Monday, September 28, 2009

On Roman Polanski

I like Yukio Mishima. Confessions of a Mask is a great book about alienation and isolation in the face of societal expectations. I like Yukio Mishima despite the fact that he held deplorable, racist, nationalistic opinions. Moreover, he ended his life by first kidnapping the commandant of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and then killing himself in a grisly ritual. Yukio Mishima was a hideous, awful person. A horrible man, and eventually a criminal. This does not mean one may not read and enjoy his books. What this does mean though, is that he has to be read with a certain amount of conscious criticism. "This interesting work of neatness," one must recall, "was written by a horrible, whacked-out lunatic."

This isn't just limited to individual artists. Most of the very shiny wonders of the world are the result of rather nasty absolute dictators doing fairly awful shit. The terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, China, for instance, were basically a vanity project for a monarch. Qin Shi Huang decided that he wanted a fancy tomb, and poured an unreasonable amount of China's budget into making a work of art that only his corpse was going to be able to enjoy. He so infuriated people with his monument to himself that after he was dead the place was burned to the ground out of (deserved) spite.

Think about it: One of the most iconic pieces of archaeology in the world started as a an act of extreme hubris, arrogance, self-aggrandizement and waste. And now it's a well-visited UNESCO site. Think about the pyramids. Slave labor. The Parthenon. I doubt that Pericles was a union-friendly OSHA-following kind of guy. These are great works of culture and art that were also awful wastes of life, and we need to acknowledge that.

Which brings me to Roman Polanski. Here we have more good art from a bad place. If I had to summarize my opinions about the guy, they would basically be "Fuck Roman Polanski." Allow me, though, to expand...

Roman Polanski drugged a thirteen year old girl alcohol and quaaludes and then raped her. There were witnesses, and he pleaded guilty to precisely this. Later on, he evaded the authorities and attempted to dodge the punishment that society would mete out on any similar rapist. He also makes pretty good movies. So good, that lots of people are embarrassing themselves by sympathizing with him.

The question is- can one watch his movies without guilt? Does watching, and praising, Polanski's movies make the viewer a party to rape of a thirteen-year-old girl? If you like his movies, does that put you on "his side?" I'd say "mostly no." Lots of people, like Nicholas Sarkozy, seem to be thinking "Oh, I like his movies, so therefore I'm in favor of clemency for this guy." This line of thought is unnecessary and unfortunate.

First- If you try to limit your consumption of art and media to only stuff that was made by morally enlightened people, you will have a hard time of finding anything to fill your brain with. Sean Connery thinks its okay to hit women. He's been quoted as much. Are you going to stop watching James Bond movies? Are you going to never watch Last Crusade again? Didn't think so. You do have to separate yourself from the art, and recognize that deplorable, awful bastards can be capable of making things that are neato.

Second- I would posit, though, that since Polanski committed an extremely serious criminal act and has subsequently evaded justice, it is okay to watch his movies, but not to pay for them. Moreover, the world would do well to not burnish his reputation by throwing awards at him. I'm kind of reminded of Pete Rose, even though I don't like baseball very much. Pete Rose bet on his own team to win, which I always thought wasn't that bad a thing to do, and was shut out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Polanski raped a girl and got an Oscar. Even though I think that MLB erred on the side of harshness, they've got the moral edge over Hollywood in this comparison. If a guy doesn't follow the rules, he doesn't get the accolades.

In the meantime, I think that it's perfectly acceptable to download Polanski's movies and watch them without paying for them. If anything, I think that's how the viewer can absolve themselves while watching them. Once he's dead, though, feel free to pay for the things.

Third- Film is a collaborative art. I do admit that I want to see Chinatown, but it's not just a Roman Polanski movie. It's also a Jack Nicholson movie. The finished products contain the creative efforts of lots of people. Polanski was just the guiding force of all that creativity and work, and even though you are watching his stuff when you watch one of his movies, you are also watching the work of the writers, cinematographers, actors, editors, and guys who work the lights. One or two of them were probably alright dudes.

But, with all of that out of the way, the man should be in jail. Oscars are not reasons for clemency, and I believe that liberal, democratic, rule-of-law societies would do well to punish child rapists, be they famous or obscure. The victim has asked for the charges to be dropped, but mainly because she's tired of the press attention. I can understand, really. If I'd spent the past thirty years best known as a victim, I'd want it all to go away, too.

But, when it comes to violent crimes like this it's not up to private citizens to decide that everything's okay. I like living in a society where rapists will most certainly go to jail. His awfulness does not change the status of his art. We can still admire, the terra-cotta warriors, the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. However, we must acknowledge their bloody origins, and not fool ourselves as to how they came to be. Likewise, one may read a Mishima book or watch a Connery movie and know that the art came from someone who, really, was an awful sort, but who managed to occasionally spurt wonderful things into the world.

