This Website will be devoted to essays and insights related to diversity, addiction/recovery, psychological growth issues, global perspectives, the disenfranchised, aesthetics, and cultural values. The core value streaming throughout the essays I write will be about returning to our innocence, which sometimes requires a trauma, a jolt, an invasion of the “other,” or a paradigm shift.
Many of my comments will sometimes reflect a more radically progressive approach to an idea. At other times, I may very well see some healthy alternatives in a more reactionary, conservative approach. There will be few areas, if any, that I hold sacred, taboo territory. In that sense, everything will be up for grabs.
I am also interested in international film narratives, stories whose voices are too often left out of the more powerful voices of the international film industry. They have much to teach us about aesthetics, cultural values, and morality.
For those wishing to participate, enjoy the ride!
John T. Marohn
The Arbitrariness of Life
I am not convinced that it is easy to be who we really are. Our identity scripts seem to have already been written, or are being written, by forces over which we don’t have much control.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever chosen their parents or the color of their eyes inside the womb. And no one would argue with the reality that if someone were born in a New York City condo, they have a better chance of entering Harvard or Yale than someone born in poverty.
And who can say, in middle age, they would have actually gotten married? If the answer is “yes,” who can say they know, for sure, that would be the right answer for them now? And, knowing what I now know, would I marry the person I did when I was in my twenties.
Daily Rituals and Real Intent
On a more general level, how do I know who the real me is?
I get up in the morning, take my meds, go to the bathroom, put the coffee on, cut a banana in a bowl, scan the cereals on top of the refrigerator, choose one that appeals to me that morning and pour my choice into the bowl with the cut-up banana.
That’s my morning ritual. But is that the authentic me?
I can’t do the process of elimination here. My ritual, after all, emanates from no one else but me. Its genuineness can’t be questioned, unless, of course, I wake up resenting it.
Ah, resenting it. There’s the rub.
What if I decided, one morning, that I really don’t like eating breakfast by myself, that I feel the full weight of my aloneness when I first wake up. Or that I’ve really not been true to my feelings of loneliness because I’m too afraid to admit that I don’t have the inner strength to be by myself?
This domestic narrative tells me something: I can exist on two levels.
There’s a repeated action, like washing the car, taking a shower, preparing dinner, driving to work on the Interstate. These repeated actions have a kind of inner strength to survive on their own momentum and energy. And each of these actions contain smaller actions, one leading to another, until they accumulate to a completed act.
And then there’s another kind of inner energy that accompanies these actions. Let’s give them several names: contentment, anger, resentment, frenzy, groundedness, even neutrality.
If I’m feeling content or even neutral in performing my morning ritual, I don’t question the habit I’ve developed. But if I wake up with anxiety about my ritual, maybe, just maybe, I’m in denial about its efficacy.
Maybe I really want to go out for breakfast. Maybe I really want to hang out with people in the morning. Maybe, I’m lonely. But the ritual of eating alone in the morning keeps me tied to a false self, one that is denial of his need to be with others, to be in some kind of community, not to isolate.
The rush to win
In the loud clutter
Of things I buy on sale,
Kidding myself, one more time.
That I’ve caught some weary seller
Off guard, before the doors close,
My two twenty dollar bills
Kissing the air between my wallet
And the cashier,
Convinced, in my delusion,
That I have stolen a victory
From another fool.
Movies with a multicultural theme are always difficult to write about without appearing to be a self-taught expert. If you’re a white male writer, it becomes even riskier because, then, the stereotype of the “mansplainer” is a label easily used to discount everything you say.
Well, here goes.
Wind River is a gripping crime thriller that takes place on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming in merciless sub-zero temperatures.
Cory Bannon, a US Fish and Wildlife agent discovers the body of a female Arapaho teenager whom he recognizes as the daughter of a close friend. We find out later that part of Bannon’s life seems to come at him in a surreal rush because he lost his own daughter, Emily, who was of mixed ethnic heritage–her mother is also Arapaho (she and Bannon are currently going through a divorce).
A rooky FBI young woman, Jane Banner, is called in to investigate the homicide. Along with the local tribal police, she and Bannon eventually take the villains down, after, of course, a brutal cops-and-robbers shoot out (about and hour-and-a-half later, in movie time)
For what it’s worth, this is what I discovered about this film
(1) The film takes some risks in giving us portraits of heart-felt grief, both male and female. I might add here, there are some strong male-bonding scenes that are particularly poignant because they cross over ethnic lines.
(2) The male-as-avenger seems to be a stereotype that Hollywood film directors can’t seem to escape.
(3) The film makes some attempt at giving a woman a leading equality role as a police agent fully capable of taking physical and mental control. At the same time, she has a necessary psychological role in identifying with the plight of the young Arpaho woman and her mother.
(4) All the “reservation” social issues come at us as if they were as commonplace as a red-light at a busy city street corner—-drugs and alcohol; the number of missing and murdered Native American women; Indian sovereignty; under-staffed tribal police; poverty; imprisonment as the invevitable fate of many young male Native Americans; and the relentless brutal winter, not to mention the loss of livestock because of the many wandering predatory animals in search of food.
