Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Magic Mike XXL, It Follows, and The Americans (Season 3)

Q: What do a horror movie, the third season of a TV show about married spies, and a fun but plotless romp about male stri--pardon me, entertainers have in common?

A: Um…I watched them all recently?

The nice thing about seeing unconnected things close together is you can make connections with your own mind. It’s in that spirit that I think you can actually learn more about your own attitudes on a topic by looking at what others have to say about them.

Take sex for example.

Magic Mike XXL has been widely praised for its sex positive stance. It’s probably the most feminist movie starring a carload of shirtless dudes ever. It puts its emphasis on humour, on connection, on making the other person feel good. Characters repeatedly emphasize that people deserve to be happy in their relationships, that sexual and emotional satisfaction isn’t too much to ask for. It even makes sexuality about more than just the act of sex; there is oddly little actual sex in the movie and what there is happens off screen.

As a former burlesque performer, I also liked the attitude towards performance--using the striptease as a form of self-expression instead of just regurgitating back popular fantasies. I liked the relationship performers had with the audience. That we are showing ourselves, but we are showing ourselves to these people specifically, that they are as important a part of the show as we are.

The Amercians also treats sex as a performance. Both Phillip and Elizabeth, the married spies at the heart of series, are regularly called upon to seduce other people for information or blackmail purposes. One season 3 episode shows a flashback to Philip learning to be with different people including an elderly woman and an overweight unattractive man.

“The told me to make it real for myself,” Phillip tells his wife to explain how he is able to do it.

Sex is not an end in itself. Sex is not about wanting. Sex is about getting something.

If sex in The Americans is a power play, at least it is still fundamentally about relationships. The sex in It Follows is a lonely business. The Follower will pursue its victim until he or she passes on the curse through having sex with someone else. In other words, sex is not about the other person at all. Sex is about the choice to either accept the curse’s consequences or to save oneself by passing it on to another victim.

It Follows turns sex into a selfish act. Instead of being about connection, sex becomes about survival. Different characters approach the problem in different ways and settle their consciences via different methods, but it ultimately is a lonely decision with minimal involvement from the other person.

Until then end.

The character Paul is willing to take it on. He‘s seen the Follower and understands the consequences. He is still willing to go through with it. And Jay is willing to let him make that choice.

It’s not just about sex though. Once the Follower kills the last person suffering from the curse, it starts working its way backwards up the line. So the most basic strategy for the second-last person in line is to put as much distance between yourself and the person you have sex with as humanly possible.

Jay and Paul don’t do that. The movie ends with them walking hand in hand. Behind them, we see an indistinct silhouette following them--but it doesn’t matter. Instead of fleeing in different directions, they’ve made the choice to face whatever comes together.

Phillip and Elizabeth in The Americans also make the decision to face life together. Sometimes they choose it, sometimes it feels forced. But it is never a black and white choice, and equally often they make the choice to put emotional distance between each other as well.

“Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks her husband after he tells her his method for making his partners feel loved.

“Sometimes,” he admits.

I’ve often heard The Americans described as grim, miserable, and tragic in the way it portrays interpersonal relationships, but I don‘t subscribe to that reading. If anything, the depiction of relationships feels normal. Heightened, but normal.

Maybe that says more about my relationships than anything. But I don’t think so.

We never truly know what life is like for the ones around us, even the ones we love. Even the ones we’re closest to. No matter how close we are, there is that unfathomable seperation. There is the struggle between the forced closeness and closeness we choose, distance we take and distance taken from us. We try to understand each other. Sometimes we are so far apart, we can’t even find a way to try. Our loved ones surprise us, betray us, or hurt us. Sometimes we are able to make the choice to go on loving them and sometimes we can’t.

Sometimes we do both at once.

We are alone AND together.

I think it’s a stretch to describe The Americans as unrelentingly alienating. The characters are often trying to connect. Not always perfectly and not always at the same time, but they are trying.

And once and a while they succeed. One of my favorites--from season 3--is when Phillip and Elizabeth find themselves smoking a joint out the window of their bedrooom, giggling to one another about the ridiculousness of their predicament. It’s a tiny moment in the grand scheme of the show, but its smallness makes it no less real. Maybe it makes it even more precious.