So, one may watch Polanski's movies without being an apologist for the man. Hopefully, viewers will be watching them, though, while he only gazes at the walls of a cell.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tough Chicks

About two weeks ago I found myself in Seattle, watching several scantily clad women run around and tackle several other scantily clad women. They were, theoretically, playing football. Not very good football, mind you. There weren't many completed passes, and the game was pretty lopsided, score-wise, but there were scantily clad women, which theoretically made up for that. (American football, by the way, is a game that I would be more into if there weren't so many interruptions. It's tactically interesting and can be exciting in fits and start, but the pace of the game really kills it for me.)

It was the opening night of the Lingerie Football League in Seattle, and as semi-amusing as I find the conceit I could not help but be reminded of the XFL, the failed and gimmicky "extreme" football league started (and folded) some years ago by wrestling mastermind Vince McMahon. Like the XFL, lingerie football seemed extraneous- an established sport with a patina of something allegedly interesting on top of it. The "extra" part of it, though, the girls and their semi-unclad states, was not sufficient to really hold my attention. Even though two teamsworth of conventionally attractive women were piling on top of each other (though not especially well) I didn't really see too much of a reason for the league's existence other than the brief novelty we were all enjoying in our variously semi-drunken states.

The whole time, I thought to myself "Roller derby is much better." The comparison was unavoidable, really. Both are active spectator sports, and both feature attractive women falling down. The next week, miles southward in Eugene, I got to view my preferred ladysport, watching the last bout of the year of the Emerald City Roller Girls.

Unlike lingerie football, roller derby is something wholly new and other. It is not an approximation or copy of something else, not a parody of something established. The image I got of lingerie football was some barker saying "Hey, buddy! Yeah, you! You like football? You like bitches? Well guess what we have! We have bitches playing fucking football! You like that? Yeah you do. Get in there."

Roller derby, however, is it's own realm and species, unlike other forms of competition. Because of this, the attitudes and sexiness of it all come across as intrinsic and essential, an organic part of it without pretense or artifice. Moreover, it has teeth, and the teeth are half the reason I enjoy it so much.

For some reason or another, roller derby has become a sort of hipster/punk/indie/etc. event, a spectacle bedecked with skulls, flames and attitude. The derby girls sport noms de track such as "Lil' Whip-Her Snap-Her," "Bettie Aim Fire," "Slapcat," and "Reign of Tara." Team uniforms are not uniform at all- embellishments and flairs of individuality are common. There may be fishnets here and garters there, flashes of nonuniform color or different stuff on helmets. The roller girls really do look a lot like a gang, like a bunch of like-minded people who just happen to dress in a very similar fashion.

Once they start rolling, the action itself stays, and interruptions are usually only about thirty seconds. By definition and nature derby is about speed and maneuvering, tactical issues that carry the unavoidable side effects of people falling down. It is jostling through a crowd, except the crowd is zooming and turning. There is action, music, and spectacle. Lingerie football billed itself as something explicitly prurient, and for that reason my interest in it (and the girls) flagged. Roller derby is not prurient. It is a real sport. There is impassioned competition flying by, courtesy of those wheels and axles. There is a sheen of sexiness upon it, but like I said that sexiness is emergent rather than applied. Watching the roller girls, I found them in their embellished uniforms far more interesting than any of the football chicks. Given the choice, I know which breed of female I would rather chat up.

Which brings me to a larger point. I'm going to ignore the creep-factor of a single guy talking about chicks, and talk about them anyway.

I'd take Bettie Page over Marilyn Monroe, thorns over roses, Suicide Girls over Hustler. My preferences are by no means radical or even all that unusual, but I like to think that this choice of attitude and aesthetics says something positive about me, makes me a better man in some respects. I would by lying if I said that I didn't feel superior to "ordinary" guys because of these preferences. I set myself apart from the rotund guys wearing football jerseys because I think "I get off on better quality shit than you do, suckers."

I don't think that this is simple arrogance. I really, honestly do think that roller girls are sexier than lingerie football girls, and I actually do think that finding them so is the more enlightened/feminist/socially responsible/generally interesting position. The conclusion that I'm drawing here is that I like women who are actually ambitious, creative, and idiosyncratic. By extension, I'm putting guys who like conventional blond bimbos in a negative light- supposedly if I like these things, they don't, and I, therefore, have a cozy place where I can feel arrogant and superior.

This does bother me slightly, but turning the idea over in my head I can't get away from the feeling that I am, in fact, right. Heres why. The lingerie football girls all seem to be approximations of some kind of cenerfoldian ideal that remains unreached, and therefore they do not become as interesting as their skate-mounted counterparts. (By the way, I'm sure that individually they could easily be highly cool, but I'm dealing in generalities and images here.) The derby girls, on the other hand, seem to have dispensed with such uniform pursuits and mostly just present themselves in a way that they find interesting and suitable. This is much better, and why the aesthetics of roller derby interest me much more.

