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Covid-19 Diary, part 29: Mrs. America, Orson Welles and John Brown’s rice.

22 Jun


I’m sitting in at the dining room table, listening to Edith Piaf and drinking too much coffee, thinking of feminism, the future, the past, and, weirdly, Orson Welles. My writing life has grown complex, in ways both good and bad. I’ve taken on a freelance writing job. I’m back in grad school. I’m drafting articles and essays for publicity and promotion. And I still need to go through the galleys of The South Never Plays Itself


Beth and I watched Mrs. America the last two weeks. It is essential viewing, the next installment of Mad Men, only it follows a group of women attempting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and the woman who decides to build her political power base on opposing it: Phyllis Schlafly. 


Pearl wrote this for her class: “My mom’s name is Beth. My mom has a temper problem. Yes, it’s true. But my family loves her no matter what.” (Pearl has elided her own temper and obstinacy, often the driver of her parents’ anger, but she is only eight.)


Seeing faces from my childhood on Linkedin is weird. The biggest reprobate I knew in high school is now a high school principal. A weird redneck from round the block is now a prominent businessman. A straight-laced soccer dude is now a hippie. We don’t turn out how we think, do we? 


Beth and I talk about Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s rice and how the brands are changing.
Beth: They should change it to John Brown’s Rice.
Me: John Brown’s Rice. I’d buy that.
Beth: It’s just brown rice. Plain brown rice.
Me: I see a restaurant. John Brown’s. The food is tasteless, ascetic. No salt.
Beth: It’s just brown rice.
Me: Everything?
Beth: That’s the only thing you can get. You come in, order your food, and get a bowl of plain brown rice.
Me: It’s the only thing on the menu?
Beth: There isn’t a menu at John Brown’s. You sit down and someone brings you plain brown rice. It doesn’t matter what you say to the waitstaff. Brown rice.
Me: No, it’s pre-Civil War food, only cooked without salt. Hardtack. Plain rice. Gruel. Tubors cooked without oil or butter. 


I got another blurb! A good one. Here’s a taste: “I’ve been waiting for a book about the movies like this my whole life.” 


I watch The Eyes of Orson Welles. It’s a film by Mark Cousins, a hero of mine. He made The Story of Film: An Odyssey, my favorite series about the movies this side of Conversations with Marty.  


Cousins tracks Welles’s life through his drawings and paintings. Welles was an accomplished artist, and sketched every day of his life. Cousins—because his films are personal, as well as political, philosophical, and self-reflective—explores various facets of our world through Welles’s movies, including the rise of Trump. It’s fascinating, beguiling, touching.


Critics love Welles because he was the wunderkind who could do everything, then he started failing. Studio bosses kept taking control of the movies away from him. His struggles for creative control are a metaphor for artists everywhere.


But was he a failure? I’m not so sure. He said in an interview once that no one would blink an eye if a novelist took ten years to write a novel, but when he took ten years to complete a film, everyone freaked out. 


And, he made some great films after being considered a failure. Touch of Evil is in my top ten. F is For Fake is one of the first essay films and, if you’ve never seen it, is wonderful. Chimes at Midnight—where Welles took all the Falstaff sections of Shakespeare and filmed them as its own work—is beloved by critics. (Not me.) His Macbeth is very strange, hypnotic and disturbed. And, finally, The Trial is magnificent. Welles captures most of what makes Kafka’s best novel so unsettling, but manages to make the work his own. 


Welles was a great actor. The Third Man, also in my top ten, follows an American pulp author looking for his friend in post-War Vienna. Welles, in just a handful of scenes, steals the movie. 


Was he a monster? I don’t know. His ego had to be huge. He conceived and directed a legendary, all-black version of Macbeth, which was seen by over 100,000 people, when he was just 22. Can you imagine? His War of the Worlds broadcast was adapted and performed by Welles before he was 25. Until the Hollywood producers re-edited the ending of his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, everything he did was a screaming success. 


If you haven’t seen it, Citizen Kane is a much stranger, wilder, more beautiful movie than its reputation suggests. It doesn’t feel old. It’s a flurry of storytelling techniques, with an ambiguous, complex ghost at its center. 


Covid-19 continues to claim victims. The death toll in the U.S. nears 150,000. The richest country in the history of the world, and we remain the center of the corona-virus pandemic. We still have no federal plan or response. And, as the blue states begin to get the virus under control, red states are seeing skyrocketing numbers. 


Don’t be fooled. Things seem better, but the pandemic is far from over. 


Back to Mrs. America. Cate Blanchett plays Schlafly, and she is magnificent as the cold and calculating power-broker who is hemmed in by the very forces—of history, misogyny, economics, mansplaining dudes—that her opponents, “the libbers” are trying to liberate women from. She gathers by her side sycophants and house wives, building a coalition of middle-class women to fight a law that would have guaranteed them equality in the workplace. In a playbook that should be familiar to everyone by now, she co-opts the language of her opponents to undermine them. 


On the other side we have Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Jill Ruckelshaus. Intelligent, clever, dedicated people with an army of creatives behind them. 


When the show begins, the E.R.A. is a Republican-backed initiative, and Nixon is keen to sign it. Right away you’re hit with the weird reality of our current moment, when all of the key issues of the far-right were, at the time, non-issues to the early 1970s Republicans. Nixon was indifferent on the issue of abortion.


Schlafly, always the smartest person in the room, is a Cold War hawk interested in foreign policy. In a key early scene, she attempts to elucidate her positions, but the men in the room only listen when she speaks about women’s issues. She gloms onto the E.R.A. as her chance to enter politics. 


She was devastating, razor-sharp, and mean. The feminists didn’t stand a chance. They believed in their cause; Schlafly—in ways the show hammers home, over and over—did not. Cynicism wins. 


Schlafly wanted to be a policy wonk and congresswoman. She ended up a behind-the-scenes kingmaker. Abzug wanted to usher in a new era of women’s equality. She ended up a semi-celebrity who worked tirelessly against the Reagan-era retrenchment. Steinem wanted to create an outlet for women’s issues. She ended up an often disregarded pretty face.


No one gets the life they want. This is the primary lesson Welles teaches us. Mrs. America delivers the same lesson—with verve, laughs, drama, and amazing period costume and music—but it is a bitter pill to swallow. 


We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. Many of the issues facing women—inferior healthcare, unequal pay, lack of political power—would have been mitigated by the Equal Rights Amendment. At the end of the show, the camera catches a real sign, held by a real protestor, in 2018: “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” 


I’ll leave it there. For now.

Covid-19 Diary, part 28: Holy fools and idiot stand-ins.