The characters in Magic Mike XXL have no problems talking and connecting. In fact, it’s so easy, there’s no real lasting conflict in Magic Mike XXL. It’s a strangely easygoing, affirming movie. The fact that such a conflict-free movie can also be so watchable is a testament to all involved. When it comes to the ability of men and women to reach each other, it acknowledges that it doesn’t always happen, but it is optimistic about people’s ability to do so.

Here’s my question.

Which one of these shows represents the way things are?

I think they all do.

So what’s the difference between moments when we are lonely and self-involved, when we are positive and wonderful, and something that seems to be a mix of both.

Part of the difference is time. The characters in The Americans are harried, dividing time between multiple-missions, parenting, and being as spouse. The protagonist of It Follows is fleeing the Follower’s relentless creeping approach. The boys in Magic Mike XXL have nothing but time, endless hours and stretches of open road in which they have time to give themselves, each other, and the people they meet all the time they need.

The other difference is the answer to the question: ‘Are we thinking aobut ourself or are we thinking about others?’ It Follows is all about the person with the curse. Magic Mike XXL’s performers make it all about the women, committing themselves to her pleasure. The Americans swim in a shifting seas that combine compassion and self-interest in various ways at various times.

Spies. Strippers with hearts of gold. Shape-changing monsters invisible to anyone that doesn’t have the curse.

But also truth.

Which truth do you sleep with?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Faster Pussycat

Image result for faster pussycat images
Of all the sleazy bands in the late 80s glam rock boom, Faster Pussycat was the sleaziest.

With their greasy, funk-tinged hair metal returning again and again to themes such as murder (Wake Me When Its Over, The Body Thief), child abuse (House of Pain, Pulling Weeds, Only Way Out), disconnection (“Ain’t No Way Around It,“ “Nonstop to Nowhere,“ “Maid in Wonderland”) and sexual excess (“The Bathroom Wall,”“Where There‘s A Whip, There‘s A Way,” “ Madam Ruby‘s Love Boutique,“ “Little Dove“), Faster Pussycat was the glam metal love child of Aerosmith and Andrew Vachss. Lead singer Taime Downe’s voice sounded like a rat squeezing through an electrical pipe to chew on wires, scurrying and scratching behind the peeling flophouse walls of Brent Muscat and Eric Steel‘s guitars.

Musically and visually they might have been squarely in the glam metal tradition, but attitude-wise, they were closer to White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol.1, a growling muscle-car of an album, all grimy pistons and ugly, black smoke, an album which also features a number of samples from the same Russ Meyer movie from which Faster Pussycat took its name.

Lots of bands pretended to be sleazy. The sex anthem was ubiquitous in 80s metal. Bands made it a selling point. But most of it was a polished misogyny, sexism commercialized to the point where it was never truly threatening, at least not to the women that were fans of that kind of music. Poison might want women to talk dirty, but they didn’t want their women to FEEL dirty.

Faster Pussycat always felt dirty to me. Poison’s “Fallen Angel” was shiny and upbeat enough to make being a runaway sound romantic. Winger’s “Seventeen” made sex with an underage girl sound like not such a bad thing…and kind of empowering for the girl as well. Faster Pussycat’s “Little Dove”…not so much. There was an edge to Faster Pussycat, a darkness.

An honesty?

Maybe that’s why they never broke through. Their closest thing to a hit was the ballad “House of Pain,” followed by “Poison Ivy,” which, while a good song, was a lot closer to the sort of harmless sexism that the grittiness of much of their other material.

Faster Pussycat was more LA Noire than LA Guns. An while it might have hurt them at the time, it makes them distinct enough that they hold up today a lot better than most of their contemporaries who seemed content to all try and sound the same without trying to sound like they were all trying to sound the same.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Transformers: Not Buddhists In Disguise

 To no one's surprise who reads this blog, I've been thinking about the Transformers again lately.

The comics, not the movies, and I've especially been thinking about them in the context of Buddhism.

Buddhism is fueled by the idea of change, of impermanence. It was born as a response to the inevitable human conditions of old age, sickness, and death.

Transformers are less vulnerable to those conditions. Individual Cybertronians measure their years in the millions. Parts can be replaced, fallen friends rebuilt.

