Monday, April 25, 2011
It is a city on the edge of forever. Endless desert, empty and dead, even on the holiday to resurrection. My family has lived here for generations. My great-grandfather and grandfather built a cabin in Bouquet Canyon in the early 1900s, and we used to go there for long weekends when I was a child. This is where we would go deer hunting and fishing. Here in the sands among the Joshua trees are my roots. Joshua tree: Yucca brevifolia, a monocotyledonous tree given its more Biblical name by Mormons who crossed the Mojave in the mid-1800s. Whenever I travel to Mojave, I am reminded of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert, tempted by Satan.
It is Easter and we are driving out Highway 14. The temperature is still mild, even for late April, and heavy dark clouds hover in the sky with only patches of blue and thin, wispy strands of white. All of this skyscape indicates a low pressure system moving out to make way for a high pressure system later in the week, where the winds will kick up, and the temp will rise to more summer-like conditions. But today, there is still a bit of moisture in the breezy, cool air.
At one point in my life, I thought about moving here. Rent is cheap, and housing is abundant. But I drove through the open gridwork of streets, the miles and miles of empty roads baked by the sun, the sun-bleached tract homes with blank windows, and I came to the realization that I could not survive here. There is a nothingness that is profound.
On every corner, a fast food restaurant. Burger King, Carl’s Junior, KFC, and McDonald’s. Liquor stores and faceless donut shops. One mall with a strip of nicer restaurants, always packed with tired, bleached out people waiting endlessly for tables on Saturday night. That is all there is to do here: eat and go to movies. Driving through the neighborhoods at night, I see people hanging out in their garages, drinking, playing nortenas. Or, the blue glow through shuttered windows of plasma televisions and home theater set-ups. People stay entertained in their homes because there is not much else to do.
Walmarts, Super Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, Targets, WinCo—they dot every expansive parking lot. This is the place to buy in bulk. It is a desert, I guess, and supplies are hard to come by, and even if that is not the case anymore, people stock up for Armageddon. That is the other main attraction out here in Mojave: religion. Churches are everywhere, mostly Pentecostal Christian varieties. I interviewed a real estate guy out here last summer for a story I wanted to write. He told me he moved here because the San Fernando Valley was the porn capital of the world, and he did not want to raise his kids there. Out here in Mojave, he is ready. The end of times is coming. Barack Obama is a Muslim. And he is ready for the fire next time. He told me of President Obama’s secret plan: collapse the financial sector and the infrastructure of the United States from within. It is a plot, a Muslim plot to take control of our country. I asked him what possible benefit would Obama get for destroying the country that elected him president. “I’m just saying,” he insisted in his bovine manner. “Barack Obama is a Muslim.”
“So, he’s a Muslim, let’s say. We’ve had a Catholic president, loads of Christian presidents. I’m sure we have had an atheist or two.”
“Barack Obama is a Muslim, that’s all I’m saying.”
I dropped the subject and the story. Cities on the edge of forever, living in a shroud of ignorance and desperation, are not that interesting. They are everywhere and nowhere, and therein lies the problem in our country. These are the people willing to believe the fantastical because the reality is too dark and oppressive. Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that is why America is going to hell in a hand basket. Couldn’t be that our culture is collapsing upon itself because we are suspicious of intelligence, we have bankrupted our education system, and we are mired in greed and narcissism? It couldn’t be that we have been telling the story so long that we are the greatest country on earth that we have finally accepted our own arrogance as fact.
Out in Mojave, one can see the America of the Cold War, back when we thought we were fighting against something that turned out to be ghosts and shadows. Be on the lookout for the communist next door. In any case, from the 14 we can see the Lockheed plant with the skunk on the side of the gigantic hangar in the middle of the desert: the Skunkworks 2.0. They relocated here from Burbank in the valley. Now the Bob Hope Airport sits next to a Superfund site, so toxic it will take millions to clean up. My grandfather worked his life there, and I wonder if his cancer might have been caused by his work environment. Just speculating.