17 Jun


Since I was a child, I’ve been a bad sleeper. I have terrible nightmares. I sleep walk. I am often startled awake. I had a work colleague tell me, recently, that adults don’t have nightmares. Tell that to my brain, I said. I have them all the time.


I had a strange dream last night and tell Beth about it. I see a ten-year-old photo in a newspaper and I’m in the crowd. I was living 1000 miles away at the time. I start to investigate. Then I woke up.
Beth: Sounds like the beginning of your next novel. 


It does kind of sound like how I often begin novels. I toyed with the idea. Of recovered memories. Of mass amnesia. But I have too much on my plate.


114,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, an astonishing number. More than the mind can grasp. And we only have two million confirmed cases. With no national plan, with no visible leadership, we are left to stumble through a crisis that could—and I can’t believe I’m writing this—kill a few million Americans before we get to the end of it.


Trump is reopening his rallies in Tulsa—the site of one of the worst white massacres of black citizens—on Juneteenth. It isn’t a coincidence. Whoever makes his decisions for him is embracing the dog whistle, the symbolism, doubling down on his racism and divisive politics. 


I watch Bad Boy Bubby. It’s a fascinating, vile, unsettling movie about a man raised in total isolation by his abusive mother. She feeds him bread and milk, slaps him, scares him with tales about the outside world, and has sex with him. 


Bubby lives in a pre-literate state, unable to read and the only things he can say are repeated lines he’s heard from his mother. His entire existence is two rooms. 


His father returns one day, and Bubby is tormented by both his parents. They drink, slap him around, and then ignore him. But when they begin coitus in another room, Bubby loses his shit, destroys the place, and suffocates them both with plastic wrap. He then flees to the outside world.


What follows is comic, tragic, terrifying. Bubby is a dangerous innocent. He doesn’t understand the world or the people in it. He molests one young woman before being beaten senseless by her friends. He carries a dead cat in his bag. (He thinks this is how you take care of a pet, and it’s the closest thing to a running joke in the movie.) He is harassed, mocked and, in one of the more disturbing scenes in an ultra-disturbing movie, raped by a prisoner covered in feces. 


It is an awful display. Eventually Bubby starts performing with a punk band and builds a following with his bizarre on-stage antics. He also helps in a special needs school, where he helps with the care of incapacitated children. His mind—free of the detritus of language—can comprehend what the special needs children are trying to convey.  


I play Bach’s “Air” on the cd player.
Beth makes vomiting noises.
Me: What’s wrong with “Air”?
Beth: It’s insipid and trite.
Me: It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever made!
Beth: It’s overplayed.
She switches to the radio. “Pour some sugar on me” starts playing.
Beth: I hate this song.
Me: If you’re saying no to Bach and Def Leppard, I’m not sure I know who you are anymore. 


Bubby offers a dark and sadistic view of human nature, but like Candide, it finds some beauty in all the horror. It was almost impossible to watch, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Candide has its titular character repeat, despite the atrocities he witnesses, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The line becomes more and more ironic, as humankind descends into butchery. 


Candide eventually finds purpose and solace in gardening. Bubby discovers empathy and purpose by helping others, and expression through his mimetic rantings on stage. 


Rolf de Heer directs. He is an odd and unsettling voice in the often safe world of contemporary filmmaking. He made one of the first feminist horror films, Alexandra’s Project, a superb movie about a regular dude who comes home from work one day to find his wife and children gone, the furniture re-arranged, and a VHS tape in the VCR. He sits down and presses play. That’s a movie you won’t forget, either.


Bad Boy Bubby screams at us from a different era. The scream is primal, immediate, terrifying. It’s a vision of humanity over-reliant on language, barely concealing atavistic urges through reality mediated by words. Bubby has few words, and thus experiences life like a baby. 


Beth (reading through the Carl Makes a Scrapbook): This book is so stupid. “My Uncle Edsel.” Who gives a fuck? Who are these people? Why would anyone care about this?
Me: The Carl books were popular, so this shows photos of the real dog.
Beth: This book offends me. It’s insulting. Why are you defending it?
Me: I’m not defending it. I just don’t find it offensive.
Beth: It’s the dumbest book we own. I hate it!


Beth yells at me over The Breakfast Club while I’m talking on the phone. Her beef: the movie’s sexual politics are dated, disturbing, offensive, and wrong. (I don’t disagree, but . . . I would need way more space to explain why I think it’s a great movie in spite of its nastiness, misogyny, and terrible Emilio Estevez dancing.) 


We had 20,000 new Covid cases in the last four days. Here’s a headline that made me nauseous: “Alternate reading of Mayan calendar suggests end of the world is next week.” 2020! Keep the hits coming!


Bubby and Candide are part of a tradition of holy fools, including Chance and Forrest Gump, idiot stand-ins for the human race. We’re ridiculous enough as it is; we don’t need simpletons to represent us. We fuck things up enough on our own.

Covid-19 Diary, part 27: To the stars.

11 Jun


I can’t focus on fiction. I’m going to read non-fiction instead. There’s an important, fascinating declaration for you. “Hark! Ben is going to switch to non-fiction for a little while!” all the national papers report.


Beth: I hope Bernadette doesn’t have a big forehead like you.
Me: I don’t have a big forehead.
Beth: Your big forehead matches your really big face. 


A few things I’ve noticed during the pandemic. 

  1. Rabbits are everywhere, and they’re getting brazen in their habits. As a matter of routine, they don’t run away as I draw near. It’s weird.
  2. Everyone on the road—everyone, even me—is driving like a fucking asshole. I don’t know if its some psychic release being out of their domiciles, or a freedom at the dearth of traffic, but goddamn, it’s rough out there.
  3. Trump hasn’t mourned with the American people. No services, no rituals, no ceremonies. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Over 115,000 dead Americans, but he sees the entire coronavirus catastrophe as something that has happened to him. I’m not sure why his followers aren’t baffled. He isn’t even pretending to care. He ran on a platform that, on some basic level, denies our obligations to each other. He’s a cold-hearted son of a bitch. 
  4. Netflix kind of sucks. The Criterion Channel is so, so much better. 
  5. I goddamn hate Twitter. 
  6. I fucking hate Facebook. 
  7. I’m nearing the edge of permanent retinal damage due to too much screen time. My eyeballs are perpetually bleeding. Computers suck.


Don’t worry, though: I’m staying relevant: first up is a dual biography of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Written, weirdly, by Groucho Marx’s son.


