (to distract him) in charge of the “History Eraser Button,” whose only purpose is to compel Stimpy to press it (with some prodding from a not-exactly-objective narrator, of course). It’s Pandora’s Box all over again, but instead of releasing evils into the world, it erases all of history. And Stimpy presses it. There’s no happy ending or rational resolution. No positive outcome of any kind. In 90 seconds the cartoon goes from Sisyphean futility to hopeless annihilation. The last words are “Tune in next week as…” and then, well, everyone disappears. Including the pictures of Ren and Stimpy in the show’s logo. It’s a total reversal of the typical serial (space opera or otherwise), since now there is no next week, and never will be. Everything has been undone with the press of a single button. It’s startlingly grim, and I think it’s probably a major reason why I think this cartoon is so great. I think the ending’s absurd bleakness is comparable maybe to Dr. Strangelove, but few “funny” works of fiction dare to go down the path of ultimate destruction. Maybe there’s comedy in the ending’s sheer audacity and in its upsetting of the standard “last minute rescue” we’ve come to expect, but mainly I think it just leaves a funny feeling, an emotional void. What happened? Why did it happen? Is all of history even erased? Hell, this may just be a fictional universe (with pretty anarchic sensibilities to begin with), but nonetheless, the prospect of history being erased – and in a universe into which we’ve invested part of ourselves by enjoying the show – is pretty daunting.

"We'll meet again"?

I could probably go on like this for quite some time, but it is half past 4 am on a Saturday morning (which, in my opinion, is a great time to watch “Space Madness”). I could discuss the cartoon’s unique visual style, with regard to the grotesque close-ups, the spaceship (which seems to be a Rube Goldbergian hodgepodge of gizmos and thingamajigs), and space itself. The more I think about and watch “Space Madness,” the more I love it. It reveals new artistry and ideas with every viewing.

“The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” – Salvador Dalí

“It is not I who am crazy! It is I who am mad!” – Ren Höek

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Science fiction double feature, part 2

I just wanted to follow up on some of the ideas I was pondering earlier today, about the science fiction genre in general and some of my personal favorite themes in specific. Ashley was saying earlier that she for some reason never really got into sci-fi, for the most part, and so she’s glad there’s still time to learn and think about it. A few weeks ago I was thinking about horror and sci-fi everywhere I went. These are two genres that deal primarily with the unknown. Sometimes the supernatural, but sometimes plainly just “what we don’t know.” In horror, what we don’t know can and usually does hurt us. Science fiction is just fiction centered around the potentials of technology and human discoveries. Maybe the earth becomes a smoking crater as a result. Maybe Klaatu and Gort stop off to tell us where we stand. (Also note, I guess: the discoveries and technology need not be human.) Sci-fi works as a blanket category for all the reactions – fear, longing, desperation, curiosity – to the possibility of other life in the universe.

Here’s where I’ll admit that I’ve been fixated on aliens, UFOs, abductions, etc. for pretty much as long as I can remember. I wonder where this interest comes from. We had lots of books on the paranormal sitting around the house. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and one year during Thanksgiving my dad did, in fact, sculpt the mashed potatoes into the likeness of Devil’s Tower. I read voraciously about Betty and Barney Hill or Roswell or whatever caught my eye, checked out books from the library that delved into the ancient astronaut theories, and became terrified that while I lay sleeping, a UFO might hover outside my window and its passengers might levitate me into their craft to subject me to all kinds of experiments. Luckily, this fear has (mostly) subsided, but I’m still incredibly interested in all things alien. As I mentioned elsewhere, a few weeks ago I caught this show on the Discovery Channel called UFO Hunters. And it sucked; it was an insult to everything I’ve studied and loved. Instead of trying to actually build up evidence and apply the scientific method in order to glean some facts about whether ETs exist or not, they chose a different route: Believe anything and everything, forcing evidence to fit the assumptions you’ve already made! That, my friends, is bogus, worthless pseudoscience. Oh, I also remember seeing Independence Day when it came out in 1996. My friend Noah had an action figure of one of the aliens, too. In retrospect, the movie probably sucked, but I’m sure it encouraged me to keep studying ufology. Kecksburg, PA is pretty far west of Chambersburg, but nonetheless I hope to visit it with Ashley someday. It’s basically the Roswell of the north. As I recall, something landed in the woods; residents ran to check it out but the government interceded, carried the object away, and said it was a meteor. This was in 1965.

But getting back to my starting point, with science fiction we don’t learn nearly as much about science as we do about ourselves. For example: the Cold War was full of movies about nuclear war and its consequences. Did that mean we were going to have a nuclear war? Answers may vary, but the point is that we were terrified of it and wondering how we’d cope. Would society eventually rebuild from the ashes, as, say, 1960’s The Time Machine suggests? Would mankind recede in the wake of his hubristic demise and other species take over, as in Planet of the Apes (1968)? Or would we all succumb to the bleak hilarity of a masculinity-induced grave as in Dr. Strangelove (1964)? (Strangelove‘s flip side, however, was the equally bleak resignation and grimness of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, in which President Henry Fonda is forced to bomb New York as a sign of good will.) My sleepy, not entirely coherent point is that science fiction provides us with options and arguments. We shouldn’t have the Bomb, because. As Gene Roddenberry was fond of proving, science fiction can be a great arena for giving commentary on contemporary issues in a detached, metaphorical setting. H.G. Wells is making a socialist parable with the Eloi and the Morlocks, but who needs a dry political tract when it can be an action-packed love story of the year 802,701? As I remember not-so-eloquently arguing in a paper on Brave New World in 11th grade, sci-fi satire can show what’s wrong with an idea by taking it to extremes – applying it to the world at large. Soylent Green: think Malthusian catastrophes aren’t a problem? Hope you like eating people. So, social commentary is another possible task of science fiction. I think of (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesotan) Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which he rebuffs fascism by showing that yes, in fact, it can happen here. Or Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, which as with Wells illustrates his early 20th century socialist views.