There is also Blackbird Park, an air museum featuring a number of planes parked in a landscaped field. Here is the whole history of the Antelope Valley and Mojave aerospace industry. Not too far away is Edwards Air Force Base, home to the west coast NASA space shuttle program. Lots of the testing for the shuttle missions was done here, and when the weather was bad in Florida, the shuttles often came down with a thunderous sonic boom to this airfield in the Mojave. The space shuttle program is at an end. Just a few missions left and then the fleet will be mothballed. What’s next? Didn’t George W. Bush want to go to Mars? Maybe there is aerospace life left in the Mojave. There are always more bombers to build. However, the planned international airport to rival LAX was a bust here. There is an airport, but no one chooses it as a departure point or arrival destination. So it stands here in the middle of nowhere.
There is a lot to see in Mojave. Shacks and desolation, western towns, old movie sets, abandoned mines, boarded-up stores and housing plans that dried up and blew away. Why come here on Easter Sunday, 2011? I still have family here, and I am sure they get tired of me dragging them to civilization down in Los Angeles. I feel bad because it is a slap in the face to where they live, but the harsh and brutal landscape, a creation of both desert and economic starvation, is hardly conducive to a respite away from the city, a day to appreciate the burgeoning spring.
However, the air is clear, the sun is brilliant when it makes its way around the dark clouds, and the static electricity raises gooseflesh on the skin. The Mormons thought the Yucca trees reminded them of Joshua supplicating to heaven with outstretched arms. Therefore: the Joshua tree. Mojave is a land locked in a vow of silence amid the thunder of man-made flight. The largest bird has jet engines, and heat waves dance an ancient ritual across the blacktop on miles and miles and miles of empty roads. Windmills slash at the sky. The California Aqueduct meanders through the sand in a concrete ditch. Mojave is a land of waiting, of praying, of heat and death, and in the event of hard rain, a tiny bit of green life one day that will burn up in a flash of heat from the desert sun tomorrow. It is a land locked in on Easter Saturday, the pause in the universe when the entire Christian world waited for Jesus to resurrect the next day. Only in Mojave, the resurrection never comes, and the land and its people have made a career out of waiting for what comes next.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Dir. Milcho Mancevski
Criterion; $39.95, DVD
Milcho Mancevski’s Before The Rain, utilizes a circular narrative to uniquely portray the civil strife in Macedonia between the Orthodox Christians and the Muslim Albanians in the 1980s and 1990s. The film is beautifully shot, with a film clarity that appears almost of digital quality, highlighting the rugged and sparse terrain of the Macedonian countryside. The theme, expressed by one of the characters, that “Time never dies. The circle is not round,” recurs frequently in the fragmented story line.
Using the motif of tomatoes on the vine, we see a young priest who has taken a vow of silence, picking the fruit in the crystal clear Macedonian sun. This section of the film is entitled, Words, and adds the additional motif of almost the complete absence of words, or in limited occasion, the inability of words to express thoughts and emotions.
The priest, upon returning to his Spartan cell, discovers a young androgynous figure hiding in his bed. The young person is a girl who is hiding from a mob bent on exacting revenge upon her for murdering one of their members. The young priest is startled by her appearance, and runs from the cell to seek help from an elderly priest. Since he is unable to speak, the elder believes he wants company to go into the night to urinate before bed. Because of this misunderstanding, the young priest returns to his cell and allows the girl to sleep on the floor. She also eats some of the tomatoes, representing the extreme poverty and starvation of the ethnic Albanians. The mob storms the monastery and conducts a search, but somehow, the girl avoids detection. The mob displays particular cruelty, with one member callously shooting a cat several times. Mancevski uses these visual cues to portray the violence and brutality of the ethnic and religious conflict.
