Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twitter movie reviews: first half of 2017

In honor of the Summer Solstice, I'll go ahead and compile all my Twitter reviews for this year. These were all written within a couple weeks of seeing the film, and they all take up exactly 144 characters, including the film title and date. As you can see, I gave myself some flexibility on the matter of punctuation and abbreviation.

If you follow me on Twitter, these will occasionally show up on my timeline. As you can see, I like movies. I am very forgiving. If you're looking for something more acerbic, maybe Armond White or the Angry Nerd has a Twitter account.


JUNE


Spring (2014) - A wide-ranging young romance, with flashes of horror that are discordant, but don't do much to curb the warmth of the story.

Kagemusha (1980) - Grand & lush, all the elements of vintage Kurosawa, but didn't have the shapely arc and development of his better movies.


MAY


Anguish (2015) - A brooding, earnest "tormented ghost" tale with exceptionally endearing characters. In the end, it rather undersells itself

Tangled (2010) - Sort of a throwback Disney Romance/comedy, whose brilliant physical humor more than redeems some clumsy writing and pacing.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) - Gorgeous boy-hero story plus family chronicle, all warmth & wisdom, tempered by brilliant visual treatment


APRIL


The Wailing (2016) - A strong, thick, & subtle tonic: when the initial hints of levity fade, you're left with despair burning on your tongue

The Double (2013) - Through a Terry-Gilliam-influenced lens, a focused, twitchy, & potent reflection on the cruelties of desire & insecurity

Enemy (2013) - A brilliant, chilling cyclical enigma that opens its own little self-contained universe, and ends by closing itself up again.


MARCH


10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) - A tense, brooding chamber drama -- great fun, but its explosive finale undercuts the interesting character work

Dead Lands (2014) - A self-conscious intensity only barely distinguishes this action movie, otherwise built on rote masculine warrior tropes

City 40 (2016) - A fascinating subject, but too clinical, missing any kind of gravitational center -- intriguing, but emotionally weightless

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) - Not too scary, but stylish &; austere, with the feel of a dream on the edge of becoming a nightmare


FEBRUARY


La La Land (2016) - Sometimes too pat, but always earnest... you could tell the filmmaker wanted a happy ending as badly as his audience did

Dope (2015) - Malcolm and his crew are brilliant protagonists in a striking and spontaneous adventure, tonally cacophanous, but never boring

Happy People (2010) - Herzog weaves a spell of fascination and intimacy with the Taiga: its stern voices, its landscapes, & its bitter cold.


JANUARY


Extraordinary Tales (2013) - A Poe anthology that improves steadily, from an amateurish first entry, unto the finale, a goddamn masterpiece.

Quest for Fire (1981) - A muddy slog, bludgeoning narrative conventions with brute frankness, but limited in its capacity to create tension.

The Last Unicorn (1982) - A wise and bittersweet animated romance, crafted with gentle strangeness that makes it feel timeless and mythical.

The Witch (2015) - A grimy historical claustrophobic head-space whose perversions leave a toxic footprint. Creepy, corrupt, & very effective

The Lobster (2015) - A dry and twisted movie - sadistic in a lonely, alienating way, with traces of hope and romance. A singular experience.

Reductions: The Consumer and the Critic



I'm going to go ahead and post some more abstract notes, developing some ideas I've had floating around for a while. This is related to this post and this post, where you'll find what I was then calling the Aspect Aesthetic (I think I need a better name).

This is a follow-up on those posts, doing the following three things:
  • elaborating on those basic points
  • expanding the argument to include the Critic
  • reducing some of my previous wordiness
Still, the big idea is the same: that these three roles are fundamental, especially when talking about aesthetics... and they can be applied to many areas of life where investment and appreciation meet reason, loyalty, identity, and faith.

This depends on a lot of premises that haven't been proven, obviously... like, the idea that culture can be used as a guiding frame of reference for understanding humans and their relationship to the world, and that the more broadly you apply this frame, the more it seems to cover. You've started with culture and art and the creative instinct, and eventually, by talking about subjectivity and human nature and idealism, and the universe as a sensory phenomenon, you find yourself stomping clumsily through ethics and politics, and encroaching even upon history and physics and metaphysics.

Not that I necessarily mind that... I'm no analytic academic... but for now, we just have to start with the seed of the idea: the Consumer and the Critic. The Creator is a bigger construct, I think, and that will have to wait for a different day.

I. THE CONSUMER (Interiority)


The consumer lives in the work.

All works create an interior world, guided by certain patterns and assumptions, operating by certain rules, constrained in particular ways.

The world of the work is built according to the blueprints of its Creator, but it's not limited thereby. There's just as much input from history, context, collective memory, the subconscious, and the cultural preoccupations, as there is from the Creator herself, a small person with a limited purview and access to an disinterested creative force (the muse, the reservoir, etc... wait for the Creator entry for more on that).

The Consumer inhabits this world. They invest in it, accept its specifications, and make it real by acting as its observer.

The Consumer's relationship to the work is I-Thou, as opposed to the Critic's I-It.

The quintessential consumer is the Fan. If you're not a Fan, your status as Consumer is precarious. The Fan is the person who not only chooses the work, but who also chooses to advocate for it... a form of Patriotism for the work's conceptual territory.

The Fan has a shadow (the Jungian, or an archetypal video game Doppelganger boss, depending on your frame of reference). This shadow is the Anti-Fan, a genuinely weird creature -- a Consumer who rejects the work outright -- whose engagement takes the form of kneejerk denial. Anti-fans are the people who say, without any explicit reason, "This just isn't my thing" or "I don't really think I get it."