My point is that you can say a lot with science fiction, and sometimes it’s more effective than just saying it in terms of the ordinary world we already know. Racism may make sense to your normal American in the mid-’60s, but what about when we put it in terms of the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”?

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

That’s right: they’re the last survivors of their respective races, determined to hate each other because their black and white stripes are on different halves of their bodies. This is Fantastic Racism. But sci-fi doesn’t just have to deal with issues through metaphor. I mean, as I was discussing earlier, much of the appeal is direct discussion of very real issues that just haven’t become a physical reality yet. We don’t have sentient robots quite yet, but it’s still important to know if they’d be equal to human beings, and therefore what it means to be human, as well as whether or not they’d try to gang up on us and become unstoppable killing machines led by an evil, human-hating computer. I mean, it’s always possible. Ergo, Blade Runner: do androids dream of electric sheep? And if they do, does that mean human beings aren’t unique – does it mean we can be easily replicated, even replaced by Galateas produced by us who also dream? I had this crazy idea the other day, briefly imagining a world where golems form the earth’s main work force and are also the victims of racism. I still think it’d make a great story. But the point is that even in genuinely fantastical situations like a world heavily populated by androids, human nature still has a part. We are driven to create (and destroy) – we like creating in our own image. We’re driven to do that, too. Don’t believe me? Well, what did you play with as a kid? Odds are it was an anthromorphicized lump of plastic or fabric. And kids love dolls who can talk. Or move. You know, come to think of it, maybe I should watch the movie AI. Even if Kubrick died before he could start it, and passed it on to Spielberg, and apparently it sucks. Maybe the movie still has something to offer.

And on a similar note, time machines. We’ve never invented one; never even come close. But why not? Our great tragedy is that we can’t change the past. The past is full of suckiness and shit – our collective consciousness would do anything to go back and undo all the genocide, warfare, pain, destruction, and hatred. But since time’s a one-way street, we have no access to any moment before now. We’re also curious as hell about the future. Hey, what do you think sci-fi’s for in the first place? It acts as a cheap, low-qual substitute time machine. Not able to build some quantum mechanical doohickey in your spare time? Buy a paperback and find out what 1,000 years from now will more or less be like. Oh, the gratification, to imagine a future dominated by space captains transposed from 20th century America. To project ourselves into Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or you name it, as he takes our values and appearances on into other galaxies.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell

I’d like to suggest that there’s some measure of power in controlling the future, too. If you’re some fucking Klansman who writes about a future where White Pride comes out on top, there might be a small psychological victory – at least for your fellow racist fuckers – right there. “See? In the end, we win! It says so right here in this book!” Or like Charlie Manson’s batshit insane predictions about “Helter Skelter” and the coming race wars which would put the Family on top. Maybe that’s not strictly science fiction, but I think it’s worthy of the title. What can I say; I always love really weird, twisted visions of the future. Maybe I like to see how far the world can be warped by authorial vision. That could be why I love Henry Darger so much, with his outsider artist ideas of an alternate world where child slaves battle non-Catholics – seriously, Madeleine L’Engle should totally have borrowed a page from Henry Darger’s book (literally). Or there’s William S. Burroughs, who straddles the line between sci-fi and… Beat queer junkie transgressive fiction. (Then again, maybe I should read his Nova trilogy.) Last night, I was discussing Philip K. Dick with Ashley. He’s a man whose personal confusions, problems, and experiences heavily informed the sci-fi he chose to write, telling of worlds where subjective realities are always crumbling, leading to identity crisis pile-ups.

After all, as Paul Gauguin would ask (in maybe my favorite painting title ever): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Science fiction may not be able to answer these questions, but it’s a unique and very useful tool in coming up with theories. You’re able to test the limits of the human experience even more when you can think back to the earth’s volcanic beginnings, and forward to the earth’s potential descent into cold, barren darkness. I suspect that perhaps, among some quarters, talking about “science fiction” as a topic leads conjures images of rocket ships and, yes, those same all-American white masculine space captains I was mentioning, serving as wet dreams for the gratification-seeking reader. And maybe these images lead sci-fi to be tossed aside as a pointless, fantasy-indulging genre entirely disconnected from real human emotions. This kind of dismissal has happened before; hell, no sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture, though certainly a few have been nominated. (Neither has a horror movie – just goes to show how these genres are viewed by the Academy.) So, what’s my point with all this? I’m not really sure. I guess I want to try to elucidate some of the purposes science fiction in general serves. Maybe I should also mention a book I started reading, a work of utopian sci-fi from 1914 called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All about a South American paradise discovered by 3 American men, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenically. I should really keep reading that. So, I’d better go to bed since it’s 3 am and I’m sleepy. But I plan to continue exploring these ideas in the future. For, as Criswell would say, that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives!

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Science fiction double feature, part 1

Sunday afternoon. Lazy Sunday. Gloomy Sunday. Sundays have always been kind of a day of the damned. Human emotions are cryptic, often incomprehensible phenomena. I have them, but I don’t really get them. Does anybody really understand how they work? And you know what: fuck checking in a little box to give your mood. Fuck saying, “I’m a smiley face” or “I’m a frowny face right now.” Fuck that bullshit. How are you? Oh, I’m :) at the moment. Maybe later I’ll be :(, who knows. Because the only difference between happiness and sadness is a flipped-around parenthesis. That question is our eternal bane: How are you? How are you doing? What’s up? Mind if I ask you a simple-minded question and receive an equally simple-minded answer?

Q: How are you?

A: Good.

I’m doing well. Not bad. OK. Could be worse. Mediocre. Tolerable. Eh. Whatever. Indifferent. Apathetic. Dead to the world. Heading for a breakdown. Etc., etc., et fucking cetera. Day-to-day casual exchanges can get really boring. But what can you do? That’s the ridiculous way we interact. Us silly fucking human beings. Perpetually unable to differentiate between the trivial and the important. And after all, what is the difference? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; one man’s boring bullshit is another man’s fact of vital significance.