(5) There is a strong message in the film about the Native American ability to endure hardship. Bannon makes the point to Banner, early in the film, that the young female victim probably ran much beyond any normal human being’s ability to endure the sub-freezing weather in spite of having been brutally raped. And it is clear, in the final poignant scene of the film, that the young women’s father and mother will eventually survive.
Have to admit I was hooked, particularly at the breath-taking visuals. There may be some criticism, however, about the violence. It is very, very graphic, although I’m not quite sure it was gratuitous given the frontier setting of the film in the wintry Wyoming wilderness and the painful reality of so many Native American women murdered and missing.
So, what is small town America really like?
If we listen to Sinclair Lewis, it is an inferno of conformity and class provincialism, not to mention the hypocrisy so blatantly embodied in Elmer Gantry, the itinerant preacher, who mesmerized his small-town believers while acting out his lust on any willing or paid-for victim.
Gantry is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s small-town Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” who carries around a fake Bible that is actually a hallowed-out box containing condoms and a bottle of whiskey.
Thornton Wilder might have a slightly different perspective. “Our Town” has a cast of characters living and dying normal lives in a small New Hampshire town. Some die before their time like Emily Webb during her second pregnancy. Some die in the war. Some die of natural causes. Some die by suicide.
But everybody in the queue of life, eventually dies. There is no question that, at some point, all the characters will be laid to rest in the town cemetery.
We are given a small-town consolation by Emily who, after she dies, chooses to return to life at 12. She is overwhelmed by the reality that there are so many chances we miss in taking in the beauty of our daily lives, including her mother’s morning coffee.
Walter Eno’s “Middletown,” is another painterly-like portrait of small-town American life.
The town may be a prototype of that life. But its stark, over-the-top realism leads me to believe it’s more like “Our Town” on steroids. And the playwright’s heightened language, especially the dark comic lines, too often overwhelm the energy required to be ready for the next edgy line. The linguistic brilliance is there but the humanity of the characters gets lost in the verbal pyrotechnics.
Eno’s small town characters are clearly evident– a cop, a tour guide and a couple of tourists, a librarian, a mechanic, a landscaper, two doctors, a hospital janitor, a suicidal drifter, a woman whose husband is always out of town, and an astronaut, the hometown hero.
Each one has their individual identities. Mrs Swanson and John Dodge are the centripetal characters keeping the play’s center around the themes of life and death.
Swanson has just arrived in the town with her husband who is always out of town, except, apparently, the one time that she becomes pregnant, giving birth to the child as the play ends.
John Dodge is the town drifter, a Jack-of-all-trades who occupies his time with small jobs, hobbies, and hanging out in the library looking for books on gravity. At the end of the play, suffice it to say he is on a downward cycle.
The local cop seems to have a sado-masochistic edge on his night rounds when he starts to choke an alcoholic mechanic, who does community service at the local hospital by entertaining children. The hospital doctor gives Mrs Swanson some clichéd advice about starting out with simple words to her new baby and then fills in with Farmers Almanac-like predictions of what to expect after the pregnancy; two tourists have a lot of questions about a local landmark; an astronaut gives gives his star-studded description of what the earth looks like from the moon; and a librarian fills us in on the local history and engages a number of characters coming into the library.
Eno also creates fictional characters who hang out during the intermission.
Swanson and Dodge appear to be Eno’s manifestations of Eros (new life) and Thanatos (death). And Middletown is everything in between, what ever form it takes—-in a library, on the street, in front of an emergency room, from the moon, inside of someone’s home.
For a brief moment, Eno suggests Swanson and Dodge just may find in each other some redemption from their profound loneliness. Swanson at least has a new life to nurture. But the awkward intimacy between them never blossoms.
There you have it, friends, small town America seen through the artistic lenses of Sinclair Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Thornton Wilder, and Walter Eno.
I found it somewhat difficult to sit through so much of the dark sarcasm and cynicism of Eno’s language. It had too much of a sit-com sensibility trying to be Beckett, in my judgment.
But kudos to the cast and to the production at the Shaw Festival on Niagara on the Lake. I would see it again. It will be up and running for the rest of the season.
It is round
It is the sun’s stepchild,
It comes out
It stares without blinking
It draws us to it
It hangs out in cemeteries
It sometimes sleeps in a cradle
It watches without judgment
It is silent
It is still
It waits for brides to stop dancing,
It is the desert’s flashlight
It is the night’s open eye
It whispers to werewolves
It caresses schizophrenics
It sings the same song to all
It cannot hear politicians
It stays when relatives leave
It holds the gun to your head,
Makes incisions that don’t hurt.
It grieves like an old man
It cries for limping dogs
It is never jealous your friends,
It won’t say goodbye.
Maudie is a tour de force of acting by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.
Hawkins plays the quirky Novia Scotia self taught artist, Maud Lewis. Hawke plays her social isolationist employer, her Benedict-like rival, and her eventual lover and husband, Everett Lewis.
