Y Marks the Spot: The Token Revolutions

This is what freedom looks like.

Allow me to provide a cynical attitude towards the so-called civilized world’s supportive responses to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  These revolts, portrayed as grass roots movements of the people in response to repressive leaders, have been hailed by governmental PR folks as noble exercises in liberty.  In sanctimonious tones, America’s spokesmen pledge our lip service support to these embattled people as they struggle against armed and licensed to kill oppositions.

Not being intimately acquainted with the motivations or politics behind either movement, the only response I feel appropriate for me to have is that I’m guardedly glad that these people are standing up for themselves.  However, it strikes me as fairly ridiculous that America seems to be hitching its moral wagons to Tunisia and Egypt without actually doing anything to help.  Just as sports fans use the Royal We in describing their favorite teams, quite a few spectators of democracy seem to have the attitude that a victory for the people of Tunisia and Egypt is a victory for lovers of democracy everywhere.

I’m sorry to burst the bubble of those whose biggest worry in life is who wins the Super Bowl, but unless you’re on the field, you will never win a game.  Likewise, it’s easy to cheer on the cause of democracy and the advancement of civilization in impoverished countries when you’re not actually there doing the work.  And as great as many things are about America, one of its greatest faults is that its people have become a nation largely comprised of spectators.

I’m no different.  I remember watching the madness that followed Iran’s presidential elections in 2009, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a pretty sketchy re-election.  People lost their goddamn minds and took to the street, risking injury and death against government forces and deputized goon squads – and sometimes getting it.  I followed all the chaos, awe-struck, wondering why this explosion of democracy never happens in America.  You know, like in 2000, when our own divinely ordained doofus won the presidency under dubious means.

But that’s not our style anymore.  Activism has been outsourced.  Much of the reason for that is because we’re very safe (and we have all of that delicious safety to lose).  Most citizens of the world’s most advanced countries don’t live in fear of cops bursting through their doors and gunning them down.  Oh, they’re repressed, but they’re not violently repressed.  The groupthink required to spark these massive demonstrations is pretty much incapable of getting fired up over vague concepts like wage slavery, economic warfare, bailout heiresses, censorship, and corporate mismanagement – and it’s even more difficult to get people to stand up if they first have to put down their computers.  It’s hard to get people into the streets without a visible atrocity – and even then, how many of us watched Columbine, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill as though they were fictional news channel sitcoms?  I know I did.

Another reason why Americans don’t take to the streets and howl for liberty might be because the cops would call it a riot and club, tear gas, and tazer all the protesters until it was squashed (see: WTO Protests, Seattle, 1999).  Just like what’s happening to those citizens of those fine countries the free world is currently rallying behind.  Democracy is a fine idea, but a government’s a government, power is power, and job security often masquerades as national security.  I’ll say this until I die: the main difference between good and evil as they’re commonly defined is opportunity.

American culture proclaims that one revolt was good enough.  On the subject of national misbehavior, America is the equivalent of that old hippie who talks your ear off about how he fought The Man back in the 60s, though these days he spends his days crusading online for the legalization of pot.  We all think we’re rebels, with our countless ways of self-customization that tell that big, uncaring world that we are different, we are special.  But (fully anticipating the English majors) democracy and freedom – two quite opposite concepts, actually – are meant to be verbs, not adjectives, not static possessions.  They aren’t found in the spoiled and often psychotic posturing of wannabe Founding Fathers like those you find in the Tea Party.  They’re not found on the computer screens of those sanctimonious lefties who feel that all it takes to bring reason and light to the world is a well-placed Tweet blasting said Tea Party or some other conservative sacred cow.  Yes, speech is a vital part of exerting one’s freedom, but pointless, entitled, and actionless speech is often worse than silence.

If there is any aspect in our sanitized world that holds the exciting danger of real revolt, I’ve found it in the recent phenomenon of internet whistleblowing personified by Wikileaks.  I love that for quite a few of us who live in a country where free speech is such an unquestioned right that corporations were allowed to enact a hostile takeover of it, websites that dare to call bullshit on the objectionable excesses of those in power are somehow beyond the pale.  Love them or hate them, the people running these sites are the new poster children of First World revolt, putting themselves in real danger for a cause they believe in.  And if this phenomenon becomes a subculture of leaderless, permanent vigilance, so much the better.

Problem is, it’s easier and more encouraged in America’s modern culture not to be this brave.  Instead, it’s easier to jettison our convictions when they become inconvenient, when we clock in for work, when we’re put out in public, when there’s a chance someone – anyone – will disapprove.  As much as we bitch, there’s such an air of resigned depression in our culture that not only recognizes but tolerates the banality of evil.  That’s a sure sign of a civilization’s decline.

