Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Calibrated Reading

I'm inventing an office for myself, a career path that needs me as trailblazer.
It arises out of a need in my life: a need to justify my collection of comic books, those thin pamphlets of four color adventures known alternatively as funnybooks or comix. It isn't enough that I love the writing and illustrations, the sheer craft of the best of them -there must be some better rationale; if not, they have to go.
All right, I'm up to this. What if it isn't a comix collexion? I ask myself. What if it's a reading xperience, carefully calibrated? Balanced for laughter and deep thought. Put it into order from oldest (going back to the 1940's with The Spirit) to whatever's current. Chronology-as-reading-guide. Filled in specific to subjective determination, without any illusion of objectivity, the result to capture what is so endearing and worthwhile in an artform never truly recognized for its contribution -and by contribution I don't mean as fodder for summer blockbusters. There are incredible examples of ancient craft (if you count the Bayeux Tapestry) in a genre that has produced its own exemplars gifted as Kandinsky or King.
Then it hits me: I could do this job. I could arrange such a collection and create for readers a full experience of a genre of art in all its peaks and valleys. You wouldn't even have to limit yourself, in this role of self-declared subject expert, in this unelected, unvetted, unfettered position of power. One could do the same with novels and short story collections, memoirs and manifestos, manuscripts, poetry jams, works of philosophy and cartography... the list of possibilities is endless.
It won't be easy to calibrate such a collection. A special man is required to accomplish this sensitive task. The office doesn't yet exist that can fill the bill, someone would have to invent it, someone not immune to the call of destiny....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Signal Abuse

During my time as a lowly Tower Books employee, there was opportunity to be idle. And how. Nothing obnoxious, mind you, like ruffling hairpieces or goosing women. We had that much respect for customers. Music was the gray zone. We played whatever we felt like on the speaker system and turned it up. This was not always appreciated, as in the encounter I had with one icy-eyed gent who informed me in so many words that if I didn't turn down the goddam noise he was leaving.
Upstart that I was, my immediate thought was, Good riddance. An early adopter of Those not with us are against us. The problem, on both sides, was signal abuse.
Not turn signal abuse, mind you. We could use some more of that in our fair city, to be honest. There's entirely a lack of turn signal abuse here, but that's a topic for another time.
We had a problem with signal abuse, me and Mr Goddam Noise: he failing to find words to get the desired result and me with signal indifference by not only walking away in non-conciliation but going so far as to turn the music up. (Those were the days.) Both of us did the wrong thing.
The signal-to-noise ratio was not in our favor.
Lately I've been maddened by a similar ratio in media. The goddam noise is out of control. Stephen Colbert at a congressional hearing? Lady Gaga telling the nation to ask and tell? The scandal of Katy Perry's cleavage on Sesame Street? Lindsay Lohan waking up in the morning? The noise-o-sphere is making so much racket it makes my fillings hurt.
The Tower Books customer had it easy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing That Won't Let Go

You know the kind of writing I mean. Words that hang onto your heart and mind like a mastiff with its favorite chewy toy. They have teeth. You write something down, a blog post, say, and commit words to a subject that initially perhaps seems casual and nonchalant but as it progresses reveals new substance and increasing vigor as a subject not merely of written expression but mental exercise. It happens. The thing chews on your brain. It chomps and demands satisfaction. Undertake a novel and suddenly you find yourself being eaten alive.
William S Burroughs said that he hadn't really thought something until it was written down. The act of writing completes what started in your head and in some instances can be an act of absolution. Or is it absolvement? In any case, there is a certain special kind of restlessness that attacks your limbs if the writing is neglected.
I had a blog post that wouldn't quit. The subject had seemed exhausted, the writing complete. A few days later it hit me that the subject of the post was a certain kind of person whom I hadn't represented correctly. I had failed to recognize his qualities as a bastard. This could not be. I could not rest without full disclosure.
The issue can be phrasing, or a point of grammatical exactitude; it can be that what's written doesn't fully convey what I'm thinking. This last is too often the case, as words express only partially what is thought even in the best scenario. Understanding doesn't quell the restless quill, and it can even make things worse: the runaway tiger of complete expression always has a greased tail.
Rainer Maria Rilke advises that writing is do or die, and I take odd comfort realizing that finally choice is not part of the bargain:
No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

Blue Roots: Avatar Dreams (IV of III)

From out of the blue: the fourth of a three-part series! Sorry to go all Douglas Adams on you, friends, but the well is not dry and I must needs take another sip.
Beyond color-coding, there is a message in Mel Gibson's film -a subtext, an undercurrent, that concerns slavery. Only at the end of the world is there an end to one human throwing another into chains.
But what if the world never ends?

