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Saturday, May 19, 2007

When reading Dennis Cass’s Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), it’s important to manage your expectations about genre.  The title might lead you to believe it’s going to be a work of science reportage, like Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open.  That’s not quite right.  The book jacket compares it to Supersize Me, which implies a sort of culture-jamming, quasi-political approach.  That’s not right, either.  And the blurb says it’s “touching,” which is always a little worrisome.  If you bracket those expectations, however, Head Case turns out to be quite interesting. 


Head Case is actually several different books in one: Cass does subject himself to a battery of neurological tests, even self-medicating with Adderall, and he attends several neuroscientific conferences and has read a lot in the journals, and so to that extent it is a work of science reporting.  But thinking about minds and brains leads him, inevitably, into thoughts of his stepfather’s brain, tormented by addiction and manic depression, and of his first child’s rapidly forming brain.  Triangulating with wry humor among these three stories, Cass unpacks the discomfort many feel about thinking too closely about the brain. 


Thinking about the brain is so uncomfortable that at one point, while looking at functional MRI image of his brain, Cass “didn’t believe this brain was mine.  I found this disturbing.  Even though not feeling your brain is a perfectly healthy and normal thing, I thought that there was something sinister in how my brain denied its own existence.”  More darkly, he “went back over the Brain Logs, my diary of all the bad TV and fast food, and cringed.  I thought I was watching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with ironic detachment, but in reality the crap I was feeding my head meant something.  The brain was always on.  There was no work time and leisure time.”


Although Cass was raised by two drug addicts, one of whom ultimately suffered a psychotic break (and his natural father probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder), his stories of his childhood are not sentimental tales of victimization.  Instead, given the discussions of children’s theory of mind, the influence of childhood experiences, and so forth, Cass’s childhood emerges as a blackly comic source of potential psychopathology. 


Head Case is thoughtful, funny, and very accessible—I read it while proctoring an exam, and would vouch for it as summer reading.  An index and list of sources would be helpful; their absence serves as a cue that this book is less about understanding the brain and more about living, for better and for worse, with one’s mind.



Cass graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Head Case this week:


Head Case‘s distinguishing feature is its mix of science writing with two slightly different (though related) personal stories—your unforgettable relationship with your stepfather, and your slightly more standard-issue anxieties about fatherhood.  How/when did you realize that the book needed to open with your stepfather sprinting down Amsterdam Avenue?


When I started this project I had no intention of writing about my family. Yes my childhood was awful, but was it memoir awful? But then about halfway through my research I realized that in order for this story to make sense I would need to deal with my stepfather’s grandiose idea of conquering 80s New York. Then it became a technical matter. I wrote dozens of different opens, but having a prologue type thing about my stepfather’s psychotic break seemed like the best way to start. 


What interested me about Head Case‘s mixing of narratives is that it seems implicitly to contrast the two most culturally pervasive theories of mind in the past century: psychoanalysis and neuroscience.  (Implicit because you nowhere mention Freud or psychoanalysis, but that cultural mythology is so much about fathers and sons that it’s hard not to read it in.)  Was that deliberate?  If so, to what end? 


I wish I could take more credit for exploring thoughtful dichotomies, but in truth writing this book was an exercise in survival. Every day I got up and tried to make it good and every day the subject matter (neuroscience), the story (weaving together personal narrative, participatory journalism and memoir) and the tone (it’s supposed to be funny) kicked my living ass. But when it works (and it doesn’t always work) I think there is a lot of room for the reader to make these kinds of larger connections. This is a book that invites you to talk about it behind its back. 


A follow-on about psychoanalysis: In the 20s and 30s, many artists turned their back on psychoanalysis, not so much on scientific or medical grounds but on epistemological/aesthetic/ontological ones: They didn’t want to unravel the source of their art.  You voice similar doubts throughout Head Case.  Is this just part and parcel of thinking about the mind or brain? 


I don’t think this resistance is limited to artists or writers. Imagine that you and your friends are at a bar getting deliciously drunk. Nothing ruins the moment more than someway exclaiming, “We’re so wasted!”


After your experience with Adderall, which I recognize is colored to some extent by your experience of your parents’ drug abuse, how do you view the increasing use of, or acceptance of, such cognitive enhancers by college students and others?  Will our children see Adderall much like coffee? 