The future is spread out before us like a vast invisible landscape. There are a million paths for us to take, but once we start down one, the rest of them cease to exist. This makes me recall two memories: one is asking the priest at the Catholic school I went to, in about 7th grade, about free will vs. predetermination. For example, could Judas Iscariot have not betrayed Jesus, since that’s how it was all predicted to happen? And if so, well, how is it that he could end up at the bottom of hell, as Dante claimed? The priest’s answer was basically that God can see all possible ways the future could turn out, and that’s how he can be all-knowing but we can still have free will. I’m not sure if I was satisfied with this explanation, and at this juncture, I’m not sure quite what I think of that. But along similar lines, another memory: in the X-Men cartoon I watched all the time as a child, there were numerous time travel story arcs, a few of which involved people from dystopian futures traveling back to undo the events that brought those dystopias into existing. Thereby erasing that entire alternate timeline, and everyone who exists in it. I’ve always been deeply fascinated by time travel, and said fascination is as intense as ever. Hell, I’m kind of a sci-fi junkie. Not that I obsessively read sci-fi stories or anything; just that I could spend way longer than is beneficial puzzling over various concepts and storylines from the science fiction genre. I love thinking about speculative fiction, about time travel, robots, genetic experimentation, space travel, etc. I’ve never really wanted to be an astronaut, but ever since I was brought to a planetarium as a little kid, I’ve thought about man’s place in the universe and what, exactly, it would be like to leave the earth’s atmosphere and exist in that empyrean realm we call “outer space.” An infinite gulf dominated by blackness. I’m reminded of a short film I love called Powers of Ten, made the Eames brothers; if you’ve never seen it, take 10 minutes out of your life because it’s very worth it.

Sputnik entered orbit in 1957. That’s about 52 years ago. Naturally, science fiction predates this science fact by, well, pretty much forever. That’s the beauty of human imagination. We can be primitive and have flawed ideas about how the world works – we can think, like Aristotle, that objects are trying to return home when they fall to the ground – but that doesn’t stop us from looking up at the sky and saying, “I want to go there.” Or from telling stories about doing just that. Daedalus and Icarus, you know, or Bellerophon who tried to ride Pegasus up to Olympus. Or the Tower of Babel, which tried to reach heaven. I’ve recently gotten heavily into the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and it can serve as almost a modern analogue of these ancient myths: basically, don’t fuck with the stars.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves…” – Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II

Maybe these myths are comparable to the old “There be dragons” or the fear of falling off the edge of the earth – don’t go exploring too far, you don’t know what you’re going to find. You know why we don’t have access to the stars? Because the gods don’t want us to, dammit. Or to quote Glen or Glenda, “If the creator had meant us to fly, he’d have given us wings!” If you go traipsing around in some distant galaxy, well, don’t be surprised if you piss off Zeus or if Yog-Sothoth eats you. Or if the Xenomorph clings to your face and then bursts from your chest. Or what have you. You had it coming! It’s all about the conflict between man’s fear of the unknown and our neverending curiosity and drive to learn, learn, learn! We want the mysteries of the universe, but we don’t want to take too many risks to figure them out. Well, you can’t divine the secrets of existence without breaking a few eggs. What about Dr. Faustus, the namesake of Ashley’s middle school? Sold his soul to Satan just to mess with the Pope and summon Joan of Arc and maybe learn some dark secrets along the way. And what’s the moral Lovecraft’s trying to get across? Basically: don’t even try to figure out the answer. You won’t like it if you do. It’s better to just let sleeping gods lie.

Only problem is, we’re curious fuckers. As Pandora and Adam & Eve teach us, we don’t care if it’s forbidden. That just makes us want to know even more! So, despite all our cautionary tales to the contrary, we’ve landed on the moon. We’re peering into the stars and gazing across potentially life-bearing (well, not really) planets and you know what? It’s awesome.

The Eagle Nebula

So I admit it. I love science fiction. Speaking of which, a few months back I think, Ashley and I read this great story by Robert A. Heinlein called “-All You Zombies-“; I highly recommend reading it; it’s a milestone in time travel fiction, and a great example of how fun time paradoxes can be. So, I have to go eat dinner and then work for 3 hours, but there’s a lot more I want to explore: how exactly I define sci-fi as a genre; more about how, exactly, it’s appealing; its relation to our everyday lives; etc. If I have time, I’ll launch into this more later. You know what else? Looking at the categories we have for blogs, I want to think more about synthesizing new ideas from old ones. After all, everything connects to everything else. It’s all linked under the grand umbrella of the human experience. So keep that in mind: just as John Donne says no man is an island unto himself, so no idea is an island. There’s always a peninsula.

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Won’t somebody think of the children?

Oh, the feeling of being sleepy and grimy as the week begins. Weeks. 7 days makes 1 weak. Monday through Sunday. Some calendars say Sunday through Saturday. But I have long considered that bullshit. I remember in my 12th grade English class being introduced to a line spoken by an African boy in a documentary our teacher had seen: “You work till you die.” It’s a terrifying series of words to hear. And I suppose it’s frighteningly accurate, too. We live in an unjust world. Bad things happen to good people, all the time. Am I a good person? Do bad things happen to me? I don’t really know. These are very, very difficult questions. So I prefer to just toss out a blanket statement that “The world sucks!” and preoccupy myself with different aspects of popular culture. Which is one way of exploring the world, and probably more accessible to me, a 21st century college student, than many other methods. And… often I will ask myself, Why does it matter? Is it really worth it? And often I think of the children. The children in America today, who I am related to or see occasionally or worked with last year while tutoring at the middle school. The fact about the children is that, sometimes sadly, they are the future.

