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Category: Pop Zeitgeist (Page 3 of 3)

American Spring Imminent

American Spring Imminent

American Spring Imminent

Film still of Kirsten Dunst as a lusty Marie Antoinette in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”

When we consider a society of grotesque economic contrasts, Paris, autumn, 1788, is a fine starting point. France had its own 99%–in fact, less than one half of one percent of the population belonged to a noble family. They sequestered themselves in large estates or the proverbial ivory tower. Imagine starving mobs roaming septic gutters desperate for breadcrumbs while the Royal Circle and its entitled entourage indulge in haute cuisine between languid positions on chaise lounges swilling Don Perignon, fluffing their powdered wigs now and then while quoting Voltaire ironically. Some twerpy duke with a peacock feather in his hat observes the gathering of the clouds and fidgets his painted fingernails with an ivory pick nervously. “Relax!” orders a marquis, belching through his third aperitif, “Don’t worry about the stupid peasants. Les imbeciles! History is on our side! This rabblerousing will be over by next summer!”

It’s interesting how the more things change the more they stay the same. Although it was recently reported by the Census Bureau that nearly one in two Americans live just above or below the poverty line, you’d hardly notice this disturbing trend the way pop culture filters out the losers on television where we are treated to conspicuous consumption on a lavish scale, from reality TV to sitcoms featuring handsome, do-nothing bourgeois bores. In the real world, there is plenty of bling for those few who can afford it and no shortage of tasteless supermarket cake for those who can’t. Look, I’m not flippant enough to suggest that Kim Kardashian is our Marie Antoinette or that tactless founts of wealth like Michael Bloomberg or Donald Trump are our Louies. But the contrast of lifestyle capacities is too great to not stand some dire correction.

American Spring Imminent

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a loose confederacy of radicals, activists, and all-American downwardly mobile individuals seeking to implement that correction. It began on the 17th of September and seemed to peak (at least in newsworthiness) in mid-October with major confrontations in New York City, Oakland and elsewhere, tailing off the media radar precipitously following the eviction of occupiers in Zuccotti Park in early November. Notwithstanding Time Magazine naming its Man of the Year ‘The Protester’ it seems that the OWS movement as it is known by its colloquial shorthand has lost its momentum.

If the protesters are a collective Frankenstein monster then it is laissez-faire capitalism operating as the mad doctor that has loosed this fright upon the land. Click To Tweet

But this is a false calm. Discontent in America is not going to go away by simply pretending it doesn’t exist. It may hibernate this winter, but in the spring thaw with the American economy unlikely to have improved by any measure and no comprehensive reforms enacted repairing a structurally flawed system, the protests will return this coming spring and summer. The ideas germinating from tents, zines, and blogs will shape the political conversation at the expense of those in power. The numbers of those petitioning and demonstrating for authentic change will grow spectacularly and they will not go quietly away, not when they have nothing left to lose. The system may strip a man of his job, savings, health care, and future but now it must deal with the consequences of this immoral appropriation when at last it confronts an army of individuals who have been stripped of everything, save dignity and self-respect.

Now I could be absolutely wrong. If this latest Black Friday was any indication, Americans can’t get enough distracting crap, whether its flat screen TVs, video game consoles, tablet devices, or toasters. And I may not be in a proper place to read the mood of the zeitgeist— I have been out of America since the protests began and have not been able to participate in the movement whatsoever. My views have been shaped by selective Internet literature, albeit a biased progressive reading list. But you don’t need a weatherman to feel the weather. Follow it long enough and you can see the patterns in place.

What I find most mysterious about the OWS movement is that it’s taken this long to develop in the first place. The last decade has witnessed one scandal after another, everything from a presidency decided by an ideological supreme court to a tragic, expensive war trumped up with false evidence to a financial system rewarding the most reckless maneuvers. An atmosphere of permissive graft and corruption pervades Wall Street and Washington. That no one in power is punished and that for all the mockery of civic justice there is almost no reform demonstrates the great gulf between the power elite and the masses. They treat us with such contempt because they believe they can get away with it. That they have succeeded this long without a major pushback is incredible.

And if anything from the last three months is any indication, the politicians and the CEOs are out of their league. The brutal crackdown on non-violent protesters, cops pepper-spraying pretty twenty-year old women and baton-whacking jobless Iraq vets, lacks good PR, even if the boys being beaten have beards and the girls butch cuts. The average American, for all his ostensible moviegoing habits, doesn’t feel good when someone gets the billy club in the face and the blood on the screen is real.

The whole world is watching: the pointed accusation from the sixties has never been more relevant. You’d think they’d figured out that for every demonstration there are about two cameramen for each protester and that the bully shtick would go viral. Indifferent or just plain stupid, the powers-that-be seem surprisingly adept at manufacturing sympathetic martyrs.

Tomorrow’s protester knows no color or gender. Economic depravity is a mainstream problem that will lead to mainstream calls to action. Click To Tweet

American Spring Imminent

The Peaceful stance of Occupy Wall Street : Sacramento will not go away

And many of those who have bravely stood their ground against aggressive police tactics only to have their heads cracked or spleen busted are exactly that: martyrs. Though that is not how they are presented by television analysts. They prefer to call the protesters shiftless losers, drug-addled degenerates, and homeless bums. They are right in some respects. Many of the protesters are losers, addicts, and derelicts. That this is so is indicative of the economic system that created them (they weren’t born that way). If the protesters are a collective Frankenstein monster then it is laissez-faire capitalism operating as the mad doctor that has loosed this fright upon the land.

But we cannot completely fault the cops for their actions. After all, they are taking orders from their bosses. Let’s be clear: we absolve the state to a degree when we call their work ‘police brutality.’ The men behind the curtain have sent out their ultimatums, conjuring this horrific atmosphere of ‘institutional violence.’ As it will go, the presidential candidates will appropriate the populist rhetoric in an insincere attempt to demonstrate they are agreeable to people power. Their oral flatulence will be especially hypocritical when contrasted with the inevitable crackdown on the streets.

The downwardly mobile, newly destitute man on the street is going to make it hard for gladhanding Republicans and Democrats to wax lyrically on the platitudes of that decaying, intangible artifact, American optimism. The old line of thought—that your life and livelihood will be better than your parents—has been outsourced to manufacturing centers in Mexico and Vietnam.

Protest is the latest, inevitable, and perhaps most necessary development of globalization. With the Internet liberalizing both restricted information and organizational infrastructure, those alienated by political and economic disenfranchisement feel a part of something rather apart from something. The media wants you to believe that protesting is a fringe activity, beneath the civic duty of good citizens. But it will be everyday people–not activists–that will make the difference.

What will come in the next decade will overshadow the sixties. Back then it was marginal groups—African Americans, peaceniks, gays, feminists, and indigenous Americans—challenging the deficiencies in the status quo. Tomorrow’s protester knows no color or gender. Economic depravity is a mainstream problem that will lead to mainstream calls to action.

Civilization is alive. It is in constant motion, much like the tectonic plates of our planet pressed against each other, reaching a point of incredible pressure that can only be relieved with great upheaval. The social model as we live in it was born in 1989 with the triumph of free market capitalism over Soviet-style communism. Led by America’s privatization-happy formula, it had a good run but overreached itself. For those excluded from the winnings, it can seem all too unbelievable that civilization’s advances in humanitarian thought, economic theory, and multiple breakthroughs in science and technology have led us to this precipice? Is this the best we can do, Voltaire’s hypothetical best of all possible worlds?

American Spring Imminent The aftermath of the French Revolution led to a reign of terror, a power-mad demagogue, and a twenty-year war. The violence in Egypt and especially Libya, Syria, and Yemen are cautionary tales to governments resistant to progressive currents. It’s in the best of all of our interests to avoid the tragic disasters that befell these other places. When it reaches a point of no return, the U.S. government will have two options: it will have to acknowledge and implement much-needed reforms (i.e. a massive redistribution of wealth from corporations and the Billionaire’s Club to the State) or oversee a massive crackdown. This second option may be tempting for a government looking increasingly to China as the model of authoritarian free market capitalism. However, this Faustian bargain, while shoring up the status quo in the short term, would irreparably undermine American democracy for a long time, perhaps for all time.

