Sunday, January 25, 2015

It's Only a Movie

It’s called acting for a reason

I am an extremely non-violent person. When people post allegedly funny videos of others doing stupid stunts from which they get hurt, I don’t see the humor. Even successful daredevil stunts make me squirm. It seems stupid to me to take such risks, especially if you’re not even getting paid for it. When I heard of one person who was rendered paralyzed from a trampoline, I crossed it off my list of things I would try.

I should mention that about 15 years ago I learned that I’d been walking around all my life with a hole in my hip, which I then got fixed. So who knows? Maybe on some unconscious level my body had been telling me to be careful all those years. I have done a fair amount of backpacking in various regions of the country, and am lucky I never fell on my hip in the middle of nowhere.

I was never more alert than the few times I handled a gun. The main reason I do not keep a firearm in the house is that I am afraid it will go off my accident. I say a short prayer before I drive a car, even if it’s just around the corner, and offer cosmic thanks when I arrive safely. I never lose sight of the fact that a car can be a dangerous weapon if not handled correctly.

When there’s an ad on TV to help abused animals, I change the channel because I cannot bear to watch it. Even seeing posts for an animal that needs a home breaks my heart.

Given all this, I cannot even begin to comprehend what soldiers go through fighting a war. I am not alarmed by the high rates of PTSD; if anything, I am surprised they are not higher. Sometimes when I start to feel sorry for myself, I think about the men and women in active duty.

On the other hand . . .

I do not confuse fact with fiction. I can watch the goriest movies or TV shows without ever looking away, and marvel at the artistry that sometimes goes into creating these scenes. From a safe distance, the moral and emotional complexities of war, crime, and murder fascinate me. As a novelist, I like to include this type of stuff in my books because I think it makes for more interesting characters. It is a compelling means for observing the endless mystery of the human condition. (Though the biggest complaint I get is over my use of profanity. AlI can say is I’ve lived all over the country, and the “F” word and “S” word are alive and well. It’s how people talk.) Like many other people, I find a good murder mystery to be cozy and fun.

A novel, film or TV show doesn’t have to contain violence for me to find it interesting, though a miniscule dose of Little House on the Prairie goes a long way with me. But I liked, for example, Revolutionary Road and August: Osage County for depicting a different form of violence in humankind. I also am a big fan of many of the old black and white films, in which an actor's intensity and not special effects gives us something riveting to look at.

When I first heard about the new movie, American Sniper, my gut level reaction was: “So in other words, it has dramatic weight and substance.” I realize it is based on a true story, and, having not yet seen it, cannot comment on how it depicts Middle Easterners among other things. I read just this morning that Clint Eastwood feels he made an anti-war statement with this film by conveying a sense of what warfare is like, and what happens to the people involved in it. I also read Michael Moore’s clarification of what he meant in making a distinction between a soldier and a sniper. On balance, these and other comments make me look forward to seeing the movie and deciding for myself.

To put this issue in an historical context: Back in 1941, the film, Sergeant York won an Oscar for Gary Cooper. For those who no longer learn history in school, the real Sergeant Alvin York was a celebrated U.S. soldier of World War I who accomplished significant feats—which yes, included killing other people. He was a Christian pacifist taught to oppose war. After wrestling with his conscience he decided to serve—and kill. A highly decorated soldier from World War II was Audie Murphy, who starred in his own life story and had some success as a film actor. Honoring warriors through artistic media is nothing new.

The point I wish to make here, though, is that I find it interesting (actually, that’s a neutral way of putting it) that many people seem to object to a movie much more than they objected to the actual events that inspired it. The things that Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle says and does in the film would seem to approximate things Kyle said and did in real life. As I write this, there are people saying and doing similar things. Considering how many people claim to believe that the wars in the Middle East were/are wrong, there has been relatively little freedom of speech exercised to offer this opinion. As opposed to, say, the Vietnam War, people generally appear content to support these wars with their tax dollars, pay lip service to their anti-war stance, and worry instead if they are eating enough quinoa.

In 1988, there was a large outcry over the film, The Last Temptation of Christ, yet since 1953 the novel it was based on appeared in bookstores and libraries with no one seeming to mind (though since the film this situation has changed). I know many people who say they don’t mind reading about violence, but they don’t like seeing it in movies. Well, you know, you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too. It is my humble opinion that what is wrong with the U.S. is not that a movie got made about a sniper, but that people seem to think this movie is a bigger deal than the reality it is based on.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Enter Laughing

Funny people can be unhappy 

People remember Robin Williams as funny. In truth, he played an impressive range of characters, both comedic and serious. A number of his films dealt with suicide, murder and death, and his movies did not always end happily. Yet he is known first and foremost for making people laugh. True, he was a great stand-up comic, and he often horsed around in interviews. Yet if you watch him being “himself” on TV, you will see that he had candid moments, too, in which he shared something about his inner conflicts. But people tended not to acknowledge the serious side of Robin Williams. We tuned out when he talked about his personal struggles, and waited impatiently for his next zinger. He was there to make people laugh, and like all show biz troupers, he gave the audience what it wanted. So he usually made sure to throw in some funny dialects or nutty puns.