The true Fan defines the work from the inside. They are a necessary part of the work coming into fulfillment. Lots of works have no Fans, which leaves them stuck in a sort of limbo, having no relationship to the world except through the anemic will and intention of their Creator.

Fandom is a sort of religious experience, and all religions are Fandoms. Christians are the most obvious example of this, being Fans of God’s word, His creations, and Jesus, His central character/principle/motif.

A crucial part of the Consumer role: it's where freedom manifests.

The Critic may be free to focus on certain works and ignore others, but they're always bound by the obligations of rationality. They make claims about works, and these claims are supported or unsupported. Criticism is a parasite that feeds on justification. Consumers are immune to this infection.

The freedom of the Consumer is not merely the negative freedom of not-being-forced... it's the positive freedom of browsing and investing, the radical self-actualization of choosing something that defines you. Being a Consumer means you have this capacity… being a Fan means actually using it.

Fandom is the full exercise of freedom: sovereignty, choice, actualization.

II. THE CRITIC (Exteriority)


Criticism is exile.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would choose to be a Critic, when there's so much content around to get swept up in. Because Criticism is, by nature, a self-exile from the subject (i.e. putting your beloved pet, the dog named Culture, on the dissection table of discourse).

Criticism is I-It, contra the intimate, fully-involved Fandom relationship, which is I-Thou.

It may be the access. The Critic DOES have access to certain dimensions that the Consumer can't get to.

For instance, being a Consumer means the loss of the economic dimension... and for the Fan, there is no economic dimension at all. In a way that's denied to the Fan, the Critic can step outside the work and understand it in terms of precedent, context, relative quality, the field. "The Market," as it were.

But the Fan could certainly argue that the Critic is denied a certain dimension, as well, and it may be the most important dimension of the work: the heart, the interior, the absolute investment that makes the work come alive.

The Critic has to acknowledge the possibility of the Consumer, but they can't fully Consume. They have to appreciate the Fan, but they are not Fans. Anyone who claims to be a Fan and a Critic at the same time is misunderstanding one of those two roles.

If they're truly a Fan, their criticism isn't true criticism -- it's merely an intellectual engagement, broadening the scope of the work by doing internal labor. If they're doing the difficult work of criticism -- sorting out the pros from the cons, observing technical weaknesses, categorizing the work, questioning its motives and its internal coherence -- they're not really being a Fan. They're being a Critic.

Perhaps they're being a Critic who has eaten a Fan. This is relatively common, and frankly, Fans make the best food (other Critics are bitter and chafe the palate). So Fans make the best food, and eating Fans makes the best Critics.

The Critic eats Fans like Kirby eats his enemies. By eating the Fan, the Critic gains the short-term, provisional ability to ignore the work's weaknesses and assimilate with it. Employed correctly, this can make the Critic's criticism far more robust, and thus more persuasive. Criticism written from this perspective -- from the post-prandial daze of simulated fandom -- I would call "Criticism in the sympathetic mode."

Still, this is an asymmetrical relationship. The Critic can temporarily effect Fandom because the Critic is outside the work, and has more freedom to operate in various modes in relation to it. The Fan can't become a Critic in the same way, because the Fan is a creature of the interior. The Fan can't survive outside the work, and they can't see the work as a whole, which is required for any meaningful criticism.

One of the key postures that challenges the Critic-Consumer dichotomy is Ironic Fandom. This is a popular mode in postmodern discourse, and a key part of the Hipster project of illegibility.

The Ironic Fan seems to blur the line between Fan and Critic, but inevitably, the rule still holds: a Critic can act as a Fan, and not vice versa. The Ironic Fan is actually a Critic simulating a Fan, but leaving the signposts of simulation out to see. They are highly conscious of context: history, genre, and conventions. Their temporary Fandom consists in recognizing all the conventions and tropes and standard templates, and willingly inflating the value of these conventions in order to distort the appraisal of the work. Their Fandom is not sincere... it's a game of superiority and obfuscation.

The Critic has other crucial roles in cultural production. These are related to those functions and dimensions that are the unique purview of the critical perspective: context, history, technical authority, status, independence, objectivity. These may be true characteristics, or they may be pretensions... in any case, they are crucial for the work of the Critic.

One role of the critic is Gatekeeper.

One role of the critic is Historian.

One role of the critic is Mentor.

The critic has many faces... almost as many as the Creator, and certainly more than the Consumer.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Notes on Consumption: History of Philosophy, Twin Peaks, some writings

I'm feeling nostalgic for a time long before I existed... before most of Western civilization existed, really. It's a side-effect of listening to The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (I'm up through the Middle Platonists) and reflecting on the potency and simplicity of those early philosophical doctrines, from Heraclitis and into Aristotle and Socrates and the Hellenistic schools.

I'm not nostalgic for the inevitable disease, scarcity, and slavery that made up everyday life in those classical empires... indeed, my nostalgia requires a certain denial about the real historical conditions. What I'm nostalgic about, obviously, is the freshness of thought... the way these philosophers could try to get a handle on the whole universe, the nature of reality and virtue and everything, in a way that's simple, that just requires a couple principles, one or two guiding concepts, and a faith in reason to reduce everything else.