Neither Lewis nor Martin ever read a book. They met on a fluke, built a nightclub act out of clowning around, and made an astonishing sixteen movies together in eight years. (Are the movies any good? No, but they aren’t terrible either.)


They made boatloads of money. But Martin was lazy, and Lewis controlling. Lewis craved attention. Martin wanted recognition. They were friends but it was never going to last. 


Jerry Lewis—do I need to write pithy things about him? He was an insecure man-child who was, at a very early stage in his career, rewarded for bad behavior. He built his schtick out of childish antics.


Lewis seems harmless, but he wasn’t. He was a cruel prankster. Here’s just one example: he placed recording devices in the women’s bathroom at his work. He would then replay the noises he recorded when women came back from the bathroom.


Lewis grew into a significant filmmaker. He studied the lens, lighting. He wouldn’t stay on script, but he paid attention to the directors he worked with. He was a hard-working clown. 


Beth: You’re sucking the meaning out of the word ‘problematic.’ I mean, what does that word even mean to you?


Dean Martin was an insouciant drunk. He was also, weirdly, a pretty damn good actor, with a number of excellent movies. Like Sinatra—and they acted together in Some Came Running—Martin had a fascinating acting career. He was excellent in Rio Bravo, very good in Career, strong in 5 Card Stud, and believable in The Young Lions. 


Lewis’s ambitions grew. He began producing, directing, starring and writing his own films. This always ends in disaster. For him, the meteor was The Day the Clown Cried, one of the most infamous movies ever made.  


Lewis plays a stage clown who criticizes Hitler during World War II. He’s sent to a concentration camp, where he spends his days entertaining Jewish children destined for the gas chambers. The available footage is strange, disturbing and wild, a Holocaust movie that is tortured, maudlin, self-indulgent and sentimental. (And why wouldn’t that be a good idea?) 


(Life is Beautiful runs with a similar concept, was a world-wide smash hit and won Roberto Benigni awards around the globe, so maybe Lewis was just ahead of his time.) 


Legend has it that Lewis carried the only edited copy in a briefcase he chained to his wrist. The movie is slated to have some release in 2024. So, something to look forward to if we survive the pandemic, killer hornets, giant meteors, American history, and a flailing Trump. 


Beth: You have to stop saying ridiculous stuff that makes me make this face.
Me: You’re blaming me for thinking you have wrinkles?
And, later,
Beth: You don’t have wrinkles there. I fill your life with laughter and smiles. You say dumb stuff and make me frown. 


I watch Ad Astra. It’s a clever, beautiful movie, even if it boils down humanity’s existential loneliness in the cosmos down to a tale of father-son reconciliation. Still, it has superb art design and Brad Pitt gives a haunting, nuanced performance. 


Interstellar—another pretty and smart film—presents a similar tale between fathers and daughters, between men and women. The world is exhausted, dying. The only hope is another planet. 


Both films position the solution to humanity’s issues as familial reconciliation. (Which, let’s be honest, won’t play any role at all in humanity branching out into the stars.)


I read Stories of Scottsboro, a superb history of the Scottsboro Boys, and Shadow of the Sun, an equally good first-person reportage of the liberation movements in the African continent. 


Astra has a devastating conversation between father and son, at the far edge of the solar system. Their fragile relationship seems to encompass everything. It’s the best science fiction film since The Matrix. Near the end, Pitt asks himself, “Why keep trying?” 


With the passage of time, Jerry Lewis grows stranger and stranger, impish and bizarre, America’s needy id, craving constant attention and willing to get it at any cost. 


I’ve taken to writing in notebooks. The Internet has defeated me. It’s too crowded, too distracting, a vast outrage machine that is dispiriting and heart-breaking, a breaker of the human spirit. 


Here’s the first line to a novel manuscript I wrote, Freaks of the Cosmic Circus: “In the last days of the giant oil machines, the husband David and Annabelle the wife drove in silence, until the wife grabbed her husband’s arm and screamed.” It tells the story of a family besieged by outside forces, while America dissipates through apathy, hypocrisy, cognitive frisson and escalating crises of fantastical proportions. I wrote it in 2011.


Beth just said this to me, right now: “We don’t want them to become sheltered little bitches.” She’s talking about our daughters.

Covid-19 Diary, part 26: Save our ashes (a short polemic).

4 Jun


The national news is apocalyptic. Forty million unemployed. The stimulus money is ending. Mass protests all around the country. Police brutality abounds. America is aflame. 


Midnight Oil got here first: How do we sleep when our beds are burning?


Beth, on a phone call with work, falls into Bernadette’s play things without interrupting her talk, making a tremendous racket. I run in but see she’s okay then return to my computer.
Beth (later): You didn’t seem appropriately concerned.
Me: I ran in, but you didn’t stop talking on the phone.
Beth: What was I supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry I have to go, I just slammed into a child’s kitchen?’


This series of blogposts, a mashup of the mundane and the horrifying, started out as a way for me to process my own feelings and begin promoting my upcoming book. I often focus on what I’m reading and watching (and I have loads to say on that subject: Stuber, Lovebirds, Bad Boy Bubbie, Normal People). But what to write now?


The protests are growing and getting scarier. There is a sick feeling of things spiraling out of control. It seems like capitalism—or America—has regular breakdowns baked into our system. 


I go to Target at 8:30. I park the car and notice everyone filing out, while steel shutters descend in front of the glass doors. “What going on?” I ask a be-masked woman who exits the store. “I don’t know. They just kicked everyone out. Even the people waiting in line!” It feels like the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead. I jog back to my car. 


Various law enforcement agencies are combining into a militarized amalgamation of soldiers, police, national guard, and secret service into some terrifyingly brutal shock troops. Over the past week, they’ve assaulted reporters, tear gassed children, arrested protestors—engaged in a fundamental American right enshrined in the Constitution—and, weirdly, been unable to stop looting or arson on a wide-spread scale. 


Put another way: They can beat up activists engaged in lawful activity, but can’t catch real criminals. 


Trump keeps tweeting, much of it vile, all of it nonsense. But here was the crown jewel: “MAGA loves the black people.” Okay. What the fuck does that mean?


What to do? In our era of mass layoffs, raging pandemics, police brutality of black citizens and now escalating confrontations in dozens of American cities?


Me: Our money problems are about to end.
Beth: How is that?
Me: The movie rights to The South Never Plays Itself. It’s going to be shots of me—not me, but a buff actor playing me—watching movies. Then clips of movies. Then shots of me, the actor, drinking coffee, looking out at the world, taking notes.
Beth: That sounds riveting.
Me: Oh, yeah. It was optioned for 50 grand. They asked me to play myself, but I was like, ‘I’m busy.’