My problem with any kind of drug is that there is always a price. And I mean that physiologically, not morally. Because it’s time-released Adderall has lower side effects than traditional amphetamines, but still: after up time it’s down time. Which is too bad, because you can really read on that stuff. 


Near the book’s end, you’re not just skeptical about neuroscience’s ability to decode the brain, but instead see neuroscience as treating you abjectly.  (I’m thinking of the moment where you describe yourself as “covered in science cum,” even though you were “not having a good time.”)  Do you have ethical reservations about neuroscientific research, or is your recoil more idiosyncratic?


I think it’s a little of both. I think we’re probably going to discover something about the brain that we’ll regret discovering. That is no fault of science; it’s more a matter of the law of unintended consequences. Other than perhaps outright curing a disease like polio it’s hard to find any human endeavor where there weren’t unintended negative consequences. But mostly in that moment I just felt like a jerk. 


Head Case is preoccupied with its own writing—you take on several different roles during the narrative; you spend some time talking about the nature of insight, and so forth.  Has your writing process changed much since working on this book?


I often write myself into my stories and I do it for a lot of reasons. First, it’s fun. I can tell jokes and make observations that are more personal and idiosyncratic than if I were writing from a distance. Plus, I can serve as the through line, which lets me juggle a lot of different elements. I also feel that it’s more honest. If I’m there talking to someone or witnessing something, why pretend like I’m not? 


What bit of brain knowledge is either your favorite or something that haunts your dreams?  For myself, I could have done without learning that an “unpreserved brain would spread like pudding.”


Yes: the physical brain is pretty gross. But I think the most haunting thing is the idea that the 10% myth is just that: a myth. There is no secret door behind which lay wonders or a hidden switch that activates cognitive afterburners. We are using all of our brains all the time and this is what we get. This is your life. This is the world we have made for ourselves. Bon chance.


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Friday, May 18, 2007


Bubby is 35 years old. He has lived in a grimy bunker like apartment all his life. His only companions are a feral cat, and his fanatical mother. Dictatorial and overbearing, this supposed parent treats her son horribly, making outrageous demands and ridiculous rules. Of course, with her boy now a man, she also benefits of his “matured” sexuality. Bubby cannot escape his claustrophobic world. Mother has told him that the air outside is contaminated and if the poison doesn’t get him, Jesus will. So Bubby stays inside, waiting for the next round of reprobate behavior. One day, a stranger comes knocking at the door. It turns out to be Bubby’s long lost father. Confused and scared, Bubby’s behavior turns even more twisted, and it’s not long before he has dealt with his family issues, and is off on his own. And the world turns out to be a strange and savage place for our stifled simpleton.


You have never seen a movie quite like Bad Boy Bubby. No David Lynchian surrealscape or David Cronenberg psychosexual splatter job can compare to the stellar, sinister magic director Rolf De Heer creates in this amazing masterpiece. Borrowing from his demented brothers in arms, De Heer uses many recognizable reference points to define a unique style and vision all his own. By fashioning experimental elements into a strong focus on character and narrative, the filmmaker takes us on a literal journey from Hell to Heaven. As much a coming of age as it is a mediation on the pitfalls of maturity, this is a Thomas Pynchon novel typed onto celluloid, a complex narrative where every scene has several meanings, and differing layers diverge and reform to create something wholly original and inspired with each configuration. It may be difficult to watch at first, and does deal with subjects and people that we’d never imagine tolerating, let alone taking an interest in. But somehow, with all the vileness and the vitality on hand, De Heer and his stellar cast manage to concoct a modern classic.


Part of the reason why Bad Boy Bubby works so well is its bravery. Obviously a product of its time – 1993 – and its place – Australia (Hollywood wouldn’t have touched this script with a script doctors glove soaked in antibiotics), De Heer pushes the limits of acceptable cinematic behavior from the very first series of shots. Using nudity as a symbol for both defenselessness and perversion, and playing simultaneously with the notions of neglect and incest, it’s hard to get a handle on what the film is offering. It’s almost like a sideshow, where freaks are paraded out for our amusement and morbid curiosity. Then slowly, as the unreal situations and circumstances become more and more agonizing, De Heer sets up his first stroke of storytelling genius.


