Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Dude In Me: I'm A Lebowski, You're A Lebowski

"Being able to express something is not the same as being able to put it into words."
--Dogen, The Meditative State That Bears the Seal of the Ocean (Hubert Nearman translation)

"What the fuck are you talking about?"
-multiple characters in The Big Lebowski


The Big Lebowski has me convinced: there's a little Dude inside of me.

That came out wrong. There's not literally a Dude inside of me.

What I mean is, I can relate to the Dude, the way he's pulled back and forth by whoever he talks to, not knowing who to believe, absorbing bits and pieces of their speech, speech which sounds meaningful but is at its core, bullshit.

Sometimes those voices come from others. In my case, they often come from the inside. There's entitled anger (my inner Walter Sobchak). There's icy intellectualism (Maude). There's selfish greed and exploitative lust (The Big Lebowski and Jackie Treehorn). There's the desperate urge to please, to have everything go smoothly (Brandt) and the rigid desire for order in the environment I believe belongs to me(the Malibu Sheriff). And of course, there's the narrator telling my life story as it happens, whether that story makes any sense or not (The Stranger). Am I wrong?

So there's no reason--and here is my point--to distinguish between the voices inside and the voices outside; both are capable of bullshit. As within, so without. Our task is to recognize that so many of the voices that sound so meaningful, important, and necessary, neither entirely make sense, nor have our best interests at heart.

At one point in The Big Lebowski, The Dude looks at himself in the reflection of the Big Lebowski's various commendations, awards. He sees himself in the Big Lebowski, and he sees the Big Lebowski in himself. It's interesting to compare this scene with the scene in Reservoir Dogs where Mr. White attempts to separate himself from one of his heist partners. He talks about not wanting to kill people while admitting he will do it if he has to, but claims he's different from Mr. Blonde, all while looking into a mirror.

"I ain't no madman," he tells his reflection.

But the truth is, we all have our madman qualities. The Dude is the hero of the Big Lebowski but by the end of the movie, he and Walter are participating in the very behavior, the very aggression that both of them claim will not stand. They are bracing first a teenage boy and then a disabled person using lines that the thugs that attacked Lebowski at the beginning of the movie used on him "Where's the money, Lebowski?" or "See what happens?"

Meanwhile, we discover the Big Lebowski is less un-dude than he appears. In our first meetings with him he extolls the virtues of employment and a life of achievement. But by the end, we learn from Maude that Lebowski  has no job or ability to achieve on his own; he depends on an allowance from his daughter's inherited wealth. He is one of the very bums he despises.

Work is important in Reservoir Dogs too. The gang is united only by work; they know nothing about one another otherwise, and they try and fail to keep it that way. They wear work uniforms--identical suits. They erase their real names and refer to each other by color: Mr. Brown; Mr. White; Mr. Blonde; Mr. Blue; Mr. Orange; Mr. Pink. They talk obsessively about jobs and work and what it means to be a professional, and the unworthiness of those who fail to hold that standard.

But their personalities come out. Their personalities tear them apart.

The characters in Reservoir Dogs try to make themselves identical and fail. The Big Lebowski tries to make himself different from the Dude, the other Jeffery Lebowski, and fail. Lebowski and the Reservoir Dogs came try to measure each other through differences or similarities in external appearances, in ways of speaking, of dress. In Picture of a Rice Cake, Dogen warns his monks not to "hold up some measure of difference or similarity as the gauge of someone's capacity to train."

Dogen might not be a brother shamus to the characters in these movies, but they are part of him too. They are separated by oceans, centuries of time, and the space between movie characters and historical figures, but they are also has real as he is.

We define ourselves with our names. We define ourselves with our work. We define ourselves with our clothes.

Maybe most of all, we define ourselves with our words. We make up sounds, give them meaning, and then dress ourselves in them. But whether we being dressed in clothes from others (Your name's  Lebowski, Lebowski. My art has been commended as highly vaginal) or putting them on ourselves (I'm not Jeffery Lebowski...I'm the Dude), it behooves us to remember that we are all naked.

We are all emperors.



Saturday, April 1, 2017

More Than Meets the Eye Season 2: Review (No Spoilers)


Image result for more than meets the eye season 2 images personality tics


There were moments I wanted to stop reading. Ive never felt that way about at a Transformers comic before.

Ive read boring Transformers stories, and bad ones too, but none of them made me feel the way I felt during selected issues from James Roberts second season of Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye (Volumes 6-10 of the trade paperbacks, encompassing Issues #28-55). It was a physical desire to close the book and not read any further. It was a feeling of being, not shocked exactly, but offended in some vague and unnameable way, of having my expectations gently but unmistakeably violated--this is not the book I paid good money to read.

Im glad I stuck it out. Im also glad James stuck it out. He weathered a lot of criticism on this arc. The online reaction to many of the later issues in the arc --particularly the mid-forties issues--seemed to be a mix of anger, confusion and disappointment.

Im also glad Id read some of the online reaction and even some of the spoilers. By knowing going in it might not be what I wanted, I was able to let go of the story I wanted to read and pay attention to the story Roberts was telling.

