Murphy’s Laws: 46 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 46

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“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 46 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 46 judgments, opinions and observations.

46. Get it?

46. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

3. A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

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7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

ali

16. I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import — be it artistic, social, political, cultural — opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s often says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter. Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loudly and saying little? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

25. The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it’s the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

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34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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My David Lynch Dilemma (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”; “Candy Colored Clown!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good,shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Sidecartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

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The David Lynch Dilemma (Revisited)

DL-300x195

With the 25th anniversary edition of the seminal/infamous/underwhelming Blue Velvet being released this week, it seems like an opportune time to revisit a topic certain to cause some consternation: David Lynch and whether or not he is God.

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”; “Candy Colored Clown!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good,shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Sidecartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

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The David Lynch Dilemma (Revisited)

With the 25th anniversary edition of the seminal/infamous/underwhelming Blue Velvet being released this week, it seems like an opportune time to revisit a topic certain to cause some consternation: David Lynch and whether or not he is God.

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”; “Candy Colored Clown!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good,shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Sidecartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

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Dennis Hopper: He Made Our World More Weird And Wonderful

So cancer finally succeeded in cutting short the odd and inimitable life of Dennis Hopper. That is a shame, of course, although we would probably be wise to give thanks that he managed to stick around as long as he did. He danced with the devil so often they were on a first name basis. And if Thoreau was wise to encourage us all to suck the marrow out of life, Hopper sucked, slurped and occasionally mainlined it. I’d like to think you could cut him open and a good chunk of 20th Century DNA would come oozing out. He may have had a few more battles in him, but no one can deny he left it all out on the proverbial field.

To acknowledge his eccentric and very original brand of genius, I’m inclined to leave the biographical nitty gritty (important as it is) to others and celebrate a handful of scenes that helped make our world a more real, and less predictable place.

First up, a one-two punch from one of the more controversial (and, for my money, overrated) films of all time, Blue Velvet. Despite its oblique narrative, wooden acting and David Lynch’s unparalleled capacity for pretension (which entirely too many suckers wrongly diagnose as audacity), there are still more than a handful of epic scenes to savor. Two that feature Hopper each illustrate what made him so singular and, at times, untouchable. Exhibit A is that Top of the world, ma! celebration of perverted depravity, one of the more genuinely scary and disturbing moments in all cinema. Exhibit B is the brief, beautiful shout-out to that most American of beers. No actor but Dennis Hopper could have pulled off either scene with similar success.

 

Speaking of overrated, take Easy Rider (please!).

I’m just kidding. Kind of.

To me, this movie is actually a lot like Bob Dylan: you see it, you get it, you appreciate the influence and you can’t front on the near-universal endorsement he gets from every artist who came after him. Ditto Easy Rider: it was iconic and of its time (boy was it of its time), and like Bob Dylan, laid a foundation that several other writers and directors (and actors) improved upon. Speaking of wooden acting…well, you get the picture. In fairness, it may be that Hopper (and, to a lesser extent, Fonda) were not playing roles so much as projecting themselves. And then, of course, there is Jack Nicholson. Even if this movie served merely as the delivery device to bring Big Jack into the mainstream (and let me be clear, it remains much more than that), it certainly served its humble purpose. Speaking of Jack…let’s appreciate him doing that thing he did, arguably without peer, for at least another decade:

It quite possibly says more about me than the movie, but one of the handful of scenes (sans Nicholas) I can stomach happens to be the one where Hopper dies. And no, I’m not saying that the acting is so bad that seeing him get shot is a relief; I’m talking about how effective and unsettling this abrupt ending remains (and I can appreciate how unprecedented it was in 1969). Full credit to Hopper, who directed, and help write, this material. Much like the equally celebrated (and beloved) The Graduate, I find the movie almost unwatchable, but there is no denying the impact it had (good, bad and definitely ugly) on film-making in America and America, period.

And then, of course, the unforgettable role in Apocalypse Now that begged questions about life imitating art or, more likely, the exact opposite:

And finally, inevitably, his unequalled moment (from True Romance, a movie that, pound for pound, features as many sublime scenes as quite possibly any other made in the last two decades).

This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted from all contemporary films. For good reason, and all praise to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances of Hopper and the genuinely incomparable Christopher Walken. It also includes the hulking presence of the then-unknown James Gandolfini.

The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating-schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is serious acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into (self) parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.

The scene is uncomfortable and amusing in equal measure (well, in all honesty, it’s probably a hell of a lot funnier than anything else), but mostly a tour de force on every conceivable level. It just might feature Hopper’s finest work.

Dennis Hopper came close to death so many times he may have figured he was never going to actually die. But he ultimately found out what all of us will discover sooner or later, and all that proves is that we are human. More importantly, he certainly took more from life than it took from him. And we got more out of this weird, wonderful man than we had any right to expect.

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The David Lynch Dilemma

The David Lynch Dilemma

Sound Affects
The PopMatters Music Blog

12 May 2008

The David Lynch Dilemma

David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble.
There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?

Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).

Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?

First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.

But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.

But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good, shouldn’t it?)

Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.

Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?

In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?

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