The Designer’s Drugs: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Anno: 2010

 

There’s a point toward the end of Our Tragic Universe where the protagonist, a disappointed author of genre fiction, advises a peer to cloak his nonfiction research in a fictional clothes.  The reason behind this proposed deception is that while most people approach nonfiction with a critical eye and aims to disprove its theories, people tend to approach fiction in the opposite direction, ready to put all the pieces together in the way that most makes sense.  It’s clear that this attitude colored the entirety of Our Tragic Universe, which is ostensibly fiction but also brings to bear many philosophical asides.  It’s in many ways a mixture of Scarlett Thomas’ previous works, mixing the crippled and frustrated storytelling of Going Out with the metaphysical and sexual End of Mr. Y. Sometimes the mixing gets a bit jarring, the narrative and human lives suddenly getting usurped by discussions on the nature of reality.

To be honest, it took me the better part of the first hundred pages of Our Tragic Universe to get behind the story.  In this opening, the author in question, a late thirties DIY chick named Meg, tromps around her small town, poking her head in and out of the local dramas of her friends and fellow esoterics.  Most of these people are a combination of frustration and insanity, usually attempting to screw, scream, or bullshit their way to a state of distraction.  It’s kind of a depressing slog at first, but as I was trying to work my way through I came to a realization.  It’s about failure. After my change in perspective, Our Tragic Universe became rather wonderful.

I should have picked up on this point earlier, when Meg recalls a vacation in which she as a child met a pair of magical – possibly mythical – people out in the middle of nowhere.  At the end of her vacation, the man of the duo tells her that she would come to nothing.  And really, this sets the tone for the remainder of the book, in that Meg’s purpose here is to discover what nothing really is and how that doesn’t have to be a negative concept.  Slowly and with the assistance of some events that may be either simple fortune or supernatural intervention – an ambiguity which is purposely unanswered – Meg begins to dispel her life’s inertia.  It’s likely that in my accepting that this book was about failure, I set myself up to be satisfied when the main character outgrows her nothingness and gives evidence that it’s never too late.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Dumb and Dumberer

Film: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003)

Director: Troy Miller

Starring: Derek Richardson, Eric Christian Olsen, Eugene Levy

Written by: Troy Miller, Robert Brener

I don’t intend to use this time to glorify what is a pretty terrible prequel.  On the whole, Dumb and Dumberer is a substandard ripoff of a film that I don’t think has aged that well in the first place.  Here, the dimwits Harry and Lloyd are teenagers bumbling around hormones and high school, handled with all the subtlety and restraint as any teen flick in the past decade.

It should be a sign that Eugene Levy, a guy who has unfortunately become a code word for a franchise’s worn out welcome (see: American Pie 8: Stifler Takes Manhattan), pulls out his stock flustered old man character for this gem.  This time around the typecast, Levy is the villain, a corrupt principal who attempts to exploit Harry and Lloyd for some nefarious financial scheme.  Throw in a bros before hos subplot and Harry’s MILF, and, wait a minute, this is an American Pie movie!

There is one aspect of Dumb and Dumberer, however, that I could appreciate.  For all of their other sins, the creators of this movie did a good job casting the lead idiots.  Though it would be impossible to replace Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey, Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen fill the shoes of Harry and Lloyd as well as anyone could have.  Both actors seem to actually care about keeping the characters true to the first film, in both presentation and behavior, and as such they hit moments where the teen and adult versions are barely distinguishable.  In what is essentially a series of slapstick situations thrown at the pair, Richardson and Olsen weather the figurative and literal crap as best they could.

If the people around them weren’t a pack of shit and retard-obsessed opportunists, Dumb and Dumberer actually could have been a decent film.

Y Marks the Spot: The December Experiment, Part Two: The Fortress of Solitude

I’ve referred to my stretch of travels around the country last month as The December Experiment because I tried something to change my routine, in order to see if I could develop better habits in my day to day life.  Six months of ungainful employment and the resulting cabin fever led me to some rather pathetic behaviors.  There were a few video game marathons during that time, but worse still were the days, even weeks, in which I did nothing but channel surf the internet, not looking at anything important or even specific, yet not knowing what else to do.  I developed this junkie habit while surviving a period of incredible abandonment and loneliness, which makes it all the more dumb that it persists in a house full of people, years later.