We know Bubby is a prisoner in his hovel of a home, brainwashed into believing the world beyond the front door is filled with poisoned air, and that his mother is the only solace, physical or otherwise, he will ever require. Her overbearing browbeating has lead Bubby to become a kind of human Rosetta Stone, recording and reinterpreting everything around him as it passes through his orphaned, underdeveloped mind. So by the time the long lost – but equally bullying – father reappears, we are just as desperate as Bubby. We want to see what lies beyond that massive, ironclad apartment door. And when he does, Bad Boy Bubby becomes yet another experience all together.


Bad Boy Bubby‘s second “movement” is magically aimless, a series of vignettes and experiences as seen through the eyes – and most importantly, heard through the ears – of our lead character. The symphonic analogy is quite fitting here, as De Heer relies on music so frequently, it becomes a character in the film. Gorgeous organ solos, brash, yet equally atmospheric bagpipes, or the standard sonic boom of rock and roll, all chime in like harmonic Greek Choruses to remind us of our protagonist’s naiveté and innocence. Sound literally colors the world around Bubby. He is also filled with a lot of foul ideas, facets that have to be purged and tamed like the ferocity of an undomesticated animal. Music, in the film, does have the proverbial charms to soothe this savage, and little by little, note by note, the melodiousness sinks down inside, and starts the process of reviving Bubby’s soul.


In what has to be one of the most amazing third acts ever created, Bubby’s distress and disposition finally come full circle, able to be used and employed for both beneficial, and baneful purposes. That he becomes a rock star, and a kind of spiritual medium for the physically handicapped, may seem a bit pat (both situations seem fanciful and outside Bubby’s realm of existence), but De Heer makes them work because of the fantastic foundation he’s laid before. Throughout the course of the film, we’ve wondered how Bubby will fend for himself, as well as why fate allowed him to suffer so. The answer comes in his opposing abilities. He can use his incredible rage to vent a kind of industrial, cathartic punk rock. And he can use his naive sweetness and his non-jaded nature to speak with those whose voices are lost to “normal” people. All of this adds up to a profound and deeply moving cinematic experience.


But there is more to it than simple storytelling. The reasons for Bad Boy Bubby‘s majesty are indeed many. First and foremost, the performance by Nicholas Hope is flat out extraordinary. Looking like a more mannered Hugo Weaving (or a more insane Douglas Bradley), and mimicking many of the people he meets in the movie, Bubby is a wholly original creation, an intricate and infected innocent who may be smarter - or a lot dumber - than he appears. There are moments of high comedy in Hope’s interpretation, as well as deep, deep sadness. That we can get behind and support someone like Bubby, who seems simultaneously antisocial and empathetic, is as much a commendation of De Heer’s script as it is praise for Hope’s performance. This is the very definition of a tour de force.


So is De Heer’s direction. From the ideas floating around inside, to the way in which he chooses to illustrate them, Bad Boy Bubby brims with untold imagination. This is not just a narrative centering on mental/physical/ sexual abuse and bad parenting – it is also a discussion of God, a look at celebrity, a critique on aging and a swipe at social standards. This is a dense, dissertation of a film, a multifaceted test that offers something surprising with each and every viewing. This is the kind of movie one gets lost in, mesmerized by what they see and enraptured by what they hear. From its ominous beginnings to its optimistic end, Bad Boy Bubby retains its integrity and its power. This is one of the lost gems of world cinema.


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Friday, May 18, 2007

Tyler Cowen’s NYT column yesterday pertains to some of the same issues about education raised in my previous post. He cites recent work by economists Claudia Golden and Lawrence Katz about the return to education and its role in generating income inequality and argues that variations in the supply of highly skilled (educated) workers explains trends in the income inequality gap.


Starting about 1950, the relative returns for schooling rose, and they skyrocketed after 1980. The reason is supply and demand. For the first time in American history, the current generation is not significantly more educated than its parents. Those in need of skilled labor are bidding for a relatively stagnant supply and so must pay more.
The return for a college education, in percentage terms, is now about what it was in America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century; this drives the current scramble to get into top colleges and universities. In contrast, from 1915 to 1950, the relative return for education fell, mostly because more new college graduates competed for a relatively few top jobs, and that kept top wages from rising too high.
Professors Goldin and Katz portray a kind of race. Improvements in technology have raised the gains for those with enough skills to handle complex jobs. The resulting inequalities are bid back down only as more people receive more education and move up the wage ladder.