Nothing is inevitable, but in a very near future, sides will be chosen. There is only one direction history can take if we are to believe that civilization is a slow march forward lighting the dark. We can only hope that those who will have to sacrifice to the greater good are cognizant of the tides of change and move with swift and good conscience.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Because we live in a 24-hour news cycle you’ve probably heard the story slipped in somewhere between nuclear contamination fears, carnage in Afghanistan and sexual indiscretions of Republican candidates—2005 YU55, a massive asteroid four hundred meters in diameter will pass within the orbit of the moon on November 8th. It’s the closest an asteroid this big has come this close to Earth since 1976. Though scientists have been explicitly clear that there is nothing to worry about, it hasn’t stopped the morbidly inclined of our newspersons from speculating on the high-magnitude earthquake, seventy-foot tsunami waves and various ecological catastrophes associated with such potential deep impact. A cosmic apocalypse can be a boon for ratings.

Another godsend for news-gathering minions is when a famous person expresses “sympathy” for Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, as Lars Von Trier supposedly did at a press conference at Cannes earlier this year. Trier, an idiot savant if there ever was one, was extrapolating carelessly on his genetic ancestry, having recently learned of his German bloodline. His words were taken out of context and French authorities went into a huff. Melancholia, his very great film about a planetary collision wiping out the earth and all existence was disqualified from the Palme d’Or competition.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever named Lars Von Trier as a favorite director. His aesthetics can be wildly inconsistent—in addition to directing lush, surreal melodrama, he is one of the founders of the anti-Hollywood Dogma 95 movement, which among some of its manifesto points, insists on using unknown actors, natural lighting and diegetic music. Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, among other famous names and beginning with a special-effects laden series of moving stills depicting the end of the world to the music of Richard Wagner’s dramatic Tristan und Isolde is decidedly not the latter. Nevertheless, for all its Hollywood stars and high-concept content, Melancholia is very European in tone, execution, and ultimately, pessimism.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Why the long face beautiful? Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia"

If a diabolical European filmmaker is going to sabotage our relation with certain beloved tropes then, he may as well begin the story with a white wedding at a Cinderella-style castle, celebrating a bride and groom whose love story is utterly doomed. Justine (Dunst), a gorgeous, busty blonde is to marry handsome nice guy Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at her sister, Claire’s (Gainsbourg) and husband, John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) sprawling garden estate. Claire has taken the trouble to organize the gala and John has bankrolled an event with hundreds of beautiful people in attendance. The problem is Justine: she suffers from crippling depression and tends to disappear in key ceremonial moments.

We don’t know why Justine is sad. She’s a successful copywriter but she doesn’t like her job (her boss is a slimeball played by Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard). Her divorced parents make spectacles of themselves. Her father (John Hurt) is a philandering, unserious drunkard while her mother (Charlotte Rampling) could win a cinematic award in the category of World’s Worst Mom for her bitchiness (she condemns the institution of marriage in her dinner speech and when Justine turns to her in a moment of need has only cold-blooded pragmatism for comfort). Let’s face it: there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and most people have crazy parents so though you may feel ashamed when your father makes an ass of himself at your wedding table, it’s not entirely destabilizing. After all, the sister, Claire, is well adjusted, thoughtful, and kind.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

The director Lars Von Trier in his own Melancholia Poster

It appears then that Justine’s sadness may be of the more inexplicable kind—a nihilism peculiar to certain personalities susceptible to “What’s the point?” thinking. It afflicts those too sensitive of the misery and suffering in the world, for whom the benefits of material security and distraction are of little comfort. It is rather sourceless, or rather, existence itself is source enough.

Justine fails not just on bridal protocol but on moral terms as well, avoiding intimacy with and abandoning Michael to be alone, dragging her gown on the golf course, taking a bath, peeing in the garden and at the moment she should be consummating her marriage, fornicating with a relative stranger on the 18th hole. The planet set to collide with Earth is yet just a speck in the sky but Melancholia is already a disaster film.

With such inauspicious beginnings, the marriage never gets off the ground and following a complete nervous breakdown, Justine moves into the fairy tale castle with John and Claire and their five-year-old son, Leo. A few weeks have passed and it is understood that the rogue planet— named by astronomers as Melancholia— will pass very close to Earth without destroying it, a “fly-by.” Nevertheless, there is an alternative slingshot theory called the “dance of death” that argues that Melancholia will collide with the Earth, though scientific details are somewhat vague. But science is not the point. Trier’s interest is not astrophysics but psychology— how would uniquely polarized personalities deal with the specter of absolute extinction?

Claire, who appreciates her wonderful life and thus has much to lose by certain death, is understandably agitated. On the other hand, Justine feels a kinship with a planet describing her acute condition (she bathes naked in its reflected light one night). That it might destroy the earth gives her a certain amount of vindication and through the ordeal, she is abnormally calm if not excited about total annihilation. It’s what she’s been waiting for her entire life.

Hollywood has a long tradition of end-of-the-world thinking. This makes sense, as after putting together civilization, man has seemed certain of its inevitable destruction (the early 1940s and WWII must have been a boom time for self-professed nihilists). Doomsayers like their fin de siecle preordained, the most topical one being the Mayan calendar and the pseudo-science arguing that the poles will move setting off titanic earthquakes, biblical floods and for the survivors, floating arks to which to start over (already filmed by eminent disaster film guru Roland Emmerich as 2012). When December 21st, 2012, passes without incident, the world’s Chicken Littles will come up with a novel day and method for our demise, sure as tomorrow’s sunrise. Always, it seems there is some cult of fear that gathers enough momentum to infiltrate our collective consciousness— a real pain in the ass for those who enjoy themselves and believe that life on earth is getting better, not worse.

Bummer Trip to the End of the World

Look! The End of the World! Charlotte Gainsbourg & Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia

Eschatological tales have great dramatic potential with a mass audience and Hollywood is wise to capitalize on our fears as such, though its enterprises are often incompetent and buffoonish. The nationalistic Armageddon is among the very worst offenders of bad taste. The problem in nearly all disaster films—rendering them unwatchable for intelligent viewers—is their scattered lack of focus. Instead of the particular, they focus on the general, jumping around the globe, introducing and then ignoring characters in the buildup to the disaster which then becomes this horrible MTV-style edited mess of CGI nonsense that has no coherence for those of us who have not hot-wired our brains on video games and Michael Bay film-making technique. The effect then is not urgency but utter boredom.

What is so very great about Trier’s Melancholia is that we have no idea how the world is reacting to the news of apocalypse—we suffer the fear and resignation with a single family living in an opulent setting isolated from the rest of humanity. There is no television or radio sculpting our emotions, just the phenomenon of the approaching planet itself. No one in this family is capable of doing a thing to prevent destruction should it occur so we are left merely with dealing with it. I cannot think of another disaster film that has let alone the problem solving to focus exclusively on characters that cannot be proactive, who merely react with one line of thought or another until that speck in the sky is the harbinger of our ultimate end.

When the time to die is at hand and Justine’s life philosophy ascendant, she espouses to a desperate and distressed Claire that life on earth is “evil” and we are “alone in the universe.” It’s not a viewpoint one wants to cling to in mortally bad circumstances and again, for optimists it’s a rather dour summation of existence. But for all that, Melancholia finishes beautifully. Of course, how one faces death is more suggestive of one’s character than how one dies, a point asserted with the film’s terrific ending, one of the most dramatic, beautiful, cosmic final flourishes rivaling any movie ever made.

Though we live in the Age of Terror, it’s important to point out that for about forty-five years vis-à-vis the scheming Soviets we were on the brink of mutually assured destruction, a fact of life Generation Y readers cannot contemplate and for this author is a distant childhood memory. That nuclear war has been relegated to history books is just one instance demonstrating human progress. Life on earth is not entirely evil and we are not necessarily alone in the universe. There are many reasons to believe in the Hollywood happy ending, the most important of which is that it suits a beautiful, fulfilling life.

