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Sunday, May 13, 2007

My loneliness was still there, but it was getting louder, and easier to dance to.
—Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise

Her favorite thing to do when she visits is to peruse my bookshelves. They rarely change—everything squared safely away in categories, alphabetized, hardbacks with hardbacks, paper with paper. But, she looks at them every time as if they’re new, and she says, “I just love this.” For a long time, I thought she, like me, loved the visual, the idea, of stacks of collected books, waiting to be read and reread. It’s so great a site even for me that on my way from the kitchen to the living room, dinner tray in my hand, sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the shelves and remind myself how much I have to learn, and how my education is right there, perfectly ordered, ready. Recently, though, I heard my mum’s words differently. She’s not marveling at the books, or their order, or anything at all to do with them specifically. Her expression, I realized, says: “I created a reader.”

My mum and I have always shared books. She’s often mentioned how she read to my sister and I in the womb, that her one major goal in life was for her children to love books. We do—my sister and I are big readers, thanks to our mum. I remember when my sister and I were maybe 11 and 13, mum would take us secondhand book shopping, and we’d run into the book exchanges in Shepparton so we could be first to grab whatever Stephen Kings had come in that week. In those days, my sister and I shared a lot less. Or, perhaps, while we didn’t mind passing books around, we knew early the thrill of book ownership.

In recent years, mum and I, too, share fewer books. Strangely, the woman who once handed down Kurt Vonnegut, JP Donleavy, and Joseph Heller, has started reading trashy crime novels almost exclusively. As much as she knows about Kilgore Trout, she knows even more about James Patterson’s Alex Cross. She’ll sit on the couch and fly through the latest Harlan Coben, and yet the copy of The Fixer I gave her a few months back still has a bookmarks in it’s center. I don’t know quite what happened, but, as mum would always tell me, it doesn’t matter what you read (I was addicted to Dean Koontz for a while, my sister Anne M. Martin), as long as you’re reading. I’m praying, however, that my trash addiction passed with adolescence.

A decade ago, when I had just turned 18, I handed my mum a copy of Brett Butler’s Knee Deep in Paradise. I loved the book; Butler was on TV at the time, in Grace Under Fire, a show I watched only really when I remembered it was on. Bulter’s story is about growing up in the Deep South, coming to terms with her self-abuse, finding new respect for her parents, and herself. It’s a poetic, shocking read; I knew my mum would love it as much as I did. Something I didn’t think too much about when I gave mum the book was the little lead pencil markings I’d made inside next to passages I wanted to remember, that stood out to me as particularly meaningful. In the book, Brett writes a lot about her mother, intelligent and well-meaning, but scarily unstable. Despite her mother’s complications, Brett lets us know her mother was instrumental in her success. Brett writers of her mother’s unflinching compassion, her interest in her children’s lives, her encouragement of her kids to be unique, educated, and open-minded. My mother is complex in her own ways, and her philosophies mirror those of Brett’s mum. I underlined passages relevant to that. I also underlined passages I felt mirrored my experience – Brett had learned from her mistakes and perhaps, this early in my life, I could, too. I underlined passages about drinking, about bad men, about wanting to crawl away from life. The sad opening paragraphs of chapter 14, I’ve not only underlined, but bordered with five-pointed stars. I was a kid, really, at the time, and knew very little about what was to come. But I realize now, a rocky teenagehood, completely outside of my family home, prepped me early.

My mum handed the book back to me close to tears. We’d had a strong relationship to that point, but there was a lot we didn’t know about each other. She was the cool mum who hated doing the cleaning, and bought me mixed drink cans and took me to parties because that’s what cool mums did. To her, I was the rebellious free spirit, who looked after herself despite her wildness. Brett’s book showed us each other’s lies. She read my underlines, and began to know me. It turns out, we were more alike than we let ourselves realize.

