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Tag: Pop Zeitgeist by Sean Lotman (Page 2 of 3)

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

Taking the Nature out of the Society is a fast way down the toilet

Although globalization has accelerated the process that colonialism began— integrating and importing different cultures and people into foreign lands— America remains foremost among the world as a nation of immigrants. The indigenous excepted of course, all Americans come from somewhere else. The ancestors that founded our American lines thus once upon a time endured a very brave journey to be here. There is no shortage of mythologizing these romantic origins and my family is no different. Collecting and adding up various stories of apocrypha, my great grandfather and progenitor of the American Lotmans was born in the Ukraine port city of Odessa. An army captain stationed in the Black Sea during the First World War, when the Russian empire collapsed into revolution, civil war and a pogrom against Jews, Captain Lotman went AWOL, gathering his wife and his brother’s family and fleeing the violence. It took nearly three years for them to walk across Europe—a Europe at the time devastated by war, revolution and the Spanish influenza— three years sleeping in barns and stealing chickens before they made it to the South of France where there was a little money and a ship to take them to New York and beyond, to Chicago, where they found refuge with a cousin running a tailor shop. Was this really how my American line was born or was it much more ordinary, bureaucratic, sanitized? I prefer to celebrate my great grandfather’s adventure regardless of disputations. As the famous line from the John Ford western advocates, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in Click To Tweet

Even the most hard-line, bigoted nativist waxes starry-eyed fables about the time his or her ancestors came over, glossing over the fact they were once aliens, maybe illegal, probably culturally and linguistically confused and likely despised for their efforts in trying to make a better life. The hatred reserved for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians and the bulk of our South-of-the-border neighbors was once reserved for Wops, Micks, and Polacks. Immigration is one of those issues that will never go away. In 2010, the Arizona state government passed Arizona SB1070, legislation also known by its Orwellian double untruth, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The bill proposes police activism in interrogating suspected aliens regarding their papers and facilitating punitive measures for those in violation. Boosters of the bill deny any kind of racial profiling involved but it’s hard to imagine a white guy driving a Lexus being asked to provide proof of citizenship. Since then, five states, including Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, have introduced copycat legislation. A popular wedge issue among phony populists, anti-immigration, remains one of the preferred methods of maintaining an invented us-and-them dichotomy.

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Viking Press, 1995)

Even those sympathetic to our melting pot heritage have precarious loyalties in moments of national crisis. Just look at attitudes towards Germans during the First World War, the Japanese at Manzanar, and Middle Easterners and South Asians after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In normal times as well fear has been the catalyzing agent for the proclamation of draconian measures. While it may be true that immigrants commit crimes, you could argue just as exhaustively that it is poverty, more than culture, that is the criminal’s genesis. What is nearly always missing from the talking heads bloviating from their bully pulpits is some compassion and desire to understand the roots of the problem. It does not require tremendous common sense to realize that a human being will seek out his best opportunities for food, shelter, and work. What’s a thinking man with a strong body to do when his country suffers forty percent unemployment and his country’s largest slice of GNP is work remittances from the United States? It’s a problem, all right, and always it seems the solution is the reflexive ‘kick ‘em out, build a wall,’ answer. Never mind that California and the whole Southwest was once Mexican territory until an imperialistic war of the 1840s saw it ceded to the U.S. for a paltry sum. Never mind that we’ve damned the Colorado River and built so many aqueducts that by the time the river reaches Mexico, it’s so small and insignificant farmers are going bankrupt by the thousands (leading, obviously, to mass emigration). Never mind that without illegals picking lettuce out in San Bernardino farms for three dollars an hour, we couldn’t enjoy the very cheap produce we love drenching our low-fat Ranch dressing over. Never mind all that. It’s their fault, not ours, that people are scared, starving and killing each other.

It is not the artist’s responsibility to put the issue in perspective, but he or she can dramatize it in such a way that creates a sense of powerful empathy. T.C. Boyle does this admirably in his novel, The Tortilla Curtain. Published in 1995, it feels as contemporary, relevant and urgent today as it did then. Compared favorably with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a similar story of migrants, prejudice and their tragic trajectory, Boyle quotes Steinbeck’s character in the lead-in to his novel, “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”

Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk… Click To Tweet

Dehumanization is omnipresent in Boyle’s story, beginning when Delaney, a liberal white naturalist, runs over Cándido, an illegal alien crossing Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon road at an inauspicious moment. Delaney doesn’t speak Spanish, the injured Cándido knows no English, and the unfortunate action is resolved by Delaney’s handing over twenty dollars to the battered Cándido. Explaining the resolution to his incredulous wife, Kyra, later, Delaney says, “I told you, he was Mexican,” as if that reduces the transaction into its simplest terms.