The priest is forced to resign and flee the monastery with the young girl as the segment ends. Upon leaving, they pass a funeral, and a woman who cries out upon witnessing the burial. Later, the priest is captured by members of the girl’s family who wish to punish the girl for her actions. In the melee, she is shot and killed by her own brother, and dies face down on the earth with the priest tearfully crouching next to her.
The second segment, entitled Faces, jumps to London where a young magazine editor finds herself torn between her husband and a former lover, a photographer who has been covering wars and violence throughout the world. He is world weary and haggard, even as the husband is neatly groomed and a business man. The woman rejects overtures from her former lover and after a sexual encounter in the back of a taxi, leaves him to go to her husband. She meets him in a restaurant where a bloody tragedy occurs. A bearded and swarthy man, not unlike the Orthodox Christians and Albanians in the first segment, causes a disruption in the restaurant, is expelled, and later returns with a gun. He fires indiscriminately into the restaurant, killing many people, including the husband.
Mancevski makes clear in Faces that ethnic strife and violence do not respect borders. Was the shooter a Christian or an Albanian? We do not know for certain, but he is ethnic, gesticulating wildly in his conflict with the restaurant employees, and babbling in a strange tongue. He is quick-tempered, uncouth and violent, contrasting sharply with the husband who is urbane and civil. The Londoners are not spared the violence even in a sharply ordered, civilized city.
The kick in this section is in the photographs that that editor works with at her office. They are of the young girl’s murder from Words. It is a bit disconcerting, yet deeply involving, that the time line is unclear. This again reinforces the theme of “the circle is not round.”
The final section, Pictures, depicts the photographer from Faces returning to his home village, a place he has not visited in some time. After inadvertently causing another man’s death, he is tired of being caught up in war as a journalist, and longs to rediscover a place where he belongs. A woman he once loved, Hana, is now a widow, and asks him to help her with her daughter, the young girl from Words. The photographer’s fate is not to escape the violence he has seen, and in his desire to help the young girl, he becomes a victim of the that same violence. His fate leads us back to the first segment and the funeral we witness in passing.
Mancevski is clever with his fragmented time line in the film. He illustrates that violence carries over, through time and space, never ending, and always a threat, in cities and in rural areas. No one is safe, and the threat never ends. It is somewhat pessimistic to think that human beings will never escape their need to shed blood over religion and ethnicity, but the film maker’s thesis can hardly be refuted by history.
To add gravitas and epic scope to his story, Mancevski weaves in subtle lines from Shakespeare. He alludes to Romeo and Juliet when a character advises another to “Deny thy father and refuse thy name.” It is not a simple matter to deny personal history, ethnicity, or religion. Are these things not the causes of all wars and violence? Another character, upon realizing he has inadvertently caused more bloodshed, says, “Will these hands never be clean?” an echo of the famous lines in Macbeth when the murderous Thane asks the heavens if he will ever be free of culpability in the rivers of blood that run through that play. It is an effective conceit that adds much to the scope and heft of the narrative of the film.
Before The Rain is a stunningly realized piece of historical narrative. The gathering storm clouds that hiss lightening and rumble ominously throughout the film, especially during the bloody climax of the final segment, add sonic and visual punctuation, lending the work its title. Mancevski’s masterpiece is emotional and intense, possibly lacking the distance of years to mature the narrative, but one can feel both the violence and the endless cycle of brutality so heavy a burden on the shoulders of all humanity with roots in the fertile soil of bigotry, religious persecution, and ethnic cleansing.
Monday, April 18, 2011
What the world needs now is Edmund Wilson. There is no cultural criticism, no literary criticism, no historical perspective, at least not in the sense that Wilson created it in his volumes of essays, and in journals like Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.