My mom and I share fewer books now, but we rarely go a day without revealing something about ourselves to each other. Like Brett’s mum, mine is there for me, always willing to give, to help, to rescue. Her complexities are my complexities. She created not only a reader, but a woman. The books on my shelf, their importance, their order, and their underlined passages, reveal her as much as they do me. 


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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Vietnam veteran Cage Diamate is in trouble. He’s indebted to the mob, required to fight in illegal kickboxing matches. He is also tormented by a pretty severe case of post-traumatic overacting stress syndrome. Every time he’s about to score a KO, he sees images of that Asian Hell and he slumps over like a ragdoll sans stuffing. His gangster boss is incredibly pissed by his losing streak, and gets even angrier when Cage skips town to “find his way”. Apparently, said destination was a VA hospital, where he befriends a freaked out hop head named Legs who suffers from agoraphobia. Eventually released by his doctor even though he is not quite cured, Cage heads over to the local nightclub where his old job as a dishwasher is waiting for him. So is his ex-gal pal, a little flaxen-haired honey who worships the ground he walks on.

As he gets back to his pruny fingered/soiled serving platter life, Cage also reconnects with his rural bayou roots. He begins writing songs in secret, hoping to restart a previous path toward musical superstardom. When his girlfriend hears his tunes, she tries to convince him to join her on stage. When he won’t, she goes on and wows the crowd with his claptrap anyway. In the meanwhile, our unhappy hoodlums want Cage back, and plan one final death match for the marked man. In addition, the club where Cage and his sweetie work is about to go under, and they decide to stage a benefit to save it. Naturally, it’s scheduled for the night of the big fight. When he refuses to brawl, his crooning companion is kidnapped! It will take a miracle for this Ragin’ Cajun to win the day.

Like a stand-up comic recognizing that he is just a few fatal moments away from completely bombing, Ragin’ Cajun is shameless. This movie tosses in everything but the My Lai massacre in order to avoid some manner of formulaic flop sweat. It’s an action adventure drama carved completely out of clichés. However the way in which actor David Heavener and his main muse, writer/director William Byron Hillman combine the standard cinematic archetypes becomes a sheer jaundiced joy to behold. They don’t care if it’s all been done before. This crazy combo just wants to entertain, to tell a standard tale of vengeance and redemption that hits all the right beats. So what if every section is beaten with a sledgehammer full of hokum - they’re still striking, aren’t they? As a result, Ragin’ Cajun is an impossible film to dismiss, no matter how hard it tries to circumvent your expectations with inane, worn-out hogwash.

Heavener has to be one of the bravest performers in all of the business called show. He is not beyond looking bare-chested and broken (that’s how he ends up most of the time, even when he’s NOT fighting), weepy-eyed and wimpy (dude cries A LOT in this movie) and sexually celibate to the point of near sainthood (he and main squeeze Charlene “Dallas” Tilton share a single, stunted kiss). Add to that his inner rock star (Heavener wrote and performed almost all the music for this film) and the typical psychosomatic licks that come from being a flashback prone ‘Nam casualty, and you’ve got the most completely complex character an actor could ever want. That Heavener attempts to portray EVERY SINGLE facet of this persona in each line reading causes him to resemble a tone-deaf Sybil. If there were an Oscar for most bald-faced bellyaching by an actor, Heavener would have no immediate equal.

And then there is the music. That’s right, Ragin’ Cajun is a kind a musical, in the way that Triumph of the Will is a song and dance extravaganza. Every time an emotion needs to be over-emphasized, whenever the action is getting a little too energetic - Heck, whenever the Hell Heavener feels like it - someone breaks out in semi-melodious mawkishness. Supposedly selling himself in the country and/or western genre, Diamond Dave is all over the map with his harmonious hooey. There are a couple of power ballads, some inspirational singalongs, and lyrics of such lunatic fringe fearlessness that you have to wonder why Heavener’s not a constant on The Doctor Demento Show. Titles like “I Slipped on My Best Friend (and Fell in Love)”, or the classic “I L.U.V.Y.O.U.” just resonate with cornball creativity, and as delivered by Heavener you can’t help but smile with saccharine satisfaction. Perhaps the best bits are when Dave tunes up and sings solo. The minute his fingers hit the guitar, entire orchestras and bands blare behind him in a whacked out wall of sound.