Armpieces, centerfolds, and trophies are boring. I don't think this is a misogynistic conclusion to come to. If anything, I think it's a very feminist position for a guy to have. I don't want to personally associate myself (or find myself in the position of wanting) a girl who has all the personal constitution of a well-soaked piece of gingerbread. Granted, both the lingerie football and derby girls were presenting themselves as tough. But, in the case of the football girls, it was a kind of parodic and cute toughness, as if inviting us to say "Aw, look! The chicks are doing boy things!" Roller derby, though, has none of that.

I'll probably never go to another lingerie football game, but I'm definitely catching roller derby again. The Rose City Rollers are supposed to put on quite a show, and I'd love to see it on a banked track, rather than a flat one. Wheels and attitude. That's what will keep me coming back.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Most Satisfying Encounter With the Flaming Lips, a Horde of Very Nice Naked People, and a Giant Spherical Vinyl Fur-Vagina

K posted it, and I saw the call up. The Flaming Lips were shooting a music video in Portland, on Mt. Tabor, and they needed naked bicyclists. This was too good to pass up. I am a bicyclists, and in a few moments I can easily turn into a naked bicyclists. I, along with my friend K, were definitely going to this thing. We met up, biked to Mt. Tabor, and sought out fame, fortune, and rock 'n roll nudity.

I was not expecting Wayne Coyne to actually be there. I imagined that the whole project was going to be overseen by a director or producer with a pre-approved shots and images to capture. A limited amount of people, I thought, would be told where to stand and what to do, and it would all be very scripted.

I was utterly and completely wrong. Instead of some functionary that I'd never heard of overseeing the shoot, The lead singer himself was addressing a crowd of semi-clothed Portlanders and explaining the dilemma at hand. Earlier in the day, Coyne and the crew had been filming people riding down a hill on their bicycles entirely naked, as was the plan. The park ranger, however, had come by and told them that such absolute nudity was not an appropriate activity upon Portland's mini-volcano, and demanded that everyone's bums and junk get covered up.

So, as K and I approached the crowd Coyne explained the solution: The next day the shoot would move to Sauvie Island, where full nudity would not be a problem, and there would be more space anyway. For the time being, though, he wanted to utilize the pretty environment. The solution: guerrilla nudity. On a more visible path, several people would be wearing underwear, there would be lights, and lots of whooping. It would all be a diversion, though, designed only to look like filming was going on. The real shot would be down below.

About twenty of us descended down a path for a shot of naked people pushing Coyne's trademark hamster ball (which he calls the Space Ball) up and down a hill. “Okay,” he told us, “we have to do this quick. I don't want anyone to get arrested or in trouble. When I say 'go' the underwear comes off, and as soon as we cut, put it on again.” We got around the big ball, pushed it around, and no one was completely naked for more than thirty seconds. It was still a lot of fun, but only a taste of the next day's activities.

“Wow,” said Coyne after we'd pushed the ball up and down the hill a lot, “for a bunch of naked people you really don't smell that bad.”

The next day's shooting, though, was an entirely different matter.

The lot of us (and our bikes) bused out to Sauvie Island where Gus Van Sant apparently has a house and a fair amount of property, and the director, according to Coyne, was quite enthused about having his land invaded by a bunch of enthusiastic naked people. The house itself wasn't all that opulent looking, but Van Sant has quite the enviable lawn, some nice woods, and a small beach at Sauvie Island. I could think of worse things to spend millions and millions of dollars on.

The day's shooting consisted of a few main scenes- a longer shot of a mob of naked bicyclists, filmed on Van Sant's sizable wooded driveway, more shots of people rolling the Space Ball around as well as us lifting it and Coyne above our heads and carrying it away. The main set piece of the day, though, involved another, similar inflatable ball. Except this one was covered in fur. And, it had a giant vinyl labia on the front of it.

Here's a (NSFW) picture of it.

The whole album, Embryonic, is all about birth and whatnot, and the big idea of the video was that all of the naked people got shot out this giant spherical fur-vag and we were a bunch of reveling, newly-born primitives who encounter Coyne, a supposedly magical being in a crystalline Space Ball and we think that he's special in some way or another. But, his Space Ball deflates, we see that he's just another fleshy organism just like us, so, like any right-thinking group of whooping nudists we of course pull him from his deflated Space Ball, strip off his clothes, and then carry him off, subsequently stuffing him into the giant, hairy mother-vag that recently spat us all out. Very straightforward.

K, who was pregnant, said that the big, round fur-vag would proceed to dominate her maternal anxieties.

I was pleased to be among the twenty or so people involved in the birthing scenes, and even though I didn't get to crawl out of the orb-shaped birthing fuzz myself, I did get to hoist a few people out of it. I can say, with a certain amount of confidence, that it was the first time in my life that I've ever hoisted naked strangers out of a comically large set of female genitalia. K, though, was fortunate enough to get spat out of the thing, which will probably be good practice for when she has to eject a smaller human from her various biological systems. (“I love it that you're pregnant,” Coyne said to her, “it goes with the whole birthing, mother thing. That's great.”) The feeling of the birth scenes was great, what with people shooting out of the giant vag and the rest of us whooping, hollering and generally carrying on in the buff. "Everybody freak out!" began to replace "Action!" as the directorial command of choice.