This paints a somewhat different picture than what Posner was painting, because the ultimate intention behind the argument is different. Though it’s not explicitly mentioned, Cowen’s argument suggests that higher education supplies the skills in a straightforward way—you learn things you need to know in class via texts and teachers and so on. Posner suggests that the content of education is arbitrary and college merely certifies skills that more or less pre-exist a student’s being admitted. That places him in the camp with the “pessimists” that Cowen acknowledges, who believe “that only so many individuals are educable at a high level. If that were the case, current levels of inequality might be here to stay.” Whether the pessimists’ belief in the existence of the intractably stupid precedes their concern that the state not subsidize education is an open question. The beliefs probably mutually reinforce each other.


Cowen seems more interested in a different point: “Nonetheless it will, sooner or later, become increasingly difficult to deliver the gains from college — not to mention postgraduate study — to the entire population. Technology is advancing faster than our ability to educate. So even if inequality declines today, it may well intensify in the future.” He seems less interested in halting education subsidies than stifling the argument about income inequality, which appears as inevitable.


I find myself still wondering whether the gains from higher education stem from its amplifying preexisting advantages in social capital (which the “pessimists” suggest is a product not of an unfair society but of different natural abilities—sorry, blame God) rather than the quality of what one learns in the classroom. I’d like to see the skills that are so important to the new economy delineated somewhere—maybe I should do some actual research on this point, but usually economists are content to point to skills-biased technological change and keep the skills themselves in the black box. (Part of my inquisitiveness is personal mystification: I’m not sure I can spell out exactly what I learned from college, and I would not at all feel comfortable claiming it justified any of its effects on my income.) I also wonder if there is anything useful the state can do to prevent education from being the means of perpetuating class privilege.


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Friday, May 18, 2007

mental_floss
May/June 2007, 72 pages, $4.99


Mental floss? I’d say more like mental fluff. This magazine is full of trivia, and while most of it is far from useless, the stuff nevertheless gets wadded into the back of your mind, only to be pulled out for special occasions. Flossing this is not.


mental_floss starts off poorly. “Scatterbrained Elvis,” as its first feature is called, has a great premise: take the names of song titles, add a little wordplay, and let wit take over from there. Yet the outcome is less than amusing. “All Shook Up” is not the pelvis-pumping rhythm we all know and love, but actually a fact sheet on earthquakes. “Love Me Tenderloin” discusses the history of meat, while “Jailhouse Rockers” is a Spin-like chart of celebrities, the time they spent in prison and, of course, their number of style points. A little fluffier than what I expected from a magazine that guarantees to make me “feel smart again.”


 


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Thursday, May 17, 2007


It’s time to get out that eye patch, warm up some scurvy, and preen your shoulder parrot as pirates rule the roost this weekend. In preparation for what promises to be one of those ‘record breaking’ stints at the Cineplex come 25 May, Starz is offering the pay cable premiere of a certain House of Mouse franchise flick. It remains one of those flummoxing cinematic flukes – Disney destroys its legacy with an attraction-based Country Bears effort and an equally awful Haunted Mansion mess, but then takes a bunch of cutthroat scallywags and an actor unknown for his box office appeal and manages to create one of the biggest cinematic cash machines EVER. And with the final (?) installment just seven short days away, you’ll be up to your ears in buccaneers for the next several media cycles. So grab your bottle of rum and work on your ‘yo ho hos’ as SE&L sums up the choices the week of 19 May in one simple soundbite – ARRRRR!:


Premiere Pick
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest


This is SE&L‘s selection for most unnecessarily maligned ‘good’ movie of 2006. Why the vast majority of writers constantly picked this film apart when it was actually an excellent throwback to the blockbusters of days gone by remains a mystery. Granted, anytime a stand-alone epic (The Matrix, Spider-Man) suddenly shifts into a multi-installment franchise, the narrative dynamic gets complicated and confused. But the amount of invention and visual innovation offered by director Gore Verbinski should be enough to overcome such plot point shimmying. And when you add in the still sensational performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, only the most cynical of self-stylized critics should complain. Now, just in time for the final film in the ‘trilogy’, Starz premieres this wonderfully engaging entertainment. Perhaps Public Enemy said it best when they warned “don’t believe the hype”. In this case, it’s a sentiment that applies equally to things labeled both bad and good. (19 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
V for Vendetta