So the main element of The December Experiment was this: I’d get all my writing work done, turned in, and posted before heading out, and then I’d leave my computer at home.  Which I accomplished.  I wrote up one month’s worth of journalism in a week’s time, and each time I left Washington I was largely technology-free, save my electronic book, iPod, and camera – all of which had little potential for sloth.  I felt pretty good about myself.

After suffering the holiday scorch of Phoenix, I was excited to return to Wisconsin: for my friends, for the snow, and for the ability to drink like a free citizen of the world.  There are a few things I don’t miss about the Midwest, but the nigh-Irish drinking culture isn’t one of those things.  Living in Washington is pretty goddamn wonderful, but to its discredit, this state HATES its liquor.  Getting a vodka screwdriver out here feels like undertaking the Odyssey.  Any intoxicant not beer or wine can only be sold in state-run liquor stores with Jesusy hours of operation and prices double those of equivalent products sold in Wisconsin.  Perhaps I’ve had it too good for too long, but it feels blasphemous to drop twenty bucks for a tub of cheap vodka.

Worse still is the abomination I’ve discovered here known as the Beer Bar, in which liquor is shunned outright.  For those like me who can’t so much as sip a beer without gagging, this institution makes bar hopping an exercise in proper planning that honestly isn’t worth the trouble.

There was a voting initiative in Washington this year which would have cut out all this hateful bullshit, but it was defeated on the strength of baby crusaders – terrorized parents who seem oblivious that the legal drinking age is 21 and not 5 – as well as, appropriately enough, the beer industry.  Maybe I could get vodka easier if I could get a medical clearance for it.

Thus, after flying into Milwaukee and spending a few days lurking in my mom’s east Wisconsin Fortress of Solitude, I rode into La Crosse on Christmas Weekend, ready to flail, to make a fool of myself, and to suffer Valhalla-grade hangovers.

On the Thursday afternoon of my arrival, I found the town exactly as I left it, which felt both reassuring and depressing.  Being too early to immediately dash to the bars, I met up with one of my friends, and we accompanied his kid to Chuck E. Cheese.

Having recently been reacquainted with Arizona’s weapon fetishist gun laws, I picked up on a strange sign at the exit of the kid’s restaurant, one which expressly forbade bringing guns into Chuck E. Cheese.  No shit, says I.  Dumber still, however, was the advertised punishment for violating this law – a stiff charge of trespassing.  So what happens if a person actually fires a gun in this Chuck E. Cheese?  Disorderly conduct?  Jaywalking?  First-degree Boys Will Be Boys?

But this night was not the time for philosophy; this was the time for action.  And soon I found myself in my ancestral downtown, slithering down from Sobriety Summit.  I had a good time – and an even better one during my traditional drunken Christmas Night festivities, in which my friends and I watch the original Star Wars Trilogy and get sloppy – but boozing in Wisconsin hadn’t been the legendary adventure I had hoped it to be.  There weren’t any stories to come from Christmas weekend that were any better than the ones I already have.  Instead, there was a lot of calm, and low-key reunions, hanging around a small group of friends, and me wandering around town by myself, killing time without agenda or that awkward onslaught of catching up that invariably accompanies homecomings.  Which was perfectly fine.

I was returned to the Fortress of Solitude a week later, where I spent another week in comfortable limbo before going back to my already structureless existence.  And it was there where The December Experiment, well, it didn’t fail, but it wasn’t a wild success.

The other side of the Experiment, once the mindless slog of the internet was cut out, was to fill that void with something more productive.  I had brought notebooks and journals, ready to fill page upon page with new ideas for all the writing projects I plan to do.  Yet for most of my vacation, those pages went blank.  Mostly, this was because I’m very easily distracted, and wherever I was, I was rarely in a place where I could block everyone out and get to serious work.  My mom’s place, for instance, was a bit cluttered at the time, and there weren’t many places untouched by a running television.  It left me with an unhealthy knowledge of both Frasier and The Nanny, two TV shows whose theme songs will now never escape my brain.  It was easier to play video games and ignore the constant static than actually work.

But things didn’t end badly.  On the last day before leaving Wisconsin, I developed a code of conduct which I’ve been attempting to turn into the new habit ever since.  It’s coming together, not with the unrealistic and easily frustrated flashes of epiphany and revelation, but with a slow assembly that, given time, could become the new routine.  December Experiment, meet the January Plan.