A bit on the nudity- I was sort of surprised at how non-sexual it all was. One would think that getting naked with a bunch of reasonably fit bicyclists would be an invitation for general bawdiness, but it seemed that everyone was trying very, very hard to not be pervy. I restrained myself from checking out the various highly attractive women too much, and in general the atmosphere was towards revelry and whimsy rather than lewdness.

There was more shooting of naked bikers, and towards the end of the day we did some night shots all carried Wayne Coyne's naked body aloft over our naked heads. I was happy to be one of the guys hoisting him above the crowd, and can go to my grave with the knowledge that my hand has full on cupped middle-aged ass of the lead singer of the Flaming Lips, for whatever that's worth.

The whole affair was easily the most naked people that I've ever seen in one location. Even after seven years in Eugene and attending Burning Man, I've never encountered that many bare asses in one place at one time. It was sort of freeing and relaxing, really, to just be standing around completely nude and not giving a shit. Not that I'm going to stop thinking that nudists are weird- they are. But, it was great to have an opportunity to do weird shit for a purpose. The crowd was fun, though, and I was impressed with how hands-on the Flaming Lips were with the making of their own video. It will certainly not be the product of intermediaries or a studio- it will be unequivocally theirs.

The video should be released sometime in the first half of October. Hopefully me and my ass will be in a shot or two.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Few Love Songs For Rational Adults

After that last post of fist-shaking ranting, I feel that it's only fair for me to hold up some examples of good pop music and talk about stuff that I actually like. Pop music that doesn't have sophomoric lyrics or stupidly naive views of human love and relationships. Pop music that's actually good, that says something astute and interesting about the human condition (whatever that is) and turns us into better, smarter, sexier people by listening to it. There's plenty of music like this out there. Music that doesn't just smile at us through a haze of pot smoke and idealism about how nice niceness is, but instead links up its brain and heart into an emotionally mature, intelligent supersongwritingmachine and entertains us with flashes of brilliant melodic insight.

Here are a few examples of stuff about love and emotions and all that that seems like it was actually written by rational adults. If you can think of any additional examples, by all means speak up.

Pretty Much Anything by the Magnetic Fields

69 Love Songs is easily one of my favorite albums. If I were a character from High Fidelity, it would be on my top five list. On that list, it would have a number like "three" or "two" assigned to it. The album isn't just great because it has songs about dancing bears and bunnies fucking, it's great because so many of the songs that once can actually relate to. These are songs that drag love into a laboratory, do bajillions of test on it, and then publish their findings in Nature. Not many naive proclamations of how awesome stuff is, these are mostly studies of the particular.

Elliot Smith, Say Yes

While a lot of Elliot Smith's career is a nasty illustration of Why Heroin is Bad, he was also a brilliant lyricist in addition to being a suicidal smack addict. He wrote lots of songs, but I'll focus on the one that everyone seems to like, Say Yes.

The song's all about vulnerability, expecting the worst, and feeling sort of weird when things actually work out. Smith finds himself in a position where he doesn't feel like he has any power or agency. ("They want you or they don't," etc.) Feeling powerless, feeling like you have nothing to offer and plaintively asking for acceptance is an experience that I think pretty much everyone except psychopaths and egotistical douchebags have experienced. Say Yes encapsulates yearning, definitely, but also the pleased disbelief that things can actually be good. The lyrics seem to say "Holy shit! You're still around? I haven't fucked this up? Um... Wow!"

Early stuff by Liz Phair

Years ago, before she turned into an overly polished Avril Lavigne soundalike, Liz Phair was a respected, self-taught, indie singer/songwriter. Remember that? Anyway, I still like her. I even kinda like her in her new pop-princess guise. I have particular affection for Johnny Feelgood off of Whitechocolatespaceegg because it's just so damn direct, and that's not something you get out of pop music much (really- explicit lyrics usually aren't). It's a song about having dirty, rough sex with a guy who sounds like kind of an asshole, and the refrain is simply "And I liked it," the implication being, that maybe she shouldn't have.

Who hasn't thought that at one point or another? (Well, virgins and Mormons haven't.) But, for everyone who's ever had a sexually rewarding encounter with a person of dubious character, this is the song for them.

Favorite lyric: "Moderation is a memory." Phair isn't proclaiming her love to the cosmos, or belting out how unrealistically transcendent it all is, she's acknowledging her own irrational mental state. Refreshing little twist, there.

Most stuff by Dan Bern, especially Johnny Cash and Anais Nin

Dan Bern is another singer/songwriter from the nineties, and at this point in my little list I feel like I include someone slightly more current, but whatever. This is a post about good love songs, though, not hip, new music.