I loved the intimacy of the film, which at times, becomes almost claustrophobic inside a small rural house with a one room kitchen/dining/ art space room, and a miniature bedroom in the attic (the claustrophobic feel of the film is relieved by the beautiful coastal waters, the icy winter scenes, the open landscapes, and the village homes in the small town).
Maud is hired by Everett as a live-in housekeeper. After a volatile beginning in their relationship, they settle into a kind of uneasy routine as Maud begins to take on the traditional duties of a wife and to gradually change the home’s physical environment with her painted images on the walls.
Over time, one of the locals, a wealthy New Yorker, recognizes Maud’s talent as a painter. Maud’s reputation begins to spread and Everett struggles to accept the public spotlight that her talent brings
Two things struck me about this intimate film.
For one, Maud’s severe rheumatoid arthritis makes her a physical oddity in the village. Her own angular, shy, downcast facial mannerisms and her under-the-breath sarcasm, however, begin to take on a force of their own. She never loses those idiosyncrasies as a character. In fact, they are what make her such a draw as a screen presence.
Maud’s persona, initially, poses a threat to Everett, who, from the beginning, resents what he sees as her invasion of his territory, both physical and emotional. He sees himself as a life-long bachelor and patriarch. Over time, she wins him over.
The tension between Maud and Everett could easily be described as a kind of Beatrice-and-Benedict “battle of the sexes” prototype. But Maud’s gentle quirkiness and Everett’s persona as a hard-edged social misanthrope give this film a much different, even more modern feel than Shakespeare’s classic sexual rivalry.
Secondly, I also loved the small-world intimacy of the film. The setting is in a small Novia Scotia village (I understand, for whatever reason the film was shot in Newfoundland and Labrador). It becomes smaller inside Everett’s home. The initial conflict between Maud and Everett is kept within a very small physical range (It seldom moves outside the home).
And the main love-story’s development is held within a very tight circle of activity —-eating soup together, killing a chicken, initiating sex, putting in a screen door, small-framed shots of Maud painting, the close-ups of Everett’s emotional reactions (fear, rage, hurt, grief, confusion). Not to mention, of course, the fact that Maud and Everett, themselves, have their own kind of psychological insularity as social rebels, (even “misfits,” by the town’s standards).
I would add, by the way, that Maud’s paintings add to the small cosmos of the characters’ worlds. They are either miniature post-card sized prints or on small wood frames.
The environment in the cramped spaces of the home may have been the determining factor here for the kinds of paintings she produced. And I would not call any of the images she painted on the walls of the small home, by any stretch of the imagination, frescoes—-a more traditional venue for large, epic-like images on urban or industrial walls.
To avoid any “spoiler alert,” I’ll skip over any hints about the ending.
Check it out. It’s a refreshing antidote to the prototypical Hollywood romance.
Moksha is a Hindu word meaning “liberation” or “release.” I thought it appropriate for a poem about an older woman looking for a job. I don’t know about your town, but in my town, ageism is alive and well.
Looking out the bedroom window
At the breeze exhaling
Its frantic breath
Through backyard trees,
Leaves, like nervous
Bristles on a paint brush,
In a mad rush to finish
Another clumsy scene,
A cradle’s fast rocking
To the aching pulse of
Of Irene’s second month
The restlessness of
Nothing to do,
Her mind rambling
Through stammering resentments
Of being too old,
Age arriving without warning
Or a reservation,
Legs hesitant to finish a stride,
Release denied, payments overdue,
The sun descending into
A crying child’s surrender
To reluctant dreams.
Epic and Intimate Film
So, my friends, movie ads promoting Dunkirk claim that it’s both epic and intimate.
Ok, I get the epic sweep of the movie with the horrific bombing scenes, the spine-tingling rescues, the vast lines of soldiers on Dunkirk beach completely defenseless against German planes, the claustrophobic scenes of soldiers trapped inside flooding gun-boats and sinking rescue ships.
The movie as an “intimate” portrayal of war? I am hazarding a guess here: maybe the intimacy of the movie was the existential fear an audience felt for the six or seven characters who were, literally, given more characterization time than anyone else in the film.
In a sense we befriend them, on a somewhat personal level, certainly more than just seeing the epic, detached shots of soldiers on the beach.
It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined is not worth living.”
I suppose it was my religious upbringing that instilled in me the importance of self reflection, even though that religious heritage had limited objectives by encouraging children, at an early age, to reflect, almost exclusively, on their sins.
The objective was to make sure that all children become aware of just how inclined to evil we all were, no matter how much it preached the pollyanic, but contradictory message that we were all made in the image and likeness of God.
Self-knowledge (the “unexamined life”), then, was more like self-flagellation than it was about any deep soul searching. A cathartic walk through our faults was seen, by the church, as the only way to heal our, essentially, sinful selves.
Nevertheless, I did learn something about interiority. I did learn that it was permissible, if not encouraged, to be silent with myself, to circle back into my psyche.