Trump’s malignant incompetence and pathological lying have led us to the precipice of unprecedented disaster. He has no plan. He has no framework. He has no team of advisors. He believes the social unrest can be solved with “dominating force,” to use his term. 


Dominating force—plus murderous racism, militarized police, white privilege, America’s history, and a cascading unemployment due to the federal government’s inaction on another crisis—is what got us into this mess. You can’t kick, punch, mace, or dominate social protests in all fifty states. You can’t dominate history; the past has a way of punching back. 


When protestors approached the White House, Trump was moved to a protected bunker. Fine. But Trump—like a goddamn child—refuses to acknowledge anything that might be construed as weakness. So he tells reporters he wasn’t there for safety, but to do an inspection. 


He has told some 20,000 lies since entering the White House. The lies themselves have done immeasurable harm to the body politic. His followers trust him not in spite of his lies but because of them. Somehow, he has twisted the political playbook so badly that people rejoice in his deception. They exalt in his propaganda.


What’s needed is a series of policies aimed at helping black Americans—no-interest loans for housing, good-paying jobs, access to free (or very affordable) healthcare, better funded schools, anti-racism initiatives—wedded to genuine soul-searching from national political leaders. Most importantly, the paradigm of policing—our entire mindset around punitive incarceration—needs to change.


White people need to listen to black Americans, and read books by black authors and watch films on the black experience. It’s our job to understand our history. It’s our moral obligation to understand the country we live in. 


(The good news is, it isn’t medicine. Friday Black—especially the short story, “The Finkelstein 5.” Heads of the Colored People. The World Doesn’t Require You. Sing, Unburied, Sing. Walking with the Wind. We Were Eight Years in Power. Middle Passage. Or go back and read the books you were supposed to read but missed: Native Son. Invisible Man. BelovedThe Souls of Black Folk.)


America was founded on two sins. We took land that wasn’t ours, and then forced other people into unimaginable suffering to work it. People who don’t face this fact—and I’ve seen this firsthand—are driven into hypocritical derangement over the cognitive dissonance of 21st century America. 


Put another way, and I’m borrowing from author Greg Ganin: the engine of American embitterment is slavery. We can’t forget, but we won’t remember. 


Put another way: if you live in this country and are white, you’ve benefited from slavery and institutionalized racism. This is an unassailable fact. 


If I’m offending you, ask yourself: why? Why are white people so fragile about the past? (And I know I’m being pedantic and tendentious, but I don’t know how else to delve into the crisis happening right now. Find some illuminating fable? Employ some incisive metaphor?) I’m no saint, either. I used to get defensive about these issues, too. If you try to justify our ancestors, you end up tied in excruciating intellectual knots.


Beth: I manifested you. What was that Oprah book? Where you will your desires into being? I willed you into being. You’re not even real. . . . But I don’t know if I would have made you from Pensacola . . .


The editing of the book ends in dramatic fashion. I add revisions and rewrites until 1, while Beth works until 4:30 in the morning. Bernadette wakes up at 3 and interferes. But, the editing phase is over. Beth did an amazing, spectacular job. Now on to reviews, publicity, and criticism. If our country hasn’t splintered into a new civil war.


Meanwhile, a series of portents. A giant asteroid will pass within a few million miles of earth later today. Images of armed counter-protestors decrying Anti-fa. And signs all over my neighborhood that read: Save our ashes. I don’t have a goddamn clue what that means, but it seems to explain everything. 


Me: Dolphins would be the dominant life-form on the planet if they had opposable thumbs.
Pearl: Really?
Me: That’s what I understand. They’re like all muscle and have much larger brains. They just lack the dexterity to create tools.
Beth: That’s stupid. Dolphins live in the water.
Me: The majority of the earth is water.
Beth: They can’t talk.
Me: They talk. They—
Beth: They can’t speak English. There. They live in the water and they can’t speak English.


Save our ashes.

Covid-19 Diary, part 25: A short entry on politics . . . and three movies.

28 May


I come across another pedestrian, an older woman. I stop and wave, some 20 feet away; I try not to creep up on anyone (as I am a tall, if also gangly and non-threatening, human). “It’s just you and me in the entire city tonight!” she said.


I watch Short Eyes, a tough, superb late-70s prison movie. It’s set in a county lockup, where people who can’t make bail wait for their trials. The floor is relatively smooth thanks to a tribal system, where each ethnic group has control of their members. A counsel rules the prison. There is no rape. Fighting is highly regimented. 


Me: If someone said I could never get the coronavirus if I ate a whole jar of mayonnaise, I would say, no thanks, I’m taking my chances.
Beth: What if you could eat it on a delicious sandwich?
Me: No.


The movie has a novelistic quality, shifting in and out with different characters. The main character is Juan, a tough but principled man trying to be good in a terrible system. He mostly succeeds. 


But things fall apart when a “short eyes,” a man accused of raping a child, is admitted to the ward. He’s white, which means he’s the whites’ problem, but they don’t want anything to do with him. He is bullied, beaten and humiliated. The guards are happy to let this happen. No one gives a shit about the suspected pedophile. 


Only Juan tries to understand the short eyes. He listens to him. He tries to protect him. But he can’t. 


I don’t know why I love prison movies and prison novels. If I were going to recommend one prison novel, it would be On the Yard by Malcolm Braly. A movie? Hmmm. Cool Hand Luke, Un Prophet, Starred Up, or maybe Brubaker. Weirdly, I really, really liked the 2017 remake of Papillon. 


Short Eyes reminded me of Scum, the British juvenile movie following Ray Winstone as he punches and kicks his way to the top of the heap. But Winstone is a by-product, not a cause, in the juvenile delinquency system. The adults are far, far worse. 


I watch Ready or Not. A woman marries into an unfriendly, Uber-rich family. On her wedding night, there’s a ritual where she has to play a game. It turns into a murderous game of hide and seek. It’s pretty good, and got me out of my. Pandemic mind-freeze, if for only a little while. It’s not as well-made as Knives Out and not as clever as Cabin in the Woods, but kinds of belongs in-between these two. It’s black comedy and horror and social commentary.  


Simone asks me what my childhood self would say if he traveled forward in time and met me.
Me: ‘Hey, future-self buddy! You play guitar? That’s so cool. You have all these books. You’re married to a great woman.’
Simone: ‘You’re a . . . middle-school librarian? You . . . look old.’
Me: ‘You have all these records. You haven’t given up on your dreams.’
Simone: ‘You live in a two-bedroom apartment.’
Me: ‘You’ve stayed in pretty good shape. You care about other people.’
Simone: ‘You don’t have an i-phone.’
Me: ‘You have three wonderful children.’
Simone: ‘Your oldest daughter is way cooler than you are.’
Me: ‘I like you, adult-self.’
Simone: ‘I’m ashamed that I turned into you.’
Me: That was . . . harsh.
Simone: Ha!