I may be wrong and the end may be nigh—until then we will have to live vicariously through the imagination of depressive dreamers. You can do a lot worse than spending two hours in the dark with Lars Von Trier and friends. One does not need to share his discontent to pleasure in his glorious end-all-be-all. “To life,” John toasts his wife when they mistakenly believe themselves to be in the clear. “To good cinema,” I raise my beer can from a temporarily safe cosmological vantage point.


About the Author

Sean "Smiles" Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan (Manny Santiago)

  • Sean “Smiles” Lotman is a writer based in Kyoto, Japan, who contributes the bi-monthly Pop Zeitgeist column to HESO. His website of writing & photography is here.


Unless otherwise stated All images © HESO Magazine, 2011.

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The Fool on the Hill

The Fool on the Hill

“You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”

— Jodorowsky’s Alchemist

Cinema was developed more than a hundred years ago with purely entertainment purposes in mind: it was a way for an entrepreneur to make a buck. However, it didn’t take the State too long to discover its manifest possibilities as a tool of propaganda, which, more or less, bears little difference to having a warty man with bad breath shouting slogans in your face—disagreeable no matter your politics. Later Hollywood developed guidebooks for living that have evolved with various zeitgeist movements, whether it’s embracing consumerism or choosing to follow one’s dream. “Your life is yours to live!” is a popular New Age bromide for those who need the reminder. To misquote for my own purposes of making a point, “The message is the medium.”

It’s inevitable that many filmmakers will to articulate his politics or belief system in a narrative format. The bravest ones will even try to capture that elusive ghost better known as the meaning of life. Whether or not I agree with the message does not seem the point—most messages are just idealistic clichés anyways, whether good-hearted or not, the candy-coated maxim often interchangeable among very different films. I’m more concerned with the messenger and how he utilizes his imagination to make such points without resorting to saccharine behests or melodramatic drivel. That he succeeds is the difference between good storytelling and bad.

The Fool On the Hill

The Fool on the Hill

Another film poster for The Holy Mountain

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a self-described magical shaman, is generally not a great storyteller and his masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, is not a great story if one defines storytelling by taut structure and a sense of urgency. Now that that beef’s out of the way I can and will say that Jodorowsky is an undeniable genius of the mise-en-scene. Within The Holy Mountain, a brave attempt to dramatize the spiritual quest for immortality, is a world hitherto unseen anywhere in literature or film. One doesn’t just watch The Holy Mountain. One experiences its caterwauling, rank odors, and tactile projections on a very visceral level. A fat woman urinates in a tall toilet, an art magnate pokes the ass of a live human exhibit, the Chief of Police castrates a teenage boy, a crusty, old man removes his glass eye from its socket and hands it to a child prostitute. For those partial to the gross-out, he’s an inspiration unlike any other.

But what is it all supposed to mean? The answer evolves slowly in episodic quantities. The Holy Mountain is set in a disturbing, dystopian future run by perverse industrialists and a corrupted government. Undesirables are publicly executed by firing squads, their bodies mutilated, eviscerated, and pillaged to the delight of camera-toting First World (American) tourists, one of whom is raped by a soldier, the physical violence of which is filmed joyously by her husband on his camcorder. Streetwalkers worship a very bloody crucifix and ply their trade in front of the cathedral. Poverty is endemic, madness ubiquitous.\

Witness to all this is a human savage, revived and cared for by a multiple-amputee gimp. The savage has an unmistakable Christ-like visage in his ratty hair and beard, naked but for a g-string loincloth. If that weren’t enough likeness, he carries an oversized cross, is drugged by obese Roman legionnaire actors, and while passed out his likeness to Jesus is molded and reproduced into a thousand Christs. Through it all, he is more thief than martyr, reacting rather than willing: equally victim and wastrel.

Within this savage society, he discovers a windowless tower rising high out of the human stink. (One is reminded of Kubrick’s black monolith and its mysterious projection of order within chaos.) Into this tower our savage enters a marvelous room painted in bright rainbow colors. Ravi Shankar-style fusion-rock sets the mood. A Bactrian camel looks uselessly on and a statuesque black woman tattooed with enigmatic runes stands guard by a man in white priestly tunic and a conical hat, apparently awaiting the visitor on a throne partly composed of bipedally arranged goats. This man in white is the alchemist. He quickly subdues the savage via some gentle martial arts moves.

You love it or hate it but you never shrug, Meh… Click To Tweet

The alchemist is our guru for the film, played by Jodorowsky himself. He sees potential in the savage as an apprentice (“It is the master who seeks the disciple”) and following a scrub-down baptism in a bathtub with a baby hippo, he educates his inductee in a tarot-themed room on the perversions of politicians and industrialists—“thieves like you”—their wax effigies spaced in niches throughout the round room. The fat middle of the film digresses into their individual biographies, e.g. gluttonous habits and exploitative fortunes, et. al. It is worth going into some detail about these tycoons, as the flesh of power structure is thoroughly skewered in the bizarre presentation of a decadent plutocracy.

There is Fon, of the planet, Venus, heir to a cosmetic empire, prospering because “people want to be loved– not for what they are but what they appear to be.” Isla, of Mars, runs a chamber of horrors, manufacturing ray guns, hydrogen bombs, bacterial diseases, anti-matter waves, carcinogenic gases as well as novelty arms like “psychedelic shotguns, grenade necklaces, rock and roll weapons… mystical weapons for buddhists, jews, and christians.” Berg, of Uranus, a weirdo with a fat-woman fetish and financial adviser to the President, reports “to save the nation’s economy we must eliminate 4 million citizens in the next five years,” to which his superior responds by picking up the phone and casually ordering to “begin operation of gas museums, gas movies, gas whorehouses, etcetera.”

Beyond profiting off the superficial traits and weak character of a society losing its moral prerogative are those who seek to profit by brainwashing it. Sel, of Saturn, is a beautiful redhead who dances in a mime troupe in her off hours when she isn’t running a toy factory operating in conjunction with the war department. In her words, “We feed the computer data on coming wars and revolutions. It tells us what kinds of toys to produce to condition children from birth… For example if the government decides to wage war on Peru, we manufacture hyper-sexed, brown, native vampires who can only be destroyed by crossing white skin.” They produce a comic book called The Peruvian Monster, another calculated move to indoctrinate children to “hate the future enemy… in order to kill Peruvians with pleasure.”

The Fool on the Hill

Holy Mountain Film Still

There is also Lut, of Pluto, who claims to work in architecture, but whose prowess is in urban realignment. Having lost money building “homes” with central heating, plumbing, electricity, he and his architectural firm want to convince workers that they don’t need creature comforts and only require shelter. In a presentation to fellow champagne-imbibing, drumstick-gnawing magnates, he unveils his model of residential planning–dozens of tall, coffin-like rooms bunched together in faceless buildings, an anonymous, meaningless existence in a ghetto designed to maximize profit at the expense of the human spirit but advertising minimalist merits on a colorful poster, behooving us to, “Be a free man. Without a family. Without a house.”

Flying by helicopter to join the alchemist and his small entourage, the millionaires embark on a quest for immortality that will take them to a holy mountain at Lotus Island. Before this is possible, they must renounce their fortunes as well as their individuality, becoming part of a collective being. In addition to money, wax effigies are ceremonially burned. Heads are shaved, identical cloaks donned, chlorophyll concoctions drunk, the journey undertaken. There are distractions on the way, notably the last stop for sinning on Lotus Island called The Pantheon Bar where debauched parties are thrown in French-style cemeteries. It has the atmosphere of a Renaissance fair or a lysergic carnival. A drug dealer points out, “The holy mountain is in this vial,” selling a shortcut to enlightenment. But this coterie, as grossly self-serving they may be, are wise enough to trust that so far as immortality is concerned, it’s not to be found on the cheap.

