Monday, November 29, 2010

An Appeal For Continuous Hibernation

I received a refrigerator magnet from the HR department at my work with suggestions for a healthier lifestyle. Ten items were listed, among them "Ask your doctor the questions that are most important to you" and "Wear SPF 15 sunblock every day."

My favorite one: "Sleep one extra hour each night."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ragnarök, or Impressions of 127 Hours

I attended a student film festival while at college. The only movie I remember was called Ragnarök, and I'm not sure who the filmmakers were. The opening credits said it was inspired by the eponymous short story by Jorge Luis Borges. That story has never left me. It is a dream recalled by a narrator in which the Gods (Janus, Thoth, et al) re-emerge after a "centuries-long exile" in a university hall or auditorium. The audience - and narrator - are at first exalted that they have returned. Little by little they realize that the Gods lost their "human element" after centuries of "fugitive life" and were now little more than beasts. The audience members then took their heavy guns and "joyfully killed the Gods." The movie was not a telling of the story. To me, it was a meditation on the opening lines: "In our dreams (writes Coleridge) images represent the sensations we think they cause; we do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel"; and the closing lines: "...if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We...killed the Gods."

The movie opened with credits saying that an off-campus house the filmmakers lived in was experiencing an infestation of rats. They set up traps and filmed what happened. An unmoving camera was set with night-vision at a short height. A small creature with gleaming eyes appeared to the "oohs" and "ahs" of the crowd. We knew where the trap was set. The little rat scurried all over the floor. Looking for corners. Audience members were rooting for it. Talking to the screen, telling it where to go. Others were gasping, and saying "Oh no." Textbook lesson in suspense: We know something, potentially dangerous or incriminating, that the character does not. In this case, we know where the trap is located and the rat of course has no clue. This goes on for what feels like a long time but was not more than three minutes or so. We think the little guy has made it, but the rat begins to wander where it shouldn't, and then a loud clap resounds, making some people jump and exclaim their sorrow. You can see part of the tail on camera.

The film fades to black and another image appears, it shows an exquisite Maine scene: a long pier, water beneath and to the distance, some aquatic shrubs, and in the horizon a setting sun. Again, an unmoving camera likely set up on a pier post. This time the film feels like it was set to slow-motion, though I'm almost sure it was not. What seems like an eternity passes. As the audience saw the sun's steady descent, they began to fidget, looking at their cell phones, watches, whispering among themselves. Finally the sun set behind the horizon line, bathing the pier and ocean in soft butterlight, you could not ask for a more breathtaking image. The film slowly fades to black, and credits roll.

So what is this about? A rat and a sunset? What's the point? Let me answer these questions by asking another: What are we willing to sit through? This is how I see it. We are thrilled, scared, anxious, and altogether willing to see a rat possibly meet its end than we are to see an idyllic scene with the setting sun. When the possibility of death is removed and it becomes definite, we feel betrayed; we are shocked, hurt, and staggered. We identified with the defenseless, innocent rat, we were rooting for it, yes we wanted it to go through danger but we also wanted it to live. In a word, we were the rat. The dread, the fear, the pity, is about us too.

In Danny Boyle's
127 Hours, we are presented with the alternative: A) We know exactly what's going to happen, and B) The protagonist survives. However, we still feel the suspense. A lot of it has to do with Boyle's skill as a filmmaker and with James Franco's vivid performance. As with the rat, we identified with Franco's character, Aron Ralston. The same dread, fear, and pity we felt for the rat, we feel for Ralston, and we feel it for us too. For the rat and Ralston not to survive is a type of psychic death for the audience. We don't lament the death of the rat, we lament our own mortality. When Ralston perseveres by cutting off part of his arm to remove himself from under the boulder's grip, we rejoice but also cower, because we know, deep down or even lucidly, that we are very unlikely to do what he did. The rat dies, we tremble. Ralston survives, we tremble. You see, we create (or, in Borges's words, we dream) a rat, a film, a performance, a short story to explain the horror we feel. With fear in our being, that horror (echoes of Joseph Conrad) may be placated, but never overcome. The rat dies, we tremble. Overcome the fear of despair, the fear of death, then we vanquish the horror. Ralston overcame the fear. Does that we mean we can to? Ralston survives, we tremble.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Long time

Many times I've asked myself, "What is the point of blogging?" Truth is, I still don't know. The last time I posted here was in December 2009 about my top albums of the decade. It's November 2010 now.

Sometimes it feels like a senseless act. Writing and writing to put up on the web. How much copy gets put up across blogs on a daily basis? Hourly basis? What makes a site worthwhile, and another disposable? I've written for newspapers and magazines, and I still write for a magazine now. (I'll put up the links soon.) Yes, the articles that appear in those also appear online, but there is also the artifact. The physical product we hold in our hands saying, "Yes, an actual piece of critical writing has been published, and no, it's not mindless bloggerbabble."

Reading and writing is an intimate act. Without speaking, we each decided that I will be writing and you will be reading and hopefully commenting. That's the contract between us. I write for you and for me, you read for you and for me. We agree that we need each other to achieve what we want of this endeavor. For me, blogging has seldom lent itself to fulfilling that contract. That's really why I haven't written in this blog at all lately. I'm not trying to get anybody to agree with my reasoning or to care. I just wanted to put it out there.

I've gone through phases of intense devotion to the blog, to full-fledged "who gives a fuck?" I don't know if anything will ever "come of this," whatever that is supposed to mean. But I do know that I need to write all the time, whether it is good writing or not is not really up to me to decide. I just know that I need writing to work out incongruous ideas, of settling disputes with and within myself, to think about the arts and music mostly in critical ways. Worthwhile or not, it doesn't feel write not to do it.