And the Sea-Tac Airport's lovely Vomit Station

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Bundy: Legacy of Evil

Film: Bundy: Legacy of Evil (2008)

Director: Michael Feifer

Starring: Corin Nemec, Kane Hodder

Written by: Michael Feifer

This isn’t the first time I’ve tangled with Ted Bundy in film, though this is likely the first time I’ve seen a Bundy flick in which the serial killer wasn’t a lovable slapstick goofball and was played as, you know, a serial killer.  Whereas Matthew Bright’s 2002 take on the Tedster was a laugh riot that occasionally paid lip service to the fact that its hero was a real life monster, Michael Feifer’s take on Bundy reverses the ratio.  Sure, there are a few absurdist moments in the film (more, if you consider the omnipresence of Ted’s tight pants, faux cowboy boots, and sweet 70s do), but there’s no ambiguity to the film.  Unlike Bright’s Bizarro treasure, I didn’t wonder whether I should be laughing or recoiling in horror.  The Ted Bundy presented here is at best a twitchy yet likeable prick; at worst he’s, well, Ted Bundy.

The entire strength of this film rests upon good casting.  Corin Nemec of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose fame is absolutely spot-on as the lanky, baby-faced psycho killer.  Nemec excellently portrays both ends of Bundy’s psycho personality, playing up the man’s overbearing charisma and the rage beneath the veneer.

And when Nemec lets loose with the crazy, he is legitimately frightening.  The best example of this comes when Ted goes on a nighttime rampage through a sorority house, smashing girls’ brains out with a baseball bat and explosive ritualism.  Throughout, Nemec plays Bundy straight out of Nosferatu, creeping around the dark hallways, more predator – indeed, more vampire – than man.  The outbursts of violence that follow feel as though they end not because Bundy runs out of hate, but because the human body can only absorb so much damage.

Yeah, there are a few great moments of goofiness.  The scene where a drunk Ted rambles his red VW Beetle of Death along a highway before getting busted for owning a rapekit is pretty happy-go-lucky.  Better yet, Bundy pulls one of history’s great dick moves when he reunites with his ex-girlfriend in California.  After a swell day out on the town they hit a classy restaurant, where Bundy proposes to the girl.  Overjoyed, she accepts, after which Ted hits the bathroom and just leaves her.  Perhaps all the murder got desensitizing, but that move was just cold.

I’ll always have a warm spot for Matthew Bright’s screwball slaughterer, but Michael Feifer’s Bundy is the superior film.  Corin Nemec’s magnificent portrayal of Bundy hits all the right notes, most of all a sense of reality which makes this horror film all the worse.

Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy (2002)

Director: Matthew Bright

Cast: Michael Reilly Burke, Boti Ann Bliss

Director Matthew Bright has done the impossible – he has turned Ted Bundy into a comedic genius. After watching this movie, I can’t even look at pictures of the most notorious serial murderer in American history without Bright’s bumbling caricature popping up and making me snicker. Ted’s not scary anymore; he’s a slaughterhouse rodeo clown, traipsing the country in his yellow VW Beetle of Death, raping and killing to an upbeat disco score. Ted Bundy is the mass murderer’s equivalent of Springtime for Hitler, so stunning in audacity that it must become a cult classic.

The film doesn’t screw around in belaboring its statement of purpose. Our first glimpse of Ted comes in his morning routine, looking into his mirror and performing what appears to be a Tourette’s-fueled rubberface. From there, Ted embarks on a pleasant day out, frantically stealing televisions from storefronts and gigantic potted plants from hotel parking lots. The evening draws Ted to a swinging club, where he boogies down with a co-ed before following her back to her place and angrily masturbating outside of her bedroom window. After a second-floor neighbor cockblocks Ted with a pitcher of ice water, the creep scurries away, clubbing a random woman in the head and stealing her purse for no good reason. Yeah, the rest of the movie pretty much follows this formula, and (seriously) ends with Ted getting a fistful of cotton balls up shitter, followed by credit music that would be more appropriate as background for winning a new car on The Price is Right. Jesus.

Though there are a few scenes which induce genuine squirm, it’s clear that Bright – no stranger to crap filmmaking – set out to make a comedic slasher flick, and slapped the Bundy swerve on for the illusion of weight. Michael Reilly Burke plays a passable Ted, though any depth he hoped to bring to the role was surely squashed after clubbing the fifth or so oblivious girl to death. Boti Bliss plays Ted’s girlfriend with such dithering stupidity that they ought to have put a helmet on her. The victims may as well be crash test dummies. This is both a glorious skewering of a dreadful affair, and a spit in the face to all those affected. It’s hard to determine which is greater.