Nevertheless, their lives are herein interwoven and Boyle adroitly switches chapters between his characters without ever losing momentum. Delaney and Kyra represent the wealthy liberal’s contradictions. They live in a gorgeous, secluded enclave named Arroyo Blanco. The neighborhood (which owes its name and architectural style–Spanish Mission–to the culture of the undesirables it aspires to keep out) decides to put up a security checkpoint and when that doesn’t seem far-reaching enough, a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in. Kyra, a hotshot realtor, is particularly sensitive to the clustering of Mexican day laborers in certain convenience store parking lots and its inverse relation to property values. Although she must be aware such an action will have dire repercussions for those doing what they can to eke a living, she makes a phone call to immigration to “clean up” the streets. She doesn’t even feel guilty about this nor does she appreciate the choice of language. For Delaney, whose sympathies are always with the natural world he writes about, it doesn’t take much— a stolen car, a piece of graffiti, a low rider with tinted windows and rumbling bass speakers ominously encountered— before his feelings towards illegals are destabilized so that a personal vendetta develops in his mind between himself and the man he hit to a degree that violence becomes a rational solution.

As interesting as his psychological descent may be, what makes Tortilla Curtain so powerful is Boyle’s compassionate portrayal of Cándido and his young, pregnant wife, América. Cándido has been coming to El Norte for years to do backbreaking work, from Idaho’s potato fields to West Hills landscaping, never managing to secure that elusive tarjeta verde. América has come with him on the premise of a better life, which in her estimation is as little as a small apartment and three meals a day, not the stuff of Horatio Alger riches, but then Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk of deportation and the loss of everything accumulated and saved.

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

Cándido is a victim of bad luck and the capacity of human beings for greed, thoughtlessness, and self-absorption. Promising América a better life, he is ripped off in Tijuana, humiliated at the border, reduced to squatting homeless in a creek bed, hit by a car, robbed in Canoga Park, and when things are finally beginning to improve for him and his pregnant wife, Cándido unwittingly sets off a catastrophe that not only ruins everything he’s worked for but nearly kills him. It is not for a lack of effort that prevents Cándido from getting ahead but a complex social structure that despises him for his efforts:

“Cándido was a sinner like any other man, sure, but no worse. And here he was, half-starved and crippled by their infernal machines, bounced from one to another of them like a pinball, first the big jerk with the Elvis hair and then the pelirrojo who’d run him down in the road, the very one, and his gangling tall awkward pendejo of a son who’d hiked all the way down into the canyon to violate a poor man’s few pitiful possessions. It was too much. He needed to go to confession, do penance, shrive himself somehow. Even Job would have broken down under an assault like this.”

Of course, there is some symbolism suggested in the choosing of a character’s name such as Cándido; a point is being made, an apologue being wrought and an interesting one at that. His namesake, a character created by a secularist in pre-Revolution France, leaves his native village behind in order to discover if it is true as his mentor Dr. Pangloss teaches, that this is the best of all possible words. Like Job, like Cándido, he discovers it to be a violent, soul-stricken place. In the end, the Candide of the French imagination returns home reassured that though the world may be horrible one can run a clean, lovely garden— your joys and ambitions will not fail you if they remain small scale. The big difference between the Candide of French literature and the Cándido in America is that our Cándido doesn’t need philosophy or its gratuitous hypotheses—his goals have always been a small home, food, maybe some house plants, and a woman and children to love. Of course these humble dreams are not uniquely Cándido’s own but remain a universal value to nearly every brave, hardscrabble immigrant who has ever strode boldly into the unknown world.

A Separation - Just Like Us

A Separation – Just Like Us

A Separation - Just Like Us

Leila Hatami stars as Simin in Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation (2011)

Consider this situation: a woman wants to leave her country to live abroad, only her husband refuses to go along with the plan. He wants to stay put in the big city they live in, most importantly because his ailing father suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. This point of difference being irreconcilable, they decide on a separation, the woman going to live with her parents, while her husband hires help to watch over his helpless father when he’s on his job at the bank. Meanwhile the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter decides to stay with the father, hoping that in doing so, she might influence her mother not to take the separation any further. The family residence is a spacious, modern apartment with a large bookcase, an entertainment system, and a foosball table. Have I mentioned this is a film about a family in Iran?