Johnny Cash and Anais Nin is a delightful little song about two very dissimilar people having a relationship. This sort of thing happens quite a bit- I once dated a girl who wasn't a depressive cynic, for instance. In the song the two titular characters run grooves into each other, shape each others' interests and experiences, and each adapts, changes, and learns something from the other. They get into what their partner is into, expand their field of experience, and generally become more well-rounded human beings. This is great! As much fun as temporarily getting lost in some superhigh love-nirvana might be, ultimately relationships ought to bring out the best in us, improve us as people, and help us experience more of the world at large. Jonny Cash and Anais Nin is a song about that- people who, instead of retreating into the maddeningly comfortable little bubble of their relationship, become partners in crime and subsequently devour more of the world because they met each other.

Also, the song has horse fucking. How could you go wrong?

The Beatles, Something

Since I spent my last post beating up on the Beatles I feel that it's only fair that I say something nice about them now. I actually love the Beatles- I remember listening to my stepmother's old Sgt. Peppers cassette back when I was in middle school, and it blew my friggin' mind. I mean it. The ominous and discordant climax of A Day in the Life scared the shit out of me when I first heard it. Really! I wondered to myself what the hell was that about, what was that?

(Answer: Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.)

But, onto the song at hand. The Beatles wrote lots of cheesy little love songs that probably took them about ten minutes or so to pound out. (I'm not exaggerating- they allegedly wrote I Wanna Be Your Man, the Rolling Stones' first single, over lunch while Jagger & Co. watched.) Something is not one of those songs. For one thing, it was written by George Harrison, whom I always thought was a bit more introspective than Lennon & McCartney.

The reason I like Something, is that even though it is a soaring and cuddly-sounding song, it's ultimately about uncertain about a person and relationship, but going with it anyway. There are plenty of times when people can't really articulate why they're attracted to a person, and when their friend asks them "So, what's your plan with this," the reply is "I don't know."

That's the best part of Something- the big big, spiraling bridge bit is a profession of ignorance. Harrison is saying to us "Wow, I have no idea why I like this or where this is going, but damn, it's great and I'm going to enjoy this." The Quiet Beatle managed to write a song that was about reverie without pretense, no small feat.

I've also always liked Lovely Rita for some reason. Nifty piano part there.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Beatles Were Wrong! or I Shake My Fist At Naive Pop Music!

The Beatles have been in the news a bit recently, what with their new box set and special edition of Rock Band. It seems that the powers that be at EMI have decided to cash in on the Fab Four again for the first time in a decade or so. Maybe soon they'll finally be on iTunes...

But that's not really what I want to talk about. I want to use the Beatles' momentary spot in the limelight to talk about one of their songs that I think is not only wrong, but damagingly awful. A song that is horrible not just because it's incorrect, but awful because it promotes self-deception and a twisted view of human relationships. That song: All You Need Is Love.

Catchy and friendly as it is, I really hate this song. I hate its title, and I hate what it expresses. I hate how people quote it, and I utterly revile how it promotes a simplistic and childish view of human emotions and relationships. I also hate how it is sort of emblematic of the Beatles' psychedelic phase. Strawberry Fields Forever is much better.

Love is not all you need. Love is not something that will solve all of your problems or make you into a perfectly, existentially satisfied human being. There is so much more to our mental and emotional makeup than a simple desire for love, just as there is more to our physical makeup than a simple desire for protein.

Mind you, I am not opposed to love. That would be ridiculous, sociopathic, and misanthropic. I'm none of those things. I am ardently pro-love. I'm all for losing oneself in a flurry of dopamine and romance. What I do think, though, is that love is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for human happiness and satisfaction.

In so much of fiction and pop culture love is portrayed as the ultimate. "You complete me." "Happily ever after." All of that. What a horribly limited experience to pursue. That's all you want? Someone else? That's all it takes- the company and affection of others? What about intellectual and artistic pursuits? What about adventures and experiences? These are definitely things that are nice when shared with loved ones, but I would contend that solitary enjoyment of such things can also garner some satisfaction.

Likewise, what a horrible burden to put on your partner. If someone were to tell you, "you're my happy ending," "you complete me," or "all I need is your love," that should really freak you out. No one person is capable of being those things, of being the fount of existential satisfaction for another. People need each other, yes, but they also need other sources of meaning and affirmation.

For example: While her life is overshadowed by mental illness and suicide, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard had a fantastic marriage. They were intellectual partners and professional collaborators, and each of them wrote enthusiastically about their marriage. (And yes, I know that Virginia slept with ladies. I don't think that's a strike against their relationship, though. If anything I imagine that Leonard was totally into it.)

Despite their wonderful partnership, though, Woolf was the one who wrote A Room of One's Own, which basically says that artists need a certain sense of personal autonomy in order to flourish. Love, according to Ms. Woolf, is not all you need.

So... there. Take that, Beatles! Me and Virginia Woolf say you're wrong! Suck on it! And while you're at it, most of the rest of pop music can suck on it, too! So much of it seems naive and non-lucid. Grand promises and proclamations that aren't really tenable or applicable to real human experience. You have to do a fair amount of digging to find something that actually seems like it was written by an adult, something that portrays human emotions and needs in a realistic or poignant way.