I won’t tell you whether or not they acquire the immortality they so desperately covet—by now it should be obvious that this film is crawling in messages, though one supersedes all others and after all the guru-speak, its thematic declaration comes as a bit of a surprise, in effect turning the film’s aesthetic on its head. That the message is commonplace and sensible makes it all the more beautifully resonant after such a ride. Jodorowsky then proves himself a wonderful messenger, although that’s an underwhelming way of putting it. There is no other film like it—The Holy Mountain is weirder than anything Buñuel or Fellini or anyone else has ever dreamed.

Well, what happened? John Lennon and Yoko Ono, fans of Jodorowsky’s acid-Western, El Topo, provided the bulk of financing. The film’s distributor, Allen Klein, who built his hipster CV managing the Beatles and Stones, had a very public falling out with Jodorowsky, burying the film for more than thirty years. Already finding it difficult to secure funding for his outrageously subversive material, this petulance on Klein’s part effectively denied Jodorowsky an audience for his very best work. All filmmakers have personal ‘What if…’ scenarios, but few are as likely disappointing as Jodorowsky’s, who has only made three films in the near four decades since.

Though of course, even had he found the audience that might have loved him in 1973, it’s not inevitable they would have followed him into the 1980s and beyond. The Holy Mountain has been described as a movie very much of its time. But really it is a sixties artifact in politics and content—by the time it came and went in the few theaters it was shown, most spiritual questers had abandoned the communes for jobs in the city. The “Me Generation” was developing a belief system in which wealth and enlightenment were not irreconcilable. Immortality could be rendered in lifestyle through Beverly Hills cosmetic surgery and haute-couture fashion.

The Fool on the Hill

Jodorowsky & cat circa 2000

The Holy Mountain is a cauldron of ideas, many of them dangerous, and for every enthusiast then there is the proportionate number of haters. The comments section in youtube videos is as a good place as any to extract testimony from the court of public opinion. Beyond the majority of “Trippy, Dude!” comments we discover some surprisingly visceral language. One person writes, “It was a complete and total piece of shit that attempted to portray disgusting and distasteful shit as something meaningful.” Okay, then, but another poster, named ‘Oblivious Wolf’ writes, “This movie made me hate the human body and seeded a rage inside of me that gave me an urge to punch things till my fists were just bloody stumps.”

Perhaps ‘Oblivious Wolf’ harbors strict rules regarding filmmaking conventions. Or he/she did not like a Christ-like figure portrayed as an ignorant, avaricious, primal screaming fool. Or he/she watched it late at night dosed on controlled substances, as it seems many are wont. (The Holy Mountain does not need a psychedelic coating—it is fully formed weirdness, just the right amount, no need to up the dose. A cup of coffee and a sense of humor will suffice.) That it can be so polarizing makes it all the more important as a work of art. You love it or hate it but you never shrug, “Meh…”

Not a lot of people saw The Holy Mountain when it came out, though not a lot of people saw The Velvet Underground live in the 1960s either. They say that anyone who did see the V.U. play went off to start their own bands. And maybe that’s true here too, as there are elements of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, George Miller, and Marilyn Manson, among others who likely saw the film and said they want to do that too.

It might seem to today’s wired-up, post-modern kids that all the sacred cows have been butchered, packaged, digested, shat, flushed. But judging by the vitriolic on youtube there are yet plenty of prudes left to provoke. All we need are wealthy eccentric financial benefactors who understand that immortality is not just a spiritual quest but attaching your name to piece of art that survives to piss off future assholes and inspire artists who say, “Yeah, that’s right. Now let’s see what I can do.” Ad nauseum. To the infinite.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are All Right

“Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.”

                                                        — Patti Smith, Just Kids

In one of my favorite scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, two disheveled old men raise their glasses for a toast. One says, “To Paris in the 20s.” the other pauses for a moment, considering his own heroes: “To New York in the 70s.” Both are wistful of generations mythologized and eulogized, beloved and altogether gone. They were societies where artistic impulses thrived over commercial ones and yet, ironically, because of their brilliance and decadent grandeur, these urban neighborhoods have become prohibitively expensive and are thus unlikely to spawn the kind of anarchic creativity that marked those cities in more carefree, dangerous days. For those of us who were never there, the closest we may come are paeans from persons who knew it best.

It’s no surprise therefore that Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir of that heyday era should be a bestseller. New York in the 1970s: a crossroads of Avant-garde and street movements, hippies putting away tablas and sitars, giving way to a younger generation of punk kids turning on electric guitars and rage. Smith’s rise from a starving artist to household name straddles this evolution in taste and form, the arc from flower power giving way to the aesthetic fuck off. Those of us born in its aftermath can only YouTube those times with great envy, navigating our own generational malaise with characteristic longing. If that weren’t envy enough, Just Kids is a record of Smith’s “making it,” appreciated for her own peculiar hybrid of poetry, rock and roll, and shouting. Even if like me, you’re not a fan of her music, credit is due: rock stars aren’t born, they’re made and it takes time, luck, talent, and of course, the thing that counts most of all in the end, persistence.

The Kids Are All Right

Patti Smith Just Kids (HESO Magazine)

Patti Smith - Just Kids

Through it all, Smith had a friend in the battle, the late photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her closest friend and greatest confidante in those transformative years and for whose memory this memoir is indubitably dedicated. Smith writes tenderly of her memories of Mapplethorpe, the gay, pixie prince who became world famous for his Polaroids of S&M carnality and the censorious rebukes his work engendered. But in the Summer of 1967, they were ‘just kids,’ a couple of dreamers from the American suburbs. Smith left a factory job in Jersey to make it as a poet in New York (does that still happen anymore these days? the hungry poet in the big city?), sleeping in the park and taking day-old loaves from charitable bakers. In the beginning Smith had absolutely nothing to live on, save the faith she belonged somehow to New York and that it would be all right. We don’t know what might have happened otherwise, but it seems that her meeting Mapplethorpe might have saved her from danger or worse, the disaster of giving up and going back to where she came from, never to return.

It’s a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. Click To Tweet

Mapplethorpe dresses the dandy–when she fell in love with him he was into beads and a sheepskin vest but he went through a sailor boy phase and Lizard King leather, among other personas attempted and discarded, “searching, consciously or unconsciously for himself.” In 1967 he didn’t own a camera– for him photography was getting your image snapped on the Coney Island boardwalk. A talented dilettante, he dabbled in jewelry design, collage art, drawing; he did not read, though he was Smith’s first audience when she recited her poetry.

A lapsed Catholic obsessed with good and evil, he flirts with Satanism, tarot cards and the occult. Smith recalls there was something indefatigably childlike about him. He drinks chocolate milk and loves grilled cheese sandwiches. He could not keep a job– Patti was the breadwinner (she’s an ace at uncovering rare first editions, Henry James, The Golden Bough, for instance, and unloading them on customers when she worked at Scribners). As long as he followed his artistic aspirations, she was happy to provide for the both of them.

The Kids Are Alright

The Kids Are Still Alright – Patti Smith live at Fujirock

Smith paints a picture of an enviably adorable couple: never mind they were among the beautiful people; they understood one another’s needs like few lovers could. That his homosexuality precluded longtime physical compatibility did not mean that their friendship could not thrive. Together they had their songs, signs, a coded language. Inspiration was the sustenance that they fed one another. Their mutual role-playing had always been founded on muse more than lover. Through it all, they are one both with and against the world: “Nobody sees things as we do, Patti,” Robert tells her.

In those days, an artist could catch a break or two that is difficult to contemplate happening today. Many struggling, broke, down-at-the-heels types stayed at the famous Chelsea Hotel. Some went delinquent on their bills, trading in their portfolios to management as collateral. When Smith and Mapplethorpe arrived there in 1969, sans a dime and Robert suffering an abscessed mouth and ailing wisdom teeth, they did just that, trading in their work to Mr. Bard, the manager and shouter extraordinaire, as most of the residents were lousy with jobs, rent and various real-life obligations. Robert and Patti rented a small room with neither windows nor physical space to set up their workstations. Nevertheless it was the very best thing that could have ever happened to them, for if the art world is a beast (and many will attest it is exactly that), then they had landed themselves in its belly. The Chelsea Hotel had dirty shared bathrooms, an irresponsible clientele, and brownish tap water but it was also was a community within a larger society.