Sure, our generation’s going to be in positions of power within the next couple decades, and that’s scary, but the little kid of today, as I was telling Ashley yesterday, is the businessman, upstanding citizen, and voter of tomorrow. Actually, I think I said something like “the little moron of today.” The kids you see doing senseless, stupid, often violent, meaningless things. Kids to whom a book is anathema; to whom anything created before their lifetime – or even before the past 2-3 years – is “old” and “boring.” I’m not a universal naysayer (though, I admit, something of a curmudgeon) who says that kids today are little hooligans who won’t stay the fuck off my lawn (seriously, though. Don’t think I don’t know where my apples are disappearing to). I’m just concerned. I have worked with a bunch of fucking 12-year-olds and seen that most of them have little to no interest in reading, let alone if the reading is “hard.” One little kid was committed to becoming a trucker, come what may, and was unwilling to consider any future that didn’t fall within the realm of “becoming a trucker.” Now, I have nothing against truckers. But really, when you think about what the world needs, does your mind jump to “more truckers”? Nothing against this kid, either. It’s cute that he’s got his whole life planned out before him. But you know what the world really needs more of? Open-mindedess. Hey, if I can open my mind up to cultural experiences I didn’t expect to enjoy, 12-year-olds can do it too, dammit. To quote our disgraced ex-president, “Is our children learning?” Now, most of us have gone through the American public school system at some point. And, as I’ve discussed with Ashley, kids are damn lucky if, despite being where they are, they’re able to explore new, interested, or unusual ideas.

I’m not sure why, exactly, I’m so concerned about this. Maybe because I know what it’s like to be that age, since that was the part of my life right before this one. Maybe it’s because, as my father has very often pointed out, I’m just a natural teacher, who has often been inclined toward working with kids and teaching them. I don’t particularly like children. I think they’re usually too noisy, often frustrating, and tend to be nasty little buggers who should really just shut up and go away from me. Go away! (Younger siblings sometimes give one post-traumatic stress disorder.)

And you know, I love using the word “bugger.” I really do. Bugger! British profanity is so bloody fun. Bollocks! America, you are missing out by not considering words like “bugger” and “bloody” to be taboo. Also, if Sid & Nancy is to be believed, the English are a lot freer about use of the word “cunt.” (More information on this topic here.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I think using “cunt” as an insult toward a woman is bloody ridiculous and offensive and completely impermissible (is “impermissible” really a word?). But using it to refer to the vagina is something me and Ashley do all the fucking time. Cunt is just one of those “four-letter words” that, containing only 4 letters, capture a profound simplicity. Shit. 4 letters, referred to in youth as the “S-H” word, kids sometimes would dare each other to say “sit” with their tongues out. Somehow I’m just fascinated by childhood practices like this. Maybe it’s because people form their personality, prejudices, etc. in childhood. Everything solidifies. And childhood sexuality is strangely fascinating, too. (Ashley and I have had long, intriguing discussions on this, too.) I’m not saying any kind of pedophilic bullshit about how, oh, children + sexuality = fun. Ohh, pedophilia. God, this reminds me of a grim story. Because, OK, there was this friend of mine, and I spent lots of time at his house. And sometimes his friend, who was, oh, 3-4 years younger than us, would come over. My friend’s friend had a little sister. She was about as old as my friend’s little sisters, so about 6-7 years younger than us. And so, the point is this: one time, the younger boy said to me something like, “My friend such-and-such takes his fingers and…” basically, I think, felt around in his little sister’s genitalia. He told this to me once, I kind of tried to forget about it thereafter, and I’m only just now randomly remembering it. It’s a kind of disturbing story to retell. I have no idea what the full story was; I didn’t know this kid that well, or his family, or who his friend was who was doing this. Maybe it was just curiosity and maybe it just occurred this one time. I have no idea. I never repeated this to anyone and God, only now am I thinking in retrospect that maybe I should’ve. At least to me, it feels like a gray, gray area. What do you do when someone you barely know tells you something that traumatic? What’s the proper way to react? This happens to everyone at some point or another. Some dirty, unpleasant story or sentence that you really just didn’t want to hear, and when they tell it to you, it feels like they’re putting an unfair burden on you.

This reminds me yet again of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which I mentioned in my last blog as well. I think of her accounts of brief sexual incidents in childhood, and her ways of recording menstruation and masturbation in her diary. Mentioning those two words in the same sentence brings up a somewhat funnier story from my own adolescence, but I don’t think I’ll recount it just now. My point is that pre-adult sexuality is fraught with awkwardness. It’s in every coming-of-age story. And it’s in every single person’s childhood. Everyone wonders what, exactly, their genitals are for. Why are these strangely-designed organs sitting moistly between my legs? Why am I not supposed to talk about them? What’s this secret I hear whispered by the dirty-minded older kids on the playground? And herein lies a big question. Should kids be informed that, yes, there is this little part of life called sex, and that’s what those are for, but just wait, I’ll explain it to you when you start bleeding / having erections, and for now just keep it to yourself and keep your underwear on?

I am grateful that I am not and will hopefully never be a parent and have to answer this question. Nonetheless, it has major implications for all of us. And dammit, the answers are important. It’s not just about children. It’s about helping huge amounts of people live better, happier lives – after all, children’s TV shows and books and magazines is a big industry. They start early with everything. Me and Ashley are thinking about making a coloring & activity book for her little niece and nephew. We want to see them, and my little sister, and every little kid grow up into a healthy, intelligent, well-informed, well-adjusted adult. Not a boring, normal person, mind you, but someone who appreciates and enjoys their own unique ideas and idiosyncrasies. It’s about producing generations of people who can make the world end up better than it is now (and veer it off the path of destruction). We’ll see what we can do.