Also, Imagine sucks. I still love Sgt. Peppers, though.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In Which I Go to Burning Man

The Playa glowed like a flattened, Jesus-free Christmas tree on fire. The cracked desert was filled with noise and shining movement, fanciful creations of freaks and artists, the spitting and exploding light of a dance stage lit with flamethrowers. Despite my fatigue from the day's drive from Eugene, I couldn't help but be impressed with how otherworldly it was. The landscape, the lit-upedness of it all, was just neat.

I approached Burning Man with a mix of expectations. On one hand, I was very excited about going to what is essentially one of the biggest parties in the world, a vast, odd collection of all things awesome. What's more, I was going with Seph and his very cool girlfriend L. Nifty things are always best shared.

On the other hand, my unquenchable skepticism kept acting up, bristling with reflexive spurts of ire at the hippie ethos that seems to float around the thing. (For instance, don't let anyone ever tell you that Burning Man is ecologically friendly...) On another, third, hand I didn't know what to expect. I would just check it out, see what was up.

Not that that's really an option. Everything I'd read about Burning Man emphasized the ideal of complete participation, of having “no spectators.” Not in the sense that all of the art and performances were interactive, but everyone had to do something. It doesn't necessarily have to be something huge or complicated, but walking around in just jeans and a t-shirt and merely looking at things is not in the spirit of BM. Every single person there is expected to participate in some way, get their freak on, act a bit strange, get into the mindset.

This, I found, is what makes Burning Man so neat. It's not merely the scale of the event that's mind-blowing. It's not the fact that it's especially large or in such a harsh climate, though that is a bit part of its unique appeal. The thing that makes Burning Man especially incredible is that it is a temporary setting in which different sort of social norms apply. It's a big swathe of unstructured playtime wherein you can mess with just about everyone and everything there. For instance:

I was walking about on the Playa (that is, the dry lake bed in the Black Rock Desert on which Burning Man is held) alone one day, when all of a sudden I saw a giant slide. It was perhaps sixty feet high and twenty wide, and at any one time perhaps thirty people were either climbing up or going down the thing. At its foot were a collection of large foam blocks to break the fall of the sliders, and several people at the bottom were also chucking them at people who were going down. Of course, I wanted to slide down the thing, but I wondered: Who was in charge? Was there a line? Had a group already claimed the slide, and would I be intruding by climbing onto it? What was the etiquette and protocol? I shook of those thoughts, though, and realized that the protocol was basically “do what thou wilt,” climbed onto the thing, and slid down while going “woo!”

At the foot of the slide a rather large red bus was parked, blasting dance music. The driver was a big butch lesbian dressed as a Catholic priest, and a mostly naked woman lounged on the hood of the vehicle, writhing to the music. Several people were dancing on the bus' two levels, and I wondered again “what is the protocol for getting on?” And again, I had to remind myself that it was socially acceptable to just climb on it and start dancing.

Now, it may sound like I was overthinking things in those last two examples, but such thoughts and hesitations are valid. How many times have you asked yourself “Ok, how does this work?” or “What do I have to do to get X?” We go through those thoughts all of the time in our daily lives because we want to live in a socially acceptable manner, do things in a socially acceptable way. In general we want to not be (at the least) embarrassed or (at the worst) a total sociopath. Every single day we think “What rules, spoken or unspoken, must I abide by?”

At Burning Man, several of them just aren't there, and that is simultaneously really odd and a lot of fun. I've seen shiny, loud and weird before. Saturday nights in Shibuya and Sundays in Yoyogi Park provided for plenty of that. The upheaval and substitution of social conventions, though, that was the real show. There are almost no monetary transactions in Black Rock City (the temporary community where Burning Man takes place), and that changes the environment fairly dramatically. Two guys came by our camp and just gave us screwdrivers (the drink) no questions asked. A complete stranger gave me a beer. I was given a few memorial trinkets, and obliged several people who asked for hugs. It was awesome. Burning Man is otherworldly in the sense that it is a spectacle, yes, but it is also somewhere where lots of everyday assumptions don't apply.

Because a complete narrative of what we did there would be tiresome and probably inaccurate, I'll limit myself to some bullet points of things that I thought were awesome.


Every year a group calling themselves Death Guild reconstructs a Mad Max-style Thunderdome at Burning Man. Just like in the movie, people climb up on the sides of the geodesic dome and shout at the two combatants who are strapped into bouncing harnesses. At Burning Man, the fighters used padded weapons, so unfortunately there as no resorting to chainsaws or spiked hammers. It was all excellent nonetheless, though, particularly in that the goth atmosphere served as an antidote to the hippie love fest that was going on elsewhere. Peace, love, forgiveness, self-expression and all that shit are all well and good, but damn it was nice to see some action. Girls in black corsets, grinding, thrashing guitars, huge shouting dudes bringing the hurt on each other. That was fun. Hippie niceness is okay, but what really got me going was the awesome adrenaline rush of regulated violence.