Smith and Mapplethorpe made fast friends, eventually finding themselves regulars at Max’s Kansas City, with its rowdy transgenders and Factory crowd, enjoying the Velvet Underground, the occasional house band. This was more Robert’s thing as he idolized Andy Warhol. Smith and Mapplethorpe were more conspirators than lovers at this point and she drifted into friendships with scenester Bob Neuwirth and Todd Rundgren. She learns intimately from poet Jim Carroll and the playwright, Sam Shepherd. Patti is privy to Janis Joplin’s boy troubles and Jimi Hendrix tells her his dream of a new musical language.

Smith’s own language sometimes feels that she read On the Road at an impressionable age and never quite got over it. Her prose has some affectations: she calls fellow Chelsea Hotel residents, “inmates… guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses.” Making art is “an unholy ritual.”

The Kids Are Alright

Patti Smith live at Fujirock

She has hippie-dippy superstitions; birthdays of famous poets are often propitious. Hipspeak colors her interactions (maybe this reviewer, with his allegiance to many formalities of language would be too “square” for the scene he idealizes) and she and Robert often speak of magic. So she may have had a beat fetish, I will grant her this: she was a friend to Burroughs, Ginsberg tried to pick her up (he mistook her for a ‘pretty boy’) and she loaned money to Corso to support his junk habit.

There are a lot of famous names in Just Kids, but Smith does not drop them to prove her worth–she seems as much at awe at her good fortune as we are. But for all their fame, the rock stars and celebrity artists are only background characters here. The story through it all belongs to the kids, Patti and Robert. The memoir begins and ends on a cold day in March 1989, when Robert dies of AIDS complications. By then, they’d drifted apart, Smith to a family and recording career in Detroit, Mapplethorpe to a stellar artistic career as a photographer. They reconnect because of his illness and once in touch, the old patterns return and they understand anew a quality of friendship that is uniquely theirs. It’s a love story between friends and to feel Smith tell it, those impoverished years when Mapplethorpe was her greatest companion is worth all the gold records on the wall. A trip to Coney Island in 1969 suggests the purity of this friendship beautifully: “We were just ourselves that day, without a care… Only weeks before we had been at the bottom, but our blue star, as Robert called it, was rising. We boarded the F train for the long ride back, returned to our little room, and cleared off the bed, happy to be together.”

So what is a kid in New York City with paint on his hands a tumblr site that no one visits is supposed to take home from all this? It could happen to you too and that might help a person navigate optimistically the next couple months as he struggles to pay his rent and make the time to create something that might find an audience, or better, a champion.

Patti Smith Live at Fujirock

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

Freedom A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

That Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, debuted at #1 on the Fiction section of the New York Times Bestsellers List in September last year is one of those phenomenal outliers that defy the logic of free market capitalism. It’s not that it has no business being #1 when the spot is usually held by the likes of the latest Harry Potter and Danielle Steele—on occasion there are tremendous works of literature that manage to win public adulation (although it doesn’t happen anywhere near as much as it used to)—what makes Franzen’s sales trumping remarkable is that it is a case of dog biting the proverbial hand. Freedom is an angry work of literary activism that wholeheartedly skewers the celebrated virtues of capitalism—unrestricted growth, consumer branding, mass production—indicting nearly every American, who whether they feel guilty about it or not, enjoy unsustainable lifestyles that are a “cancer on the planet.” Freedom is a novel that Al Gore might have written had he the imagination to portray the extravagant waste of the Bush era as an American family in microcosm.

The family in Freedom is the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, who raised their son, Joey, and daughter, Jessica in St. Paul, Minnesota. On the surface, to neighbors for example, they are secular middle-class Democrats. But in literature, a character is rarely just a character; just as often it is a metaphor for an idea. Walter is an environmentalist with a Malthusian obsession of population growth, a “nice” guy who loves his wife in spite of her eccentricities and lingering depressiveness.

Because she was once a basketball “jock,” Patty has a very competitive spirit that shadows every decision she makes. She is a stay-at-home mother, an atheist, and an adulterer. The person she has a long-term affair with is Richard Katz, a moody, womanizing post-punk front man, and Walter’s long time best friend. This rather untenable and scandalous development is the personal drama of the novel. At its bones, Freedom is the story of a Midwestern family growing up and growing old, weathering the inevitable life crises that is the fate of all of us.

Freedom Is Fun! Freedom Is Good! Freedom Is Sexy!

At 562 pages, Freedom is quite a bit more than just a tricky love triangle. It’s not possible to describe the many subplots of the novel but suffice it to say, the political undercurrent begins in the novel’s first paragraph referencing an item in the New York Times about Walter making “quite a mess of his professional life out there in Washington… in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people,” in methods described as “arrogant” and “ethically compromised.” How “nice” Walter got into so much trouble is a mystery that beguiles the reader to understand what might have developed.

But horses will be held: we’re almost 300 pages into the novel before Franzen lets us inside Walter’s life with the close third person. The novel, carved into jigsaw pieces that slowly fit together, begins in St. Paul, describing how the Berglunds had become the inspiration of playful, if sometimes malicious gossip, as conveyed in the tone of an omniscient scuttlebutt. Their next-door neighbor, Carol Monaghan, falls in love with a noisy, self-righteous Republican, Blake, while her daughter, Connie, seduces Patty and Walter’s son, Joey, who leaves his family to move in with the Monaghans, disappointing Walter and devastating Patty. It’s comic and sad and seems to suggest that American families, for all their secrets, can’t help exposing their dirty laundry.

We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenaged vampires and boy magicians. Click To Tweet

The second section is a long “autobiography,” called “Mistakes Were Made,” written by Patty, a Babushka doll-like story within a story in which Patty writes about her social awkwardness, her rape experience, her desire to get away from her parents and “special” siblings. When she finishes high school in Westchester, New York, she attends the University of Minnesota, plays collegiate basketball, and falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, Richard Katz, who fronts a band called The Traumatics, singing derivative punk ditties like “I Hate Sunshine.” At a Traumatics show, she meets Walter, who comes from a rural dysfunctional family that doesn’t appreciate his intellectual curiosities and strong work ethic. Richard and Walter are challenging thinkers—they can recognize the bullshit of the Reagan-Thatcher era they’re entering—but diverge wildly with their attitudes toward women. Richard has the rock star’s gratuitous one-bite-and-throw-‘em-away appetite. Walter, sensitive beyond reason, falls in love with Patty, who has a thing for Richard, who doesn’t reciprocate her feelings but thinks she’s pretty unique for a jock. Patty is grateful for Walter’s many kindnesses though she’d throw it all away for a wild night with Richard. The triangle’s degrees thus first measured.

Patty, recognizing that by choosing one man she loses the other, hedges her bet, and marries Walter even though she’s not nor could ever be in love with him. But Walter is smitten and acquiesces to her bourgeois middle class desires—buying and renovating a house, finding a good-paying job and starting a family that she stays at home to raise even though he’s a Malthusian feminist, suggesting that for Patty’s sake he compromises on his ideal woman, that of the childless working professional.

Not all crushes go unrequited however and years later there is a short weekend with Richard, brisker yet much more intense than the average honeymoon. It’s a betrayal that’s horrible for the both of them—Richard and Patty are essentially competitive people whose touchstone for goodness is Walter. And for Patty their amorous aberration magnifies the emptiness in her life:

She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.

Patty drifts into depression while Richard discovers enormous success. In his early forties now, he draws from their affair a mature, quiet, lyrical alt-country album that goes multi-platinum, turning him into a reluctant celebrity. It’s the kind of CD bought by people who like Norah Jones or the Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack: easy listening background music for people who don’t really have sensibility or taste, something Starbucks might promote as a tie-in, a stocking stuffer.

