Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vampires: Occasionally Entertaining!

Saw Nosferatu last night, the 1922 German silent film. The movie was accompanied by a live soundtrack composed and performed by Mood Area 52 and shown in the Mission Theater, a smaller venue with the twin advantages of having both beer and an awesome balcony. Several people were wearing top hats and corsets and the like, and a mood of delightful retro-ness carried the evening. The movie itself was great. There were three things I liked about it:

1: Count Orlok is an evil sonofabitch. No vampiric torment here, just creepy, carnivorous, awesomeness.

2: Nosferatu is Dracula, for the most part. The studio wasn't able to get the rights from Stoker's widow, though, so they just changed the names of the characters and kept the exact same plot. The blatant off-ripping is kind of hilarious.

3: In modern vampire fiction, vampires always have to live beside their fictional counterparts. There is usually an expository scene where a character (usually a vampire or vampire hunter) explains what works and what doesn't, differentiating the "reality" of a given piece of fiction from the common cultural effluvia that accompanies vampires. (My favorite scene of this nature is probably when Kris Kristofferson says "Crosses don't do shit" in Blade.)

Nosferatu didn't have a scene like that, and it was kind of refreshing and sort of weird to see. The vampire was presented as something new and alien, which is wholly different from how we see him popular culture. We're inundated with vampires, drowning in them, and the characters in modern fiction inhabit the same vamp-soaked world where everyone has seen at least three different versions of Dracula. Nosferatu isn't like that at all, and it was very cool seeing a familiar face presented as something so novel. Vampires are cliche now, but this was where a lot of those cliches come from, this was the root of so much else. Despite the prevalence of vampires, Count Orlok still seems uniquely monstrous, and the creators of Nosferatu, even as they ripped off Dracula, created something that still seems fresh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Guys, I Just Discovered Something! Diversity is GOOD!

I am actively appreciative that there are people who see the world differently than me. This is weird.

This was something that really struck me two weekend's ago at Portland's regional Burning Man event. There I was, surrounded by bright lights, mechanized spider monsters, circus stuff, and lots of things on fire. It was all awesome, and most of it not stuff that would have ever occurred to me. A fair amount of it was stuff that wasn't entirely to my taste, but I was glad it was there anyhow, adding to the general weirdness and eclecticism of it all. I wouldn't want to live in the glowy/happy/hippy world that is Burningmanland, but I'm glad it's there. I really am glad that there are whacked out hippies who sing heartfelt acoustic songs about love and shit, even though I make fun of it and don't claim identification to that sort of "tribe."

This, to borrow a well-worn phrase, kind of blows my mind.

When I think about ideas, I usually think about them as potential universals. I think killing is bad, so I want everyone to act accordingly. I think evolution is very, very real, so those who disagree are delusional. When I think about ideas and values, I usually think things that should work all of the time. You know, Kant type stuff.

This is not true of aesthetics or cultural tastes, though. Not only do I tolerate things that are totally unrelated to my personal set of aesthetics, but I actively like the existence of things that have nothing to do with my artistic preferences. This seems really bizarre to me, and also kind of profoundly awesome.

I'm trying to imagine the world if it wholly conformed to my aesthetic principals. It's hard to do. I'm imagining everyone wearing black and listening to Joy Division. Also, there is a lot of sushi. I'm sure there would be more to it than that, but I know that the artistic diversity that I enjoy is dependent on the nonuniversality of Joe. That's humbling. If I want there to be neat shit to gawk at, I have to accede to the fact that my principals will not and should not always carry the day. The freaks from Burningmanland should also be doing their thing, for instance.

How strange. How unsettling and liberating to admit that one need not always be right, that there is a realm of experience and ideas wherein subjectivity is entirely okay. How wonderful.

Monday, October 26, 2009

More Than Non-Negative

This post is long, personal, and perhaps with time could be better developed. I've been thinking a lot about this, and I know I'll return to this theme again.

In a recent Daily Show interview, Barbara Ehrenreich said "I am always opposed to delusion." Even, she emphasized, when the truth was more painful. The audience clapped, and I greatly identified with this sentiment. I do not like deception. I don't like it when others try to deceive others, or when people try to lie to themselves. Ignoring what is true make me very uncomfortable, and oftentimes has led me to cultivate a segment of myself that is founded in negativity. This contrarian personality-bit has often been prominent, wanting mainly to destroy deception but, troublingly, not wanting to replace it with something positive.