In that context, how possible for them is any lasting change? Less bound by the positive and negative feedback of irreversible consequences, what motivation is there for real growth, for permanently ceasing hostilities, for Megatron to permanently change his ways, for the Autobots to break their dependence on Optimus Prime to come back yet again to save them, for Starscream to stop wash-rinse-repeating his cycle from ambition to self-destruction, for Hot Rod to mature and temper his recklessness?

The Transformers' situation is practically a meta-comment on comic book characters in general.

Consider Spider-Man. For over fifty years his life has been a never-ending barrage of villains, clones, costume changes, secret wars, deaths, rebirths, alternate timelines, crossovers, team-ups, and World Shaking Events...only to be eternally, inexorably reeled back by the slow gravity of the status-quo.

What would that do to a being, do you think?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mr. White

Reservoir Dogs opens with eight men--seven of whom will soon be dead--having breakfast. One of the dead men, Mr. Brown, says, "Let me tell you what 'Like A Virgin' is about."

"It's about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick," Mr. Brown goes on to explain. "She meets this John Holmes motherfucker and it's like, 'whoa baby.' She's feeling something she ain't felt since forever: pain. When this cat fucks her, it hurts."

Here's my question: Is the pain Mr. Brown is describing the same pain Mr. White feels at the end of the movie when he learns Mr. Orange has been fucking him?

*  *  *

An exasperated Nice Guy Eddie refers to Mr. White as "Mr. Fuckin' Compassion." One could make the argument that Mr. White is the most compassionate of the thieves. One could even argue that compassion is his undoing.

 But compassion isn't Mr. White's tragic flaw. Mr. White's tragic flaw is delusion.

He refuses to see his tendency to get too attached to his co-workers. He tells Joe what was getting to him about working with Alabama was "that man-woman thing." But Mr. Orange is not a woman, and Mr. White's affection for his self-appointed protege blinds him not just to the truth, but to even the possibility of truth.

Similarly, his antipathy towards Mr. Blonde seems as much about himself as it is about Vic Vega. He wants to believe he is different, more compassionate, less murderous than Mr. Blonde.

Maybe he is.

But from the way he talks about cutting off the jewelry store manager's fingers, from the way he shoots the cops while escaping the robbery, from his response to learning of Mr. Orange's betrayal...

He might be different. But he ain't that different. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Just Like The Movies

[Originally posted at chasingthemountains.blogspot.com, April 14, 2016]

"It is normal for a man, whilst sailing and observing the shore, to think that the shore is moving instead of the boat but, should he look carefully, he will find that it is the boat that is doing the actual moving: in the same way as this, it is because man observes everything from a mistaken viewpoint of his body and mind that he comes to the conclusion that they are eternal however, should he learn to observe them correctly, as a result of penetrating truth, he will discover that no form whatsoever attaches itself substantially to anything."
-Dogen, Genjo-Koan

"Yeah, It was but a moment
Yeah, Wonder where it all went"
-Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Just Like In The Movies

When I was four or five years old, at a friend's birthday party, I saw my first movie. It was magnificent! There were whirs and noises, a light at the front, and on top, two spinning wheels. It wasn't until an adult tapped me on the shoulder and directed my attention to the screen behind me where three ducklings were swimming after their mother into the sunset that I understood my mistake: I'd been watching the projector the whole time.

I sometimes wonder what Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese monk credited as the person behind our specific Zen sect would think about the movies. Having read a lot of his work lately, I imagine it might go something like this:

"A person might say, "that movie was so realistic," while another says "it's only a movie" and that movies have nothing to do with real life. Such people are chumps. Ha! I pity the fools. Movies are not like reality, and movies are not like not-reality. A person in real life watches a movie, and a person also watches a movie in real life. People are real; movies are real; real life is real. Thus, while watching a movie is real life, real life is also watching the movie. It is also true that people are not real, movies are not real, and real life is not real."

Imaginary-Dogen raises a good point, but I'm not going there for now. I'm also not going to talk about the differences between life and movies, such as life's tendency to leave in the boring, difficult parts instead of condensing them into an inspiring montage set to an ass-kicking rock song. Instead, I'm going to talk about a couple things a think movies can teach us.