As much as it seemed to contrast, though, nothing going on at Thunderdome was really "against" the spirit of Burning Man. The goths and metal fans were as free as anyone else to show off what they had, regardless. The hippie ethos is very dominant, but not at all mandatory, and those who "transgressed" it were as welcome as anyone else.

There was also roller derby, which was also awesome and combat-filled.

-The Rocket!

A large, shiny Buck Rogers-style rocketship jutted up from the Playa, and via a gantry one could go inside and take a look around. The interior was a collection of space-age doodads, shiny buttons, comical alien specimens, blinking lights and screens, and a swiveling captain's chair at the very top. The artists who'd made the rocket said to nearly everyone there that it would be taking off on Friday night.

“Really?” was the inevitable reply, “you're going to launch this thing?”

“Oh yes,” they said with an entirely straight face, “we have a plasma engine expect to get it a good two or three feet off the ground.” I've got to give them credit- they got everyone talking about their installation, and what they were going to do with it. Lots of people wondered if they were serious about it all or not, and whether that thing was going to rise at all. There was no way that they could actually generate enough thrust. Costs alone would have gotten in the way. I thought for a moment that they might have buried a pneumatic elevator underneath it, but that, too, would have been a huge undertaking.

The day before the launch we were sitting around our camp doing nothing in particular when one of our neighbors, an Australian, started talking to us and the subject of the rocket came up.

“You know they're going to launch it on Friday, right?” he said.

“Well, that's what they say,” one of us replied.

“Yeah, well. They got this plasma engine in it. You know what plasma engines do, right? They give the finger to technology, that's what. That's what they're all about. They're going to fuck every bit of technology here. Watch out for your credit cards. They're not going to work after that. The plasma, you know- it fucks technology. That's why all of those Chinook helicopters have been circling around. The military is very interested in what's going on here, all these Silicon Valley types building weird shit out in the desert. You watch. They're going to launch that thing.”

(I'd assumed that the Chinooks were circling mainly because we were on protected federal land.)

“It has lots of vents in the side,” I said, “I think they're just going to do a pyrotechnics thing.”

“Nah. It's going to launch. You'll see.”

Listening to this guy, I dearly hoped that he was being extraordinarily sarcastic and dry, though I don't think that he was. It was my least favorite part of Burning Man, all of the people who believe in absurd things like government conspiracies or auras. The rocket, it turned out, did not really “launch” and didn't fuck all of the technology in the area (my cards work just fine). The rockteers who built it made it the center of a sizable fireworks display, albeit one that I wasn't able to catch for a variety of reasons. Sure, I only beat out a crazy conspiracy loony, but it still feels good to be right.

-Naked People!

While there were a few attractive naked people about (no, not me- I enjoyed dressing oddly) the vast majority of them were older men. I was a bit perplexed by this at first. Promises of public nudity bring with them adolescent male ideas of firm, nubile, unclad women flitting about the atmosphere clothed only in the admiration of my appreciative eyes.

Okay, I know better than that. But still...

While individuals fitting that idealized description did indeed exist, most of the nudity on display was in the form or rather unappealing, aging, graying man-butt. Talking with Joseph about this, it soon became utterly logical as to why that would be the case. Women are probably less likely to doff all of their clothing than men, what with apprehensions regarding sexual harassment and all. What's more, most young people (I believe) don't view nudity as an ideological thing at all. I've never met anyone my age who thinks that they're making some sort of political or social point by taking their clothes off. Those kind of ideals belong to an older generation. When viewed in that light, it's entirely sensible as to why old, gray dude-balls were more likely to be seen than perky, young lady-butt.


There were two sizable dance clubs at Burning Man, and several small ones. (One of the smaller ones insisted on recitation of poetry before dispensing booze, which was fun.) The setups were amazing, all the more because looking at the sound systems, lasers, projectors, props, etc., I was very cognizant that someone carted all of that stuff into the desert, and would be carting it out pretty soon. One of the large ones, aptly named Opulent Temple, featured no small amount of fire dancers performing amidst the appreciative crowd and beneath of blanket of pulsating lasers. One of the fire dancers actually caught himself on fire, which was good for a laugh. Don't worry. He was alright. I hope.

These clubs were not provided by the Burning Man organization. Like everything else, they were put together by participants. They obviously took a staggering amount of time and money to put together, and I wondered what the incentives were for the coordinators. The DJs, I imagined, could gain a fair amount of notoriety by playing at Burning Man, and whoever bankrolled this was in for a fair amount of return with regards to reputation and social capital. But, really, this was it. This was the biggest party in the world. If you're going to run a dance club, if you like electronic music, this was the place to be. I could see some very dedicated rich people doing this sheerly for fun, purely because no party in any city was going to be better than this.