Wilson came into the world in Red Bank, New Jersey on May 8, 1895. He attended The Hill School, an eastern boarding academy located in Pennsylvania that prepared students for college. His literary aspirations began there when he edited the school’s magazine, The Record. He went on to Princeton University and started on his journalism career at the New York Sun after graduating. Rene Wellek, writing in Comparative Literature Studies (Volume 15, No. 1), says Wilson “disclaimed being a literary critic.” He quotes Wilson in 1959: “I think of myself simply as a writer and a journalist. I am as much interested in history as I am in literature.”
The journalist Wilson came to Vanity Fair as the managing editor, He later joined the staff of many other cultural publications that are icons in American cultural literature. These articles, essays, and pieces were later collected into a number of important books, including Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, The Triple Thinkers: Ten Essays on Literature , and The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. His most famous book is probably To The Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, a chronicle of Marxism and the rise of socialism in the twentieth century. Many of Wilson’s best pieces take on the influence of Marx and Freud, and he applies their philosophies to the analysis of literature and history. In a nation that found itself locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, this was daring stuff. And Wilson was not afraid of changing his mind. He later moved away from his admiration of communism, becoming shocked and disillusioned with the Soviet purges.
Wilson could be polemical and cantankerous, but his point of view came from a place of deep thought and consideration. He was willing to step out in front of American life and thought and take a critical stand. For his courage, he inspired generations of literary and cultural criticism.
My favorite of Wilson’s books is A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty. Here is Wilson in all his difficult and demanding glory. Here to, is Wilson at his most poignant. This is a man who refused to pay income tax as a protest against America’s Cold War policies. This is a man who supported communism when all of America was caught up in the witch hunts of the HUAC hearings. By the age of sixty, Wilson had adopted unpopular opinions, and later modified and even refuted them publicly. Upon reflection, Wilson wrote, “And am I, too, I wonder, stranded? Am I, too, an exceptional case? When, for example, I look through Life magazine, I feel that I do not belong to the country depicted there, that I do not even live in that country. Am I, then, in a pocket of the past?”
Wilson died in 1972, but I would argue that far from residing in a “pocket of the past,” we need writers, critics, and yes, journalists like him now. Unfortunately, arbiters of culture and literature like Alfred Kazin, Frank Kermode, Norman Podhoretz, Susan Sontag, and indeed, Edmund Wilson, are voices all but ignored in today’s world. We need to listen to them again, and to encourage new writers to pick up the mantle and carry the torch. We require a more intelligent America, and it is a sad day when no one is there to make us think for ourselves. It is a world of greater complexity and lesser minds, leaving us alone in the woods without a match to light the way home.
Photo: © Bettman/CORBIS
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Bimonthly; $29.95 per year
Maybe it was the smiling cover photo of Pema Chodron, whom I have written about previously. Maybe it was my ongoing pursuit of peace and tranquility amid an increasingly cacophonous world. In any case, I grabbed the March, 2011 issue of the magazine, Shambhala Sun.
The magazine is filled with ads offering retreats, seminars, and lectures on the Buddhist lifestyle. The Dalai Lama will be visiting the University of Arkansas under their Distinguished Lecture series next month. The two sessions sound interesting, but I would not expect him to visit Arkansas. Nothing against the folks from Arkansas; I just didn’t think there would be that many Buddhists there, although Buddhism is a religion where one could follow the philosophy—non-violence, meditation-prayer, and compassion for the world and its people—without actually being a Buddhist. Jesus, in fact, would have made a good Buddhist. There are also pages of book ads. All the major Buddhist publishers are represented, and I found a number of interesting books on Eastern philosophy. The articles, however, are excellent as well.
Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle’s piece, “Touch of Grey,” examines the “sacred dimension” of growing old. “Consider the central Buddhist tenet of the three characteristics—dukkha (suffering), anatta (nonself), and anicca (impermanence),” she tells us. “All three are beating the drum of our diminishing years. Time to wake up!”
The thrust of her article is that growing older is a time for shifting focus to the spiritual. She advocates more practice of meditation and more awareness of the inner self. We must meditate on how physical diminishment and death are inevitable. “Everything changes, and we must part from loved ones,” she reminds us. This focus echoes “the ancient art of memento mori, remembering that I will die so I can live to the fullest.”
