Friday, May 27, 2011

Losing it

My last four years have been defined by loss. I know some people who are going through some terrible losses this week. This one's for them.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

R.I.P. Uncle Swede

My 94-year-old great-uncle Swede died in his sleep 3:30 Sunday morning, right around the time I was leaving a friend's birthday party with my brother, who was in town with his wife for the Renegade Craft Fair. Swede's real name was Donald, but nobody ever called him Donald, Donnie, or Don. Swede was a very interesting guy who did a lot of different things with his 94 years. The only relative on either side of my family tree who ever made consistent money, he was an independent guy who spent most of his life working for himself, doing what he wanted to do. At various times in his life he was an avid bowler, golfer, rural farmer, stock market player/wise investor, city dweller, small town guy, movie buff, fisherman, world traveler, teller of slightly off-color jokes and witty one-liners, partier, registered independent, drinker of a daily 5 o'clock martini, and stained-glass maker. For most of his post-farming and a handful of his pre-farming years, he alternated between rural and small-town Nebraska and urban California. He briefly lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s or 1940s, and he and my great-aunt Mildred spent half the year in San Luis Obispo after he retired from farming. He walked across the Golden Gate Bridge the first day it was open in 1937 (they opened it for pedestrians one day before they let cars use it). I have a DVD copy of some old Super-8 films he and my great-aunt made of California, Mexico, and Nebraska in the 1940s and 1950s. Included is a demolition derby, a Rose Bowl parade, a busy Californian motel pool on a summer day, beautiful Mexican scenery, my grandfather and several other farmers on a row of tractors working the fields of a cancer-stricken friend, and a drunken New Year's Eve dance party. He and a group of friends once built a houseboat in the parking lot behind the bowling alley in my hometown. Swede told me they were drunk on whiskey the whole time they built it, but the thing worked for four years until a terrible thunderstorm sunk it. Swede's wife, my great-aunt Mildred, is the last surviving member of the old generation in my family, excepting the handful of relatives I've met only a few times. That's the way it goes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Angry people got no reason to live