The final image of Apocalypto is the arrival of Europeans at the Yucatan peninsula, bringing with them a plague of smallpox and, eventually, conquistadores who would end the Maya states: one enslaving race is replaced by another, or so I would have it. The meaning is debated.
With Gibson's catholic background, expulsion from the garden is an easy metaphor. Gibson says that the final image is meant to be hopeful. I'm not sure how that can be, considering that Europeans ravaged the region for hundreds of years and enslaved the natives with as much impunity as their own had. Interpreting the arrival positively tells me that Gibson is a man divided over how to translate meaning from his own film, and that despite this being arguably his masterpiece as a filmmaker it's full impact escapes him.
Then again, that would be consistent with what we've seen of him lately, or of his actions at least: seeing him as confused and misguided is sadly far too easy these days.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Blue Roots: Avatar Dreams (III of III)

When Jaguar Paw and his fellow enslaved villagers pass through a massive Mayan lime quarry, the imagery is of industrial ghosts. Animated corpses. Bodies caked in white lime that clouds the air and ground, clings to everything that passes, rises from mills in a great premonition of some horrible fate.
Set in early 16th century Yucatan, Mayan culture is in decline. Unbeknownst to them, European settlers are on the way. A blood frenzy has gripped the cities -blood to appease the gods and alleviate failing crops and spiraling birth rates. Oceans of blood, a scarlet tide fit to match its blue sister, the sea, the very thing bringing their new masters and echoed in the paint that covers sacrificial victims.
Blue is the color of apocalypse.
Jaguar Paw and friends, dripping blue, are dragged to the top of a ziggurat and before masses writhing in dark ecstasy await a gruesome fate. What happens next in Apocalypto, in my feeble consideration Mel Gibson's best film as a writer and director, won't be ruined here. I don't want to give the whole thing away. I will say, however, that it is worthwhile. As a film about cultural decline, it is inspired and resonates not a little with our contemporary situation.
It makes Avatar, its box office-conquering counterpart, look like a simple and simplistic morality tale.
I'm impressed for several reasons. Mel Gibson is not well versed in that little thing called nuance, and his deft use of it is unprecedented in the career of a man usually associated with blockhead dialogue and torture porn. With Apocalypto he comes across the sensitive artiste. That said, let's circle back to the original notion that you haven't seen Avatar until you've seen this.
You can't appreciate it without a film like this one, with depth and historical detail and even, yes, nuance.
Because as much as Apocalypto is at its roots a chase story -Jaguar Paw spends half the movie on the run- it dodges the shallow spirituality and mass destruction of Avatar; it has the same kind of blue bombast, but with the vital difference of creating a deeper look at cultural decay. Where in Avatar the threat comes from marauding humans bent on obtaining material wealth with runaway greed, a clear and present danger on this or any planet, granted, the native Navi are presented as undivided in wholesomeness and purity. That works for a special effects bonanza, if that is what you are going for, yet I find it intriguing that Mel Gibson has produced a film as bombastic as it is thought-provoking for its portrayal of people suffering from their own, enslaved by their own, wiped out by their own -in the name of survival.
And it is exactly at the end that a very different question is asked. What will survive? The lens of history, as opposed to that of a 3-D camera, would suggest that what survives is blindness to true threats. We can see in Apocalypto a caution from Mayan decline, but also to all societal decay; that it comes in painted pleasantly blue but marks the end of something that wishes it could be eternal.
It is widely reported that James Cameron has an Avatar trilogy in mind and it may be that he has not shown us the depths of exploring the question of native peoples' futile attempts to stave modernity. Even so, Mel Gibson, of all people, has beat him to the punch.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Blue Roots: Avatar Dreams (II of III)

World, I don't believe we finished discussing dancing smurfs. Deep subject. For one thing, they're blue. As it turns out, we like blue people. We like just about anything that's cerulean or navy or periwinkle. Of course these are shades, pigments, variations on a theme, and we should go to the source to gauge their positive influence.
The color blue is woven throughout Avatar, as is bombast: blue bombast, let's say, is the defining motif of the film. James Cameron traffics in blue bombast and has done quite well for himself by it. The writer/director of the film I find myself carrying on at great length about (second part of three!), Apocalypto, is in the same club, with a thing for telling stories in wide strokes about people colored blue.
Is Mel Gibson blue? He could have a little blue man inside him, for all we know. On the flipside, I'm sure he's feeling blue for his misdeeds of late, if the man has a heart at all. When it comes to emotions, feeling bluesy is not so hot. We'll restrict our interpretation to aesthetic.
Superman dresses in blue. The Virgin Mary has a closet of blue linen. Smurfs, they've got it in their skin. The flags of several nations are red, white and blue...
Blue is good.
Mel Gibson painted half his face blue in Braveheart. He kicked butt in a bombastic fashion.
Blue bombast is good.
In Apocalypto blue is not so great. It's even quite bad.