In her piece, “The Garden Path,” Cheryl Wilfong examines meditation practice through the metaphor of gardening. She discusses the growing white noise and unreasonable demands for our attention in daily living. We are stressed, distracted, and fatigued from living our days. We must take action to rejuvenate and grow our spiritual awareness, she tells us.
One of my favorite writer-philosophers is Thich Nhat Hanh. He weighs in on “Healing the Child Within.”
“We must listen to the wounded child inside us,” he says, and nurture healing every day. He compares Eastern and Western views of human psychology, the conscious and unconscious mind. In the scope of the article, the author peels back the layers with which we insulate our psyche to avoid dealing with trauma, pain, and emotional distress, much of it originating in our childhood.
“Buddhas Without Connections” is a unique piece by Tokyo crime reporter, Jake Adelstein. He investigates the mysterious deaths of a couple virtually no one can recall.”
“For many,” he writes, “the coming of spring is symbolic of birth, rebirth, vitality. For me, it’s a reminder that a lot of people are going to start dying, and that I’ll be busy.” Summer for this reporter is a season of death—bodies rotting and hot temperatures leading to short fuses.
Adelstein investigates the murder-suicide of an older couple in their apartment in Tokyo. It is a tragic, heartbreaking story he pieces together. What makes the deaths even more poignant and sad is that they lived without connections. None of their neighbors really knows them. Then there is the couple’s suicide note: “Don’t worry about us. We’ve been dead for a long time. Sorry we didn’t clean up before we left. We didn’t have the energy.”
Shambhala Sun has a lot to offer us in these troubled times. Eastern philosophy is known for its simple, brief language that generates deep, reflective soul searching. I would not subscribe, mainly because over the course of several issues, I found too many repetitive ideas. I will buy individual issues at my local news stand when a particular article calls to me. If they put Pema Chodron on the cover, I’ll plunk down my precious coin for every issue. Who can resist that reassuring, bemused, wise and wrinkled face?
Postscript: Check out writer William Michaelian's post called Silence on his blog, Recently Banned Literature. Very Zen.
Monday, April 11, 2011
“Estimated percentage change since 2000 in the U.S. defense budget, not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: +80.”
Can you imagine what our education system would be like if the budget for schools increased eighty percent in ten years? Even though the statistic above does not include the wars, what if we added it all together? What would American education be like if we spent, over the last ten years, the equivalent of what we have spent on defense and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Libya no-fly zone?
And if the government had shut down last week, who were the people whose paychecks would be immediately delayed? Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shouldn’t there be some kind of clause in the budget that says no matter what, our men and women in uniform still get paid? I mean they are dodging bullets for this country.
“Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8. Minimum number who died after being struck by lightening: 29.”
Seems like we need a war on lightening. I wonder if George W. Bush would come out of retirement and help us hunt down the evildoers who used this lightening on our citizens. I think they’re called clouds. Go get ‘em, George.
“Date on which student loans first passed credit cards among the largest sources of private debt in the United States: 6/30/10.”
More people now owe a greater debt on student loans than their credit cards. Yes, it is getting harder and harder to finance education in this country. But that’s okay. No one wants a smart populace questioning the wisdom of Boehner and company. The Tea Party does not want America to discover they are a confederacy of dunces. Stupid people stay quiet, or so our fearless leaders hope.
The back of the magazine has an interesting feature that I enjoy called “Findings.” It is a collection of facts and data from around the world. It seems 2011 has already been a bad year for birds. Given their mythological and cinematic (at least to Hitchcock) importance, maybe we should take note:
“…flipper-banding was correlated with king-penguin deaths. Columbian officials seized a narco-pigeon, and Saudi Arabia detained a vulture affiliated with Tel Aviv University. Police in Pforzheim, Germany, detained an owl who was drunk on schnapps. Dozens of Romanian starlings drank themselves to death. One thousand Italian turtle doves fell from the sky with blue-stained beaks; 500 starlings and red-winged blackbirds were found dead on a road in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana; and 4,500 Arkansan blackbirds were thought to have been killed by fireworks.”