I just learned from the Facebooks that a friend of mine was accosted and nearly attacked at a bookstore by a nutcase who was angry at him for turning too slowly into the parking lot. The man was yelling that my friend's slow turn into the lot endangered his child's life. Not really sure how that would endanger anyone, but this guy had no problem leaving the child unattended in a hot car in the middle of a city while he tried to punch my friend in the back of the head for no reason.
A similar bizarre incident happened to me Sunday night while I walked to the Alamo Drafthouse theater's downtown location to see a screening of one of my favorite movies, John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I was alone, walking down the street, minding my own business. I noticed a man walking five or six feet in front of me. His clothes fit him poorly, he walked in what can only be described as an aggressively apelike manner, and his skin had that particular red-dirt hue found only on young men who do physical outdoor farm work or hop trains and live on the streets. I made a mental note to keep my distance, but he began to turn around between every fourth or fifth step and glare directly at me with an unsettling mixture of hatred and pleasure. I readied myself. Best case scenario: he was going to ask me for money. Oh shit. I don't have any money. Maybe he wanted to give some insane spiel or manifesto. Most likely, he wants to start a fight for no reason. He started walking slower and slower. I passed him on the right. As I pass him, he turns to me and says, "What's your fucking problem?" I say, "I'm just walking," and keep going. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him take a swing at me. I turn back around, and his fist is about 6 inches from my head. A terrible swing, but a swing nevertheless. Then he takes two more airpunches in the direction of my head, but they're both too far away to connect. This guy is super nuts. He's trying to hit me, but also clearly trying not to hit me. What's his deal? Then he starts shouting at me and following me slowly for two blocks, calling me motherfucker, faggot, bitch, pussy, etc. I still don't know what set this guy off or what I would have done if his punches had connected or he had jumped me from behind. I was a foot taller than him, but he was pretty muscular and pretty insane, which is a scary combination.
Last week, a piece of shit punched a woman in the face and stole her purse in front of a bar my friends like to frequent. They caught him a few days ago, thanks to a sharp-eyed bouncer from a different bar.
Austin, what's with you this week? Get it together.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Tom Noonan, an actor/director/screenwriter/playwright I admire, once said the following words in an interview: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." I have this same relationship to creative work, which may partially explain one of my biggest flaws. I have an extraordinarily thin skin when someone expresses verbal dislike for a movie, band, or book that I love. It's hard to hurt my feelings, but this always does the trick. It also fills me with anger, which I quietly stew over for weeks afterward. I remember the tiniest tossed-off comment for years, and I can make myself angry and sad all over again by remembering it. I have so much invested in what I like, it's such a part of who I am and how I spend my time, that a negative comment about the work sounds exactly like a negative comment about me. "That band sucks" gets interpreted as "you suck" or "you're stupid" or "you have no quality control" or "your taste is inferior to mine" or "you're a blowhard" or "you like everything and you have no discernment." Stupid, I know, but I always think those comments are about me and not about the book/movie/band/song/taco. For a long time, I didn't recognize this horrible quality in myself, but I've become more aware of this particular drawback in the last few years. I'm trying to get better at shrugging it off, and I think I am getting better, but I mostly still suck at not taking it personally. Why? Why do I have this perverse personality quirk?
To make things even more perverse, I have no problem with written opinions about art that conflict with mine. I love reading film, music, and literary criticism, and I don't feel angry or upset about negative reviews of work I love unless the writing, logic, or argument sucks. I also have some pretty strong opinions of my own about almost everything, which I frequently spout off here, often with a lack of decorum and grace. The angry rant and the exasperated tirade are part of what I do on this blog.
What's my deal? I wish I knew. Part of it is a heightened sensitivity that's a byproduct of coming out of a months-long depression. As anyone who reads this blog knows, my last five years have been fucking terrible. Part of it is context. I don't know those critics personally. They aren't friends of mine. It can't possibly be about me. Also, a written argument or opinion requires solitude and thought and actual reasons why the opinion is held. When you're sitting around with friends drinking a beer, you usually don't get beyond "That was shit!" or "That was great!" It's not the time and place for a critical discourse about aesthetics. That is not fun weekend material. Still, I sometimes feel like I'm on the receiving end of "that thing you like sucks" way more than any of my other friends, though that's most likely the ultra-sensitivity talking. I tend to think other people merely tolerate me so they can hang out with my wife, who is much better about not being a neurotic, depressive, rage-filled over-indulger than I am. I wasn't always so insecure, but life has really kicked me up the ass lately.
This weekend, I had two experiences of being on the receiving end of lonely opinion land, but one of them wasn't so bad and may have helped me get over this bullshit. In that case, some friends were bagging on a band I happen to love. I could feel my neurosis kicking in, and I made a conscious effort to relax and continue to have fun. After making a few comments back that were meant jokingly but also with some kernels of anger still threatening to come loose and make everything awkward for everybody, I calmed myself down, made fun of myself, mentioned my neurosis, and had a good time. Nobody meant me any ill will. Crisis averted. Weekend enjoyed. Maybe I can make this thing go away for good.