All of this adds up to a movie that can do nothing but amuse. There are barrelfuls of badness here, umpteen ugly moments that make no sense within the standard cinematic showcase. But Heavener and Hillman don’t care - they just keep shoveling the substance, hoping no one notices how impractical and illogical it is. In a sense, Ragin’ Cajun is like a compendium of old Hollywood storytelling. It’s not enough to have the suffering hero with a bad brain and criminal ties. We need the gentle girlfriend, the floundering nightclub, and the owner desperate to bring in some bucks. In addition, there has to be a well meaning mental patient, a mobster with his back to the wall, a couple of hired goons, and a selection of set-pieces - both musical and muscle based - to give us the necessary emotional uplift. Add in minor nods to religion, gun violence, the American policy in Southeast Asia, and a single sequence of narrative invention that’s so surreal it sticks out like a strange sore thumb, and you’ve got a cult classic just waiting to be embraced. Ragin’ Cajun has nothing new to offer at the core of its creation. But how it shamelessly puts those moldy old ideas together is the stuff of B-movie magnificence.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The following thoughts were occasioned by reading two wildly dissimilar works in conjunction: Will Wilkinson’s recent Cato Institute policy paper about happiness research and Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. First of all, they couldn’t be further apart on the readability scale. Wilkinson writes clean, compelling prose sprinkled with wit and pointed, impassioned polemic, while Laclau and Mouffe evince the distinct aversion to active verbs and discernible grammatical subjects that you often find in works of nebulous social theory. And they initially seem to be coming from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. Wilkinson, a libertarian, argues for as little governmental intervention as possible into the lives of sovereign individuals; Laclau and Mouffe are socialists trying to conceive of a method to bring about “radical democratic politics” to forward Leftist interests, arguing essentially that the individual has no identity outside of political struggle. Laclau and Mouffe are trying to find ways to build poltical blocs, to develop ad hoc unity among a disparate group so it can then effect social change. Wilkinson seems to be arguing against the social usefulness of collective will.

Nevertheless, maybe because I am misinterpreting them both, but I found a surprising potential for synthesis between the two works, mainly because Wilkinson’s eagerness to discount happiness research leads him to take some rather nuanced, relativistic stances at various points about they way people comprehend their own interests, just as Laclau and Mouffe, eager to dispatch essentialist, given notions of what it means to be working class, systematically undermine all appeals to universal notions. There’s no one determinant of class identity, any more than there is one definition of what happiness is, as experienced. (Whether an objective notion of well-being that we are not actively conscious of can be considered happiness is another question.)

Wilkinson cites approvingly a passage by philosopher Nicolas White, who argue that “As we develop a picture of what life is to be like, we don’t start from a ‘framework’ concept of happiness (an idea of what the picture on the puzzle will be), to which to tailor our particular aims so that they’ll fit into it…. For the most part we build up a conception of what happiness would be out of the aims that we have.” Compare that with this passage from Laclau and Mouffe: “The fixity of every social element in the first theorizations of hegemony proceeded, as we saw, from the indissoluable link between the hegemonized task and the class that was supposed to be its natural agent…. But, insofar as the task has ceased to have any necessary link with a class, its identity is given to it solely by its articulation within a hegemonic formulation. Its identity, then, has become purely relational. And as this system of relations has itself ceased to be fixed and stable—thereby making hegemonic practices possible—the sens of every social identity appears constantly deferred.” In other words happiness is contingent on aims, and aims are contingent on given social formations, and what values can become dominant (hegemonic) through the way they are articulated and their appeal broadened or made constitutive of identity for those swayed by them. The inefficacy of happiness research to pin down a consistent definition opens up the space in which hegemony can be constructed. Political work consists of defining happiness in such a way that suits a particular bloc while conveying a sense of individual empowerment (a sense of concrete identity and fulfillment of that identity’s potential) to those throwing support behind the bloc. Happiness research, then, is discourse attempting to perform this work, constructing happiness in a politically useful way and presenting that definition as natural and inevitable. Individual happiness and the collective good administered politically thereby merge into a single conception, albeit one that is always contested and is ever-shifting, no matter how much it insists it is objective and transcendent and eternally true. To gloss White, not only is the picture on the puzzle indeterminable until you start to work at putting it together, but the pieces themselves are always shifting, as is the logic of the rules for solving the puzzle.