It’s so disheartening for Richard to become a profitable product for capitalists that he quits the industry altogether to go back to his day job of roofing. Having been spewed out by the star-making machine, he can only express his fall from artistic integrity in bitterly cynical terms:

“We in the Chiclet-manufacturing business are not about social justice, we’re not about accurate or objectively verifiable information, we’re not about meaningful labor, we’re not about a coherent set of national ideals, we’re not about wisdom. We’re about choosing what WE want to listen to and ignoring everyone else.”

An inevitability in American exceptionalism and the cultivating of online personas in which our tastes and predilections are catalogued and itemized on social networking sites, Richard is speaking for all of us in the iEverything generation, zoning out on iPods, tweeting on iPhones, watching downloaded vampire flicks on iPads—generally oblivious to the Big Picture, that of the world going to hell in a hand basket. People may give lip service to the environment but self-interest prevails in habit and identity.

Leisure Society on the Edge (© Sean Lotman)

Leisure Society on the Edge (© Sean Lotman)

(As an interesting aside, how much of Jonathan Franzen is in Richard Katz? Franzen is more famous for refusing Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club seal of approval when she praised his last novel, The Corrections, than he is for receiving the National Book Award for the effort. In a famous Harpers essay from 1996, Perchance to Dream, he claims he sought to follow the example of author William Gaddis, in that the novelist should get out of the way of the novel: “…no matter how attractively subversive self-promotion may seem in the short run, the artist who’s really serious about resisting a culture of inauthentic mass-marketed image must resist becoming an image himself, even at the price of certain obscurity.” Franzen doesn’t need to apologize his dissing Opraholic housewives who in his estimation didn’t have the necessary literary intelligence to understand The Corrections. Nor does he need to explain why such a contrarian viewpoint might be useful dramatic fodder.)

By this time, Walter and Patty have left St. Paul for D.C., where Walter has forged an unlikely working alliance with Vin Haven, a Texan multi-billionaire whose fortune was built on America’s limitless capacity for energy consumption.

For all his professional faults (he also hunts with Dick Cheney and is pals with Bush) Vin is a bit of a birder and wants to preserve some considerable land in coal-rich West Virginia where a certain songbird, a cerulean warbler, breeds in its annual migration to and from the South American tropics.

Of course, when you’re dealing with wealthy, ambitious Texans, it is good to beware of looking gift horses in the mouth: the devil in the deal is MTR—mountaintop removal—a term most familiar to coal companies and green activists, in which a mountain is blasted and pillaged of its minerals. But once plundered, it is the responsibility of the coal company for reclamation, that is, reforestation of the surface. Walter wants to be an insider, a voice of conscience ensuring that the coal companies keep their word and build a biodiverse forest that will serve as a sanctuary for the cerulean warbler and other migratory words. But the compromises are obvious—condoning mountaintop removal, coal extraction, and the eviction of local families with longtime ancestral roots.

But Walter is no starry-eyed college student mired in Manichean us-and-them trenches. It’s better than nothing and it gives him access to unprecedented capital for his more important project: putting population control on the mainstream activist agenda. The correlation between rising population levels and rising energy use is obvious. Walter believes it might be checked with responsible “breeding.” He wants to marginalize big families living in big houses with big lawns, which, though sensible of course, is like scribbling earnest agitprop over a picture postcard of the American Dream. In Walter’s own words: “We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment.”

In order to make it work, Walter has invited Richard to work with them on the message. He needs Richard because Richard is famous and cool and thus people want to follow his example: “Join rock legend Richard Katz in Washington this summer.” Richard, bitterly cynical yet generally apathetic, is more intrigued by Lalitha, Walter’s young, lovely, energetic Bengali-American personal assistant. It seems to Richard that Walter and Lalitha have, if not “a thing,” then some powerful chemistry going on and Lalitha has an obvious crush on Walter. She lives upstairs from Walter and Patty in D.C. So it seems to Richard that their triangle has expanded into a quadrangle. And we are then well into our characters’ midlife crises, from which personal catastrophes—the stuff of page-turning literature—is wrought.


Jonathan Franzen "Perchance To Dream" Harper's April 1996Nearly ten years after Franzen snubbed Oprah for recommending The Corrections, Oprah Winfrey came out last year with a ringing endorsement for Freedom. It is not surprising she would like the novel—Franzen has a gift of interweaving the micro and the macro, the family and the nation, that Leo Tolstoy was so tremendous at (Oprah is a big Tolstoy fan). But though I had posited some of Jonathan Franzen was in Richard Katz, it is likely that a lot more of Jonathan Franzen is in Walter Berglund. If Franzen wants his Cassandra calls for temperate energy use heeded, then he needs the largest possible audience and with Oprah comes her common touch, a medium that connects his ecological concerns to those millions of American housewives who might otherwise glance at his novel’s title and girth, shrugging, “Meh, too political.”

Franzen writes ‘social novels,’ a certain kind of fiction that holds a mirror up to the society that has produced the conditions that gives the social novel its raison d’etre. In this increasingly distracted media culture we’ve entered, it is becoming increasingly difficult to process the warning signs when we have the “democratic” options of channel changing and googling. With so many entertainment options, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize our limitations—social, political, economic, special—much less care.

Walter puts it best while pitching his Free Space campaign to limit population growth to Richard:

“We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”

In that same Harper’s essay from 1996, Franzen wrote, “Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion.” It’s just a book and not only that but a work of fiction. But the purpose of art, unlike argument and documentary, is a transformative experience. Art affects the heart more than it does the head; more often it is emotion, rather than reason, that is the source of our convictions. And perhaps in literature a political message can become more palatable because in this forum ideas are explored rather than declared. Franzen, perhaps aware of the rare privilege bestowed upon him—a polemical artist with mainstream reach and generous publicity—is willing to challenge that delusion and like Walter Berglund, utilize his authorial star power to reach those normally impervious to such viewpoints.

The dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority, and an organ like Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it.' - Jonathan Franzen in Perchance To Dream Click To Tweet

But how successful can such ambitions be? It may very well depend on your existing political framework as well as preferential taste. Some critics believe that literature is blighted by politics, i.e. the world is already a bad place and we need not be reminded of it when our agenda is escapism. The Amazon.com page for Freedom is especially contentious. The book rates only three out of five stars; there are as many one star reviews as five. Not a few people hate Franzen, his ideas, and most especially, his books.

But should we take what Franzen said in 1996 at face value? That it is “delusional” that a novel could enter the national conversation as a voice of conscience counter-weighing our extravagance? Should we make allowances that the world has changed enough in the fifteen preceding years that artists have been politicized, embracing a sense of duty in spite of the accompanying baggage of delusions, hatred, and ridicule? To my mind, it’s worth it. We are better off with Jonathan Franzen than without him. We need more event books populated by rational environmentalists and selfish nihilists instead of teenage vampires and boy magicians.

Freedom defines a decade—it was the idea of ‘freedom’ that morally guaranteed our bombardment and, later, privatization of Iraq and it was ‘freedom’ behind the motivation of banks making questionable loans to people buying McMansions beyond their means to afford them. American freedom has hardly changed since we defeated the Soviets in the Cold War—that is, the freedom to buy whatever you want, whether its blue jeans or rock and roll LPs or Italian sports cars, the layman’s simple explanation why capitalism, perhaps imperfect, remains the world’s best economic model. Yet the correlation between freedom and purchasing power is so obvious it must confound the political philosopher that there is not more violence in the streets. When we say we want our MTV, we don’t mean we want to watch the cable network—we want lifestyle freedom, liberated from our economic limits.

When luxury becomes the end game of freedom (private jets and gated communications its apotheosis) getting there is going to be competitive. You could argue those who invested in defense and energy blue chips in the aftermath of 9/11 were vultures fattening on our freedom to bomb Islamic countries and pillage and pollute the earth, but you might also say such investments were exceptionally prescient (or pragmatic). Walter and Patty’s son, Joey, a burgeoning Republican, suffers a massive crush on Jenna, a high-maintenance rich girl who believes that “…the world wasn’t fair and was never going to be fair, that there would always be big winners and big losers, and that she personally, in the tragically finite life that she’d been given, preferred to be a winner and to surround herself with winners.”