Oh, Ted, you rascal. You got us again.

Y Marks the Spot: The December Experiment, Part One: 80 Degrees and Snowing

Leaving Washington - the rare and noble Lubemobile.

Despite being broke, I managed to spend the last month riding parental goodwill throughout the country, attempting to cure my growing insomnia, frustration, and sloth. These travels took me through a lot of airports. Luckily, I never got groped by any TSA agents – but I did play Seven Minutes in Heaven with a baggage handler. At least I didn’t have to take my shoes off.

My first trip took me to the rocky deserts of Phoenix, where I hung out with my dad and two sisters in the unholy 80 degrees of December. As I flew over the city, I came to a realization that the main difference between Phoenix and the Middle East – both barren, highly conservative regions led by corrupt officials who have at best a heavy disdain for egalitarian human rights – is swimming pools. Maybe I was simply flying over a good neighborhood, but every other house had a backyard that was half turquoise with irrigated water. It got me to thinking: maybe to create peace in the Middle East, we should give the people there swimming pools.

I saw a few strange things while in Phoenix that had nothing to do with the local culture: a television remote that had Braille on it, a basketball game on the Cartoon Network, a video of the Metrodome caving in from a Minnesota blizzard. But the strangest thing I saw on this trip was my dad.

In all his glory.

My old man is a professional gambler, and like all professional gamblers he aspires to be one of two people: Kenny Rogers or Confucius. Like most gamblers, he was never a source of family stability – or anything not resembling sloth – so I found it weird that my old man was now the caretaker of a new puppy which had the horrible name of Baby. Despite having years ago sent me a weird email in which he considered getting some tropical fish to fill some void in his life, this is the first living creature he has been responsible for since my parents got divorced 13 years ago. Surprisingly, he seemed to enjoy the responsibility – though I fear that the dog will get less attention once it gets older and less cute.

Odder still was some of the shit that came out of his mouth while I was there. My dad is one of those strange and outlandish people who doesn’t get how he could have strange and outlandish children (and all three of us are). He derides my warped sense of humor, yet a decade ago called me in the middle of the night, stoned and telling me terrible jokes about cow tits and poor Mexicans. During the brief period I lived with him in Phoenix, he got stoned (again) and started freaking out about how amazing the live-action Flintstones movie was. In another late-night phone call, he told me that he signed me up to be a salesman for some acai berry energy drink because (he said) he thought it was a fantastic product. But no, I’m the weird one.

One of the main topics of conversation during this trip was my dad’s shut-in gambler girlfriend, an old oxygen-huffing gold digger who had dated my old man on and off for the better part of a decade. The recent drama involved this prune suckering my dad into buying her a phone, following that up with some ungrateful shit-talking. My sisters and I ganged up on him, ultimately convincing him to get back the phone and kick her to the curb, but he weakly defended his troubled relationship by calling her “the hottest 64 year old on oxygen.”

He followed up that gem by diving one of my sisters and I around town, ultimately taking us to eat at a well known Chinese restaurant he kept mistakenly referring to as PG Chang’s. On the ride there, he proclaimed his faith in a god of some sort before loudly pondering the possibility of what his life would have been like if he was gay. Um… I guess that since I owe my existence to the fact that he boned my mom, I should say… thanks?

He would follow this up by saying that if he had been gay, he would have gone for our slick as oil waiter. After a few drinks, he got weird and started talking about his marriages. Of my sister’s mother, my old man gloated that he had fooled her into thinking that he wasn’t one of the biggest potheads in town, which seemed kind of sketchy to say. Of my own, he bragged: “When we first met, your mom and I had a lot of sex!”

It was at this moment when my selfish gratitude for my dad’s heterosexuality began to wane.

The Singing Cowboy helped, though.

The old man went on to suggest that I write his biography, but, in so many words – and no doubt never having read a word of anything I’ve written – he wanted me to tone down my weirdness and make it more accessible. The first hitch came quickly, as he recounted his side of the story of when I got kicked out of a casino for pissing in an empty parking lot and embarrassing him in front of all his fellow gamblers – conveniently forgetting the part of the story in which I watched him play poker for 14 hours straight and would have rammed my head through a wall to get out of the casino. Oh well; a modern classic fails.

I like my dad, and we had a good time in total, but it helps if there’s a slight barrier between us. As such, I’m glad I stayed at my local sister’s place, where I slept on her gigantic couch and beat back sleeplessness. And after our time was over, the old man took me to the airport, and after a few days at home in Washington, I set out again and exchanged the desert for the snow.