It's been a long time since somebody could honestly say, "The virtuous life is the good life, and virtue is just the pursuit of wisdom and self-mastery." It's also been a long time since somebody could say, "Everything is made of air." How different history would have been, if one of those metaphysical statements had proven true! That behind the great multiplicity of reality, we'd found a simple unity! A history of childlike simplicity, of getting everything in order according to one principle... the whole mess of human conflict, just washed away, all at once.

I know philosophy can't really operate like that these days. That kind of innocence is long gone, diluted by cultural exchange and obliterated by the fires of war. No intellectualism can be honest without acknowledging the specific, the irreducible, the multiplicity of objects and subjects and vantage points.

So if you have a yearning for something that captures the world, or at least tries to grapple with everything at once, rather than with some small, isolated part of it, you have to go to those places that lean into ambiguity, that celebrate the strangeness and the mystery of it all... things that make space for meaninglessness, and accept infinite contingency.

Luckily, I've been watching the new season of Twin Peaks, and Lynch's sensibility scratches this itch pretty well.

It's not perfect... or if it is, I'm not far enough through the whole thing to see it... but Lynch does not shy away from the grand fog. He may find some monsters in the mist, but more importantly, it brings out the obscure discord of everything... the way all reality is sort of floating, removed from the simple constraints of logic and justice and cause and effect and archetype. Sometimes it's almost nihilistic, and sometimes it's merciful and melancholy.

There is something sad, to me, about watching Dale Cooper wander the city, helpless, only comprehending the most proximal connections and sensations. Because I am the proud parent of a toddler, and Dale Cooper is acting very much like her. And what it conveys, to me, is a particular point about how confused and venal and unnecessary the world is, with all its complications.

I'm uniquely sensitive to this kind of ambiguity at the moment. I think this is what I responded to in "It's Not Like I Tried to Hurt Anyone," a very compelling story I stumbled across in one of those Medium "recommended" sidebars... there is a sense in which the main character's refusal, her withdrawal from history, makes her feel vast and divine in a way that's not shared by all the rest of us, caught up and diminished in the flow of the everyday.

I'd like to do some more focused writing soon. I'd do a philosophical essay, if I could manage it, and I've got a starting point -- the Skeptics' investment in their own ignorance, which I strongly identify with -- but I need more content, something more compelling to structure it. We'll see what comes of the urge. I feel a terrible shortness in myself, an inadequacy, that I need to power through, even if I can never vanquish it.

As a final note -- I also ran across an excerpt from a book called Essayism, and it's made me want to buy the whole thing, when I have a moment to read it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tangled (2010) and the Real Men of The Snuggly Duckling

Yes, that's right -- armchair media critic raising a little girl has been watching a lot of Disney movies, and in the spirit of this blog, I can't help but appreciatively thumb through their themes and messages and motifs. Here, as anywhere, there are many beautiful things to discover.

Despite having great friends and family who are intense Disney fans, I remain a bit of a skeptic. I have to take the position of the Critic on this topic -- I can't shake the suspicion that "Princess" culture might feed into crass, commercialized, rigid femininity.

On the other hand, I can't deny the company's love for cultural myth, and their commitment to storytelling. Rewatching their various canonical films, both Classic and Contemporary, I'm struck by the complexity of their aesthetic. They run the wide gamut of Romantic sensibilities, from the folksiness of Snow White to the Gothic sprawl of Sleeping Beauty, up through Princess Tiana's Creole Southern Gothic Americana.

I've been struck by some of the emotional moments in these movies... as, for instance, the crushing moment in Tangled when Rapunzel says "Yes, mommy" to her jealous kidnapper.

And I've been impressed with how Disney has changed: before what Wikipedia calls the Modern Era, the Princesses were generally pitted against standard monstrous adversaries. Since the 2000's, however -- with the adjective-titled Disney films, Frozen and Brave -- you'll find that a focus on internal turmoil, rather than external conflict... the estrangement between two sisters, a girl who resents her mother and the traditions she represents. These are the battles all the young people of the world will have to fight.

I did love Tangled... despite being a crusty 35-year old man, I was genuinely delighted by its earnestness and its slap-stick humor.

And I especially loved the bandits of The Snuggly Duckling.



These goofy men remind me more of myself than I'd ever be willing to admit to anyone, save the whole anonymous Internet. I imagine they're all living their Plan B -- they rehearse their piano lessons, reminisce about their first crush, and occasionally visit the storefront that was supposed to be their bakery. Pillaging was always supposed to be a side-job, they tell themselves... how did I end up here at the Duckling, just like my dad did, and just like his dad before him?

But they know. These bandits, they know -- it's not about who recognizes your hard work, or how much you get paid for it. They know that the free market economy chooses winners and losers based on inscrutable patterns, cynicism, charisma, and the flapping of a single butterfly's wings. For these ruffians, it's about flourishing, and they have faith that they CAN flourish, even as plunderers and highwaymen, as long as they set aside time for their true aspirations.

Eudaimonia -- a life of flourishing -- is all about having a space of your own to cultivate, even if it's deep under the radar of the prevailing social structures. It's all about having hopes, and passions, and a community of support.

That, of course, is the other beautiful function of the Snuggly Duckling... it's a community of enlightened, supportive masculinity, disguised as a rotten rat's nest of thieves. Who wouldn't want to be adopted by this circle of friends, who will listen to your concerts, taste your cupcakes, and watch your little puppet shows?

Of course, they have to keep up a front. Their furry capes and winged helmets are their Gucci business suits, and their battleaxes are their business cards. They have to talk in gruff obscenities, just like other male-gendered people have to make eye contact and shake hands. You never know when a potential client is going to come through that door and potentially catch you, looking like some kind of Unicorn Collector.