Being a contrarian, being one who points the finger at bullshit, hypocrisy, and delusion is in many ways only a beginning. One only has to say "There it is!" or "I see some over there," and merely identify bullshit, drag it into the proverbial Harsh Light of Day and congratulate oneself on a Job Well Done. Moreover, the contrarian can utilize her emotions of reaction and disdain, can say to herself "my hatred of delusion and desire for intellectual purity is useful." The contrarian imagines herself as a bristling guard dog, a vigilant protector and herald of truth. The urge to destroy and tear down seems like an asset, even like something that should be cultivated.

The problem with this, though, is that one may turn into a mere naysayer, one who destroys but never creates. My images of this are Christopher Hitchen and Penn Jillette, two men whom I consider immensely amusing and occasionally stimulating, but whose ideologies seem ultimately unfulfilling. Regardless of their probable complexities, they seem to be mere corpulent destroyers, bellowing overgrown juveniles who put the highest value on smug destruction and another glass of scotch.

In addition, having a standpoint of pure reaction leaves one with the unrewarding feeling that one may be a bit of a coward. If all you do is attack and jeer, you are in an unassailable position. What do you believe? What are you for? That's unknown. That can only be inferred by your arguments against things. If you have not bothered to erect any kind of real position for yourself, you know, at the back of your mind, that you are acting in a risk-averse way. Such behavior patterns invite self-doubt and regret.

Irony, cynicism, and reaction will only take you so far. They are useful tools, and may be a bit too much fun to use. Ultimately, one will be left only with the corpses of dead delusions, and not much in the way of real value surrounding oneself. "What did I do? What did I achieve?" One must be positive, constructive. Merely being non-negative is not existentially satisfying. Irony, beautiful blade that it is, is a poor building tool. Sincerity must be let it. For ultimate satisfaction, one must, include, and create and experience the opposite of the contrarian's prevailing emotions.

Recent activities that I've found most fulfilling have been those that are non-ironic. I prospered most in Japan when I allowed myself to be inundated with the ambient sincerity of the landscape and traveled with what I hope was a minimum amount of judgment. More recently, I attended Burning Man and was in a Flaming Lips video. These are activities that could have invited some ridicule, but are rewarding and awesome precisely because of the verve and unabashed sincerity that pervaded the proceedings. I feel much the same way about writing.

The problem is, once you invite sincerity into the room, self-doubt comes with it. You may very well produce or do things that invite irony-laced criticism. Also, being in favor of construction, inclusion, and creativity means that you will have to share a certain amount of space with hokum. Not everything created or fervently felt will be worthwhile. There will be waste and error, precisely of the sort that one who is formerly so contrarian will be tempted to bark and snarl at. Spirituality, conspiracy theories, and baseless emotions will be impossible to entirely weed out from the conversation- indeed, the former cynic might find herself espousing some of those things in moments of weakness or nonlucidity. I found plenty of these during my recent hippie-flavored wanderings, and had to remind myself that these things were the byproducts of what were largely worthwhile experiences. Indeed, quelling the urge to bristle and argue made the experience more rewarding.

Another problem is the worry that with all your newfound sincerity, you'll become the prey of some other contrarian, some other wolf just looking to sink her acquisitive teeth into someone who's gone soft. The newly sincere find themselves wondering whether they will suddenly be on the wrong side of truth, find themselves playing with delusion, fancies, and hypocrisy and will have to bare their throat in shame after some other critic reveals their inconsistency and surrender to unreason.

This will happen.

Anyone who attempts to be constructive, to be creative and positive, will find themselves straying somewhere where they are not rational, where they do indeed lie to themselves and others. When some other predator does find the wayward, does bring them back down to earth, though, it should not be viewed as a defeat. Instead, the quarry should look to her pursuer and say "Thank you. Thank you for keeping me honest, for bringing me back to what I know are my true values. The flight into momentary delusion was a necessary risk of the creative process, however."