To me, that story is about the choices we make when were pulled between principles and people. What do we do when faced with a conflict between the values we hold most dear and the ones closest to usand at what point does upholding our commitment to one cross the line into a betrayal of the other? It was a question that all the significant characters--both hero and villain--faced at some point.

Roberts approach to characterization felt odd in this arc. Sometimes it felt like his cast was too large, and other times it felt like it wasnt large enough--like he was ignoring the rest of the Lost Lights crew in favor of a handful of characters who often didnt appear to be doing anything of significance, plot-wise.

But despite Roberts reputation for meticulous set-ups and pay-offs, I dont think Roberts focus was the plot. I dont think character was his focus either. Roberts writes great character moments and many of them happen in this arc. Still, characterization--at least in the following a protagonist or group of protagonists as they journey from A to B to C sense of the term--takes a back seat.

Theme holds together this arc of More Than Meets the Eye. If youre reading for plot or character, then its a disjointed and frustrating experience. But if youre looking at the story thematically, it allwell, it doesnt come together, not exactlybut each piece plays off the others. We get a multifaceted look at the interaction between character choice and consequences, each ornament tied to the others by the thematic string of loyalty and betrayal. Multiple characters face this issue in large ways and small. Again and again, we watch different characters with different personalities in different context grapple with the same fundamental question: Megatron. Rodimus. Trailcutter. Whirl. Getaway. Nautica. Tarn. Nightbeat. Overlord. Censere. Ravage. The Scavengers. Deathsaurus.

It was uncomfortable reading. Often characters  I liked made decisions I didnt. Or they made a decision I agreed with, but the consequences of that decision werent what I hoped. Other times it was Roberts writing that challenged me. Intentionally or not, his offbeat structural, plotting, or narrative choices that intentionally or not, left me in the same position as the characters: this franchise isnt doing what I think it should be doing. Do I stick with it or not?


It was hard reading--and Im looking forward to reading it again.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Tom Cruise Vs. The Aliens

Edge of Tomorrow and War of the Worlds both feature Tom Cruise blowing up aliens with grenades in a climactic moment, but other than that, they are pretty different movies.

War of the Worlds is a lot like Cloverfield. Its portagonist is not so much a hero as a bystander. The invader is not the story, merely a complication to what he is trying to achieve. They are screaming civilians. Their lives don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. They have things they are trying to accomplish in the movie, but they are not central to the invasion story. Whether the invaders come from the stars or below the seas, in War of the Worlds and Cloverfied the movie’s main characters are peripheral to the action.

In Edge of Tomorrow, a movie best described as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers via Saving Private Ryan, Tom Cruise is the action. Owing to an act of fate, his life--and death--is the only one that matters.

War of the Worlds, like Cloverfield, uses the imagery of 9/11. Edge of Tomorrow uses the language of video games. Dying and respawning at the same point over and over and memorizing sequences of enemies and fighting one’s way to the One Giant Boss that needs to be killed to end the game. The farmhouse scene is also about trying to do something that the game won’t let you do.

Edge of Tomorrow is also interesting in the way it uses the bullshit-spouting Sergeant Farrell, whose clich├ęd lines about being born again and making one’s own fate work as empty, jingoistic rhetoric, while simultaneously working on a higher level, as he essentially and unknowingly serves as the movie’s thematic Greek chorus. It’s also kind of cool that the bravery-loving Farrell is played by Bill Paxton, the actor best known for his iconic portrayal of the cowardly Private “Game Over, Man” Hudson in Aliens.

It’s also a story of a boddhisattva--learning to try and save the world, not because saving the world makes one awesome and heroic, but because saving the world means saving the people in it, and bodhisattvas care about beings like Faith No More cares about the Army Navy Air Force and Marines (*).

That’s the nifty thing about Edge of Tomorrow--it goes a step beyond what we normally see.in these kinds of redemption stories. There are plenty of movies about a selfish person who cares only about himself meeting the right woman (or lovable misfit kids’ hockey team) and learning to love her too…but Edge of Tomorrow is one of the few movies I’ve seen that rightly sees this as only an intermediate step. Caring about friends, lovers, family as in War of the Worlds or Cloverfield is great, but there is still an element of selfishness to it. “You complete me” (Okay, Tom Cruise doesn’t say that in THIS movie) is to an extent, still making it about what someone else can do for me. Its drawing a line between people who are important to me and people who are not.

Edge of Tomorrow takes the bold step--as Emily Blunt’s character points out--of saying that isn’t enough. That it is possible to do more. That every life is worth caring about.

War of the Worlds is about Tom Cruise caring about his family--something that stays true through the beginning, middle, and end of the movie. Edge of Tomorrow takes Tom Cruise from caring only about saving himself to learning how he can save everyone.

(*) Faith No More also cares deeply about Transformers cause they’re more than meets the eye, which makes them tops in my book.

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. He tells himself in the mirror that he "ain't no madman."

Maybe not..

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.