Though his career lasted thirty-two years beyond Mork and Mindy, this first TV sitcom essentially defined his public persona. No matter what part he played, for many people he still was Mork from Ork, the zany weirdo from another planet. Though the TV show led to a film career that included an Academy Award, he never quite reinvented himself as a public personality.

I was a slight, brief acquaintance of Robin Williams. The man I met was unassuming, kind, and sincere. He was low-key and did not brag. While he was not dour he also was not particularly goofy. Over the years, I was happy for his well-deserved success, but I never quite believed in the Clown with a Thousand Accents that he became in the public’s mind. I knew that a real, complex person lived inside the madcap persona. When I learned of his death I was saddened for him and for his loved ones. But I never believed that anyone could be as maniacally happy as the public expected him to be.

I have no reason to think Robin Williams remembered casually meeting me. I made no impression on his life whatsoever. Unlike him, I was not adored by millions, and I hardly become an A-list star—or for that matter, any kind of celebrity. Kathy Griffin used to joke about being on the D-List, but I am on the Z-list.

Yet in light of his untimely death, I realized we had at least one thing in common. The goofball Robin Williams that many people assumed was the sum total of Robin Williams was a role I, in own way, knew all too well. I lived my own variation of it since childhood. I think the reason I always was slightly perturbed by his nutty persona was that it reminded me of myself. I may not have been a movie star, but I knew how to make ‘em laugh. I still struggle to feel I have cosmic “permission” to be unhappy, angry, or petulant—or even to disagree with inconsequential remarks. Just last night I had a dream in which someone wanted more money than I could afford for something, yet I was afraid to say no.

If I were to visit a children’s classroom, I could spot myself right away. There will be a boy who never takes anything seriously. While the rest of the class is singing a song or learning long division, he is hiding his face behind a book to conceal his laughter. Probably he has at least one co-conspirator, a fellow hysterical laugher. In and out of school they make mischief. They bypass norms and social boundaries (perhaps even break the law) just because everything seems so gosh-darn stupid and futile. They may have a streak of cruelty, as I did, and make fun of other people. But everything seems just so ridiculous.

Yet as much as I laughed, I seldom laughed at things you were supposed to laugh at, such as jokes or comedy shows. To this day, I watch a stand-up comic with skepticism, daring her or him to make me laugh, as opposed to mildly smile for my tepid amusement.

I got kicked out of glee club in sixth grade for laughing uncontrollably (though I have no idea why) at the word, “snowman.” Antiquated tra-la-la classroom songs were a goldmine of laughs. Pompous school assemblies were also likely to leave me in sidesplitting hysterics. Or for that matter, schoolwork itself, especially when someone gave a dumb answer.

As a teen, I often was assumed to be high when I wasn’t. I just couldn’t stop chortling. In my twenties, I spent a Christmas stuck on a snowed-in train. While other passengers complained, I of course found it hilarious. In a way, that’s what I did for much of my life. I was stuck on a train that didn’t move, and all I could think of to do was laugh. As a college professor, I occasionally see my younger self in a student who feels compelled to finish every statement with a slight ha-ha. I was into my forties before I felt guilty for much of what I laughed at.

My hysterical laughter was just that, hysteria. I seldom thought I was happy.

There is an actual condition called PseudoBulbar Affect or PBA, in which people laugh and/or cry uncontrollably. I do not seem to have this, or at least not now. PBA usually is associated with brain injuries or other conditions I do not have. To some extent, kids simply laugh a lot, and maybe some for whatever reason laugh more than others. And I suppose uncontrollable laughter is preferable to uncontrollable crying. Still, my actual life was not much of a comedy. At a young age I got exposed to divorce, death, poverty and abuse—things I would deal with later in life once I stopped laughing.

Perhaps the most self-defeating thing about my hysterical laughter was it bled seamlessly into an older, supposedly always cheerful countenance. For many years I was known as someone who never seemed troubled by anything. No one had to consider my feelings or help me through my problems because everyone knew I always was “fine.” In dour work environments, I became “famous” for injecting humor into the atmosphere by acting silly or coming up with quick one-liners. I had a way of teasing people without offending them—or at least I told myself this was the case. At office holiday parties, the boss sometimes asked me to make funny remarks to liven things up. There are people who knew me as someone who was never serious. I have been told throughout my life that I should’ve been a comedian.

In more recent years, as I have gotten in touch with how I actually feel, there has been some hell to pay. Relatively late in life, I stopped laughing for the sake of laughing. I got upset, I got angry. Could it be that I’m a human being like everyone else? What a concept. And what a long way I have come since fifth grade, when the teacher told the class I came from Planet X and everyone seemed to believe it. No way—I’m an earthling if there ever was one. There is no Planet X anymore than there is a Planet Ork.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Paul Who?

Time marches on

In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been for the past month or so, I’ve been taking an extended holiday at the blue waters of South Beach. Actually, that’s not true. I took advantage of the holiday season to nurse The Cough That Never Goes Away. It is down to a dull roar, so I thought I’d check in and see what was going on in the universe beyond the four corners of my bed. Happy New Year, by the way. My 2014 was rather like all fifty years of Days of Our Lives rolled into one, so I figure I can handle anything that 2015 throws at me. Or should I say throws up at me? (Sorry, I can be quite sophomoric.)

So, let’s see . . . it seems a lot of people (I assume mostly baby boomers) flipped out over some Kanye West fans never having heard of Paul McCartney. How, people rhetorically asked, could anyone not know who Paul McCartney is?

Call me lucky for being a college professor, but I get reminded constantly that time marches on. My first-year class last semester pretty much was born in 1996. For me, the year 2000 feels like yesterday. But it’s been fifteen years, long enough to produce a high school student. For my students last semester, 2000 perhaps is dimly remembered at best—a “long time ago.”

For folks who came of age in the 60s and early 70s, our parents and their Glen Miller or Duke Ellington records seemed to have crawled out of the Stone Age. Could the same species that rocked out to “Light My Fire” or “Cloud Nine” also have jitterbugged to “Take the ‘A’ Train” or “String of Pearls?” Yet this was a time gap of twenty or so years. By contrast, the Beatles hit the U.S. over fifty years ago. Yep, that’s right, a longer time gap than young baby boomers had to deal with in terms of popular culture. In fact, at least twice as long.

Sure, Paul McCartney went on to have more hits after the Beatles split up, but he is seventy-two, and as one would expect from a seventy-two-year-old, he has not dominated the charts for a while. “When I’m Sixty-Four,” indeed, which seemed impossibly old during the Summer of Love. Surely such a fate did not await eternally young us. Yet Sir Paul, as he is formally known, is a grandfather. In fact, his teenaged grandson has been spotted making the rounds at London hotspots.

It seems that some generations have more trouble adjusting to aging than others. One factor here is that the Baby Boomers, like the Flaming Youth of the 1920s, were very, very into being young. Youth was branded onto our souls. We saw ourselves in relation to not being the older generation. We wore the scars of the Generation Gap like army medals. Everything we liked, believed in, or did, seemed connected to our youth. We had little respect for or interest in the times that our elders dealt with, such as World War II or the Great Depression. For our parents, growing up meant finding some sense of personal identity and liberation despite the harsh forces of fate. For Baby Boomers, growing up often was looked upon as something that would never happen, or if it did happen it would be worse than death. When, at the end of Peter Pan, Peter tragically declared, “Wendy, you’ve grown up,” he might as well have said, “Wendy, you’re dead,” as far as we were concerned.

The conflicts of white youth of course did not match those of youth of color, but “youth,” “young person,” and “young folk” were important buzzwords across ethnicities, all but inspiring the burning of incense. Some of our elders clung to their older cultural values, but many graciously stepped aside to let The Young People of Today solve what heretofore seemed irresolvable: war, racism, poverty. Fifty or so years later, these challenges are still before us. Genuine social change is much harder than we realized because we were young—we were not mature enough to see how complex the seemingly simple truly was.

Some of us became more conservative in politics and/or lifestyle, some of us got lost in the riot of the times and were trampled to death. But many of us took on the identity of a kind of honorary youth. Musically, Glen Miller was father away from the Beatles than the Beatles were from Coldplay. As the old song said, rock and roll is here to stay. Youth culture music in recent decades largely has been a recycling or remixing of genres that are thirty to sixty-something years old. The break-up of the Beatles or the Supremes still is discussed as if it just happened, when in fact these events occurred almost half a century ago. So pop culture (and we could even include some politics here) makes it possible to kinda sorta still seem young. One is not fifty years old. One is twenty-thirty years old.

Like many Baby Boomers, much of my life was lived in a state of unhappiness. I should have changed my name to Arnie Angst. Occasionally someone would say, “You’re young, you should be enjoying life,” but I knew better. Or so I thought. In more recent times life suddenly has become too short. My biggest regret is having squandered my youth on an Ingmar Bergman-like existential crisis that seemed to never end. When I partied I was miserable. When I went backpacking in Big Sur I was miserable. When I saw legendary rock performers in concert I was miserable.

Youth, as has been said many times, is wasted on the young. If you are twenty-five, in only twenty-five more years you will be fifty, and you will look back at those past twenty-five years as though only five minutes have passed. 

Yet somehow it’s all come together for me, and I am starting to feel that maybe I don’t even regret my misspent youth. I simply feel gratitude for having been given the gift of life. I guess that makes me a grownup.

So, returning to the question: How could someone not know who Paul McCartney was? I offer the following responses: Because Paul McCartney became less of a presence in the music scene before they were born, because there remain cultural and ethnic divides in our society, because younger generations seek to claim their own reality just as Baby Boomers did, and because knowing who Paul McCartney is may well be becoming a liability, rather like knowing who Mary Pickford is. (Mary who?) Why don’t they know who Paul McCartney is? Well, why should they? The onus is put on the youth culture rather than face the simple fact: dude, you’re old.