In short, happiness may be what L&M (not the cigarette) call “nodal points,” semi-fixed notions in the field of relations that seem universal and transcendent but are actually up for grabs. Despite their tendency to shift, we still rely on them to orient ourselves in construing our own goals and in conceiving how to relate to peers and how to structure who the enemies are.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

When the body of a young woman is found along an L.A. street, her body bisected and lacking a single ounce of blood, Detective Tommy Spellacy (Robert Duvall) instantly focuses on her “professional” status and thinks of his old boss, Irish mobster Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning). After all, the calculating crook/pimp turned semi-legit businessman had a thing for fresh faces and Tom used to run prostitution money for him back in the day. To make matters even more complicated, Amsterdam works closely with Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro), an important priest in the local diocese and Tom’s baby brother.

Much of the Church’s real estate dealings are wrapped up in Des and Jack’s backroom backslapping. As he collects clues, it becomes clear to the veteran lawman that Amsterdam had something to do with the girl’s death. But he knows it will be impossible to implicate the scoundrel and not bring down his sibling. Similarly, Desmond recognizes that he’s fallen away from the service of God and into a web of deceit and lies, and such a crisis of faith is pulling him apart. Unfortunately, both brothers seem fated to a final, fractious confrontation, where loyalties are tested and True Confessions become meaningless in a world overloaded with graft and guilt.

Just call it the anti-noir. Unlike its far more famous cinematic brethren, 1981’s True Confessions is hard-boiled detective fiction as lazy, Southern California calm. It’s a movie with many disturbing elements bubbling right underneath the surface, but decides to keep many of those mysteries dormant, dead, or just plain buried. Offering two stellar performances by Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, this is a film about vendettas and vice, the lure of power and the arbitrary manner in which is it wielded. Some will see the references to the notorious Black Dahlia crime (here referred to as the “Virgin Tramp” murder) and wonder why novelist John Gregory Dunne (who also wrote the script along with wife Joan Didion) decided to use such an obvious lynchpin for his narrative.

Since he’s not out to solve the case, the allusion appears to be merely symbolic—perhaps to illustrate the dualistic dynamic between equally corrupt brothers Thomas and Desmond Spellacy. Tommy, the cop, is the more outwardly dishonest. He was once a bagman for the rotten racketeer Jack Amsterdam and now spends his days living down his crooked past. Desmond is a Monsignor in the local Catholic diocese, more valuable to the Cardinal for his business acumen than his ability to save souls. Though his purpose is clearly distorted, it’s the company he keeps that sullies his basic decency.

Thus we have the perfect setting for some standard cinematic redemption. Tommy will find a way of pinning the gruesome murder on Amsterdam, and Des will rediscover his vocation and abandon the wheeling and dealing except True Confessions doesn’t want to make it that easy. Like any story wrapped around religion, salvation comes at a price and, with all the dead bodies floating around, as well as the rumors and innuendos of even more disturbing crimes, Dunne is desperate to drive this point home. The sin of late ‘40s L.A. is definitely seeping into every aspect of the Spellacys’ world and director Ulu Grosbard is out to illustrate this in his own unique, atypical manner.