Trump: “I don’t take insulin. Should I be? Between transparency, and all the other things we’re doing . . . competition will result in prices . . . tumbling down.”


This is our commander in chief. While the death toll tops 100,000 people—the most victims of anywhere in the entire fucking world!—he tweeted conspiracy theories about Joe Scarborough; threatened to punish social media platforms; watched four to five hours of Fox News, each day; pushed to destroy the post office, most likely because he’s terrified of vote by mail; and cut regulations because, you know, America.


Ready or Not has one great running gag. The ultra-rich family—drunk, high, and coked-up while armed with old-fashioned weapons—keep killing their servants on accident. It’s the darkest kind of humor. An au pair is shot in the face. The shooter leans over and asks, “You okay?” as blood and brain matter leak out all over the floor. 


Meanwhile, McConnell took the Senate to recess, the second stimulus bill not even debated on the floor. Forty million Americans applied for unemployment. The Senate approved two more far-right judges. 


A cop killed George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis. The footage is horrifying, the worst I’ve seen. The cop has his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd tells him that he can’t breathe. The cop chokes the life out of him. 


A few weeks back, white armed protestors screamed and threatened police and politicians in Michigan with zero repercussions. They carried rifles and pistols and other weapons around city hall. The juxtaposition shouldn’t be lost on anyone. White citizens, do what you want. Black citizens, don’t even fucking move.


Beth tells me to keep things light, don’t dwell on Trump or politics. It’s hard. I am gutted by Floyd’s pointless murder. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 24: More buckwheat.

25 May

Things Beth and I have argued about this week:
Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s movies
The meaning of a single frame of the movie Junebug
Birth of a Nation
Sexism in movies versus racism in movies
The definition of the German word, Wunderbar. (Beth was right on this one; it’s painful for me to admit it, but I thought Wunderbar meant, “Of course!”)
The novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. (Beth was wrong about this one; it is a superb book.)
The meaning behind specific sighs
The meaning behind specific eye-rolls
The definition of “jejune”
What constitutes the Deep South

One week.

Me: Buckwheat is actually good for you.
Beth: I’ve been trying to buy it, but everyone’s out of it.
Me: People have heard about all the magic I’m doing with it.
Beth: Your “buckwheat johnnycakes” has ruined everything. 

I re-watched Slam Dance, an odd 90s movie starring Tom Hulce (he played Amadeus). It’s a murder mystery, sort of. Or is it a romance? And there’s only a single scene with slam dancing. It’s bad, but in a memorable way.

I first watched it when I was 12, while my parents and sisters frolicked on the beach. My family took a beach vacation once a year, renting a condo for three days. I usually spent them watching movies. The beach house had Showtime and HBO. I was in hog heaven. My parents thought I was nuts. 

Over the years at that beach house, I watched Kelly’s Heroes. I watched Relentless. I watched Thief of Hearts. I watched Salvador. I watched Silver Streak. I watched Revenge of the Nerds. I watched Airborne. I watched Repo Man. I watched Commando. 

(I can’t remember the rest.)

Here’s the thing. My memory of Slam Dance doesn’t match my experience of it. The movie is bewildering, it is confusing, but not because it’s mature, but because it’s kind of bad. 

What did I get wrong? 

I remember the main character looking like the lead singer of Bad English. He doesn’t. I remember the movie exploring a punk subculture. It doesn’t. I remember the film having an East German villain. Nope. I remember a sex dream; that scene is in She’s Having a Baby. I thought it was set in London. I thought Kelly LeBrock was in it. Nope and nope. 

Beth: Unless you’re in prison, I don’t want to hear about what a terrible mother you are.

100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. Our government’s response has been, “You’re on your own; we’ve won!”

The death toll equals twelve plane crashes a day. 

I spent two days working on a new book proposal while also working on grad school papers and the corrections and revisions for South. My thoughts have been divided. It’s left me depleted and cranky. 

Beth read Wow, No thank You this Week, a book of essays from Samantha Irby. She’s been laughing out loud, reading passages. She also told me, four or five times, that I was forbidden to put on the blog what she just said. I really, really want to; she was on fire. 

We watch What’s Up, Doc? with the kids. I love this movie, a slapstick, live Warner Brothers cartoon. (Barbra Streisand, here and in The Owl and the Pussycat, was my first crush.) Simone guffaws. She chortles. 

Running in the park today, Beth overhead a dude say into his phone, “I mean, liberals . . . science science science.”

I’m still walking at night. Someone has lit a mannequin from the inside, dressing it in bright red robes that glow crimson with inner light. Each night I come across the illuminated headless body floating in the air. It’s indescribably beautiful.

I stop by some hedges to avoid a dog walker. Behind the bushes, inside the first floor of an apartment, is an enormous, glowing blue sphere. It looks like a message from another world. 

I listen to music on the walk. “Do right Woman,” comes on. I can hardly breathe. Midnight Oil’s “Maralinga” is next; “I want to be there at the end,” is the re-occurring line. 

I randomly get Spoon, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Sam Cooke, and The Strokes. For this chilly night, on the empty streets, these songs are perfect. 

I keep thinking of the curse of knowledge. Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it was like not knowing it. 

Looking for something in one of my old notebooks, I stumbled across this line: “What has not believing gotten you? What is the world but the delusions of a half-mad race?” (In this notebook I only have fiction, a few poems, and draft sections of South. I don’t remember writing these lines.)

In the park today, a muscled old shirtless dude screams at some thirty-something skaters. I can’t make out the problem, but the shirtless dude seems like he has a legitimate beef, but expresses himself in ridiculous drama. “I’ll fucking die out here!” he screams.
Beth: What are you going to do about that in the middle of pandemic?
Me: I don’t know, maybe see if there’s some sort of compromise.
(Beth sighs.) 

Simone and Pearl and some other neighborhood children put on a talent show today. The theme was Elton John and cartwheels. There was a lot of Elton John. And a lot of cartwheels.

Me: The kids should do a play. You could be the stage manager.
Beth: You could be the stage manager . . . and then shut the fuck up.

Me: I just think buckwheat is my future, somehow.
Beth: If I had a blog, I would put that on it.