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Filed under Media, Personal, Sexuality

Thought smorgasbord

It’s Friday night. Earlier things felt a little grim. Maybe because I spent my time at work playing stupid online quizzes instead of taking in works of art. Because hey, all I had to do was sit back, finish a movie, listen to music, and voila: the feeling went away. And now it’s midnight and everything’s peachy and beautiful. And I’m going to sneeze. Achoo. There. I sneezed. Sneezes are funny. Some people I have known go “A-too” in a squeakily adorable way. I go, “Aschplsm!” or some comparable noise and eject mucus at some ridiculous speed from my nose. And as we all know, there’s that old tradition: a sneeze is your soul trying to escape. Which is a scary thought. Hence the “Gesundheit!” and “God bless you!” I have fun saying “Bless you!” to people with whom I would not otherwise normally converse, and hearing them go, “Thank you,” in response. It’s a pleasant, socially acceptable interaction. Ain’t just that grand. I’m going to toss out a guess that the tradition (accompanying belief) maybe comes from medieval Europe, because they tended to come up with crazy traditions like that. After some brief research (typing “sneeze soul escape” into Google; ain’t the Internet also grand?), I have found that, as suspected, Cecil Adams (the self-declared “World’s Smartest Human”) has the answer – or at least, an answer. He doesn’t get too specific on the escaping-soul thing. But as I suspected, there is a link between the Black Death and “bless you.” But still, with the idea of the soul escaping – which, as the article hints at, may be in my mind largely because of the Simpsons – that just strikes me as weird. Why would your soul attempt to escape? What magical forces are holding it back, which can be thwarted with something as casual and frequent as a single sneeze? Also, if you read to the end of the article, you’ll see more examples of what I was discussing the other day, stupid traditions.

Those stupid traditions reminded me of back when I was in elementary school. We were trying to come up with rhymes to act as superstitions. And I think… some of them involved finding a penny on the ground. And it was like, “If it’s on heads…”, oh, probably “you’ll soon be dead.” And I recall saying, “If it’s on tails, you’ll be eaten by a whale.” Meaning two things: 1) at age 8 or so, I had poor poetic abilities and 2) those two rhymes, put together, make kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Which I think I realized, even at that young age. The conclusion? The superstitions little kids come up with can be dumb. And who ever forgets “step on a crack, make your brother’s break your mother’s back”? Jesus Christ, that must’ve led hundreds, thousands of kids into years of therapy and struggling with OCD! I guess the main issue is whether the kid’s the kind who takes everything to heart, takes it all dead serious (i.e., little me) or the kind who shrugs everything off and just goes on with his/her cute little 3rd grade life. I don’t remember too much of my early life, but sometimes I do look back and smile at disbelief.

And OK, I was pondering this the other day: next year, my old high school will welcome the class of 2014. This means they were born around 1996-97. I.e., they experienced birth around the same time I was coming up with dumb new superstitions for myself. (Pssst – for a great account of childhood OCD, read Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home. I just turned in a paper about it [“Sexual Shame and Identity in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home“] this morning as part of my writing portfolio. Great, engrossing graphic novel.) Um, where was I? Oh, right, the fact that the gap is steadily increasing between my age and the age of those who are very young. Time passes in strange ways. And it passes quickly. Though sometimes too slowly (for example, this fucking month). I once heard a quote, maybe apocryphal, but amusing enough: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” Attributed, of course, to Albert Einstein. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with the physics kind of relativity, but it nicely sums up the more personal, day-to-day type: time flies when you’re having fun (also, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” That was my quote in the yearbook my senior year of high school; I kid you not). And time slows to a crawl when you’re suffering. Or bored. Or glancing at the clock every few minutes during your two-hour class hoping to get out so you can go eat and then relax. To give a completely hypothetical example. So, what’s my point here? Am I just repeating a commonly known, intuitively obvious fact? For the most part, yes. But… I don’t know. Perception of time is a strange and interesting thing. I wouldn’t mind getting sealed into a John Lilly-style isolation tank someday to see how fast or slow time seems to pass, just so long as I didn’t regress into a feral monkey-thing like in Altered States. That was a pretty disappointing movie. I’m willing to give Ken Russell another chance or two – and Tommy, at least, did have fittingly astounding visuals – but still. Where was I? Oh, yeah, time. According to David Bowie, it “flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor,” which are certainly fun lyrics, but don’t really offer me any clues. (Bowie also observes that it “may change [him], but [he] can’t trace [it]”.) Call me ridiculous – go on, do it! – but I have enjoyed substituting quoted words with other words in brackets since, oh, 11th grade or so. When I realized that I could do it, when I put 2 and 2 together and realized that just like all the quotes with bracketed words I’d read in books, I too could bracket words in quotes – I felt like a whole new world of writing was opening up to me. And I still get a childish thrill out of doing it, the same thrill that maybe someone would get from being able to supervise a controlled demolition, or sit in the president’s chair, or some other nonsensical comparison. Maybe it’s because it feels like a professional writer sort of thing. I’m not sure. But even now, even probably in my Fun Home essay, it’s as fun as, oh, 1/2 barrels of monkeys. Maybe 2/3 barrels if it’s a particularly masterful brackets-in-quotes example?

So the moral of the story is, I learned in quiz bowl a week or two ago that a certain group of Native American supposedly comprehended time differently than we do, and this was taken as evidence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a complicated (and largely discredited) linguistics theory I both don’t want to and can’t explain, because I don’t really understand it. I think I first learned of Sapir-Whorf on the Wikipedia page about Newspeak from 1984. And I think I’ve related it to a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein that hung above the English section of my old high school: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I guess I have always found this interesting – how language can affect, well, what we talk about, and how we talk about it. Like with reclaiming words, something I recently suggested doing with “lover.” I refer to Ashley as “lover” all the fucking time. But generally it’s seen as “someone who fucks someone else.” Hence, even though “love” is right there in the word, the two of us are doubted when we use “lover” with regard to our relationship. I remember once I had an experience where I was walking randomly along a sidewalk in Excelsior, Minnesota, when a car drove by and I heard three simultaneous insults. For your benefit, I later drew a little comic about it.