But for an earnest young lady who asks them the question -- what are your dreams? -- they will open up, just as they've opened up to one another. Breakin' femurs may provide a show of confidence, but it doesn't really indicate true security, genuine self-acceptance... only the recognition of your brothers-in-arms can do that. This is a truly magical little tavern, a temporary autonomous zone, where pretense is shed and aspiration takes all forms.

In fact, honesty and openness is so important to the denizens of the Snuggly Duckling that they will enforce it by violence, if necessary (truly an intersectional community). This is what Flynn Rider discovers when he refuses to sing.

All those swords.

Those swords have a clear message: In this community, a show of vulnerability and authenticity is the hazing, the expected trial by fire. If you don't open up and show your true self, they're saying, then you're not privy to the nurturing fraternity that's hiding here in the Duckling... nay, you get the malicious, mean, and scary outlaw pirates. And I don't think you want that, Mr. Slick-haired Pseudonymous Flynn "dying of insecurity" Rider. No, you definitely want to be on our Snuggly side.

My brothers, lost in this postmodern era, I promise you: we will eventually find our Snuggly Duckling. We will dream again!

Monday, May 08, 2017

Kubo (2016) and Poesis -- the Why of Art


Did we all write poetry? I know I did. I read them in classes, and I workshopped them among friends. I once got to read a few at a library event (some lyrical little remixes of lines from Langston Hughes, trying to leverage some unearned insight into the soul of jazz and blues). When there wasn't a literary magazine to publish it, I founded one. Poetry was a very pure exercise in construction and expression, and even now I occasionally miss it.

Despite its terrible potential for abuse by sullen teenagers, there’s something fundamental about poetry. In A Dying Art (2015), Clive James calls it "the queen of the humanities because all the humanities must be done for themselves alone, but poetry can prove that this is so." This is the praise of damnation, of course... he’s saying that poetry’s motives are vindicated by its social and economic irrelevance. Sad but fair.

On this point -- the elevation of poetry among the arts -- Martin Heidegger is more convincing. In The Origin of the Work of Art, he says "Art happens as poetry," and like so many of his claims, this is built on a reading of history and language. As an infamous miner of linguistic resonance, Heidegger knew that the etymology of the word "poetry" (German "poesie") is from Greek poiesis, meaning "making" more generally. Poetry -- the word, the signifier itself -- drags around the trace of something bigger: the human drive to create.

The question of "why" follows poetry around like an ill-tempered, codependent dog. In the last day, I’ve run across it in two different (very different) bits of criticism: the aforementioned Clive James essay, and the classic of literary theory, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. And as poiesis suggests, this question is a proxy for a broader one: why art in general? Why do we still insist on making things, when every practical and extrinsic motive is refuted?

A 2016 stop-motion Samurai film -- Kubo and the Two Strings -- opens up this question ("why art?") and tries to give us the first traces of an answer.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not a rumination on artistic practice. It’s a sentimental swashbuckler, the story of a boy who’s being hunted by his demonic grandfather, and who undertakes a hero’s journey to save himself and reconcile the breakup of his family. Still, the motif of creative energy is highly visible: Kubo’s prized possession is a magical Shamisen from his mother, and when he plays, he’s able to invoke spirits in origami form.

I have to come out right here and declare my love for Kubo... not just the film, but the character himself, a solitary boy who’s taken on a nurturing role toward his ailing mother. He’s also, essentially, a multi-media artist, using his Shamizan and his origami puppets to stage adventure stories in a public square. And as exciting as his adventure becomes, I think that the beginning of the film, his time in his cave and hometown, have far more to offer the discerning audience... the film is truly thematically front-weighted.

Martin Heidegger, afore-mentioned German philosopher who ran with the wrong crowd, had a lot to say about context, and how it inevitably defines us. This is an angle worth noting in Kubo. Heidegger used terms like "world" and "thrownness" to get at this theme, but we can skip the jargon and talk about the specifics. Kubo’s life is one of misfortune and absence, from the very beginning: he lives in a cave, living by a small fire, and he travels to a single town to perform skits and trade for his household’s everyday needs. His mother lives with him, and she’s also a storyteller, but it’s pretty clear that they don’t travel a lot, and nobody in this family is going to a specialized prep school for the arts.

And this context, in turn, reveals the significance of Kubo’s music and theater. Kubo’s stories are vibrant and exotic, a succession of boss-fight vignettes that catch all Kubo’s spectators in their spell. They involve a great knight (Hanzo, who Kubo patterns after his mythical father) and a cast of monsters to be defeated... giant spiders, fire-breathing chickens... and they end with the appearance of The Moon King, an evil warlord, as Hanzo’s final adversary.

Like so many artists, Kubo’s art is compromised by his economic needs. His public-square stories are products, his talent packaged and sold. For most of his life, Kubo’s "why" has been banal: to buy food for myself and my mother.

After the plot’s initiating event, this changes, and Kubo finds himself traveling in search of his father’s mythical armaments, his economic concerns overruled. Still, he uses his magic, which is also his art: crossing a frozen tundra, he sees a lone bluebird, and he summons a flock of origami birds to fly alongside the loner and play with her.

This is where I feel the most kinship with Kubo, and indeed, I wish I practiced such a spontaneous art.