Beth: Why did you turn the fan off in here?
Me: I didn’t turn the fan off in here. You must have.
Beth: You turned the fan off!
Me: Why would I turn the fan off in here?
Beth: I don’t know why you do the sick things you do.

Covid-19 Diary, part 23: Something to fall back on. 

18 May


In high school, a friend of mine named Christian made me a tape. He called it “Something to Fall Back on.” He even penciled in a cover.


Christian was a music fanatic. Everyone knows someone like this in high school. Everything collapses into comments about a new band. It’s exhausting, these elliptical conversations rotating around sub-genres that are inexhaustible. He was eerily similar to  Emo Dick in High Fidelity.


One night, after we had spent a deafening two hours listening to skate punk bands at the Nite Owl, I gave him a ride home. My ears were ringing. Christian jumped right into, “Have you heard this band?” and handed me a tape to listen to. I wanted to stab myself in the eardrums. 


Beth: You’re writing too much about Trump.
Me: It’s important.
Beth: You’re beating a dead horse.


Christian only gave me the one tape. I had a slight beef with him for a long time, as I lent him a copy of my Pavement cd, Slanted and Enchanted—the first cd I ever bought; the last tape I bought was U2’s Achtung Baby!—and never got it back. I’m certain he sold it. (Christian, I forgive you.) 


My favorite song on the tape was “Arms Can’t Stretch.” It’s by Hot Water Music. The lyrics repeat a few lines: “And I turn black. I turn stars. And I turn you.”


(I love these lines. They don’t make any logical sense, but when you listen to the band belt them out, you intuit them completely. This song, and Lagwagon’s “Angry Days” got me through years of teenage angst.)


I listened almost exclusively to punk and skate/pop punk for years. The fuzzy anger, the political rage, and the intentional discordance took their toll. By the time I was 21, I hated music. Hated it. I would tell people, “I don’t like music.” Two bands made the cut: The Clash, and Hot Water Music.


While on a bus, on my first visit to Chicago, at 23 years of age, the bus driver put on the made for TV movie, The Temptations. The movie dramatizes the backstory of the band, but you watch it for the songs. As I sat on that bus in Chicago, riding along Lake Shore Drive, I heard ”Papa was a Rolling Stone.” I was transfixed. It was my Saul on the road to Damascus moment. I was, instantaneously, a soul man.


For the rest of my twenties, I listened to Motown, Stax and off-label soul music. Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin were my heroes. Sam Cooke, Live at Harlem Square, was my favorite album. Wilson Pickett was my favorite singer. I eventually made my way to funk, and, although it took me years to be able to appreciate it, to jazz. 


I wanted to only write about music tonight, but I can’t. Beth informs me that the Wisconsin supreme court has overturned the stay at home order. This is a terrible decision, and a string of miserable, vicious partisanship from some of the sickest political partisans in the country.


Last month, they refused to let people vote by mail. To vote, Wisconsinites had to risk their goddamn lives. The U.S. Supreme court, using the fuzzy, contradictory logic of the far-right, upheld this decision. Vote, they said, and potentially die. Or, don’t vote. Easy peasy.


I’ve seen some heinous, evil shit in my day, but this was horrifying. Wisconsin politicians seems intent on winning the vilest right-winger award. (They routinely compete with Devin Nunes and Mark Meadows.)


I watched Hotel Artemis. Jodie Foster plays the head nurse of a hospital-hotel for criminals and underworld types. It’s set in the future, where private corporations own all the water and most of the police. It’s not great, but it does have something about it. A strange angle of society in decline. Like most science fiction, it details the here and now.


We take photos on Simone’s i-pad and then get matched up with famous paintings. I’m matched with grizzled old royals with strange facial hair. Most of them have lumpy, misshapen faces; it isn’t a nice feeling. Why couldn’t google match me with one of Caravaggio’s hotties? 


Beth: I’m getting matched with dudes . . . and fat old ladies!


I watched Judex, an absolutely hypnotic French film from 1963. A rich asshole receives threatening letters, that he’s going to be killed in two days. He hires a detective to find out who is sending them. At the appointed time, during a party, he dies. It’s a mesmerizing movie stuffed with acrobats, magicians, detectives. 


I’m listening to Puccini with Bernadette, looking out at the rain-soaked foliage. Beth and I are butting heads over the book again. The deadline looms. Beth is working hard, but is pathologically incapable of saying affirming things while she’s working. Like most (all?) writers, I am at my core a needy person; I have a pathological need for affirmation. It’s not an ideal situation. 


Bernadette isn’t digging the Puccini. We watch the rain fall as I switch to Miles Davis. She likes this better. 


Two more blurbs came in!  


90,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. We still don’t have enough tests.  Yesterday, Trump, Jr., called Biden a pedophile. This is where our country is. There is no bottom. 


Beth: Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t just marry some rich Harvard asshole. (beat) If you put that on the blog, seriously, I’m going to divorce you. 


I always shift my music in May, often to Afro-beat—especially Fela Kuti—and reggae: Alton Ellis, Toots Maytal, Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe, and Max Romeo. So far, Bernadette loves Fela, but is on the fence about the rest. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 22: I’ve outlived Kierkegaard. 

14 May


I’m 43. I’ve outlived Kierkegaard. It’s an accomplishment. 


I finished The Art of Self-Defense. It’s a quirky little movie about the allure of violence. A quiet little nerd is savagely beaten one night; he starts taking self-defense classes at a dojo where the leader is unscrupulous and deranged. Violence remakes him. He goes from being innocent and weak to knowing and dangerous. The tone is bizarre, unsettling; it’s twee, but saturated with darkness. If Wes Anderson edited a David Fincher movie.  


It could be a dark sequel to The Karate Kid.


Beth: The only problem I have here is, where’s my credit for your political transformation? I introduced you to pizza, democrats, Jews, coffee. 


I always thought I would have a better handle on things when I became an adult. I was wrong.


The 2016 election—with its portents of doom coming true right now—coincided with personal turmoil. I lost my job. We were kicked out of our apartment. My health faltered. 


The feeling of progress, of moving past the fiasco of Iraq and the thresher of Afghanistan, the belief that America might make good on some of its promises—this was shattered. We had elected a poltroon, a wannabe fascist. We had elected a self-proclaimed billionaire real estate developer reeking of 1980s New York excess.


I slipped into a twilight hell-scape, fortunate to still have a paycheck but knocked into the reassigned teacher pool, purgatory for educators, a super-sub. At the orientation, I sat with Chicago’s miserable castoffs. An older woman couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. One dude only had one eye.


My self-confidence—never a strong suit—plummeted. The end-date of my health insurance, which covered my wife and two daughters, approached. I worked on resumes, applied for suburban jobs. I stared out of windows. I paced. I fretted. I aged.


