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.