Something is definitely wrong with the world. When owls and starlings drink themselves into oblivion, can the end of days be far behind?
Thursday, April 7, 2011
Dir. Regis Wargnier
Union Generale Cinematographique (UGC); price varies, DVD
As the journey ends in a starkly lit dockyard in the new Soviet Union, we see the contrast between the warmth of the scene on the ship and the new reality. Wargnier punctuates the frightening change of scene with gunfire: the newly returned citizens are gunned down in cold blood. The horror begins to dawn on the faces of the family, especially Alexei.
The family now must survive under the oppressive regime. Alexei makes a deal with the Soviet officers and they are sent to Kiev, but not before Marie is brutalized by an officer, accused of being a spy for the French government. Wargnier uses this as a catalyst for Alexei and Marie to begin to grow apart. It is clear that Marie blames him for taking them to this hellacious land of oppression, and Sandrine Bonnaire, does an excellent job portraying a woman who suffers and smolders while never losing her vulnerability. Bonnaire is a veteran film actress whom I remember from another excellent French film, Monsieur Hire (1989). Here, her character only wants to return to France, and as the film progresses, we see her determination to escape from Soviet oppression.
Catherine Deneuve plays an actress in a theatrical troupe that tours the country. During a performance the Golovins attend, she gives Marie an ally in her escape. Meanwhile, the couple and their son move into a rundown house that has been converted into apartments with a cast of interesting, or in some cases, malevolent characters. Alexei goes to work as a medical doctor in a textile factory.
The central characters in this narrative are Alexei and his wife, but it is Marie whom we see being crushed by her new world. The movie charts her journey: growing distant from her husband, striking up a relationship with her seventeen-year old neighbor, a competitive swimmer named Sasha, her fomenting an escape plan for Sasha that leads to him swimming out to and boarding a Turkish freighter to freedom, her subsequent accusation as a CIA spy, and her long sentence in the Gulag from which she is released a broken prematurely aged woman.
Alexei suffers his own horrific trials as well. The actor Oleg Menshikov portrays Alexei so poignantly that we can never forget his shame and guilt at bringing his family into this mess. He leaves his family and takes up with another tenant in the building, and we ponder whether guilt is the prime motivator for his infidelities. He cannot live with himself, nor with his family whom he has betrayed. Marie resents his allegiance to Stalin and the Soviet regime, failing to understand that his playing along with the Soviet leadership is a method of survival. He is biding time and waiting for the right moment to escape. He ultimately sacrifices his own security for his family’s freedom, and his fate is revealed to us in a postscript to the film.
Wargnier hits all the notes of impending tragedy in his film, and in this way, his work is a bit formulaic. There are plenty of comparisons with other like-minded films, one of which is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), a work which predates Wargnier’s film. Still, East/West is a powerful and moving piece of art, capturing a time and place that has only recently emerged from the darkness and secrecy of Russian history. The west still has much to learn about the Russian mindset, and one of the successes of the film is Wargnier’s ability to render the richness of the émigrés on their way home with the stark and dilapidated environment of the new Soviet Union. Like the gunshots that ring out almost as soon as they arrive on the dock, the fast-changing fortunes of these people, duped into returning to their homeland, startle and shock us into the realization of the brutality of the regime and the inescapable quagmire in which our characters sink almost to oblivion. From the first moments over the roiling sea, we feel the tension in the plight of Alexei, Marie, Sergey and the others, and although the story seems destined for a tragedy of immense proportions, the end of the film does offer redemption, especially for Alexei, whose desire to return to Russia nearly costs his family their lives.