Having trained oneself to point a finger at bullshit, to shout down hypocrisy, inconsistency, and deception, it takes a certain amount of discipline to stay in constructive, creative mode. The urge to call out the idiotic or unrealistic for what it is must be suppressed a little, and that small amount of restraint can be a niggling worry at the back of the former contrarian's mind. There is an urge, a strong urge, to wipe the field of play as utterly clean, completely free of hypocrisy and delusion. The cynic can often think of the truth as a sort of absence, a blank, white desert where no sort of bullshit can grow. Pure and apprehendible, objective and unmistakable, but such a landscape allows for nothing at all.

As bleak as this sounds, though, I prefer going from negativity to sincerity, rather than the other way around. Instead of being a jaded former romantic who gradually has lost his illusions, I like coming from a standpoint where (for the most part) my negativity has learned to accommodate the positive. This has been a process of growth and loosening rather than losing illusions. As I've gotten older, I've found that I have gotten more positive, not less. This seems to be the opposite of the conventional wisdom, of young idealists having their visions crushed and becoming jaded cynics. There has been some of that, too, but for the most part I've found myself to tolerate the purely positive, which, in the end, is rewarding.

It is worth remembering that sincerity is not an inflexible master, that opinions and theses may be revised in the face of new evidence. Heartfelt belief in an error does not mean that one may not fix that error, nor that one's decision-making capabilities are fundamentally flawed. With this in mind, one's unabandoned contrarian mindset may be used as a kind of error correction mechanism with regards to whatever one is sincerely constructing. Irony and its attendant tools will not be used to create a flat, pure field of nondelusion, but rather as pruning shears of sorts, tools to make something positive prosper.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'll Miss You, Video Stores

Video Verite is one of the several chic little shops that lines Portland's Mississippi avenue. It's the kind of place that groups movies by director and has lots of obscure specialty stuff. Posters line the walls, and the whole place has a decidedly movie-geek feel to it. It's precisely the sort of establishment that makes Mississippi (and Portland in general) "hip."

Pity that it will be gone within the decade.

I just took back a DVD, and I know that eventually such an activity will be utterly obsolete. Even renting movies seems a little silly, as I know I could just download them if I wanted to. As of now, everything that a video store offers is more or less superfluous. They traffic in video information, and everything that they offer can more or less be found online. Video Verite, and all of its siblings, will soon go the way of the newspaper.

This disappoints me a little. I like going there. I like the decor and being surrounded by titles. I like the atmosphere and how the place looks on the street. The staff seems nice- last night I wanted to get An American Werewolf in London, but it was out. The guy behind the counter effusively recommended Dog Soldiers, as an alternative, though, and we proceeded to geek out over our shared love of Ginger Snaps. This sort of foray into geeky expertise, being surrounded by movie-ness, is fun. It's neat to go into a place where you know that all sorts of things you haven't thought of await, and there are people who will gladly help cultivate your taste in whatever you're into. I also like things like movie stores (and book stores) simply as fixtures of urban life. It just feels right for Mississippi to have a store like that.

It's not an efficient system, though. Don't get me wrong- I'm completely on the side of advancing technology, and making information more accessible. However, I know that urban fixtures that I appreciate will be phased out because of it. Soon, there won't be any more posters or movie geeks behind the counter. There won't be any rows of DVDs (or even Blu-Ray discs) looking at you from the shelves. You won't need to walk around in movie-ness any more than you'll need to get newsprint on your hands.

Obviously this makes me a little sad and wistful. The process of technological advancement that I'm so fond of won't be without side effects. One of my favorite businesses will go under, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Horror Movies

As I write this, I'm listening to Manowar. It is not what I would typically call "good" music, but I'm enjoying it so I guess that counts for something. I've been listening to metal all evening. Earlier this week I re-watched From Dusk Till Dawn, which is not what I could call a "good" movie, but I enjoyed it a lot so I guess that counts for something. Both the Rodriguez movie in question, and lots of splashy metal, belong to a genre of camp that I thoroughly enjoy, and have historically had trouble enjoying.

My basic thought process (or lack thereof) was that an entirely well-adjusted person would not find any enjoyment in things like gore, spikes, vampires, zombies, blood splatters, dismemberment, werewolves, monsters, slashers, etc. I worried not so much that horror movies, etc. would turn me into a psychopath, but that my fandom of such a genre betrayed some inner werewolfian nastiness. (I think the term "guilty pleasure" is a bit overused, but in my case my enjoyment of this stuff really was steeped in guilt.) If I was such a good guy, why was I smiling at all of the guns and blood?