An incident

I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly hurt by insults yelled from a moving vehicle. And when those insults have been homophobic, I practically perk up with pride. A tear comes to my eye. “Some ignorant redneck just called me a homo!” I cry in glee. “God, I must be doing something right!” And when the insults are racist, and even directed at races of which I am not visibly a member? Same reaction. What I guess just confuses me is the idea of these moronic teenagers driving around Minnesotan suburbs (after all, I had an almost identical experience while walking to our apartment in Mound) screaming homophobic and racist slurs out of car windows. It’s just a “What the fuck?” moment. Kind of like just now, when I heard some guy yelling insults at a girl, who was also yelling, before I heard slamming of doors, loud crashes, and angry, running footsteps. All this in a dormitory where hundreds of students live, at 1 in the morning. Come to think of it, I have a lot of “what the fuck?” moments. It just puzzles me to no end, trying to figure out how it is that people think some things are acceptable. (Of course, when you get into the serial killer or war crimes area… Hannah Arendt can figure that out if she wants, because I just fucking give up.)

Since I’ve mentioned my old high school a couple times, you know what pissed me off to no end a couple years ago? That moronic ritual where teenagers get the dumbfuck idea in their heads to throw toilet paper all over someone’s lawn. Yeah, you motherfuckers, that’s a real good plan. And then fight violently with other people who are also throwing toilet paper. Um, is there something wrong with me? That I can’t see how that’s so fun? Why, pardon me, I guess I was never educated in the divine pleasures of wrecking shit and making obnoxious messes. Yes, I’m overreacting, and yes, this was a couple years ago, but moronic little fuckers are still driving around, eager to throw toilet paper and call people “fucking fags.” As time goes by, I’m getting more and more curious about somehow getting involved in education or mentoring or something to prevent very small children from becoming very stupid, slightly larger children. It’s just depressing to imagine. I also want to get them to watch movies that don’t suck. Because it’s also depressing to imagine kids growing up without ever hearing the words “Asa nisi masa,” and thinking that “Rosebud” is a sled instead of a clitoris. (Long story.)

And so I’m getting as well-educated in film as I can, to maybe better educate others. Is that a pretentious or egotistical way of thinking? Oh, I’m so sophisticated and intelligent, only I can tell you what to like. But that’s not how it is. At least, I hope it’s not. I’m often terrified of being too ego-driven. I shudder at the thought of it. It’s nice to not hate yourself, but don’t go overboard. Speaking of the ego, did you know there was a Marvel supervillain named Ego, the Living Planet? Guess what it was. Just guess. That reminds me of Krakoa, who I think was a sentient island – and of course one of my favorite superheroes (going by a loose definition of the word), Danny the Street from Doom Patrol. Who was a street. Who could move anywhere on earth where there were streets. Did I mention he was a transvestite, and communicated by rearranging letters in buildings, uh, along himself? Moral of the story? I want to be selfless and learn that I may do good for others. Also, Danny the Stree is awesome. You know who selflessly does good for others? Danny the Street. And speaking of transvestites, transvestitism is awesome. But that’s another blog write there. (To be written shortly after I receive some personal experience in the topic; start the countdown!) I’m sick of gender-specific clothing anyway. It’s frequently just an enabler of gender-biased behavior in the first place. I refuse to be insulted anymore by people mistaking my gender. I keep finding myself comparing mankind to the Eloi and the Morlocks from The Time Machine, but seriously: someday we’ll just be like the Eloi, with male and female all wearing loose, comfy robes. And Yvette Mimieux will probably be involved somehow.

[I ended up titling this blog using a long Swedish word that’s hard to spell. In Norwegian, we use unique funny letters instead of just adding umlauts to everything. But the Swedes are cool. Or the Bergmans (Ingrid and Ingmar) are at least. Whatever.]

Speaking of shedding gender-specific clothes, the other day at body positivity group I was briefly involved in a discussion about nudist colonies. And someone mentioned the idea of a nudist colony where nudity is optional – where, if you feel like it, you can wear just a shirt, or a dress, or just shoes, or whatever! I like that a lot more than dogmatically requiring everyone to be naked as a jaybird (a beautifully quaint phrase) 24/7. It reminds me of that quote I find myself coming back to time and time again, from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): “Back to nature! Clothes are a blight on civilization! Back to nature!” Even if this was said by a drunken, pants-less man feeding donuts to a horse. That’s not the point. It’s the thought that counts, or some similarly meaningless cliche. My point? Clothes suck. I’m okay with wearing them most of the time, provided I don’t have to put any thought into them or wear anything uncomfortable, but by the time clothes become strictly ritualized, codified, and their codification develops into an industry itself – that’s just scary. Scarier than the dream I had recently where I don’t remember what happened in it, but when I woke up I had to check to make sure my teeth were all there. I really had better not get started on fashion. It’s late and there are movies to watch and a lover to be with.

So I hope I gave you a little food for thought. And after all, “If movies be the food of thought, watch on…”

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Filed under Body, Personal

But it’s always been that way!

So, we got out of class 20 minutes early today, and even if I have the sword-of-Damocles of responsibility hanging over my head (damn writing portfolios), I wanted to write a blog. About what, you may ask? I’m not sure. But it usually comes. And if it doesn’t, I just give up and go home. Except I am home. Or am I? I’ve long been confused about this vague, dubiously meaningful concept of “home.” You know, “There’s no place like home.” Be it ever so humble. Humble abode. A house is not a home? Or, as we learned in my melodrama class, home is the “space of innocence” in which melodramas (like, archetypically, D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East) begin. I randomly just thought of Jules Dassin’s great film noir Thieves’ Highway, which begins with the hero (Richard Conte) coming back from WWII. He finally reenters his home, starts doling out gifts to his parents and girlfriend, when all of a sudden it’s revealed: his father has no legs. This leads back to an incident involving an unscrupulous fruit merchant, motivating the revenge that dominates the rest of the film. But the point is that he comes back home, attempting to “Return to Normalcy” as Warren G. Harding would’ve put it, and finds that something is very much rotten in the state of California.