Noted for his major Broadway successes (The Investigation, American Buffalo) and sporadic Hollywood output (The Subject was Roses, Straight Time), the Belgian auteur wants to peel away the forced mystery surrounding the standard thriller and turn the tide on its potboiler particulars. In Tinseltown’s golden era, this film would be steeped in dark shadows, deflected light, and a thick ambient fog of human liability. True Confessions, on the other hand, is bathed in an error-exposing luster. Even in scenes where darkness would heighten the horror, Grosbard keeps the ever-present California sun center stage.

This is specifically true in one of the movie’s more devastating moments. Tommy has traced the victim’s last days to a fly-by-night porno outfit functioning in an abandoned barracks in El Segundo. Traveling to the location midday, he wanders into a dimly lit makeshift studio. Instead of bringing out the flashlight and surveying the scene, he immediately goes for the canvases covering the windows. As each drape is ripped from the walls, more and more of the room is visible. Sure enough, Tommy finds what he is looking for—a mattress soaked in blood and a trail of gore leading to the bathroom equivalent of an abattoir. It’s the one and only time that Grosbard and Dunne allows us to see the ugly underneath.

Even when the “Virgin Tramp” is discovered, split in two, her body separated along different sections of a vacant lot, we are kept at a distance. The director’s camera only picks up part of the scene, eager instead to focus on the interplay between cops and coroners, ambulance attendants, and muckraking press. It’s the same during the autopsy. All we see is a single shot of a naked, pale white torso. Indeed, everything about True Confessions is misdirection and insinuation. The first-act death of a priest is really nothing more than an expositional red herring. A power play among Church administrators over the ousting of a longtime Monsignor named Seamus is another narrative non-event.

In order to make this work, Grosbard needs actors who understand the value in internalized emotion and subtle character suggestion, and the casting in this film is first rate. Robert Duvall’s Tommy always recognizes his own bad temper, but he’s much more frightening in his static, slow-burn mode. He’s the catalyst for all that will happen, and the actor does a terrific job of balancing interior and exterior importance. As for De Niro, he has the far more difficult part. Desmond is many things—priest, businessman, apologist, confidant, brother, son—and he constantly carries all of them around in a presence of non-volatility and calm. It must have been difficult for De Niro to be so mousy and controlled. Granted, he is a multi-faceted actor, quite capable of playing anything. But here, he’s supposed to be a man drowning in his own despair, eager to be free from the false life he’s leading.

True Confessions main flaw is that we never see clearly the connection between Tommy’s detecting and Desmond’s deliverance. It is apparent that the two are interconnected in ways beyond family, but the subsurface strategy to the storytelling leaves many of the mechanisms unexplored. Purposefully paced to let every restrained reaction and sudden emotional explosion sink in, it is both devastating drama and half-hearted whodunit. In the end, we come to care about neither and, oddly enough, don’t really mind at all.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Today’s WSJ had a story about neurological research into the brain areas held to be responsible for morality.

Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.
Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. “It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality,” said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.

Further along, the deeper ramifications of this research are considered:

For Harvard neuroscientist Marc Hauser, the moral-dilemma experiment is evidence the brain may be hard-wired for morality. Most moral intuitions, he said, are unconscious, involuntary and universal. To test the idea, he gathered data from thousands of people in hundreds of countries, all of whom display a remarkable unanimity in their basic moral choices. A shared innate capacity for morality may be responsible, he concluded.

This seems to lead invariably to the notion that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong that will eventually be decoded from our neurons—a premise that seems fairly ominous for those accustomed to a bit more liberty in matters of conscience. Also, it seems a matter of time before traders and the like would seek to have this inhibiting moral part of the brain removed, as it may provide them with a competitive advantage.

If you are wondering how you stack up in relation to universal morality, take this handy quiz. I discovered that I was much less likely to want to punish people than other test takers. Perhaps this means I am drifting toward amorality.

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