It is worth noting that if stuff like splatter movies and heavy metal actually did earnestly portray violence, gore, and death, then they really wouldn't be that much fun, would they? And, when I do see honest, real depictions of violence, I do get kind of queasy. You know that famous picture of a guy executing a Viet Cong? That picture is honestly and horribly terrifying. Watching George Clooney and Harvey Keitel blast the shit out of vampires, though, is my idea of a "romp." When just enough of the edges are off, when it gets a little "safer," this kind of thing seems kind of fun.

In the end, though, I can't completely explain it and just have to accept that I know for a fact that I'm a pretty good guy. I also know that I like watching the undead explode. Thus far, wringing my hands over the matter hasn't gotten me anywhere. I might as well just acquiesce to enjoying what I occasionally do and tell the guilt to take its business elsewhere.

So: Fuck it. I'm through with making guilt-ridden judgments or having reservations about my own enjoyment about campy, cathartic, fun portrayals violence. I enjoyed every bit of watching Clooney & Co. blast vampires into bloody smithereens, and right now I'm enjoying obnoxious, shouty music without a shred of guilt. Halloween is coming up, and I know I'll be in the mood for horror movies aplenty, soon.

If you don't like it- fine. I have headphones.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"There is Grandeur in This View of Life."

I just saw Richard Dawkins speak. Pardon me, but I'm feeling inspired. I enjoy being an atheist, and am happy because of it. A few reasons why:

No external divine benediction is necessary for things to be beautiful, meaningful, of value. Being an atheist, I know that I must make my own way in the world, that I must pursue what I find rewarding, what makes me happy, what is good. No other force will deliver this. No god, angel or saint will come to my, or anyone else's, aide and therefore I know that I must be active in my pursuit for satisfaction in life. The only life that I'll ever have, wherein I know it is my duty to make it as good as possible.

Likewise, I know that things are wonderful not because hint at something larger or divine. They are wonderful because they are. Sunsets and reddening clouds need not be orchestrated by god to be beautiful. Beauty, in absence of director or agency, simply is. It springs up and presents itself out of literally the basic building blocks of the universe. With the intercession of absolutely nothing, the world is supremely amazing.

When I look at another human being, I know that I'm looking at one of the most complex phenomena that exists in the universe, a system like myself that contains depths and wonder. We are complicated. We are amazingly and wonderfully fascinating and beautiful, and it is intrinsic. If we attribute our higher emotions and impulses to the divine, we sell ourselves short. By saying “all good comes from God,” we severely discredit ourselves. Human beings are wellsprings of empathy, creativity, love and compassion. We are authors of profound goodness. No divine being interceded and to create the love between you and your family and friends. No angel is overseeing the connections so many make on a daily basis. That comes, entirely, from ourselves, and for that we should be joyful.

To those who say that such a view of the world is “mechanistic” I'd reply- what a glorious mechanism it is. How wonderful and amazing it is that such a mechanism, the universe, exists at all, and has managed to produce life, intelligence, and and wonderful phenomena all by itself. It is a “mechanism,” yes, and it is precisely because of that that we exist at all. It is precisely because of the mechanistic achievements of the cosmos that we have stars, planets, life, multicellular organisms, intelligence, and creativity. It is precisely because things are mechanistic- regular, predictable, systematic- that we have evolved here in all of our functional complexity. That mechanistic view of life itself, of the world itself, should not be dismissed as cold. Instead, we should see the system of the world for what it is, a glorious set of machinery so amazing that it encompasses love, humanity, and the whole spectrum of who we are.

It is all there is, and it is enough.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Coffee Shops

Working at home is possible, but it takes discipline. One must focus intensely while the objects of leisure are right there. I've been working on a manuscript for a while, but to write or edit at home, I have to ignore the Internet, video games, my roommates, and my books. I have to shut out people who may be over, or other stimuli that seems to show up at my house on a fairly frequent basis. Besides, this is my home. This is where I relax and do fun things, the place where I sleep, read novels, and watch movies. I associate it with idleness and off-time.

Fortunately, there are coffee shops.