Then came Sunday, and I'm back to that Tom Noonan quote. Here it is again: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." I went to Kelly Reichardt's new movie, Meek's Cutoff. I loved it. It's probably my favorite new movie I've seen this year. I connected so strongly with this movie, and I felt myself plugging back into life as I watched it. It's a movie of landscapes and faces and formal rigor and beauty and simplicity and ideas and history and emotion and structure. So many of my favorite movies give me back my life for a few hours. They strip away the bullshit distractions that get in the way of living and give me back my thoughts and feelings. They slow me down, make me notice details. They're my form of meditation. Meek's Cutoff might be one of those lasting movies for me. I need to see it a few more times, but it might be a contender. When it ended, I looked forward to sitting in the theater for a few seconds, enjoying that silent internal sigh of pleasure at seeing something great before going back out into daylight and traffic and an increasingly pointless job search and more fucking bullshit that never stops. Instead, two-thirds of the audience immediately and loudly started voicing their disapproval of the film. I was so rattled and shocked by this response. I can't even begin to describe how awful it made me feel. I've only seen an audience as vocal two other times, and they were both much happier experiences. After a packed opening weekend screening of Boogie Nights back in 1997, the crowd was so excited and so into the movie you could physically feel it. People were loud and happy when it ended. At a screening of the remake of The Wicker Man, I and the rest of the crowd devolved into hysterical laughter at the film's final twenty minutes of unintentional comedy. Maybe we ruined it for somebody who loved it, but it really seemed like everyone in the theater was spontaneously enjoying the mind-boggling terribleness. Besides, it was an involuntary response. I could not make myself stop laughing at Nicolas Cage in a bear costume punching women in the face and yelling about bees.
The response to Meek's Cutoff was uglier and ruder, and I don't know why. Maybe the problem was a Mother's Day crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly people who thought they were going to see a straightforward genre western. Other than their ages, though, I can only make assumptions. I don't know why they decided to buy their tickets. All I know is that these people were distracted. They wanted to go away from their lives, not get them back. They wanted a fleeting diversion, and they wanted to discard it and get on with the next diversion. How do I know this? They loudly told me and everyone else in the room. A non-spoiler alert: The movie follows a group of settlers along the Oregon Trail in 1845 who have split off from the main trail to follow a short cut suggested by a guide. They are now lost and suspicious of the guide's motives. They need to find water. The movie ends without telling us whether the settlers found water or not, but this fact is irrelevant given what the film is trying to do visually and narratively. This lack of neat, tidy closure caused the audience more consternation and anger than if the movie had been 90 minutes of a closeup on someone's face yelling about different brands of cola. Immediately, people loudly complained. "Did they find the water?" "Why didn't they tell us if they found the water?" "They must have found the water. There was a tree." "Why would they end it without telling us about the water?" Not a single person mentioned the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) and Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), two characters far more important to the meaning of the final scene than the plot mechanics of a search for drinking water. At the same time as these loud, dumb, and grindingly unimaginative questions filled the room, some audience members started laughing derisively. Some boos followed. Then some smug jerk decided to speak for all of us and said, loud enough so everyone could hear, "I wonder if we can all go up to the counter and get a refund?" You can go ask, fuckhead, but please speak for yourself. Another man followed up with this gem: "Well, it was a movie. That's all I can say about it." Then more dismissive laughter. Then I lost it. I started talking to myself, swearing and angrily calling people idiots, still in my normal speaking voice. No one heard me except the people directly behind me. I was flooded with anger. I was angry at them, I was angry at myself, I was angry about not being able to find a job, I was angry at how dumb this country can be, I was angry at my beer gut, angry at my depression, angry at how mediocre life is most of the time. I went on a loud, profanity-filled tirade from the theater to the car and most of the way home about how oppressive crowds are and how most Americans are fat and stupid and how much I hated everyone and everything and why do people have to ruin things and why do people have no empathy and consideration and fuck this and fuck that and everything sucks and will always suck, making my wife mad because she'd loved the movie as much as me and I was ruining her time to quietly think about it and ease back into the daylight. I was being a loud jerk because other loud jerks had ruined my moment.
I calmed down, got myself together. I need to just let it go, but I don't understand this need for distraction. There was so much, SO MUCH, in that movie besides whether or not these characters found water, but that seemed to be the only thing those people in the theater cared about. They wanted a distraction. They wanted a manufactured situation that could be introduced, then solved, so they could forget it and move on to the next distraction. I go to movies, music, and books so I can get rid of these distractions and get away from the manufactured bullshit of jobs and bureaucracies and money and stuff and status and numbness and deadness and mediocrity and narcissism and people like them. They want to sit in air conditioning and see a princess get kidnapped so a princess can be rescued 90 minutes later and then they forget all about it and they drive back home and watch Dr. House solve another fucking medical mystery and then they go to their jobs and they look at applications and they send me an email saying thanks for applying but no thanks and then they die and a few people cry and then those people die and everyone that knew them is gone so nobody gives a shit about them anymore, and the same thing happens to me and to you and to everyone we know, but sometimes we hear a good song or eat a good meal or read a good book or see a good movie or scratch a dog's ear or rub a cat's head or swim or go somewhere we haven't gone or kiss somebody and the distractions stop and that moment is great and it's fleeting but those things can happen again and they will happen again and sometimes even those assholes in that theater have a moment like that and they might even help you if you were stranded on the side of the road and they're probably not so bad when they're not being annoying in movie theaters and I have a great wife and it's late and there are no distractions right now and it's okay.