(And I know, I know, that I have protections and privileges that millions of people do not. I know I’m lucky. I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m not indulging in self-pity.)


I was offered two positions, weirdly, both of them outside education. One was as an editor for the Elk’s Club, with an enormous pay cut. The other was a library director position for a small town in Michigan, which was intriguing, but we would have had to move to a small town in Michigan. 


I also wrote and wrote and wrote and rewrote. My writing life had a jittery new energy. Desperation is a good motivator. It gnaws at the edges of your consciousness. Writing allowed me to sublimate some of this negative energy, re-routing it into my work.


My life explodes, just as the country begins to be dismantled. Trump ascends, I descend. I’ve talked to others about this, and a lot of people feel the same way: it’s connected somehow. The manifestation of Trump and the small-scale calamities that befell a lot of good people. 


Beth: Do you know who Lawrence Wright is?
Me: He’s a great writer. His book on Scientology gave me nightmares. The Looming Tower is amazing; it explains where 9/11 came from. Do you know where it originated? Wright traces—
Beth: I do. (beat) It came . . . right from Osama bin Laden’s butthole.


My health took a major hit. I got plantar fasciitis, and limped for months. A lump grew on the back of my neck. It was benign, but Beth hated it. I would (jokingly) ask her to massage it. She would refuse. She wouldn’t hug me. 


(Today, she said, “I still can’t quite get past it; there’s a ghost hump there.”)


I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I could only see the end of my children’s health insurance. I could only see calamity and disaster.


I also got cellulitis in my foot. The infection resisted treatment. (Beth told me, and she wasn’t joking, that I should insist the doctors amputate, just to be on the safe side.) On one of my emergency visits, the doctor was worried, never a good sign. 


Beth: You don’t desire what you already have. . . . Roland Barthes.
Me: Is that a direct quote?
Beth: Basically.
(Later: “You can’t put that on the blog. Those aren’t his direct words. Also, there’s no context.”)


Bernadette has taken to lifting heavy items and moving around the apartment. She grunts and shuffles her feet. She looks like a miniature contestant on the world’s strongest man competition. Today she kept lifting up containers of olive oil. It’s adorable. 


Pearl finds a hand-written note at her grandparents’ house and hands it to me. It reads: The center cannot hold.


Of course, this a line from Yeats’s most famous poem:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”


 The U.S. death toll, according to the current numbers in the NYTimes, is 82,000. The center cannot hold. 

Covid-19 Diary, part 21: I dip into jejunosity.

11 May


I’m wrapping up The South Never Plays Itself. The release date is early November. Pre-publication review copies go out in a few weeks. My wife has worked day and night on the editing. I am doing some last minute little pieces. 


Beth has decided she’s going to write a guest post. I tell her I’ll have to have oversight; I’ll have to edit it. Beth’s response is unprintable.


Beth: When I said that line about loving you less for your hair . . . that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever written.


The last four movies I’m including are Cane River, Queen & Slim, Down in the Delta, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Then I’m closing the book. 


Beth: You have a big face.
Me: No, I don’t.
Beth: You do.


The U.S. has about 5 percent of the world’s population. We have 33 percent of the world’s coronavirus cases. The idea that we are doing a “good job” is absurd.


Beth: You actually look really youthful. I know you don’t think so. Except for around the ears . . .


South Korea and the U.S. tested their first cases on the same day. They’re down to 10 new cases a day; we have 25,000. Their government tested rigorously and scientifically isolated anyone who was exposed. Their society is running smoothly. Only a fool would say the same about us.


We play rummy. Simone has taken to exclaiming, “Oh my God!” every few minutes in an aggressive whine. I ask Beth about it later in the evening. “She’s just trying to figure out how to be funny,” Beth says. “It’s a shame you’ve . . . muddied the water in that department.”


Trump failed. He failed. He failed.


Me: One good thing that’s come out of all this is Beth and I, our banter, has really improved. It’s A-list.
Keith (my cousin): I’m glad something good, and meaningful, has come out of the pandemic.


Me: I’m not an idiot.
Beth: You are an idiot. You’re a big-faced idiot with a bad haircut.


Trump failed because of ideology. He failed because of personality. He failed because he is exactly the guy he presents to the world: uncurious, plutocratic, narcissistic and venal. He doesn’t have the imagination, or the steel, to lead.


Beth: You always smell like rancid coconut oil. I think there’s something wrong with you. It’s not your body; it’s on your face. Face cancer. Do you think you have face cancer? Do you think it has something to do with your aging ears?


During World War II, we manufactured combat planes and ships, eight an hour. Under Trump, we can’t mass produce enough plastic masks. It’s absurd. 


We have two crises. Bernadette rubs her eyes and get something in them. Maybe oils from Serrano peppers. She freaks out. I wash her hands and flush her eye on the sink and eventually she calms down. I won’t go into the second crisis. It involves poison control. Everyone is fine. In one night, I age a couple of years. 


The world was laughing at us. Do you have any friends who live in other countries? Trump is a joke, only with a vicious punchline. They can see how easily it is to manipulate him, how needy he is. They guffaw at him on the world stage. 


He failed. He failed. He failed. 


Now they’re pitying us. America, the richest country in the history of the world, cannot take care of its citizens. No, scratch that: America won’t take care of its citizens.


Under McConnell—the gravedigger of the American Republic—while the unemployment hits 15 percent, the senate continues to approve far-right judges and table bills coming from the House. That is all the Senate is doing. They don’t debate any of the House bills. He is disconnected from the current crisis. He doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t want to.


I’m reading Severance. It’s a funny, twenty-something New York novel intermingled with a post-apocalyptic thriller. It’s . . . good. Weirdly, the book has a pandemic that sweeps through America, and it begins in the Wuhan Provence of China. It was published in 2018.


The projections are dire: over 150,000 Americans will die from the pandemic. That’s an astronomical number. We’re now ground zero for the coronavirus, and still we don’t have enough tests and no real government plan. 


And McConnell continues to kill bills and shepherd through far-right judges. It’s madness. Republican senators are fighting against food stamps in the middle of an unparalleled unemployment spike. There’s no there there with McConnell. He doesn’t believe in anything. He only cares about power. 


I’ll lay off politics. They’re jejune. 


No, I won’t. I’ll be jejune. I’ll dip into jejunosity. I was taught—in a right-wing intellectual training camp for college students—that the government had only two functions: protect property and prevent plunder. 


Well, there you go. Here we are. This is the result of this paradigm. The government won’t help anyone and won’t fix anything. 