Kubo and I have this "why"... this creative impulse... because of the fissure between our inner lives and the world that situates us. We feel a richness in our imaginations, a vastness of possibilities, and when we return to the real world, we find it brittle, distracted by trivialities, rigid in scope, and inevitably lonely. This is not to say that reality is impoverished. Indeed, I’ve traveled to some amazing places, and Kubo spends half the film on a grand adventure. But we all have limits, standards, patterns, boundaries that draw us back. We are all locked into our situations. Our worlds don’t go on forever, and for some of us, at some times in our lives, they don’t even go past the city limits, or outside at night.

The "why" of art -- poiesis, as Theory calls it -- is that it lets us contaminate the mundane with the magic of possibility. To the well-structured, inevitable world of experience, with its stable past and fleeting present and predictable future, we can add this trickle of our private reality. Art lets us broker a peace, or at least reach a stalemate. Art is the negotiating party of our imaginations, setting out to meet with the world... to compromise, to respond, but never to submit.

...

Postscript: You could read more into Kubo, rich as it is in thematic nutrition. I mentioned Harold Bloom, and in a deep analysis, he might become useful again. Kubo is, after all, the product of powerful influences, and his relationship with them is a crucial part of his eventual resolution. You could also write something about the sort of bicameral relationship of Beetle/Mini-Hanzo, which becomes very puzzling as you learn more about the two characters.

This is the expansive inner life of art, isn’t it? For every artifact, a thousand interpretations, an infinitude of lenses and dimensions. A good work of art is worth a thousand critical interpretations.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

2013, year of the doppelganger (on Ayoade's The Double & Villeneuve's Enemy)

2013 was a big year for doppelgangers. I had to check IMDB to confirm, but I shouldn't have bothered, the memory is so vivid: seeing previews at indie features, and noticing that there were two movies arriving at the same time, both in a dark eccentric style, and both about protagonists meeting shadow versions of themselves.

I finally got around to seeing both of them this year. 2017 is looking to be a great year for discovering movies.

In case you missed either of them: the first was Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Denis Villeneuve. You might recognize that name... in the past year, the guy really leveled up, directing excellent film and worldwide award magnet The Arrival. The other was The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and directed by Richard Ayoade.

Enemy was an excellent, stirring film, partly because it was so focused and compact. It had the feel of Christopher Nolan's earlier films, but with richer tactile qualities, sort of inky and jaundiced. In a sense, its narrative purity was also its weakness: it felt so focused that it became irrelevant. It was essentially a study of itself, blind to the world that we were watching it from.

The Double, on its surface, wasn't much different. It took place in an absurdist fantasy world with strong Terry Gilliam influences, and it was tricky and ominous, but relatively predictable (the twists weren't very twisty, and those moments that were surprising weren't very relevant to the plot as a whole). However, these criticisms are minor quibbles when the whole product is taken into account, and I think, though it was less pure and technically artful, The Double was heartier than Enemy, and had more to say to its audience.

The key problematic in The Double was Simon's insecurity, and the film was intensely attentive to this. Simon was a sad character, perhaps too much of a caricature to be relatable, except for the fact that he embodies every neurotic insecurity and inferiority complex looming over our psychological bubbles. James was a brilliant foil, a manifestation of Simon's fantasy of dominance and aggression and confidence, and he captured both the thrill of that construct, and its terrible price: the inauthenticity, the opportunism, the misplaced priorities, the lack of consideration or compassion.

Simon having to face James as a sort of shadow perfection: that made for a powerful film, and at least for me, a compelling comment on how fantasy and reality run in parallel.

It brings larger questions to bear: at what point in our lives should we let go of the aspirational version of ourselves? At what point does a fantasy of self-possession, of personal success and validation, become an anchor rather than a buoy? Can we keep aspiring and striving, if we don't have some sort of perfect projection we're following... our own inadequacy, reconstructed as a guide to a better version of ourselves?

I started reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet recently -- you may have run across it in my other recent entries -- and this fits firmly within this entry's thematic, as well. Pessoa's distinguishing characteristic was that he wrote under multiple personas, all refracting his own personality in various ways. These all had their own histories and identities and concerns, but their writing (through Pessoa) was always rich and earnest and fully realized. Pessoa's subjects included inadequacy and incompleteness, the existential gaps at the heart of human identity. His writing might have been a balm for Simon.

This has been a relatively unfocused entry, and I hope you'll forgive it. Maybe I'll have more thoughts on 2013, the year of the doppelganger, and I'll write a second, more idealized post as a sort of twinner to this one.

Friday, April 07, 2017

A Manifesto, dedicated to Fernando Pessoa

Your style is a straitjacket.

You've figured out what you think is beautiful, and what kind of work you're committed to, and what kind of character you have as an artist, and this is your protective stance as you present yourself to the world. Every time you give the public a new artifact, a new piece of yourself, you put yourself at their mercy... and yet, you've shut out so many others. Because by choosing your style, you've excluded all other styles, and those exclusions have become part of your identity.

Your identity is built on an unstable affirmative and a rigid infinity of negatives.

I don't have a style. Each new work looks for a style, and they don't find it in me, and so they struggle. So my exclusions are washed away, and my potential fills the infinite space that my pretensions have vacated.

. . . . .

Your popularity is a poison.

You know the taste of validation, of feedback and response and appreciation. It's a sweet acidity that penetrates every level of your praxis. It softens your commitment and puts cracks in your sovereignty, and once it's in there, it can't be washed out.

You may embrace it. You may say you "do it for the fans," that your followers are "the most important thing to you." Some people love the things that are killing them.

