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.
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.
“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.
As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.
In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.
Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.
Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.
What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.
Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.
Toni Erdmann a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.
Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.
The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.
Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.
Directed by Raoul Peck, the documentary, I am Not Your Negro, is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the three modern iconic black leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.
All three represented the three distinct movements in contemporary black history and culture: the NAACP, the peaceful resistance movement of MLK, and the more activist Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.
The documentary, on so many levels, is almost impossible to take in in one sitting. Its sweep is large, including archival photos and footage of lynchings; some of the divisions among the black leadership; the civil rights era, including the school integration crisis in the south prompting visceral white reaction: the riots and the Black Panther confrontations with the police; footage of the trauma within the black community after the assassinations of Evers, King, and Malcolm X.
All of these historically momentous events became more compelling with the brilliant language of Baldwin’s text woven into the documentary and footage of Baldwin’s provocative speaking and debating skills (Baldwin had early training as a preacher).
Peck’s brilliant directing made use of images of the volatile civil rights era seamlessly blended in with the more contemporary images of Obama’s presidency, the Black-Lives-Matter protests and the photos of some of the young blacks killed by the police, prompting the protests.
Peck managed to brilliantly incorporate brief excerpts of classic films showing either how blacks had been demeaned and stereotyped as characters or how they began to be slowly given substantial character roles. He also included snippets of some classic white films with characters who were portrayed as western heroes or as romantically desirable, two characterizations denied blacks in the Hollywood film industry for decades.
Be prepared for an emotionally engaging film at the top of its game in presenting a comprehensive look at post-World War II black America under the exquisite direction of Raoul Peck and the literary brilliance of James Baldwin.
As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).
Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.
And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.
In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others
So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.
Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.
That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.
On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.
Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”
Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.
Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.
At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.
The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.
The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.
Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John
How should I react to those, I believe, don’t like me? Especially, the corporate, four-testicle, country-club guys who love to be master of their fates and everybody else’s?
I read, today, Pema Chödrön’s phrase, “the sweet spot,” giving me some clue about the need to live on the mountain of kindness, no matter how craggy. Maybe even to accept my enemy’s perception of me as too cocky, too self-assured, too sarcastic, too intellectual.
Where can I retrieve that soft spot from when I feel judged? Too often, I pull back. I start to invent an image of my enemy as a cold, detached, cruelly confident man, who beats his wife; says “fuck off” to his kids at least once a day; argues with a Mercedes Benz salesman to include, in the base price of his new car, a flat screen on the backs of the driver and passenger seats. As an added resentment, I will probably hold him responsible for the 2008 Great Recession. Continue reading
All My Sons, Big Business, Moral Responsibility
I recently saw the Arthur Miller play, All My Sons. It reminded me of how much Miller was in tune with so much of American culture.
The play revolves around Joe Keller, an entrepreneur, who owns a factory that shipped out cracked warplane cylinder heads during World War II. Twenty one pilots died in crashes as a result. His associate, Steve Deever, warned him of the defective engines, and Joe told him to seal the cracks. Deever tried to call him, not wanting to take sole responsibility for the shipment. Joe, later, claims that he had the flu and was not able to answer the call.
After a courtroom trial, Deever is sent to prison. Joe is exonerated in an appeal of his case. The rest of the play is about all the collateral damage Joe’s big lie has on his own family and the family of his associate. Continue reading
One more ascent
By your insistence,
The tired claim
Of another’s failures
And cat hairs
Of false promises
In your warrior’s
I’ve heard it
Closing my eyes
On your descent
Into another wreck.