A Separation – Just Like Us

The film is called A Separation, and its arrival in our American pop life is timely and important. This is not because A Separation is a great film. It is great—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011, A Separation has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy—but the film’s extraordinary importance lies in its humanizing of the Iranian experience for an America audience. For lately we’ve been proselytized to support a probable preemptive war launched by Israel against Iran due to the latter’s suspected nuclear program. Once more, propaganda conflating an entire nation’s people with terrorism and monstrousness is being pressured on an American psyche susceptible to boogieman psychosis. A Separation is an artistic counterpoint to the idea of an Iranian menace. What it suggests more than anything else is they’re just like us. Of course, “us” being us, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The couple’s situation should seem culturally familiar enough—marriages in America crumble all the time because individual personalities are stronger than the relationship itself. This is true enough in the case of Simin, an opinionated, fiery redhead and Nader, her stubborn husband. Although Simin and her daughter, Termeh, use headdresses, they don’t wear the traditional chador or burqa. Their apartment has modern conveniences, including an oxygen tank for Nader’s father. There are no portraits of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, or any martyrs particular to the Shiite variety of Iran’s Islamic faith. Termeh has a tutor for her studies. Nader admonishes her to work on her English, but doesn’t ever mention the importance of memorizing the Qur’an.

They couldn’t be more different from Razieh, the woman hired to take care of Nader’s father. Wearing a black chador, Razieh, and her six-year-old daughter commute from one of Tehran’s distant, impoverished suburbs. She is devout but does not communicate her fundamentalism to her secular employers. That’s revealed when she struggles to take care of the old man in her charge: he wets himself and she has to wash and change him. He is so old and incapable as to be virtually asexual; nevertheless, Razieh calls an Islamic hotline to ascertain that cleaning him would not be considered “a sin.”

A Separation - Just Like Us

Peyman Moadi as Nader in "A Separation.''

It’s hard work and Nader can’t pay Razieh what she wants but she takes the job anyways because she needs the money. She’s pregnant and her husband, Houjat, is hounded by creditors. But Razieh is quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility, especially when Nader’s father escapes out the front door. Frantic, she finds him in confusion on the edge of a busy street in his pajamas.

The following afternoon, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment early, horrified to find the old man lying on the floor, his arm tethered to the bedpost. Nader manages to revive him. “Scum,” he mutters sotto voce, discovering money missing as well. When Razieh and her daughter creep quietly into the house, Nader confronts her on her conduct. They argue and he fires her. She wants to be paid but he calls her a thief, infuriating her moral pride. Razieh persists at the front door and Nader shoves her out. When the neighbors come down they find her on the stairwell. Retuning to take care of his father, Nader breaks down and cries.

Later in the evening, when Nader is dropping off his daughter at his in-laws, Simin asks to see him. She says that Razieh is in the hospital. When they visit, they learn Razieh had a miscarriage. Are they at the hospital out of courtesy or culpability? Houjat, Razieh’s hot-tempered husband, believes the latter, that Nader is guilty of killing his unborn child. In the ensuing quarrel, Houjat throws the first punch.

The next day finds both parties at the police station. Houjat and Razieh accuse Nader of precipitating her miscarriage. Nader admits he was a bit rough with her but denies knowing she was pregnant. He also counters that Razieh was negligent with his father, nearly causing his death. However, the bigger problem is the death of the fetus. Since it was four months developed, Nader stands accused of murder. If convicted, he is liable to face a three-year sentence. Simin’s family posts his bail.

Nader may be accused of the greater crime but he is wealthier and more pragmatic than his accusers, causing Houjat to become increasingly unstable and a potential threat to his family. Simin desperately wants Nader to pay them off with “blood money” so they can move on but Nader is determined to guarantee his innocence.

A Separation - Just Like UsWhat we have is a nasty case of ‘He said… She said…’ In fairness to the film, it would be wrong to reveal any more of the storyline. Needless to say, the director, Asghar Farhadi, while leaving inconspicuous clues to the players’ guilt, keeps our sympathies unbalanced throughout. Had Nader’s shoving Razieh precipitated her miscarriage? Was he telling the truth when he said he was unaware of her pregnancy? Their troubles envelop Nader’s neighbors as well as the family tutor. No one is truly innocent. Judgment fails them at the wrong moments and mistakes are made.