I have no fans. I've learned the long asceticism of failure, and it keeps my creative organs pure. If I love any of my own output, I know that it has a 100% approval rating, that the only person in the world who cares about it is enamored of it. Hate follows the same path.

. . . . .

Your productiveness is a failure mode.

You know how to turn an idea into a product. You have a pipeline, a process, a series of technical steps that lead you to something complete, that you're happy with, that you can show the world. You've dug away the soft loam of unfinished projects.

But that vast incompleteness was you at your most fertile, your most robust. When you finish a work, you strip away all its beautiful indecision, its vastness, the unfulfilled potential that gives it those cosmic roots. Each signature and sale is a cord of wood, and your range is notably short of trees.

I don't finish projects, and they remain seeds and saplings in the primeval woodland of my imagination. I may produce artifacts, little bundles to burn as kindling or desiccated limbs shaped into walking sticks, but this only happens when the work has already died. And so I leave my best work to the wild, nascent, leafy, unrealized, hopeful and beautifully hopeless.

. . . . .

"And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes."

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dads and Daughters and Dozing Off

John Crowley wrote about Sleep more perfectly than I could ever hope to rival, so I’ll use his words (culled from his novel Little, Big) as padding between my mutterings.
“But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising. On a certain November afternoon, twelve years ago, from a certain nap (why that day? Why that nap?) she had awakened from sleeping: eyes-closed, blankets-up-to-chin, pillow-sleep Sophie awakened, or had been awakened, for good.”
Little, Big pg. 254
Sleep is every sentience’s fellow-traveler, and so, naturally, we’ve all cultivated very personal relationships with her.

For some, it’s affection, even to self-indulgence: a full embrace of the co-dependence, a love that won’t be ashamed when it dozes off at a dinner party or starts its day at twilight.

For others, it’s more of a disciplined respect. Sleep is a solid partner, a trusted support, and neglecting her is unwise. She has time slots and minimum commitments. We can’t make this work without her.

For me, and others like me (though I don’t hear from us very often), it’s another thing entirely. Where others have affection and codependence, we have resentment. Where others have respect, we have defiance. When she lurks in our bedrooms, we try to ignore her, or step outside. If we could cut ties with her, we would do it at a moment. As it is, we are stuck with her.

We are the Citizens Against Slumber, the odd hour keepers, the midnight oil burners. We know Sleeping is a Sucker’s Game, and we only play it because biology bullies us into it.
“You still up?” she said, and at the same moment he asked the same of her.
“It’s awful,” she said, coming in. She wore a long white nightgown which gave her even more the air of an unlaid ghost. “Tossing and turning. Do you know that feeling? As though your mind’s asleep but your body’s awake—and won’t give in—and has to keep jumping from one position to another…”
[…]
“Awful.” He felt, but would never admit to, a sense of fitness that Sophie, long the champion sleeper, had come in recent years to be a fair insomniac, and knew now even better than Smoky, a chancy sleeper at the best of times, the pursuit of fleeing oblivion. 
Little, Big pg 289

What makes sleep so interesting, for me, is how it unhitches my consciousness from continuity.

What is my brain doing, that it has to forget where I am, how old I am, and what’s happened in my life since high school? How does sleep, for a few hours each night, manage to persuade my consciousness to let go of those anchors and drift off into this oneiric ocean?

You’ve seen that moment on-screen… most recently in The Night Of, for instance, but also in The Hangover: where am I? What happened last night? Cinema is the best medium to simulate the sudden break, the jump cut, and the resulting scramble for context. Editing is the art of (dis)continuity.

It happens so fast, too. One serviceable definition of “dozing off” is losing continuity without really losing time: blinking stupidly in your driver’s seat, having to remember why you’re at this light, why you’re on this road, and panicking for a moment, checking to ensure your foot is still on the brake.

This example is especially salient for me, because on a few occasions, I’ve stupidly dozed off while driving. I never hurt myself, or anyone else — dents in cars, maybe, and some calls from insurance companies — but it significantly heightened my awareness of my own mortality. I seem to have outgrown the danger, but I still wonder about those occasions and their counterfactual universe where I veered off the road, collided with the end of a guardrail, or crumpled into the space between a semi’s front and back tires.

It didn’t take many incidents to really amplify this anxiety, and it’s been with me ever since. I don’t grow out of it. I generally trust myself behind a wheel now, but I still don’t really trust myself to sleep.

How does this manifest? It happens when I’m sitting in my car in the driveway, listening to the end of a song before I head inside. It’s warm, and I’m not in a rush, so of course my consciousness drifts a little bit.

I should know I’m safe, shouldn’t I? Isn’t that why I’m so relaxed in the first place?

But when I come out of that doze… when my eyes snap open and my ears recognize the same song, still playing… it’s always accompanied by a moment of panic, feeling like I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel, expecting to see a car’s headlights as it collides with my little Nissan.

That’s one of the little offenses that Sleep has for me. I don’t blame her — it’s self-inflicted — just a little prick of karmic retaliation for my tendency to fight her, belittle her, act like I don’t need her.

She also likes to interrupt Netflix movies, and sometimes she smothers me on train rides, or when I’m trying to write essays.
“Now, child,” she said. “What was it you learned from the bears?”
“Sleep,” Lilac said, looking doubtful.
“Sleep, indeed,” said Mrs. Underhill. “Now…”
“I don’t want to sleep,” Lilac said. “Please.”
“Well, how do you know till you’ve tried it? The bears were comfortable enough.” 
Little, Big pg 268
Sleep has a stronger hand to play, now that I’m getting older. She visits me with more regularity — the end of work, the last hour on the edge of normal-person bedtime — and she usually wins.