1. Nothing in a movie is real.  At the same time, everything we see and experience is due to countless people, many of whom we don't actually see.

The characters are actors pretending to be someone they aren't, delivering lines that another person wrote, wearing costumes someone else designed, sometimes enhanced with computer technology that means they are often performing with things that are not actually in front of the camera with them.

But is that so different from real life? We wear clothes other people made. We travel in vehicles that were invented, designed, and built by multitudes of others. The people we see are products of their parents genetics, mixed with their social upbringing. Even some of our most cherished ideas and favorite spoken lines and catchphrases...so many of those things we learned with others.

We think we're the stars of our own story, but there is much more than what we see in front of us.

2. Commitment

Even though movies are not real, the people making them treat them as if they are. Even if movies are simple entertainment, movie workers devote themselves to as though it were the most serious thing on Earth. Good actors, good writers, good directors, good make-up or special effects artists...all of them devote 100% to their work even if the thing they are working on is--in their opinion--stupid, pointless, boring, or unbelievable. Robert Downey Jr. doesn't look at the camera and go: "Look at me! I'm a-pretendin' to be a Super Hero!" Whether they are saving the world from aliens, involving themselves in the world's most improbable love story, growing space-potatoes on Mars, none of them are winking at the audience going, "Can you believe this here bullshit?"

But maybe my five year old self had the best lesson of all: Look at the projector, not the projection.

When things happen to us in our lives, our brains interpret those things, come up with a story about them, and very often we act on the story instead of the thing that actually happened. We forget about our brain's involvement.

Sometimes it's valuable to look at that brain and notice those stories.

When I find myself getting frustrated doing my taxes, instead of thinking the problem is the tax forms or the computer or the son-of-a-bitch government, I can take a look at that frustration. Maybe I'll notice that frustration is hiding something else--the fear of not having enough, the fear of doing things wrong, the fear of being asked for more than I believe I can afford to give.

When I find myself frustrated with the demands of monastery life, instead of thinking the problem is the schedule or the monks or my own inability to find out what people want and to deliver it to them perfectly, I can take a look at that. Maybe I'll notice that frustration is hiding something else--the fear of not having enough, the fear of doing things wrong, the fear of being asked for more than I believe I can afford to give.

Maybe I'll notice that whether I'm dealing with taxes, other people, or situations I feel beyond my control--even if they seem vastly different for one another--there are some common themes in my brain.

This doesn't need to just apply to external things like people and situations. Sometimes even my own internal reactions and behavior are based on a story that I am too distracted to notice.

For example, during an awkward moment at breakfast, instead of wondering whether the self-deprecating joke that springs to my lips is funny enough, maybe I could notice instead what combination of feeling and circumstance leads me to feeling the need to make a joke in the first place.

I can only write for myself, but what I notice when I look, is that often behind my actions, there is an impulse or plan.

When I look behind that plan or impulse, I find a thought or a belief about myself or about the way the world is or should be.

If I look behind that, then I frequently notice a feeling, often one that is barely perceptible.

And behind that?

Well. That's the question, isn't it? I don't know if I can give an answer--after all, I promised earlier to only write about my self.

Our lives are not about our stories. The beginning, middle, and end is not nearly as important as the thing that is happening right now, right in front of us. Right here, in our personal theatre of the mind.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Sounds of Home

Open your eyes/ Leave it all behind.
            -Van Halen, Light Up The Sky

For the past week, Ive been obsessed with Van Halen II. As its name suggests, it is the band Van Halens second album, released in 1979, when I was five years old. I own it on cassette, but it is buried in a storage room at my condo, which is currently undergoing repairs. I am on the other side of the city staying at my sisters house where she lives with her husband and two boys.

In any case, I cant get seem to get Van Halen II out of my head. The *ting* of  the bell of Alex Van Halens ride cymbal before the guitar solo on  Outta Love Again. David Lee Roth joyously celebrating the charms of Beautiful Girls.  The falsetto Oooooh.baby,baby on Dance The Night Away.

My brain jumps from one song to another over the course of the day polishing them over and over in my head. Regardless of the song though, the conclusion is the same: Van Halen II, I have decided, is the most perfect collection of music ever recorded. I want to marry this album. I want to buy a house with Van Halen II and bear its children. I want us to travel and grow old together. I want to lie in a hospital bed bathed in the golden light of the setting sun with a cracked cassette copy of Van Halen II holding my hand from a bedside chair.