This is a common plot device (which has its own trope, Doomed Hometown) that basically feeds on the desire for everything to be good, normal, and how it used to be. When the hero comes back from the war, he expects to find his family just as happy and his hometown just as idyllic as it was when he was little. We certainly get a strong dose of this in that quintessential melodrama Gone with the Wind: what example in American history is as obvious as the Atlantan aristocrats who endure the Civil War only to see their old, beloved plantation and way of life literally burned to the ground by Union soldiers, just as certainly as the stormtroopers burned Uncle Owen’s moisture plantation in Star Wars, or the image that inspired that, the burning of the family house by Indians at the beginning of The Searchers. In these latter two examples, the destruction of the home serves a dual purpose, in that it both motivates revenge (setting in motion the hero’s journey) and makes it so there’s nowhere for the hero to come back to anyway, so he has to seek out the wrongdoers and make them pay.

So, the home. It’s a strange idea. What is home? The place that little bastard E.T. phones? Where the heart is? What the fuck is “the heart,” anyway? Sometimes I just hate tedious little adages like that. “Home is where the heart is.” Well, thank you! That’s so specific and meaningful! It’s not just repeating an old grouping of words with about as much magic power and insight into the human condition as “abracadabra.” I hate it when people just spout bullshit because people have said it before them. I say this over and over again: I can think of few reasons to do something worse than “people have done it before”! You know, committing murder has a long tradition in the human race. Does that make it a real valid course of action? Racism was law in America for 400 years. Does that make it a great way to live your life? In the 16th century, the Catholic Church condemned a heliocentric view of the universe. Is it therefore inappropriate to teach in schools? My point is, tradition can have its good points, but tradition is never good just because it’s tradition.

Another example: Ashley recently told me how at a wedding she attended, they celebrated a tradition where apparently the bride and groom each cut off a piece of the wedding cake and smash it in each other’s faces. And I spent about the next five minutes shaking my head in disbelief, going, “What the fuck is that? Why? Why? Why would you ever consent to doing something that deeply stupid?” So from the sounds of it, there’s a lot of idiotic traditions revolving around marriage. You have to do this, you have to do that. Why? Because people have done it before! And OK, some traditions, if they’re remotely meaningful or cute or whatever, I can appreciate. Doing moronic bullshit just because you’re supposed to is something I despise. I mean, what’s going to happen if you don’t follow all the stupid traditions? Maybe someone will get all upset and confused and go, “No, you have to do the cake-smashing thing, because that’s how it’s always been done! Intelligence be damned!” Maybe they’ll protest along lines that are frighteningly similar to the reasoning used by the village elders in “The Lottery.” Maybe, little did we know, but those stupid traditions were in fact holding together the fabric of the universe, and since you failed to do them, the sky is going to come apart at the seams. But I think it’s worth the risk. Seriously, it’s like people let their ceremonies be guided by a kind of collective OCD.

I think this also connects back to a basic tension underlying a lot of human behavior, beliefs, and also fiction: old vs. new. And not just that; to elaborate, people like novelty. It makes little chemicals fire in the brain and they go, “Oooohhh…” But change is scary, and people also like it when things stay the same. So when you try to suggest something new or different, even if it’s useful and good, they’ll fight back with all they’ve got because it makes them uncomfortable. (After all, “there’s a storm gathering.”) So what do these two ideas mean together? That, I think, human beings are a bunch of fucked-up little monkeys with inherently dysfunctional brains. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But I’m sleepy and have to leave for class in 10 minutes, so pardon me if I cut some corners.

Let’s see, any other thoughts been percolating up in this ol’ head of mine? Well, I did want to write something about Edith Massey, one of John Waters’ Dreamlanders, just because she’s so fucking awesome. I’ve been watching and rewatching a clip from Pink Flamingos for my final project in digital storytelling, and every single time I hear her say how she’s going to eat her eggie-weggies before she goes sleepy, I just crack up (pun apparently intended). Massey is really just one of a kind. Here’s a sample of her unique acting genius:

Apparently in Female Trouble, she dresses like a dominatrix. I’m not overstating it when I say I have to see that movie. Also, I have a copy of Massey singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” with her novelty/punk band, Edie and the Eggs. Words escape me. The world clearly needs more actresses like Massey. (Incidentally, though she died 25 years ago, you can read about her and her band, and listen to her music, here.)

And now I’d best be off to class where we’ll discuss Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983). Enjoy your day.

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Filed under Cinema, Politics

Judging bodies and profiling actors

Finally, finally, I am writing another blog. So what thoughts have I had on my mind lately? My skin itches. Itches are funny things. If you have an itch, you have to scratch. Human skin itches and it’s a little, unpleasant sensation, sometimes intense and sometimes barely noticeable, that basically screams to your brain, “ITCH ME!” It wants y0u to drag your fingernails across it, or something sharp. An itch might be a kind of pain, or it might be a feeling below pain. It doesn’t quite hurt; it just requires action. Living in a human body is a strange experience overall. I’ve always felt as much. Everything reports back to your brain, but it took a long time for us to figure that out; we don’t experience our lives through our brains, but through our senses. I guess we perceive our selves as being localized around our eyeballs. Sight is our primary sense. So where does a blind person perceive themselves as being localized? I like looking into how the lives of the disabled are different from the lives of us – are we really the “abled”? The blind, the deaf, the mute, those with fewer limbs… it’s so fascinating to imagine seeing the world from a different body. I think a lot of movies manage that, giving us a brush with difference. And so, I was just thinking of a few either Oscar-nominated or well-recognized voiceless performances: Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948); Marlee Matlin (who’s actually deaf) in Children of a Lesser God (1986); Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993). Wikipedia reminds me: Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962) and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Which in turn reminds me – I was looking the other day for footage from Deliverance (1919), a movie produced by Helen Keller and based on her life. I didn’t find anything from that movie sadly, and I doubt I will in the near future, but I did find this great video:

I’ve also read about – and would love to see – Werner Herzog’s early documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which profiles a deaf-blind woman. My point is that film can be a powerful way to experiencing difference. Especially when you’re led through the magic of narrative to identify with a character, and thereby take on their attributes and disabilities to yourself. You recognize your own weaknesses in the protagonist, and you can be led without realizing it to get a deeper understanding of difficulties you’ve never personally had. This connects to what I’ve said about horror movies, too; being led to identify with Frankenstein’s Monster leads you to simultaneously recognize him as being the Other, but since he’s the protagonist, you see in him everything rejected or hated about yourself. It’s an interesting kind of tension in spectatorship that I’d like to investigate further.