I remember, with bitter nostalgia, my time as the dominant party in this rivalry.

From my teens until my late twenties, I was assertive with sleep, stern in guarding my boundaries. In a week, I could get by on 30 hours of sleep… several short, productive nights, followed by a low-key “catch up” night, and then back into the fray. I don’t know whether it affected my life expectancy, but it gave me a feeling of control over my time, and I got a lot of writing and gaming and movie-watching and exploring done.

I have a kid now… a toddler, a fucking dream come true of a little girl… and I’ve lost a lot of leverage in these negotiations with Sleep. Even when the little one’s not waking up for comfort in the scarce morning hours, she gets up at 6:30 AM — always, like a milk-crazy alarm clock — so I can’t have those short Saturdays and Sundays any more, where I lose a whole half-day to the blissful, achy shame of daytime slumber.

You know how parents always seem to have these uptight, early-bedtime, high maintenance sleep habits? Well, there’s a reason for that: having a child changes your whole economy of time and energy. It’s such a humbling, such a paradigm shift, it’s hard to imagine it could possibly be worth it, unless you’ve actually had the experience (where you suddenly realize it’s “worth” pretty much anything).

She looks so peaceful in her crib, and she’s so happy when she’s sleeping well, it’s easy to forget that Sleep and I haven’t resolved our antagonism. It’s up to me to mediate that Daughter/Sleep relationship, after all… creating a “good relationship” with Sleep, i.e. creating good sleep habits, is a imperative parenting role.

But I need to remind myself: Sleep isn’t always a friend. We foster these good sleep habits so the little girl has an opportunity to be on good terms with Sleep, so Sleep is ready to help us take care of her. But we are not here to force it on her. And seeing her and admiring her peaceful breathing when she’s asleep? That “Ah, she’s so perfect” moment? That’s for my own satisfaction, not purely for her well-being.

The girl might love Sleep, like her mommy. That would be fine with me. But she also might fight with it, resent it, keep her distance from it. She deserves that chance, too.

So I’m not going to surrender to Sleep. I’m not going to bow down, promise her my Witching Hours in return for comfort and consistency. I will keep resisting her, at my own discretion, until the day when she wins that final battle and my eyes close forever. I think, after this lifetime of short nights, I’ll be able to appreciate that restful eternity even more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Defense Against the Dark Clouds

A post shared by Jesse Miksic (@miksimum) on


It's hard to think about anything except politics these days.

I'm not the first to notice this. It's a known issue, especially within the media-elite bubble of anxiety and outrage. Checking Twitter and Google News and WhatTheFuckJustHappened... these things eat up more of my cognitive real estate than I ever thought I could spare for something so unproductive.

There are other effects, though. One of the most pronounced: I've felt pressured, nigh compelled, to question my creative priorities. I've suddenly grown skeptical of my more fanciful pursuits, like writing fiction (a long-term project) and experimenting in visual art. This is a time for serious reflection and education, right? ... a time when I need to be sharp and intelligible and writing powerful polemics that contribute to the political discourse? No cool drawings or notes on character backgrounds these days! My country needs me to write thinkpieces!

This might be depressing as hell, except for the fact that, the more I think about it, the more I sense that those pursuits of the imagination are not only necessary... they may be more important for than ever, at least for my own ego-integrity. They may, in fact, be one of my only defenses against the dark clouds of the zeitgeist.

I've read a lot of think pieces lately. A LOT. I've never been so responsive to targeted pitches from Medium authors, and I'd never spent so much time reading The Guardian. I have my list (still very short) of essays that really struck me... like this one on Trump as disjunctive president, and this one on Identity-Affirming Society... but even with these nuggets of insight, I have to say, the perennial reading of think pieces has gone well beyond "processing," drifted down through "treading water," and is now turning into genuine masochistic navel-gazing.

The problem is, after a certain amount of ineffectual explaining, I start to sense the emptiness at the heart of this endeavor. Analyzing, investigating, diagnosing... it's always been therapeutic, but it's becoming clear that the syndrome isn't progressing.

I'm quite confident that this is because of the intentional, deeply entrenched ambiguity that's become a tactical framework of the current regime. It's so full of paradox and dissembly, so contemptuous of earnest representation and transparency, that it makes a plaything of the rational instinct. It invites those deconstructions, and then renders them useless, because its leverage is not reasonable or persuasive or principled.

On one hand, as Katherine Cross argues in the essay linked above, it's crucial that we (writers in their writing, and readers in our understanding) remain precise and rigorous about language, so we don't cede the discourse to the irrational forces. However, equally important: we can't be locked into a state of crisis by the regime's linguistic slippage. Even as we maintain our standards, we also have to wrestle with those ambiguities in an endless, infinite-game kind of way. Reality will never entirely submit to reason.

That's where I have to let go of the essayist instinct, and return to art and fiction. These are the sites where I can truly wrestle with ambiguity... where I can diffuse the reality in an image with a spontaneous splash of the formal, or where I can write a character to perform those paradoxical processes of dissolution and reconstruction. There is nothing more satisfying (at least to me) than crafting something that only makes sense in that special, non-verbal language that it constructs for itself.

I am not saying that my art, or anybody's art, will save the country or the world from Trumpism, or from drone strikes, or from structural racism.