Oh, and in other news, Ive also decided to move to the mountains to become a monk.

Not that THAT has anything to do with anything. I only mention it because my Van Halen II love affair began the morning after I let the visiting prior of our group know my intentions.

It wasnt a graceful moment. Reverend Master was leaving for Vancouver early the next morning, so I was on a deadline. Except that because he was leaving the next morning people from our group were hustling and bustling about saying goodbyes and asking him last minute questions and wrapping up final travel arrangements for him.

I lingered for a while, and when no perfect moment arrived, I settled for the one I had. I ended up half muttering to him in the hallway outside the upstairs kitchen, I think I want to be a monk.

Im not sure why, but after I said it, I felt afraid. I was overcome by a embarrassment, like I had admitted to wanting that was above my station. I felt like a child putting on his doctor fathers white coat and stethoscope and asking if he could come to work and perform open heart surgery.

Im not sure how I expected the monk to respond. I thought he would say something like are you sure? or Give me a call and well talk about it or even hmmm.

Instead, he did something I did not expect. He hugged me. Then he said Okay a bunch of times, not so much like he was approving a request but like he was a trying to calm a skittish horse.

He told me to hold my desire to become a monk lightly, and then we all tromped out the door. The last thing he told me was to get in touch.

Another monk, several weeks later, told me a similar story about his own experience expressing his monastic intentions. Like me, he blurted it out and didnt know what to say next or how the master would react. He described a similar sense of shock at hearing himself say the words, like he had just opened up a box and presented the world a gift so offer it . The next day, he told me, he and the Reverend Master went for ice cream.

I did not go out for ice cream. Instead returned to the guest bedroom in my sisters basement. There I  lay awake listening to a frantic little man inside my head throwing open filing cabinets, scrutinizing fine print, and scattering documents around the inside of my skull, looking for a reasons why I had made a bad decision.

 He found nothing. I dont know how big or small a gift to the world my becoming a monk is, but I know its something an offering Im willing to make completely and wholeheartedly. My brain is anxious, but my heart is at peace, and nothing can change that.

Sometime later in the night, I wake up to the sound of my youngest nephew crying.

There is something about the sound of a baby crying in the night. My heart wants to lever itself out of my ribcage, climb to the ceiling via grappling hook, and shimmy like an action movie star through the heating vents separating the basement guestroom from my nephews room upstairs. It wants to find its way into his crib and burrow in next to him, heating him with its warmth while beating a comforting rhythm. All is well. Im here. All is well. Im here.

When I come upstairs in the morning, my nephew is sitting in his high chair triumphantly waving his spoon. He is sporting a beard of yogurt and there is cereal in the wispy halo of his hair. His delight when he sees me lights the room like a tiny sun. We made it! We both survived the night! Terrible Dark Lonely Scary Tine is over!

When breakfast ends, I check my email to see if there has been any progress on my condo, which is currently serving as the rope in a three way tug-of-war between contractor, condo board, and insurance board that has slowed my condo repairs. I play Dinosaur Hotel with my four year old oldest nephew in a box that once contained a washing machine. Half an hour later, the boys are packed up and gone with their family and Im by myself in the house thinking of impermanence.

Im not thinking of impermanence because I want to be a monk. Im thinking of it because children--with every whiplash mood change, spilled plastic cup, or unexpected interruption--are a living reminder that impermanence is all there is.

My sisters house is not like my condo  and not just because her bathroom ceiling is water-free and not in need of replacement. My condo is mostly bare and no one but me ever goes there. My sisters house is filled to the brim with things and also with life.

Now, with everyone gone, well, the house remains a mess, but with the kids gone, its a strangely still mess. Dinosaur Hotel, its cardboard walls marred with slashes of crayon stands crookedly in a patch of sunlight. Toys are scattered across the living room like stones in a Zen rock garden. Even the used tissue on the table assumes the quiet dignity of a fulfilled purpose. Its chaos, and everything is in its place.

Im filling the sink to do the dishes when a fragment of song breaks loose from some forgotten place in my memory and bobs to the surface of my mind: Im a spark on the horizon.