I’d like to segue into crystallizing an idea I’ve talked about with Ashley many times. It’s been said before, but I’m going to repeat it. Basically, it’s this: You do not have the right to judge whether someone’s body is good or bad. You never have the right to determine absolutely whether or not someone has a valid, acceptable body. Not you nor your friends nor society nor anyone at all. Because every single human body is just that: a body. (And when a body meet a body coming through the rye…) Some bodies are big, some are small. Some short and some are tall. Some are fat and some are thin; some… well, I can’t sustain a rhyme, but you see what I mean. Some have big noses, others have little noses. Some have light skin, others have dark skin, and others still have dark skin with light parts, or light skin with dark parts. Every culture, every era, and every group of people have their own idea of what constitutes beautiful. I guess when it comes to fashion magazines, beauty changes every other month. (As my father informed in euphemized terms, “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one.”) The point is that no single attribute of a human body is objectively bad. Some bodies are diseased. This is unfortunate, but they still have a body which must be respected as such; all bodies were created equal, because we are not a fucking thing but flesh and bone. (Blood, fibers, keratin, etc., you get the idea.) I think kids should be taught this from an early age. Fucking schoolkids reinforce shallowness and body negativity like every schoolkid before them by taunting for the same goddamn reasons – someone looks funny, or slightly unusual, or has some physical attribute than another kid deems worthy of mockery. I’m all for retaining valuable rites of passage and innocence in childhood, etc., whatever. What is the lesson of, “Ha, ha, you look vaguely different!”? That other people will hate you because of your appearance? FUCK THAT. My time’s running short, but this bullshit has always pissed me off. Shallowness is enforced in every aspect of our society. My point is a basic one, and it’s that my body is just as good as your body. Which is just as good as a model’s body. Which is just as good as the body is a 300 pound woman with one leg. Which is just as good as an athlete’s body. Which is just as good as a dwarf’s body. Which is just as good as mine. Because what the fuck does “good” mean in the end, anyway? An athlete’s body is more capable of running and jumping than mine; I grant this. A model’s body might be smaller than the overweight amputee; how is that a mark of being “better” in general? She might have a number of limbs closer to that which she was born with. But what does that mean? My point is that people who insult or mock those who look different are worthless fucking morons themselves, and it’s nothing against their bodies, but it does show that the minds occupying them are shallow and unable to accurately evaluate other people. I may go more into depth about this later, but that’s the general idea: there are no “good” bodies or “bad” bodies. You decide how good your own body is, and no one else has the right to determine that for you.

Finally, I’ve wanted to write about certain actors recently. And I think I’ll start by talking briefly about Charles Laughton. Laughton is – God, where to start? He was a great actor. Not really a “movie star,” even though he could do Shakespeare and act opposite Clark Gable and Maureen O’Hara, and he carried a number of movies by himself. His single directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, is one of the great films and in a class by itself, a unique, beautiful vision that captures ideas and images no other film has quite managed. When acting, Laughton’s roles varied from cowards and buffoons to great, bloated symbols of power and corruption. He’s magnificent in his last role playing Senator Seab Cooley in Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), in which he’s nominally the villain, but really an integral part of America’s two-party system, as the aged southern senator who sits over the rest of the Senate like a tiger batting a mouse around in its paws. I’ve noticed over and over – in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Paradine Case (1947), acting under Wilder and Hitchcock respectively – how Laughton can easily fit himself into any place in the justice system, acting like a chess piece in the machine of jurisprudence, fully aware of the mechanisms operating around him. When Laughton is in control of a situation, he can easily be scary; he was the original Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and you can really imagine him playing God! After all, he was doing it for half his career. Then there’s the matter of Laughton’s appearance.Charles Laughton

He has a fascinating, craggy, offbeat face. Like I said before: no movie-star glamor. He was an actor. He could be likeable, he could be a bastard. This also connects to my points earlier about people trying to put labels of attractiveness on others’ bodies. (Oddly enough.) You can’t do that with Charles Laughton. He was the affable hero of Jean Renoir’s American wartime allegory This Land Is Mine (1943), as well as his next movie, Jules Dassin’s early comedy The Canterville Ghost (1945). He was Rembrandt and King Henry VIII (I want to see both movies). He could be larger-than-life, or he could demonstrate that you didn’t need to be pretty to star in a movie. Also, very appropriately, he starred (again opposite Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda) in the post-Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Oh, and that’s right, he also embodied the extreme decadence of Christianity-oppressing Rome while playing an indulgent, hedonistic Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932). Sometimes he was excess and measured sadism incarnate; other times he was cuddly and lovable. Charles Laughton is just a great figure in film history, and I really think he fits well with the other ideas I’ve been discussing today. Look into his face. Sometimes maybe you’ll find the grim depths of absolute authority. Other times you’ll see the pain of being different. Another fun fact? Laughton was also homosexual, despite being married to his close friend Elsa Lanchester (aka the Bride of Frankenstein). It really just adds an additional level to what I’ve been discussing here. If you’ve never seen him, check out Hunchback or Witness for the Prosecution whenever they’re available. You will not be disappointed.

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