Here’s the ruins of my birthday poem, the one I didn’t finish: 

What does it say about me,
that my favorite character 
in the The Iliad is Diomedes?
throat cutter
rejecter of goddesses
the stone killer.

I don’t understand Achilles and his intransigence.
Odysseus is smug, self-satisfied and self-involved.
Ajax is a giant? who smashes people with a hammer.
Hecter is too noble, dying when he could have lived.
Helen is too beautiful, and Thetis is too strong.
I’m left with Diomedes,
crusher of skulls
killer of men.

My thoughts drift to Carthage.
Worshipers of Baal
sacrificers of children
seafarers and merchants
losers of the Punic Wars.


I have no idea where I was going with this.


I started this poem months ago and got no further. It says nothing about me other than I know some of the characters of The Iliad. I don’t hate it. I don’t love it. I feel neutral towards it. That’s the engine of good poetry: a neutral feeling.


Beth: You have a V.I.P. ticket to some of the best humor in the world. (pause) This makes me rethink our marriage.

Covid-19 Diary, part 20: The god who arrives.

7 May


The chief enemy of creativity is good sense. Picasso said that. 


Beth discovered there’s a character with her name in it in a novel. She is freaking out. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened.”


We bicker over antipasto. Beth says it’s meat and cheese and olives. I say it has pickled vegetables. She insults me. I bring up charcuterie. She says there are no Italian words that end in ie. I ask her if she knows the entirety of the Italian dictionary. She looks up charcuterie. “It’s French, like I said. And pronounced, ‘Char-cyute-err-ae.'” I shrug. She looks up antipasto. I was right about that one.


Three thousand deaths per day are forecast for May as some states open. That’s a headline from this morning. 


I’m writing a screenplay. It’s not the sequel to anything. So far, it’s terrible. 


I’m grappling with the forking path. I have different roads in front of me, writing-wise. And I’m unsure of what to do. I won’t get into it here. 


I’ve finished re-reading 2666. It’s one of the best novels of my lifetime. It’s also vile and obscene. 


We watched Blinded by the Light. It follows an English kid (of Pakistani descent) in Thatcher’s late eighties. He becomes obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. It. Is. Terrible. Just a fucking train wreck of a movie. Beth: “I would re-watch Oldboy before I watched this again.”


This is a shocking claim. Years ago, Beth and I took the train into the city—we were staying with her parents in the suburbs—and then walked to see Oldboy. I was excited about it, but didn’t really know much about the story. The movie becomes increasingly perverse and humiliating; by the end, the hero is debased completely and—spoiler alert—cuts off his own tongue with a pair of scissors. Beth refused to speak to me the whole way home. The trip took over an hour. She later said she wanted to break up with me, she was so angry and upset. 


So, yeah, she’d rather revisit that than Blinded by the Light.


2666 is a lot of things. It’s mostly about a series of real-life murders in northern Mexico in the 1990s. Over 300 women were strangled, stabbed, raped, and left in the desert.


Bolaño covers these in an astonishing rundown of the crimes in exhausting detail. It’s thrilling, nightmarish, overwhelming, and as the mutilations pile up, desperately sad. He researched the case files of the actual unsolved murders; the central chunk of the novel is true. 


Bolaño places these crimes in the context of the Holocaust, slavery, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs and meat grinder of World War II.


Bolaño doesn’t preach, and he doesn’t provide tidy narratives. He drops you into his propulsive, wild prose. He builds these fabulous scenes, whipsawing from the gothic to the comedic, from police procedural to academic conference. He casts a delirious spell. 


2666 teaches you how to read it as you are reading it. It possesses its own logic, it’s own mythology. A radiant inner darkness. I love books like this.


Weirdly, it made me feel better. 2666 places our current crisis inside the human story, a panorama of misery, violence, hope, joy, massacres, art, invasions, literature, droughts, starvations, music, heroism, villainy, wars, and colossal fuckups. This is bad, Bolaño whispers, but it’s always been bad, and often so much worse. 


I watched Gaspar Noe’s Climax. 


It begins with interviews of dancers, then an extended dance sequence that is filmed in a single take. It’s a wild, exhilarating, beautifully filmed, hateful little movie. Which isn’t a surprise. 


Noe’s first movie follows a racist, self-loathing butcher who beats up his pregnant girlfriend and wanders around Paris.


Irreversible is his second movie; it’s a marvel, a series of ten-minute single-take scenes, only the movie runs backwards. Inside jokes, hidden tensions, disturbing visual puns, bravura camera-work, sexual violence, unwanted children, and a grim, vicious view of human nature—these are Noe’s trademarks, and they are on full display here. 


Beth: I went terribly wrong somewhere. I should have been a lady of leisure. I just want to sit in bed and read Dennis Lehane books all day. I like to work out. I would have been philanthropic. I would have helped people. I would have been on museum boards. I would have loved that shit.


Irreversible is beautiful. Irreversible is depraved. It has one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen, the kind of thing you want to un-watch. One friend locked herself in the bathroom while her husband watched it. She told me later that she was sobbing. 


“Time destroys all things.” This is the movie’s final line. Or first line, since you experience it backwards. 


(I’m not recommending Irreversible, okay? If you want to watch it, read up on what it’s about, first.) 


Noe’s always attempting to replicate the experience of drug-induced states. In Enter the Void, he kills the main character, and the audience floats through the skies above Tokyo, seeing the world through his spirit eyes. (I hated this movie.)


Beth: There’s something about your hair right now that is making me not love you. 


Love is Noe’s attempt at a mainstream porno movie. It is slow and, for a filmmaker of Noe’s immense puckishness, a bit boring, a fatal flaw. (Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a better, wilder movie; it succumbs to philosophical pretentiousness you have to see to believe. One of the characters says, apropos of hearing about a short sexual encounter: “The Fibonacci sequence!”)


There, you’re caught up. Climax feels of a piece of the above movies, but is a bit more fun. It has a classic horror movie set up, as the dancers are drugged during a party and being experiencing mass psychosis.


The Greeks called Dionysus “the god who arrives.” This is Dionysus’s movie. The dancing gets wilder, angrier, less restrained. Emotions erupt. Secrets flow. Violence ensues. 


Okay, it’s all kind of dumb. Noe pulls it off, the shift from ecstatic dancing to the Lord of the Flies breakdown, but just barely. 


Apollo is the god of poetry, but Bolaño worshiped Dionysus. His books are too unrestrained and wild.


Beth and Bernadette and I have a dance party in the kitchen, listening to the Weeknd. Dionysus arrives.