Many predicted this pointed political commentary would fail to generate much motion picture interest, especially with Matrix makers The Wachowski Brothers behind the scenes. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of 2005’s best films. While the small screen may lessen some of the story’s sizeable impact, this visually arresting offering speaks volumes about our current social status – and the threats that lie both without, and within. (19 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

Waist Deep


It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a mindless action thriller where a helpless individual (in this case, an ex-con trying to go straight) gets caught up in a crime (a carjacking) that results in a personal score to settle (the kidnapping of his son). Still, many criticized this ‘gansta’ take on the subject, pointing out its farcical, fictional facets. (19 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)


Mission Impossible III


A certain couch jumping Scientologist took a lot of heat for this proposed blockbuster’s saggy performance at the box office. In reality, it was the franchise, not the famous face, that needed overhauling. Mission Impossible 1 & 2 were both overdone contrivances that substituted uber-complex narratives for suspense.  Lost/Alias’ J.J. Abrams tried to inject new life into the series with a more straightforward approach. It almost worked. (19 May, ShowTOO, 7:55PM EST)

Indie Pick
Marebito


Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Avoiding his usual ‘silence is scarier’ mandate, Shimizu has his lead narrate every aspect of the adventure, and there are moments of disturbing gore, another element usually missing in the J-Horror paradigm. In fact, it’s a shame how this filmmaker has been marginalized ever since he helped create the Far East horror fad. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. Don’t be surprised when he ends up a formidable movie macabre force OUTSIDE of the foreign film category. (20 May, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Additional Choices
Lost Highway


David Lynch’s disjointed masterpiece remains as stunningly convoluted as ever - never mind the myriad of words written about its supposed meaning. Like a fever dream folded onto itself and then buried in battery acid, this bifurcated tale of a man charged with murder and his sudden “shift” into a mechanic making time with a mob moll is so outrageous it defies defense – that is, until you realized how mesmerized you are by what’s happening onscreen. (20 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

When We Were Kings


He remains one of sports’ most powerful symbols, and this staggering documentary about his heavyweight fight against George Forman in Zaire, Africa proves that point with crystal clarity. Mohammed Ali’s arrival for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was just the beginning of a whirlwind expression of hype, hero worship, and hope, culminating in the entire nation rallying around the champ. It set up a perfect pugilist backstory, making the bout itself that much more important. (21 May, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)

The Station Agent


The remarkable Peter Dinklage is a little person who takes the loss of his business partner quite badly. Moving into the abandoned train station he inherited from his friend, he longs to live an isolated, hermetical existence. Unfortunately, he runs into a confused couple who have their own issues to deal with. The result is one of 2003’s most genuinely affecting films. (23 May, IFC, 5:15PM EST)

Outsider Option
Duel


He was young, cocky, and out to prove himself. Luckily, the suits over at Universal were more than willing to give the young directorial novice a shot. After all, he had done some great work in their episodic series, so why not let him helm a standard suspense TV movie. Little did they know that they were about to launch the career of one of Hollywood’s true legendary commercial filmmakers. Steven Spielberg’s taut little thriller remains an amazing accomplishment when you consider his age (he was 25 at the time) and his experience. Still, many swear that the techniques he developed here are easily identifiable in his later, more mainstream triumphs. With a great performance by Dennis Weaver and lots of nail-biting road rages, this is one fun first film. (24 May, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)

Additional Choices
Electra Glide in Blue


After showing up on Canada’s Drive-In Classics channel, its now time for this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 to get a Rob Zombie-less airing. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (18 May, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)

Tom and Viv


Willem Dafoe is Tom Elliot. Miranda Richardson is his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He ends up becoming prized poet TS Elliot. She slowly devolves into madness and delusion. Chronicling the couple’s life together, this intriguing 1994 film avoided a great many of the period piece pitfalls inherent in such a story. The Oscar nominated performances helped as well. (22 May, Indieplex, 7PM EST)

Face


The serial killer film has been floundering of late. Perhaps filmmakers could take away a few lessons from this satisfying Korean horror saga. Directed by Sang-Gon Yoo and focusing on a maniac who murders his victims and burns off their faces with acid, some find the CSI material more intriguing than the supernatural elements. But most agree that, in a genre were the redundant and the dull have ruled the day, this is a novel, noble attempt at something different. (22 May, Starz 5 Cinema, 1:15PM EST)

 


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