Joey has his own interesting subplot. It involves pro-war Jewish American think tanks and parasitical war profiteers. Joey, who has an independent streak and a contentious relationship with both Walter and Patty, becomes immersed in a shady business deal (involving a company modeled on Halliburton) that would make him incredibly wealthy, but would almost certainly consequence in dead Americans overseas in Iraq. Herein lies the true freedom of a human being, that of trying to determine and act upon the right thing. With financial and personal needs, the answer is not always obvious:

“He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know how to live. Each new thing he encountered in life impelled him in a direction that fully convinced him of its rightness, but then the next new thing loomed up and impelled him in the opposite direction, which also felt right.”

It’s not easy being free. Sometimes it takes an 18-years-old kid speaking off the cuff to frame the discussion perfectly:

“Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”

Mass of the Fermenting Dregs

Time Has Come Today

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

                                                        — David Byrne

“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know when it’s happened?”

                                                        — Rhea from A Visit From the Goon Squad

Time Has Come Today

Jennifer Egan A Visit From The Goon Squad

I believe it was in my mid-twenties when I began downgrading my artistic aspirations from “the voice of a generation” to what it has become ten years later in its more or less present incarnation, “a voice.” It’s embarrassing looking back but there was a certain point of my life when I truly believed I would be one of those authors—the few, the proud—who would survive posterity not only as one of those writers whom people wanted to read but also whom they wanted to be. Hey, there’s still time and you never know but I’ve had to adjust my expectations into a more modest outlook. Sometimes I’m okay with this. Sometimes I’m not. I’m only human.

As you roll into your thirties, you should be hitting your career stride. When you aren’t, you can’t help but observe those who have. Particularly friends and acquaintances. If you dare go there, the route is peppered with questions, like, what is it about the neighbor’s grass? What makes it so green? Is it a human folly to envy the qualities of others or is it Madison Avenue marketing that has created this general dissatisfaction? Is the difference between happiness and discontent the difference between having chosen the life we lead and the life we have having chosen us? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way we are compared against the way we were supposed to be?

Whoever said introspection was for weenies never took a long, hard look at the mirror. ‘What if…?’ is the worst kind of self-interrogation since it almost always consequences in regret. This self, this person that we are leading now may be hard-won but isn’t necessarily the best person we could have been. Invariably something went wrong somewhere and this life we lead is the one we got stuck with, for better, for worse.

Disheartening this is, we can self-medicate. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are viable options (but don’t they often mislead us away from our ideal selves?). Or one can read good literature that utilizes sex, drugs, and rock and roll to frame these questions. A worthwhile book need not answer the unanswerable—it’s enough that it reminds us that failure and humanity are cut from the same cloth and that this might be a beautiful thing.

Time Has Come Today

It is certainly beautiful the way Jennifer Egan writes about it in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the closest a book has ever come to the literary equivalent of a solid mixed tape, rewinding and fast forwarding across the years, or perhaps ‘skipping’ over generation gaps, as the story—it travels between New York City, San Francisco, Naples, Italy as well as from the early 1970s to the 2020s—is as much about the progress of technology as it is culture. The truth whether or not new technology is good or bad, necessary or distracting, safe or dangerous, nearly always depends on who’s asking. For those holding onto some yesteryear ideal, change is something to be despised, as Bennie Salazar, a record label owner who came of age in San Francisco’s late 1970s punk scene, wearies once the direction of his company changes after a corporate takeover:

“The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

Just as our relationship to music and musicians evolves with technology (shrinking considerably from LPs to cassette tapes and CDs, disappearing totally as a tactile thing with the rise of the mp3), so does the way we communicate with one another. As Bix, an NYU student doing his postgrad in computer engineering in early 1993 tells his friends, “This computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone…” But though Egan touches on facebook, google and how “the days of losing touch are almost gone,” she goes further: a preteen using Power Point slides to describe her family’s dysfunctional faults and then later to the near future when Instant Messaging has become the medium for our more difficult words as when Lulu shares with Alex on their “handsets” that she “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn,” texting him this even though they are sitting across from each other in a café.

But now you’re wondering who’s Lulu? And who’s Alex? In 2021, they are working together using Internet bloggers called ‘parrots’ to word-of-mouth the upcoming concert of Scotty Hausmann, a publicity-shy, burnt-out slide guitarist who played in The Flaming Dildos, the same High School punk band Bennie played with in the 1970s. Scotty had unsuccessfully pined for Jocelyn, a girl who learned the fast life as Lou’s teenage mistress. Lou is a super successful rock and roll producer-cum-hedonist that mentors Bennie. Bennie marries Stephanie, a one-time protégée to La Doll, Lulu’s mother and a PR titan who falls from grace. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is a journalist who goes to jail for assaulting a movie star named Kitty Jackson. Meanwhile, Bennie makes a name for himself in the music business discovering and recording a punk band named the Conduits. Around this time his factotum is Sasha, a beautiful redhead who euphemistically calls her shoplifted things, “found objects.” She survives a druggie stint in Naples and leaves New York and the music business when she reconnects with her college sweetheart, Drew, moving to Arizona to start a family. She has an autistic son obsessed with great pauses in rock and roll songs and a daughter who expresses herself with Power Point slides. If it seems very six-degrees-of-separation, it is. One story’s peripheral character is another’s hero.

And heroes they are in a very rock and roll sense of the word: interesting people making catastrophic mistakes, sometimes large, sometimes so small it is hard to know exactly where everything went wrong. Once The Flaming Dildos disbanded, why did Bennie wind up with his own record label and a corner office on Park Avenue with a fantastic view while Scotty performed janitorial functions and fished for his lunch in the East River? It doesn’t bother Scotty too much when he goes to see his old friend again because, “there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.”

Like the incremental movement of continental plates, pressures mount in our own lives to a breaking point, in which an inevitable seismic shift leaves a trail of victims, most especially ourselves. For Jules Jones, Bennie’s brother-in-law, once a promising, young writer who had come to New York full of ideas (“Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”), his decline began when he’d become another hack celebrity journalist. This is the late 1990s now and some are getting spectacularly wealthy while most are being left behind. His feeling is common to many of us, that sense of not belonging, of having missed some boat that’s not coming back for us. In a young, ingenuous film star, Kitty Jackson, he witnesses everything he will never be: beautiful, rich, successful, loved. His sole advantage over her, the one card he can play, is the knowledge that time, though slow and deliberate, takes no prisoners:

“Because Kitty is so young and well nourished, so sheltered form the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware as yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone), because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled herself and the world with her own premature accomplishments, Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect.”

In a very confessional meta-me article for Details Magazine, he describes his attempted rape of Kitty in the canny, ironic prose so typical of magazine writing today, but briefly he too considers what went wrong:

“At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts—in my case, Rikers Island Correctional Facility?”

It seems no accident then that the album central to this story should be called A to B, offered up by the Conduits’ former frontman, Bosco. Bosco was once a skinny, manic redhead known for his explosive live shows but he didn’t age well. As he explains to Stephanie, Bennie’s wife and his publicist, “The album’s called A to B, right? And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” But A to B is not a comeback album— for Bosco it’s the only dignified way out of his messy life. It is his belief that this farewell tour should be a rock and roll suicide, “I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away— I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

Bosco believes his tour will be a success because of the public’s infatuation with “Reality TV.” Reality, of course, has everything to do with authenticity and is at play in the characters’ lives. It’s extremely important, yet somehow elusive, as being real is knowing oneself. As Rhea says enviously of her friend Alice, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can. Click To Tweet

It’s not an easy question, but there might be some connection between authenticity and happiness, at least in this literary world. We are always in the act of becoming: artists, doctors, drug addicts, hookers, lovers, husbands, fathers and mothers— and some roles work better than others. It often depends on who you’re partnered with. Jules’ sister, Stephanie, knows that Bennie is unfaithful and she suffers to keep their marriage intact. Witnessing the flabby, tragic mess of Bosco, once a promising singer, now a joke on her hands, is a straw-camel’s back revelation: her life is a sham and an unhappy one at that. Helplessly she thinks of the old days: “premarriage, preparenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind…going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasi public, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong….”