I’ve never been to Iran but the cultural divide feels familiar enough. Nader and Simin represent an urban, secular, liberal bourgeois while Houjat and Razieh are part of a larger underclass denied educational and career opportunities, falling back on religion to protect themselves from the melancholy of poverty. It’s blue state/ red state dressed up in different clothes, spoken with Farsi in place of English. They go through their days eating meals, studying for exams, taking care of loved ones, bearing a long commute, cursing bureaucracy, worrying about debt, struggling with relationships in decline, overwhelmed by life. These people have much more important concerns than parroting the worst of state-run propaganda. No one is cheering, “Death to Israel.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the two families in the event of a war: if Tehran were to be bombed by Israeli jets with American-made missiles and later partitioned with checkpoints guarded by armed foreigners. If an insurgency were to develop similar to what happened in Iraq, a dead fetus and a disabled grandfather, tragic as their circumstances may be, would pale to greater catastrophes at large.

I lost interest in the Oscars and their self-congratulatory saccharine aesthetic a long time ago. But I am rooting for A Separation to win at least one award. Because millions of people tuning in will be introduced to this film for the first time. Because of the free publicity the film will receive. Because Americans need to know Iranians, with their fanatical stubbornness, incessant quarreling, questionable judgment, self-destructive tendencies, familial loyalties, and emotional breakdowns are just like us.

Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

“Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.”
― Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Of all the major metropolitan cities in America, none deserve the misanthrope’s fury more than Los Angeles. After all, what urban area better represents the false promises of contemporary American Dreams than the one that declares you’re special and deserve your own TV show, only to exchange that dangling carrot for a dishwasher’s rag or a chauffeur’s hat? Los Angeles is no stranger to national decay: poor infrastructure, class war, race ghettos, illegal immigration, and economic inequality are some of the more serious problems unlikely to be addressed by a recession-era government more sympathetic to austerity than investment measures. On the other hand, the winters are terrific and even you, you fat slob, can be a star too.

What’s amazing is that it has always been like this and when we think of golden era yesterdays, it’s probably because we haven’t read Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. First published in 1939, the novel presents a world that seems to have changed little in seventy years: Prom Queens from Ohio slinging sex appeal at shitty Sunset Strip bars for tips and whose days’ highlight is some drunk with a money clip saying, “Hey, you look like that movie star…”

Day of the Locust

Nathahael West knew the type. He worked in Hollywood as a scenario writer on B-movie scripts because nobody would read his books (the 1930s was a golden era of literary luminaries slumming for the studios— among West’s drinking buddies were F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner). When a novelist makes ten times the money writing knucklehead dialogue than he is able to make with his personal work, it’s probably a given he might bite the hand that feeds him but in West’s case, he lunges for the groin and castrates the beast mercilessly.

The Day of the Locust is a story of outcasts, losers, and never-wills, centered generally on an apartment called the San Bernardino Arms, and specifically on a femme fatale blonde named Faye Greener, a wannabe starlet obsessed with fame, raised by a vaudevillian father. Members of her coterie include an Ivy League artist working as an illustrator for the studios named Tod Hackett, a profane dwarf named Abe Kusich, a taciturn rodeo cowboy named Earle Shoop, his Mexican sidekick, Miguel, and finally, Homer Simpson, a shy, feckless newcomer from small-town Iowa too innocent to survive a city as culturally psychotic as Los Angeles.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Film still from "The Day of the Locust"

Because he is educated in arts and culture Tod Hackett can see through the social veneer. For all the sunshine and apparent opportunity, many of the people on the street “were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.” Tod is inspired by these failures that “had come to California to die.” To his studio peers he seems the mild-mannered type but he’s working secretly on his masterpiece, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” a large painting about an apocalyptic fire that consumes the city. Tod doesn’t have to travel very far in Hollywood to find ruined souls perfect as subject matter.

Meanwhile, he lusts madly for Faye. Although he understands what Faye is after and that she would sell her soul in a second for matinee idolatry, he obsesses over her nonetheless. Flirtatiously, she uses him when she needs him but never lets him through the threshold as “he had nothing to offer her, neither money nor looks, and she could only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her. Tod was a ‘good-hearted man,’ and she liked ‘good-hearted men,’ but only as friends.” But perhaps he’s not as “good-hearted” as she was led to believe because her games aggravate Tod so much he gets to the point that he wishes he “had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” Disney fare, this ain’t.