I'm convinced that coffee is not really the primary product of most coffee shops. Coffee is something I adore, and if I don't have either it or tea I usually am in for at least a noticeable headache later in the day. However, the primary product of coffee shops is really a place to sit. A place, outside of your house, to read, socialize, or work. I've found them an ideal place to focus on my manuscript about Japan. I finally printed out the material I have so far (224 pages, single spaced) and have been editing it for the past week and a half.

I sit there for an indeterminate amount of time, imbibing my favorite stimulant, and spilling red ink. Without fail, there is someone else with a laptop or a notepad or some other such portable object whom I often imagine working away on a similarly creative endeavor. I like the simple presence of others, and I like the atmosphere and smell, the piles of alternative weeklies in the corner, and the paintings on the walls with price tags like footnotes. Oftentimes, there's some kind of music playing, usually jazz or some obscure imported genre that is simultaneously interesting and easy to ignore. I like that, too, a low-level white noise that eases attention to detail.

I've been staggering which ones I go to, and seeking out new coffee shops. Yesterday, I found a new one in Southeast, in the Hawthorne District, a converted house filled with paintings. The owner had dragged in an old-style school desk which I found too amusing not to sit at. When I went in, there was a guy on the porch reading a newspaper. He was there when I left, too. Across from me a guy with extremely long hair and hemispherical earphones sat at a laptop for the entire time I was there. A girl reading what looked to be a gigantic novel said "thanks" to the counter guy as she left, and he said "see you tomorrow!"

Not home, not an office, but another node or point of contact, another place on the map that can be used as "base," a resting zone. If all coffee shops had was coffee, I wouldn't go to them nearly as often, wouldn't drink nearly as much of the stuff. I go there for the state of mind, the focus, go there to be outside and at rest at the same time.

Monday, October 5, 2009

October: It's Neat!

Tonight I saw the huge, yellow moon low on the horizon and thought that yes, October is precisely the time when you expect to see such a gigantic moon, even though, really, you should be able to see them every month. There it was though, illusionarily large and round and bright and autumnal and I was happy to see and feel my absolute favorite time of year, all around.

I like October a lot. Of course, I'm biased since I was born in this month. I sort of like it by default. There are plenty of other reasons, though. This is the time when all of the leaves turn things get windy. You can now, if you want, wear a jacket. Or just a t-shirt. If you want to bust out a scarf at night, that's perfectly alright. It's a kind of equilibrium weather, warm and cool and windy and calm all at the same time so you can take your pick as to how you react.

There's cider. Cider coming out of taps and in bottles that advertise the season, cider in heavy glasses on heavy wooden tables that are, indeed, around all year but seem at home in what is now unmistakably autumn.

In stores all kinds of nasty things are suddenly acceptable- toys and accessories that feature the weird and grotesque are no longer in contravention of social norms. For a bit everyone, a little, admits that they really do like the dark. They really do like, a little, things that are not exactly positive. It's suddenly okay to revel in the strange, to enjoy the sight of blood and flesh, to admit that things that excite us and scare us are often the same. Horror movies and tubes of fake blood are consumed in record amounts, and if we are going to know anxiety and fear, at least we should have some fun with it and make sport of our own racing hearts.

Piles of leaves flurry all over the place in patterns and whorls that allow you to "see" the wind in a matter of fashion, and the really big storms that shake the trees and snap off branches start up. This is significant weather. This is not passive or monochromatic- this is not boring or endless. These winds are intent on changing the environment, bringing things down and snapping pieces of the world apart. They will make themselves heard and their presence known, and for that I respect them even if they are troublesome, because part of me prefers dynamism and action to peace unpunctuated.

Everyone gets creative. "What are you going to be for Halloween?" Ideas and hypotheticals are tossed around freely, projects are embarked on and things contrived, built, and shown off. There are parties. Often several. Portland is bedecked with advertisements for haunted venues, and I should take in at least one. This month people build personal contraptions of weird, display their own craftiness to an extent unshown otherwise, flourish their arms and say "look what I made!" (It is for this reason that my birthday party has a fanciful theme.)