… And perhaps, real.


Time Has Come Today

The Author Jennifer Egan

Published in 2010, Jennifer Egan has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two days after receiving the Pulitzer, she inked a deal with HBO to adapt A Visit From the Goon Squad into a television series. It’s no surprise. Like very few novels, it succeeds on visceral, literary, and spiritual levels. It’s bold: besides the Power Point chapter, her point-of-view shifts between the third person, close first person and even the second person in a way that the ‘you’ is not directed at the reader but at the self-critical narrator himself. Skipping around between years, places, and heroes does not feel jarring in the least bit. Each story feels self-contained, yet integral, not to the greater story, but the unifying theme, that which relates to the inevitability of personal change.

Perhaps nowhere in the novel is this exemplified better than when Sasha disappears to Naples and her stepfather sends her Uncle Ted out to search for her. Instead of looking for her, Ted, a tenured arts history professor at a minor university, spends most of his time wandering museums, the ruins of Pompeii, and labyrinthine alleyways. He is away from his family and unusually pensive. Why had he sexually disengaged himself from his wife, Susan, to the point that there could be no more true intimacy between them? From an initial rage, Susan mellows into a “sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible without death to give it gravitas and shape.” What is so tragic about this turn of events is that he didn’t abandon his desire for any other reason than because he could. He had ruined her and now having found Sasha and trying to win her confidence to come back with him to America, he helplessly recalls a happy moment before everything was irrevocably ruined. Herein may be the saddest paragraph in a bittersweet book:

“On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.’ And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’”

Perhaps Ted was caught up in the moment but he was certainly not disingenuous. At the time he believed it was true. As Bosco says, “Time’s a goon.” The novel’s boogeyman is as invincible and irrepressible as any villain in literature. Time sets the booby traps and we’re the ones clumsy enough to step on them— yet it might not be our fault. We can’t be so hard on ourselves as we don’t always have as many choices as it may seem.

Fucking up is a life process as universal as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, aging, and death. Being inevitable thus, we can only hope that when it happens to us, it a) is not lethal and b) perhaps we learn something.

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can.

Sasha speaks for the novel, if not a good percentage of the human race when comforting her friend, Rob, after a failed suicide attempt she reminds him:

“We’re the survivors.”

On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground

Many friends have suggested I try to write about my experiences since the events of March 11th. Living in Tokyo, I would be a poor candidate for such an endeavor. The ongoing catastrophe is about two hundred miles north of the city and I have not yet experienced any hardship, save the frazzling of multiple aftershocks and concerns over elevated radiation levels. My good fortunes aside, there are many with a deeper background in seismology, nuclear energy, and Japanese political history—journalists, researchers, writers— devoted to the task of chronicling, analyzing, and piecing together what this calamity means for Japan. My larger personal concerns are not what has happened but what shall come to pass.

The changes in Tokyo are more superficial than substantial. Shibuya is no longer a flaming candle, streetlamps are off, and the subdued lighting in train and subway stations is a dingy hue that might lead to a revival in pickpockets’ fortunes. Everyone dreads the summer when rolling blackouts will make it very difficult to overcome the humidity. Air conditioning will once again acquire its luxurious quality. Tokyoites have been asked to conserve energy. Self-restraint is not a problem in brilliant spring weather. But these inconveniences are banal when set against worst-case scenarios—that is, the inevitable monster shake known as the Tokai Earthquake that happens in the Shizuoka region just west of Tokyo with some regularity every 150 years. The last quake was in 1854.

It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world. Click To Tweet

On Dangerous Ground

As tragic as this year’s triple whammy of earthquake-tsunami-meltdown has been, it may pale when measured against the consequences of the inevitable Tokai Quake. Not only may it lead to another tsunami and an eruption of Mt. Fuji (which is seeing some activity for the first time in a long while), but perhaps worst of it all is that Japan may have to deal with the fallout of yet another nuclear crisis that would be much more detrimental to Tokyo— the meltdown of its nuclear power plant at Hamaoka, built almost directly above what is believed will be this disaster’s future epicenter.

Essentially, it does not seem sound judgment to build a nuclear reactor on top of a historically active fault line, especially when your country’s preeminent seismologist argued against the hubris of such an undertaking before construction even began. Dr. Kiyoo Mogi has long argued for the responsible application of nuclear technology on Japan’s vulnerable territory. Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the manmade disaster of Fukushima (residents, farmers, fishermen) Dr. Mogi’s good judgment has been vindicated. The authorities at Hamaoka swear that the plant can withstand a major quake, but the same corporate suits made the same fail-safe promise at Fukushima.

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

Shibuya Nukeboy © Sean Lotman

It seems then in the court of common sense, the government should have taken a proactive role in shutting down the nuclear plant at Hamaoka weeks ago. Already global public opinion is mixed on Japan— there is sorrow for the victims and their families and bitterness at the country’s mismanagement of the crisis. Radiation leaks affect all of us, more or less, since we understand the ecosystem to be something shared by all of us, from the air we breathe to the fish on our plates. It’s not hippiespeak to say we are of one world.

Every human drama needs a villain, if only to lash out our frustrations and humiliations. The fact that there has been lying, mismanagement, deliberate cover-ups, and general incompetence on the part of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has led to some consternation on the part of the international community. What would conventional wisdom make of Japan should a similar if not more catastrophic meltdown were to occur in short succession? I am helplessly reminded of the aphorism reserved for the gullible: “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

Being a foreigner, it is hard to know exactly what the public’s sentiments are. Most people would like to be let alone of the issue and trust in a benevolent fate. The Japanese are trying to go on with their daily lives and in this beautiful spring weather it is easy to forget the carnage of the north and the direness of the near future. Only occasionally do the aftershocks rattle us into reality, returning the fear that trembles our hearts. But even these, frequent as they are, subside easily enough into the mundane elements of more trivial pursuits.

the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected Click To Tweet

But many Japanese have been politicized for the first times in their lives. Like Middle Easterners uprising against their governments the Japanese are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize. On April 10th a major demonstration in the Tokyo neighborhood of Koenji drew at least ten thousand protesters. It was a very Japanese affair— more like a parade than a protest: wonderful costumes, peaceful inclinations, gentle shout-outs. At the head of the parade, was a simulacrum of a New Orleans jazz band, dressed in razzle-dazzle kimonos and playing popular yesteryear numbers. Some attendees were unironically costumed in radiation suits and gas masks. Most wore sanitary face masks, a usual seasonal big seller for protecting the allergic against hay fever, but now a symbol of our very flimsy protection against radioactivity.

Making good use of the if-no-one-hears-the-tree-falling-in-the-forest theory, Japan’s mainstream media managed to drop the story. It was an election day in Tokyo (the incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, who publicly claimed the earthquake and tsunami were divine punishment for Japanese greed, was handily reelected) and moreover, that Sunday was the most beautiful weekend day for hanami, cherry blossom viewing.

After the protest I took the train to Yoyogi, Tokyo’s largest park and site of the biggest parties. Arriving just after the sunset, it was surreal to see this forest of pink flowers in twilight, where tens of thousands frolicked, wasted on good sake and cold beer, pleasuring against all arguments to be somber and self-restrained. I couldn’t blame them.

On the 16th this month there was another protest in Shibuya but it was much smaller and I’m worried that the so-called Sakura Revolution might be losing its momentum. That would be a shame since it is the most appropriate week to get out and fight for peace-of-mind. April 20th is Earth Day, and next week on the 26th is the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl.

Understanding Japan’s limited availability of resources, I am not against nuclear energy per se, but am very much in favor of safe and responsible use. It’s bad enough to worry about earthquakes and tsunamis, the sudden catastrophic moment where everything changes. This is more than enough than the average person needs to worry about.

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