The other major figure in Faye’s life is Homer, who takes care of her after her father dies. Homer is generous, ingenuous, stupid, empty: “whether he was happy or not is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither.” Tod hates the way Faye uses him, spending his money and having him put up her lovers, Earl and Miguel and their cockfighting birds in the garage. But he doesn’t feel much sympathy for Homer, mostly because Hollywood life and all its artifice seems to have numbed his capacity for true human warmth.

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom. Click To Tweet

West’s Los Angeles is an artifice camouflaging a wasteland. A building is “a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers.” Another one is “a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of Arabian Nights.” On set actors eat “cardboard food in front of a cellophane waterfall.” In one humorous scene in which Tod traverses the studio looking for Faye, he crosses through great ersatz villages: “The only bit of shade he could find was under am ocean liner made of painted canvas with real life boats hanging from the davits. He stood in its narrow shadow for a while, then went on toward a great forty-foot papier-mâché sphinx that loomed up in the distance. He had to cross a desert to reach it, a desert that was continually being made larger by a fleet of trucks dumping white sand.”

It’s not just background that does not seem quite real. Mrs. Schwartzen, a woman at a party, “had a pretty eighteen-year-old face and a thirty-five-year old neck that was veined and sinewy.” West’s description of Harry Greener, Faye’s father, a lifelong entertainer, is particularly caustic: Harry “was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn’t permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.”

Hollywood did not evolve into a superficial, hyperbolic hellhole then; it had been built that way. Progress is only technological—plastic surgery, paparazzi, and Perez Hilton blogging about the social vacuum of who’s doing whom.

This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. Click To Tweet

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

Japanese version of The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

“I’m going to be a star someday,” Faye tells Homer when she meets him. “If I’m not, I’ll commit suicide.” The character of Faye Greener is West’s caveat to all the pretty girls in the USA, the tens of thousands who come to Los Angeles every day with absurd celluloid hopes only to wind up financially destitute, physically compromised, spiritually null. The main problem with his warning, of course, is that nice, pretty girls don’t usually read Nathanael West.

If Faye is nuts then the city is an asylum and it’s very hard to tell the patients from the rest. And in modern times with Reality TV, tumblr, American Idol, among other narcissistic apotheoses it’s only getting worse. When West was fuming over the wannabe culture of 1930s Los Angeles, America was still a manufacturing economy rather than an information one. Nowadays, how can a person feel important when he or she does not have a personal wikipedia page explaining our accomplishments just so? Of course, a leisure society can only watch one channel at a time. Worse, fifteen minutes don’t go as long as they did in Andy Warhol’s time. And how are we to feel special in aftermath?

You know a story like The Day of the Locust can only end brutally. Those lacking the megalomaniacal mettle to make it are the story’s most tragic casualties. You know Faye Greener and Tod Hackett will come out of it all right because they’ve got their respective ambitions. Better, they understand that other people are tools that can be picked up, used, and discarded as needed. Someone like Homer Simpson from Iowa, unaccustomed to such cynical posturing, is doomed. Leaving Los Angeles is the only way he can save himself and when he finally attempts to do so, it’s the night of a large movie premier.

Day of the Locust (HESO Magazine)

A portrait of Nathanael West

By this time, Homer has become a pet project for Tod, desperate to do some good deed now that his own moral thread had unraveled. Tod is trying to help a dazed and confused Homer when the monstrous crowd around them surges violently. They are enveloped in its claustrophobic grip, pulled along much like a terrible wave drags the swimmer over gravel. This is the hoi polloi, disenfranchised meatheads who have come to see stars because they don’t know what else to do with themselves.

West captures the modern man then in crisp, horrific prose: “Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.”

The frightening question: From 1939 to 2011, what has really changed? This mob has burned Los Angeles twice, in 1965 and 1992. So long as man is not nourished and loved nor provided with something to nourish and love, he is liable to implode again. It’s not a great stretch. Consumers can only consume so much before they participate in a less constructive fashion.

You could say Nathanael West was a prophet. Or maybe he is one of those people who doesn’t need smoke to spot a fire.

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.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. If you wish to use reproduce any of this context in a commercial context, explicit permission is required. Please contact me directly.

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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

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