-The Temple

Every year at Burning Man there are two recurring large-scale art installations, both of which are burned at the end of the event. One, of course, is the Man himself. The other is the Temple, whose structure changes every year.

For a temporary structure, it was impressive, a three story high building that resembled a lotus, each panel cut in patterns that reminded me of classical Islamic art. The timbers themselves were strewn with markings, people's written messages to lost loved ones or other such personal things, all of which would go up in flames on Sunday night. In all honesty, I was surprised at how sincere they all were. My first reaction on seeing all of the heartfelt personal messages was to write something clever, something cutting or sarcastic that would wither the hippie sentiment. Unexpectedly, though, that I couldn't find any sarcasm or wit written on the timbers. I was surprised as well, when I actually wrote something sincere on the Temple the day before it burned. I suppose it's easy to write something honest and heartfelt, to get it out of you, when you know that it will be immolated in the near future. It's like confessing to a stranger, shouting to an empty room, or tearing up one's nocturnal poetry. Not that I've ever done any of those things. Goodness, no...

-The Burn

Saturday night was the big event, the night that the Man would finally go up into flames. There was a brief moment of doubt, though, because of a considerable dust storm. The winds had been calm for most of the week, but that night we could hardly see twenty feet ahead of us. Tents whipped about and the whole of the Playa seemed to be a swirling mass of white and darkness. We hunkered down in a friend's camp, set up like a bar. I had some rum, and wondered if the storm would subside at all.

It did, though, and nicely. Just before ten we made our way out onto the Playa and saw nearly the whole of Black Rock City's population focused upon one point. The art cars were all stopped in a giant bright circle around the Man, pumping music and colored lights into the now-calm desert night. Fire dancers gyrated and gamboled in front of the gigantic wooden effigy and all about us people screamed and buzzed with an undefined enthusiasm.

Preceding the burn itself was a fireworks display made all the better by the thumping music and ambient light. People were jumping around in costumes just as they had been earlier in the week, but now there was a sense of communal anticipation and excitement. The fireworks popped, and suddenly a massive explosion of flame flung itself upwards from beneath the Man. The effigy and all of the wood around him had been licked by flames and heat, and soon the Man himself was on fire.

And he took a damn long time to burn. According to one of my campmates, who'd been to Burning Man the year before, the Man last year took only a little while to burn and fall. This time, though, he and all of the wood around him were on fire for a good half hour before everything collapsed. I was expecting a sort of final fireball or explosion, but it never really came. Instead, the Man and everything around him smoldered in the fashion of a gigantic communal campfire, falling only after taking its sweet time to burn.

Hours later, I rode a bike out to the site of the Man by myself, and walked about amidst the embers. There were people there, sitting down in a heat that I couldn't tolerate for long, and no one was really talking. One guy did pound on a drum arhythmically, and other people sat off to the side, warming themselves against the huge, orange coals.

The fact that the Man (and the Temple) are both burned, I think, is rather essential to their appreciation. With both structures, I would have been not nearly as impressed with either of them had I not known that they'd been temporary. The fact that a group of artists and engineers can build something that they know will only be appreciated within a given time period is something that I find rather inspirational, a word that I use very sparingly.

Things are not meaningful because they are endless or immutable. They're not significant because they'll always be there. Things, people, jobs, relationships, works of art, conversations, whatever can be immensely important and wonderful even if they only last a couple of days. Or hours. The Man, the Temple, and indeed all of Black Rock City are gone now, and that doesn't invalidate, at all, the temporary experience that they imparted on me or anyone else who was there. If anything the brevity makes me appreciate them all the more.

I'm back now, in Portland. The other day while I was on my bike I saw a pair of goth kids, leaning against a wall, smoking and surrounded by less radical Portlanders. Not an unusual sight. I was immediately reminded of Death Guild and their huge camp and Thunderdome setup, at home in an environment that was unconditionally accepting of whatever they thought was awesome, whatever, on some level worked. I like it that those sort of environments exist. As cynical as I might act about hippie ideals, it was absolutely spectacular being in an environment that unlimited, that unrestrained and free. If I can ever attend again (no idea if that will happen) I know that I'll be even more into it. I'll be bringing an art project, or at least a really nifty outfit or camp, with me. Something definitively mine, something that I can throw into that brilliant and beautiful insanity on the Playa.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

More Adventures in Bad Hair

I am working on a rather extensive post about Burning Man, but before that, here's a picture of me with a shaved head and beard. I like having a buzz cut, though I've only had it this short once before. Also, the beard is longer than the head fuzz, which is a bit odd. I don't know if I'll keep the beard or not- quite frankly, I think I look a little older (and vaguely pirate-like) this way.

This drastic measure was undertaken because prior to this, I had a rather nasty mohawk that I needed to get rid of. My hair was standing up on top of my head, and I had a few curved stripes in the fuzzy sides of my dome. It was neat for Burning Man, but I didn't want to look too much like a Road Warrior extra whilst walking around Portland.