What I am saying is that we are all going to need something... some way of thinking or seeing or surrendering... that lets us confront the irrationality bubbling under the surface of the Real. I see it as a sort of hardiness, a personal integrity -- a quality that outlasts the present absurdity, and makes room for the permanent paradoxes -- that's cultivated privately, intimately. In my case, it has to be through these creative gestures.

This is, after all, a monster that can't be debated down, or harassed and vandalized out of existence... it has to be survived, appropriated, and integrated into whatever fortress we eventually build on the debris of the present.

Friday, January 06, 2017

An Aesthetics of Aspect (on Medium)

Today, a sort of philosophy/media theory post on the CREATOR-CONSUMER-CRITIC triad, which I'm calling the Aspect Aesthetic. It provides a quick summary of the big picture, with the triadic diagram to map out the poles and paths, and then it goes into a deeper discussion of the CONSUMER role, touching on fandom, worldbuilding, and the joys of inhabiting a work of art.

Post can be found here:
An Aesthetics of Aspect
https://medium.com/@miksimum/an-aesthetics-of-aspect-1e7d9bc1e20b#.uag3iclvp

Monday, January 02, 2017

Bubble Universes (Welcome to 2017)

First of all, to head off any elevated expectations: this post is mostly about movies. The title sounds broad and philosophical, partly because I'm trying to stretch my frame a little, but movies are where this idea started, and I doubt it's going to wander too far from that starting point.

On New Year's Eve, I did what a lot of people do, aside from watching the ball drop: I caught a couple on-demand movies. In my case, these were The Witch (2015, but really 2016 as far as public release) and The Lobster (2016). These choices were entirely arbitrary, no more thematic than "oh, I remember wanting to see that one!"... and yet, in retrospect (where so many things become more orderly), I feel like they were pretty perfect for closing out 2016 and moving into a new solar cycle.

There's been a lot of talk, of course, about how rough 2016 was, and 2017 is a frontier under such a dark cloud... it's not really a pleasant transition, even if change is welcome. It kind of puts into relief that angst that comes with every New Year... the feeling that under all the celebration, all the rhetoric about renewal, the truth is that it's exactly the same world, just tagged as the next iteration.

But a couple movies like The Witch and The Lobster helped with that transition, it turned out... and not just in a way that every other movie would help (which is distraction and spectacle, mostly). These helped because they did something unique among movies: they created self-contained little bubble universes, and these gave me the stepping stones I needed to move between two troubled years and really feel that threshold.

The Witch creates its bubble universe out of vivid sensory detail and historical specificity. Beyond the incessant use of "thee" and "thou," the world was relentless and textured and -- probably my favorite word for it -- grimy. Full of grime. After William and Katherine leave their Puritan plantation, they are caught in, essentially, a tiny world of two settings: the homestead, and the forest.

The immersion on display here isn't just stylistic or aesthetic. Director Robert Eggers (by his own admission, here) was trying to place his audience in an authentically Puritan frame of mind. This means a gawking fascination with sin and perversion, a manic-depressive relationship with Christianity, and a belief in Satan and witchcraft in their most literal forms. Eggers is trying to rip us out of our modernity and instill in us the fear of a wild, corrupted abyss populated by malevolent forces.

The Lobster does something similar in the abstract, but in almost the opposite way. It also creates a small, self-contained universe ("city," "woods," and a hotel make up the whole world). However, instead of a jarring injection of detail and history, it fashions this world out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted, reconstructed in absurd and unexpected ways. The City has the feeling of Washington, DC (at least that's the closest analog from my own experience), and the hotel feels like any mid-priced Hilton convention center hosting a huge conference.

This world is structured metaphorically, emphasizing the absurdity of the familiar. The Lobster's bubble universe alienates us from everyday life, floating up above and letting us look back on social psychology and romantic conventions as they might appear to an alien anthropologist.

The longer I sit and stare at these films side by side, the more parallels I see. They're both about a breakdown at the margins of an overly-structured society... they're both about exiles, creating rituals in defiance of the rituals that initially excluded them. They're both about the terror and anxiety instilled by the demands of conventional thinking, whether it's consensus or superstition.

All that aside, I'll go back to the title. It was this little skipping action, this move between bubble universes, that's helping me make sense of the New Year transition. In every practical sense, the new world is the same as the old one... I just stepped out of it for a couple movies. But in another sense, we're moving into a reality with a new framework... a whole new set of rules are coming into play.

These new global rules include an escalating authoritarian trend, sudden fractious instability in international consensus (both political and economic), and a step back from reasoned discourse, idealism, and accountability. So in this sense, the "bubble universe" concept might not be such a bad tool: a focus-shifted lens for seeing 2017 as radically, qualitatively different.

In honor of this effect, I'd like to reflect for a moment: what other films have this sort of feeling, that they're taking place in a tightly-constrained reality whose rules are alien and temporarily absolute?

I'll note, and set aside, those horror and science-fiction films that make this a point of premise... The Cube, Snowpiercer, THX 1138, Alien, The Village. Even The Shining is a little more explicit than I'm talking about. I'm trying to come up with movies that tease a larger reality, but then compress it, to wring every drop of significance out of the setting.

Hitchcock tended to do this... The Birds is such a film, I think, since it takes place in an island village, isolated from the outside world.

Rules of the Game has this sense, as well (it's been quite a while since I've seen it).

There must be others... Gilliam? Haneke? Anderson? ... BUELLER?