The setting is 16th century Mesoamerica. Jaguar Paw lives in peace and harmony with family and friends -until Mayans raid their village and take them for slaves. That always happens, doesn't it? After an arduous jungle slog, they pass through a giant lime quarry before reaching the city, where they are immediately painted. You will never believe what color.
But it's very bad for them to be colored blue.
Tune in next post to find out why.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Blue Roots: Avatar Dreams (I of III)

I'm talking to the world now. Hey world, remember Dancing With Smurfs? You saw it under a different title. Everybody and their cousin, if the cash cow numbers are any indication, saw it once, twice, thrice. But let me tell you, world, you haven't seen Avatar, the biggest box office smash of all time, not yet, you really haven't. You haven't seen it until you've watched Mel Gibson's magnum opus, Apocalypto.
I know. I know what's going through your mind. You're thinking: Mel Gibson?!? Give us a break, right? He's fallen out of favor, kaput; he's yesterday's news, out to pasture, a has-been.
But wait.
His last film is Apocalypto. His most recent film. Mel Gibson isn't dead, he could make more. Nice title, catchy but instantly forgettable, sounding more like a cornball superdude in spandex than a film of any significance. You didn't see it. I know I didn't. From the Oscar-award winning director of Braveheart. Also, let's not forget, the star of four Lethal Weapon movies. Think about that. There were four chapters in the Lethal Weapon saga. How did that happen? But if that were all, he would still be our darling Mel. People found it in their hearts to forgive him that mullet.
Lately it hasn't been so easy to appreciate the guy, bad hair or not. He's on the record saying awful things. A few years ago he drunkenly spewed some racist bile. That was almost forgotten when a couple months back it came out that he said some awful things. Again. Mel Gibson has a problem with his words. Hateful words. He said them on the record. And that's not the worst thing.
There are allegations that he struck his girlfriend, that he not only hit her but did it while she was holding their infant child. Vile. Does Mel Gibson do anything halfway? He's not content to be a bad man; he has to be a monster.
An alleged monster. We don't know what really happened until the man himself comes clean, either by his own volition or in a court of law.
His ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorievna recorded him on the sly and we can question the dubious nature of what would make someone do that, but there it is: the entire world has heard just how ugly Mel Gibson can sound in real life. It is bad. Regardless of the circumstances, it is very bad. He comes across an ugly son of a gun and I can't blame people for hating and dismissing the jerk.
It wasn't always like this.
I'd never heard of Grigorievna before the recent mess, but Mel Gibson has been in the public eye for decades. It wasn't until the last few years that he exhibited his dark side. It might have always been there, but I am willing to give him the benefit of doubt.
What he said is too horrible to repeat, and I'm not excusing the man. He needs forgiveness, of that there's no doubt. The illusion of celebrity, especially in our Age of Instant News, is that we know anything of substance about people in the spotlight, when in truth they are hidden behind glamors like the rest of us albeit on a much larger scale. Mr Gibson is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Whoever he is behind the persona, that is the man who needs forgiveness. I don't care if he makes another movie, but he should be confronted with what he has done and an accounting made. Since it has been aired out in public, we should know what to believe and if he truly is the monster he appears to be.
Anyhow. We've strayed far from dancing smurfs, haven't we?
Let's get back on track.
When Avatar hit the big screen, it went off in popular consciousness like a bomb. Consider the size of screens these days and that's about what it takes to make any kind of impression at the movies anymore: the spectacle has to be leviathan. Avatar delivers that kind of spectacle and people continue to see it in droves, but it is standing on some big shoulders, like Dances With Wolves, which hordes of folk loved and won Best Picture that year, and Apocalypto, recognized in significantly smaller numbers as a work of importance.


A soldier on an alien world learns to love their culture and ultimately turns against his own kind to defend them. The choice is not a hard one: humans are greedy scum while the innocent, spiritual, and respectful of all others race of Nav'i just want to live in their tree in peace. He's going to choose to stay human; yeah, right.
Which is my beef with Avatar: it is exactly what you expect it to be. Apocalypto is not, but it tells a similar tale...
Wow, this post is running like horses over the hills, so I'll stop here and see you again soon for the second of three parts in a series. Be good.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


I've been in a funk about this blog, uncertain where to go with it or if I want to carry on. It has functioned as a break from "real" writing for a long time, but lately I've been getting existential thoughts about continuing or starting over from zero. Nothing's decided. Fortunately there are plenty of active writers in the meantime to whom I can turn for inspiration, a smattering of whom are listed and recommended for your reading pleasure: