No Futures: Before & After

Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols
The Golden Compass, written by a committee of idiots, director: Chris Weitz
Southland Tales, written and directed by Richard Kelly

I think about the French Revolution constantly. There’s something I can’t resist about any situation that can’t be easily pinned down, that turned into its opposite, that made bad eggs of good ones and scary stories out of bright hope, the same way I adore very awful things that result in brave new worlds. Maybe it’s just my obsession with war, or our ongoing American obsession with The War, but I think it’s probably more to do with philosophy, or spirituality.

The Enlightenment is good. The Reconstruction is good. Chemotherapy is good. Biofuel is good. But for every social and cultural good, there’s a corresponding nightmare, depending on who’s talking. Without Chris Columbus, we wouldn’t have America, and the people who lived here before us would be alive and well; we also wouldn’t have the quintessentially American Gossip Girl. That would be sad, but probably not so sad if you spent any time on the Trail of Tears. I realize I don’t have much new to say about it; Dickens said it was the best and the worst of times, and he died a really long time ago, and he was even more unendingly graphomanic than yours truly, so I can’t really add to it. But it preoccupies me.

Because you can’t say that we, globally, are now worse off for it: as an atheist and a person pretty much religiously obsessed with democracy and the duty of the individual to the state, there’s a lot to be said for the Terror. I guess you could say it about any revolution, which of course leads us back to war, but for some reason it’s Robespierre that gets to me the most, I guess because the aims of the French Revolution are still as relevant and necessary now as they were hundreds of years ago: liberty, equality, the brotherhood of man, the demystification of religion and dethroning of schizophrenic superstition as a valid method of rule. They were intellectuals and poets who sought to overthrow everything that was holding them back. And then, like Napoleon the Pig, they turned on their creation.

Chemotherapy is a big one, right now: it’s pretty much exactly the Terror, played out in toxins and poisons, pain and nausea. I think about the French Revolution a lot these days. And I think about Afghanistan, about the brilliant intellectualism and obstructed religious fervor and valid economic dissatisfaction that made Communism such a powerful idea, that made it so scary, that led to the Cold War — which made nobody look good — which led to the US using Afghanistan as our own personal hound dogs of death, which led to the Taliban, which led to 9/11, which led to a hideous American hegemony and bloodbath that’s still going on. Which led to the Presidency accumulating power with the implacable hunger of a science fiction creature that somehow combined free-market nepotism with the scariest corruption of the fourth estate since broadsheets were invented. Which led to the alienation of rights nobody even knew we had.

Which led to dissatisfaction with the administration, which — with the spontaneous regeneration of the fourth estate through nonstandard media like the internet and a basic cable comedy show — led to my generation’s sudden interest in politics. We watched our hearts broken by disappointment, and watched ourselves fall in love with America again, once we had something to fight for. Once we were fighting for ourselves. Which, of course, led to a stolen election, which led to an award-winning documentary that finally convinced even the highest tax-bracketeers that the sky was broken. And which led to more dissent, and more communication, and which is now leading to an America led by either a white woman or a black man. Something that even four years ago seemed so impossibly far off and outlandish that it brought a tear to my eye; something of such enormity that you still feel it, physically, in your body: we get to be America again.

But Hillary or Obama, either way it leads to our generation’s next Rush Limbaugh, to whole new categories of racism and bigotry. The next gay marriage won’t just be a political football: in eight or twelve years, we’ll have ourselves another Reagan, and a million new ways to hate. Just because we’re tired of hearing about gay rights, or a woman’s right to control her body, just because even the evangelicals are bored of talking about these things, even though the rhetoric of 2008 is so relentlessly sunny that no negative-spin group can find a thing to point their hate effectively at, they won’t be down for long. They never are. Neither are we. The Republicans in the wake of Bush’s downfall are identical to the Democrats in the age of Kerry and Dean: running around mindlessly like elephants, with their heads cut off. But it won’t last. Thank God.

A friend saw Charlie Wilson’s War before I had a chance to do so, a fellow Sorkin fan and Mike Nichols devotee. His description of the film was intriguing, the talent was a huge draw (I’m an unabashed fan of Julia Roberts, her every word and movement; I’m slowly making peace with the cruel intensity of Tom Hanks’s blandness), but what I wanted to know was: did they complete the cycle? Did they let on to the 9/11 punchline? The first time he saw it, he said it was there, but subtle. Quiet.

I’ve seen the film five times since that conversation. It’s heartbreaking, and lovely, and densely funny. It’s so strange to see Sorkin dialogue coming out of non-Sorkinesque, inner-directed actors; it’s like watching A Few Good Men, or watching actors try to shove themselves into the neurotic poke-poke-poke rhythms of Woody Allen’s unending series of nebbishes and shiksa goddesses. But the thread of pain, of foreboding, of sadness; the ephemerality of glory, that turns even in the moment of triumph to taint it with foreknowledge of the horrors yet to come … It’s all there. From the Culture Wars of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s pragmatic CIA agent and Julia Roberts’s bloody-minded Christianity, over Wilson’s soul itself, it’s there. When even an American politician, whose planks are his compassionate conservatism and Christianity, finds himself caught up in the unending chant, “Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!”, scaring the shit out of everybody else, it’s there. As first Hoffman’s Gust and then Wilson himself takes up the rallying cry, after the war is over, for the reconstruction of the battered and decentralized Afghans, it reaches its peak. And what happens after, well, the real Charlie says it best:

“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame.”

It’s more than Shakespearian: it’s history, biting us eternally in the ass. And of course, the events in the movie happened, and they were glorious. And they changed the world, for the better. The world is a better place because of them. That’s the really awful part.

I’ve read a lot of comment and criticism of the movie focusing on its glorification of war: see how the one Russian we ever see face-to-face, is blown apart while discussing his latest infidelity. I don’t know how that makes it a pro-war movie, because war is a thing that exists in both states at once: it’s both a wave and a particle, both horrible and wonderful. It’s easy to make an anti-war movie, and to do it well, but I don’t know that I’ve ever, in my life, seen a pro-war movie. And if I had, it wouldn’t be this one.

Is portraying this Russian as a pig a move of dehumanization? Are Sorkin and Nichols suggesting that he, and by extension, all occupying Russians, deserves to die? You’d have to be pretty ignorant on the subjects of Sorkin, Nichols, and humanity itself to think so. He’s a man with a wife, and a mistress: do you honestly think that this means his life is worth less than the little Baby Talibans on the ground who blow him up? He is both a particle and a wave, and they are too. And this is the truth about war: we’re all just shooting past each other, into the darkness, with tears streaming down our cheeks. And we all seem to have the most unfortunate habit of getting in the way of those bullets.

By contrast, I saw The Golden Compass once. No, sorry, I saw it twice. The first time was with my best friend, who is very against war or violence of any kind. He’s upset by harsh words and bad driving etiquette to the point of weeping. This wasn’t the movie for him, and I thought at the time that it was for the opposite reason that it is the perfect movie for me: the movie preserved all of the harshness, the single-minded determination, the antagonistic attitude, the bravery and the strength of the books’ characters, whom I love so much. Of course, they chopped it all to hell: the hour that feels like it’s missing also, apparently, included any and all moments of emotional truth, connection between the characters, or basic rational movement of the plot. Maybe there will be an extended cut, because I don’t think a director (especially a likeable one like Chris Weitz) could possibly have done such a crapulent job on his own: it had the fingerprints of fingerprints all over it. But I got my Iorek Byrnison, one of my five favorite characters in all of fiction, and I got my headstrong, wonderful Lyra, and I got Serafina Pekkala, so I was happy.

Not happy: BFF, who took away from it a very strange idea having to do with entertainment and culture. He saw it as glorifying war. Now, I won’t bore you with my speech about how all entertainment is 80% descriptive and only 20% prescriptive at any time, because that would involve letting you in on the secret that writers only barely know what the hell they’re doing at any given time. Like artists, or directors, or people. The idea that a book written twelve years ago by a British atheist about the false signifiers of spirituality could somehow twist itself into Iraq propaganda was, to me, farfetched. I suppose it’s a valid viewpoint, since it did take twelve years to get made, and was filmed by an American entirely during the war, but the fact that the entire thrust of the movie, incomprehensible as it was, presented in the most basic terms its subject as the question of free will and state control… He would have none of it. It got pretty bloody, to be honest, and I felt bad about it later. It’s hard to explain how comparing His Dark Materials — a cherished and amazingly compassionate modern work, with all the timelessness of classic children’s literature, which will be beloved for generations — to Rambo or Black Hawk Down is a bit like calling a movie where people eat hamburgers virulently anti-vegetarian, without seeming condescending.

But if you’re not cool with war, then war is what you get. Nevermind that the three battles in the film take place in an area the size of one’s living room, or that in all three cases it’s about five kids who are being saved. The problem was, I think, the many mentions of “the upcoming war.” That word, that was all it took. Now, the “war” in question is not even nearly fought in The Golden Compass, and when and if it is fought, it won’t be fought with swords or guns, or even on Earth. Any of them. All of which the movie was pretty blatant about explaining: the “war” is against all forces that seek to shackle our minds, whether they be religious, conservative, or … so slavishly and unthinkingly liberal that merely the word war sets off our red flags and turns off our faculties, that turns a beautiful and dark children’s story into a bright American tale of conquest.

I’m still bewildered, but I doubt he’s the only one; he’s one of the smartest people I know, and we all have our little buttons that get pushed. Still, it took away from the experience of seeing the movie, which is already a compromised experience, due to the shittiness of the movie, so I wasn’t having it.

Because what that looks like to me is a lot of the same thing, no matter if the word is “war” or “gay” or “abortion”: the second you let those words take over your brain, you’re letting them win. And if you read this blog at all, you know “they” are nobody you want to mess with, because they don’t really exist, because they’re just us, from the other side. Which is why I’m looking forward to the rise of the next Rush Limbaugh. Which is why, dear reader, forgive me — I voted for Bush.

Twice.

Why? To make it worse. To get us to the point that our 2008 president will be Hillary or Obama. To help wake us up. To bring on the jackboots and the black masks and the closed-circuit televisions; so that FOX News’s particular brand of IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH would spread to every station. To get V For Vendetta made. To scare everybody under the age of thirty.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t do it. Understand that I was voting in Houston, TX — no matter who it was I voted for, I was voting for Nader — so there wasn’t a measurable civic result. And my aims were accomplished. But if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it, and the reason for that is that there are enough bad guys in the world already, put there by cruel circumstance and scarred history and greed, and posing as one of them, just to get the best out of everybody else, isn’t worth the cost. I would tell myself to shout, and beat against the wall, and scream in the face of anything bigger than myself. I would explain over and over again to myself that people don’t need your intentions or your love, they need your strength, and your bravery, and that no matter how little difference it made, the price you pay for giving in takes more of a toll on you than anybody will ever see.

Which is why I loved Southland Tales so much that I saw it twice, on consecutive nights. I strongly suggest that you find a way to see it; I’m sure it’ll be out on DVD soon. While it’s a messy narrative — let’s be Frank: Donnie Darko was a very bad, very wonderful movie; bad for the reasons that people make movies and good for the reasons that people make art — with a lot of unnecessary touches and stoner coolnesses, it’s also poetically beautiful, and stakes out its philosophical territory with a much grander, steadier hand than did Darko, which was … about not very much, turned out.

Not so Southland. I’ve seen every possible reviewer throw up his or her hands when it comes to actually discussing the film, beyond a sort of impressionist, vague “response.” I’m not about to do that, because it’s impossible for me to “respond” to art; I overthink things and it’s chronic and it’s not going away, but it does mean that while my companion might be contemplating the framing and composition of individual shots, I’m holding every moment onscreen like a ball, and juggling as many of them as possible, drawing connections and inferences between them, and to other works of literature. Which is, of course, a crapshoot — you’re never going to get every intention or every reference, Pound’s ideal reader doesn’t exist — but it makes my batting average pretty good.

I think as a writer of fiction I — where each word builds on the last, and the connections between them, and then the next and the corresponding pyramid of meanings, and so on down the fractal pathways of all the words as they accrete — am so used to keeping those balls in the air so nobody will notice what I’m really doing, that I tend to read fiction and television and movies the same way. Which makes sense to me: reading and writing, transmitting and receiving, should work the same way, in both directions. I don’t think any of us really believes that there’s a moment onscreen, or a word on the page, that got there by its own accord. I think we owe it to the artist to at least try and follow along. As angry as some readers have gotten at me, for getting too hardcore or overthinking some “guilty pleasure,” that’s nothing compared to the rage I feel when I see somebody willingly put their minds to sleep, and accept their entertainment as a consumer product, and swallow it willingly and stupidly, without thinking at all.

So: Jacob’s version of Southland Tales. A scientist (Wallace Shawn) creates a mysterious liquid, Fluid Karma, which is at once an alternative fuel source, a world-changing terraforming technique, and most importantly: a drug. Not just any drug, but one that sends its users into a land of pure imaginative joy; it’s not a far jump — especially for me, of course — to assume that this, like the Abyss finger of fate in Donnie Darko, we’re looking at infinity, somehow penetrating into our reality. Which is to say: God, in injectible form. And what happens when it’s used? Whatever you want. Heaven for everybody. We bring back our boys from Iraq scarred and traumatized, emptied out, and give them God, under the table, in dark alleys. And what do they do with it? What does your Heaven look like?

The film’s most remarkable and remarked-upon set piece is of course Justin Timberlake’s whirling lipsync to the Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done.” Now, the Killers are my favorite band of all time, and I like the song just fine, but unpack it:

These changes ain’t changing me
The cold-hearted boy I used to be

I got soul, but I’m not a soldier

Don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you’ve gotta help me out

While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done

What is the usual Brandon Flowers admixture of bravado and broken-hearted begging, Kelly makes a plea from the war’s forgotten: Timberlake’s beautiful, marred face, surrounded by Playboy-issue chicks in nurses’ costumes, kicking Rockettes style as he downs beers and wanders aimlessly through a pleasure casino. This is his Heaven. This is the Heaven that we’ve left him alone to find, and even inside its Technicolor surreal musical theater, he can’t stop begging: for help, and for forgiveness.

The film’s ending, in which twin brothers (Seann William Scott) are revealed to be the same man from two different time periods, whose meeting ends the world, is almost a given once you’ve digested the Killers moment: one “brother” was sent here before the war, before his friends died, and spends the movie as a beautiful, strong, happy-go-lucky pawn of the other interests in the story. The other, his face horribly disfigured, comes to us from after. How, Kelly asks, can these two people, these two Americas, these two states of mind, possibly reconcile? How can our belief and our fear coexist? In the film, of course, they can’t: the matter/antimatter intimacy of the two selves combusts in the Rapture.

Or is it perhaps that only in reconciling these two sides of ourselves, and of our fractured memory as a nation, can we ever hope to rise to the next level of the game? Isn’t the Rapture just another singularity, beyond which lies a realm of such difference and specificity that we couldn’t comprehend it in its entirety?

If I went back to my first presidential election, in 2000, at twenty-two, I’d tell him I was right: Bush would make things worse. So much worse than that little guy could ever imagine. And 9/11, and the war, would change us all so much, and change the shape and character of our country so much, that it would appear as a singularity. That after the war, in this new time, when all the words we speak are words of hope, that I would be unrecognizable to him, that the world, that the country he loved, would be entirely different places, tired, wiped out and scarred by fear and violence and anger. And I would tell him to be brave, and to be bold. I would tell him about the French Revolution, and Charlie Wilson, and all the angry, beautiful art and men and women that the war and this darkness would make, of all of us.

And then I would hold him as fiercely as I could, and tell him it always, inevitably swings back the other way: that it’s always already changing. That the best we can hope for is to be strong, and to be present and aware, and keep the balls going in the air as long as it takes, to learn what we can from the downtimes and remember them for the uptimes, or risk destruction on either side. I’d tell him about war: how it’s always awful, but like most awful things, you’re better off adjusting to it than denying that it exists, or that it will always exist.

“It takes an ass to fill every seat,” I’d say, because that’s what I always say: “Just make sure what side of the aisle you want to be photographed on.” I would tell him that we are all on the anvil, and that every second that passes marks us, and that — Hillary and Obama and Gore willing, the electoral college willing — eventually we’d find our way back to peace, and find ourselves in an America where the only word we can agree on right now, is change.

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4 thoughts on “No Futures: Before & After

  1. <>It’s more than Shakespearian: it’s history, biting us eternally in the ass.<>How is that more than Shakespearian? (This said by someone who has tickets to Teller’s Macbeth – the ultimate example of Shakespeare’s awareness of history biting us eternally in the ass).

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  2. Refreshingly non-boilerplate essay. Tired, as I am, of always reading “ideas” that are duplications, or amplifications of duplications, or corruptions of amplified duplicates, this felt different. I don’t agree with all of it, and I enjoyed *that*, too.Is there a minor typo in the opening sentence? (Not that it matters much; typos are the flaw-of-Allah that dog my blog comments).Well done! Maybe the Bloggerverse isn’t merely a hopeless vanity quag after all…

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  3. “It’s so strange to see Sorkin dialogue coming out of non-Sorkinesque, inner-directed actors…”Because I came to your blog searching for Doctor Who essays, I have to share a quick thought: Catherine Tate answered the BBC Big Question about changing history –(I’m not quite sure how to get you there, but to say that the video is linked on the right-hand side of this page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/episodes/S4_02)–to say that she would happily f*ck with time if it meant she got to play Donna on the West Wing. I vote for a Sorkin-esque,walk n’ talk episode of Doctor Who, and I vote for it over DW: the Musical. “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame.”

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