It takes me a few moments to identify the song: DOA from Van Halens Van Halen II. A crack in the cement dam in my unconscious.

The dam bursts and the rest of the album pours through.

*  *  *

It doesnt last forever. It goes on for nearly a week, butwell, impermanence, remember?

But Van Halen II isnt alone. No sooner has it faded than another music or movie obsession arises to take its place. Sometimes it lasts for moments. Other times each piece holds me in its grip for hours or days.

Gretchen Goes To Nebraska by Kings X. Kendrick LamarGood Kid Maad City. I spend an entire afternoon deciding Im going to watch The Big Lebowski every day until its branded into my brain. That way, when Im at the monastery, I can secretly watch the movie in my head whenever I need an escape.

My obsession right now is the Dixie Chicks album Home. My brother-in-law was playing it while I was sitting at the table with the four year old helping him cut paper and when Travellin Soldier on, I grew suddenly misty eyed.

Forget all that other music. Home is the most perfect album ever recorded.

Im still thinking that ten songs later. Im sitting in the chair by the front window. The baby is standing in the middle of the living room in his green one-piece fuzzy pyjamas with his hands in the hair while he turns in circles to make himself dizzy.

I dont need to go to the monastery. I dont want to go back to my condo. I dont want anything but to watch this boy turn in circles forever while Godspeed (Sweet Dreams) plays in the background.

Sorry, Van Halen. I was wrong.  It was the Dixie Chicks all along.

This is all I want. This is all I needto sit in this chair and listen to the sounds of home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Exposure Therapy

I dont remember what got me into Buddhism exactly.

Maybe it was the taekwon-do, which I had recently taken up because I thought one of my co-workers at the Pizza Hut I was working at the time were going to get into a fight.

In any case, there were a few things I remember from my first foray into Buddhism: One was a book I had picked up on the way home from Pizza Hut, still in my uniform as I passed through the mall bookstore. It was a book of quotes called The Little Book of Zen.

The second was a TV show called Northern Exposure.

I dont recall Northern Exposure ever explicitly referencing Buddhism. But it was the first show I ever saw where the conflicts were mostly internal. Other shows were about murders and car chases. Or conflicts between characters., but compared to the alien murderer and conspiracies of the X-Files, Nothern Exposure had low stakes: Maggies fear of bugs. Chris lack of inspiration.  Eds vocation. Even the romance between Joel and Maggie seemed less about the romance and more a for exploring the Jewish doctor and the pilots psychologies.

I was hooked. It was a show that seemed calming and energizing all at once. I couldnt find a word to describe it other thanquiet. It was the same feeling I felt in the mornings, crossing the footbridge to the mall parking lot at six thirty in the morning on my way to the Pizza Hut, feeling the vibrations of my own footsteps on the path. Below me, the Sturgeon river, clogged with stray shopping carts. Beyond me, the sky, streaked with clouds and the colors of sunrise.

I loved those clouds. I loved that sky. Different every single morning. But always beautiful.

There was conflict in Northern Exposure, but there was no yelling or door slamming. No passionate break-ups and make-ups. Even the characters who didnt got along, still got along--they lived in the same town and had to interact with each other, so they did. Adam, the most unlikable character was invited to parties.

There was a sense of acceptance

 Even the character Maurice Wiinnefield--a guy who was basically everything about the Tea Party before the Tea Party existed had a certain decency and dignity. Similarly, the neurotic Jewish New York Doctor was neurotic and out of place without ever being a buffoon or an over-the-top cartoon character.

A number of spiritual traditions have the theory that we are not who we are. The things that we think of as making up our identity--our physical forms, our jobs, our social roles, our personalities--are insubstantial and unimportant, waves on the surface of a deeper ocean.  We are part of something greater and all of us are connected to that something, and thus, to each other.

We can be bloody-red as a sunset, grim as grey clouds, or bright, blue and endless. We are differentdifferent from each other and different from day to day. But for all our differences, we are all the same sky. We cradle the earth and everything on it from horizon to horizon, from the trees to the malls to the teenage bass player in the Pizza Hut uniform crossing a footbridge over the Sturgeon River over twenty-years ago.

Listen. You can hear his footfalls in every word in this post.