October, though, seems to have this sort of balance about it. Equilibrium between the year's other extremes and excesses. It is not summer, not winter, not cold, not hot, not anything that is somehow immoderate. It is all of those things, open to interpretation, democratic. It is transitory and therefore all encompassing (maybe I'm imagining that) and the month that I continue to love the most.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why Finally Reading David Foster Wallace Was Good, But Also Kind of Sad

I'd been ignoring David Foster Wallace for a while. Mainly because of Infinite Jest, which I still haven't read. Infinite Jest is a huge and imposing book and honestly it intimidates me even more than Ulysses did. I will read it. I will unhinge my jaw and devour the entirety of a North American buffalo. This will happen, yes, mainly because I've now read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, one of DFW's essay collections.

The best thing about ASFTINDA is DFW. The essays are about stuff like tennis and cruise ships, topics that I normally wouldn't care at all about, but I cared about them because DFW's perspective and style was such that he allowed me to care about him. In other words, I really liked him. Not just as an author, though. There are plenty of authors whom I quite admire but would never really want to meet in person. Hemingway and I would not have much to talk about. DFW, though, seems exactly like the sort of person with whom I could relate, even be friends with. This happens very rarely with me and media figures, but it happened with DFW, and I found it quite frightening given that he put himself at the end of a rope last year.

There are plenty of suicidal people whose work I enjoy and think were geniuses. Abovementioned Hemingway, Woolf, Akutagawa, and Mishima all offed themselves, and that doesn't really bother me all that much. That might sound callous, but it's true. I guess that's because, really, I wouldn't really ever have wanted to hang out with them or see myself in them at all. However, I was able to see a lot of me in DFW (does that sound really arrogant?) and that was sort of weird.

He has all sorts of little affectations which I found at once horribly pretentious and also utterly charming. He uses 24 hour time notation, uses the abbreviation "w/r/t/" without explanation, and has a joyous and unrestrained love for footnotes. He is unapologetically what one would call an "intellectual" and thinks the fuck out of things like carnies and corn dogs while finding dread and anxiety in the Illinois State Fair. On the back of ASFTINDA he smiles sweetly through stubble and slightly unkempt hair and I realize that I don't just want to hang out with this guy, I want to be this guy. I want to be funny, smart, respected, and successful in the same ways he is funny, smart respected, and successful. Under normal circumstances he would be what is known as a "role model" for me (can 28 year old adults have role models?) but I'm still really bothered by how he died, i.e., at his own hand.

I think that suicide is, for the most part, extremely unreasonable. If someone's in immense terminal pain, I can certainly understand that, but most of the time I think that there are reasonable alternatives for functional adults. At the risk of sounding immensely insensitive, I think that able-bodied people who commit suicide are usually, at best, shortsighted and, at worst, cowards.

Knowing that this guy whom I've been admiring so much for the past week succumbed to that is really, really troubling. DFW suffered from chronic depression, yes, and was attempting to go off his meds when he offed himself. I guess that's a mitigating circumstance or something. Still, it's weird to see a guy who has precisely what I, personally want out of life- intellectual acuity, my name in print, and sex with smart, creative women - radically admit to unsatisfaction. I'm thinking to myself, Jesus Christ, that wasn't enough. That didn't make you fucking happy? You had it fucking all. (At least for a certain nerdy, literary definition of "all.")

One of the recurring conversations that I've had with Seph is that there very well may be a certain baseline of happiness/depression. One may be satisfied/exuberant for a time, think that one has "made it" or whatever, but eventually you just readjust your expectations and desires and end up in the same kind of happiness/blah-ness cycle that typifies most of life. There is nothing, really that can make those heavy, gray days (and weeks and months) go away where you know that most of your internal switches are in the "off" position. Abraham Maslow is famous for saying "Whatever our sorrow, it fills us up." I'm never going to off myself like DFW, but from his experience I know that if I ever am hypothetically successful I'll still have rather grim periods, and that's a nasty little truth to face.

God, what a fucking downer of a blog post. Shit. I should say something positive.

Oh, yeah- ASFTINDA is awesome and you should read it. Reading it made me want to write, and I think that's one of the nicest things that one can say about a writer. I was reminded why I like books so much, and after I finish up the pile of tomes presently dominating my bedroom floor, I know that sometime before I leave Portland (I'm thinking early next year) I'll be shoving Infinite Jest into my brain.