I’ve just seen for the first time two movies, comedies, that I missed when they came out in 1987 and 1997, respectively: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Grosse Pointe Blank. Neither was anything like I had imagined from what people had told me about them, and both were so deeply weird that they made me wonder what planet I’ve been living on all these decades. Am I weird, or are they?
During the time these movies were made, I was living with someone from another generation and continent, and we were taken up with traveling to Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan, trying to help people get out of the East Bloc before communism fell, and attending international karate tournaments both before and after. So I was a no-show in my own culture. My American clock had pretty much stopped in the late ’60s, when I met Jacques (I count 1972 as the late sixties, culturally), as witness this book I wrote in the ’80s, which was soaked in nostalgia and a naïve, dated idealism that was already being left in the dust of the hippie hinterlands by the streamlined new Wall Street types, and that has since become packaged as New Age, with its aftertaste of spiritual high fructose corn syrup. One distinction I made in the book that seemed crude yet valid was between a “first wave” and “second wave” of baby boomers, the division falling around 1950: the first wave all earnest and mystical, the second wave hip and ironic. Psychedelic drugs, for example, were kozmic revelations to first-wavers and extreme party drugs to second-wavers, occasion for hilarity more than for epiphany.
I have a vague sense that it was Saturday Night Live that set the sensibility of the “second wave,” and that it is out of that SNL sensibility that these bizarre comedy movies emerged. I had a moony “first wave” sensibility and then my clock got stopped, so I never got with the SNL sense of humor. Television has also never really taken with me—the way some lucky people try cigarettes and just don’t get it—and particularly television sitcoms. (Jacques was horrified, when we met, that I didn’t have a television; he got me watching shows from Star Trek to Kojak to Hill Street Blues to ER; I adored The Sopranos, which pretty much ruined regular TV for me; and now that Jacques is gone, I’ve reverted to not having a television.) Bear with me, I’m giving you this background to show you the alien place I’m coming from, in America but not of it when it came to the sitcom and multiplex culture. I also couldn’t take the cruelty of a lot of the humor—Kenny being killed over and over again in South Park; whichever that wildly popular movie was in which the dog was thrown out the window and showed up in a body cast? Something About Mary, right? Never saw it.
Watching these two movies now, I’m amazed by how little they seem to have to do with any recognizable reality. Well, no. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which I expected to be about your worst travel experiences à la Airplane (and which has at least one truly great comic scene, the one that ends “You’re fucked”), is more like one of those nightmares in which you’re trying to get somewhere and you can’t, and obstacles keep multiplying between you and it, pushing you farther away or off in the wrong direction, and you’re trying to call to tell them you’ll be late but none of the phones work. (Dated, pre–cell phone nightmares.) Its weird blend of horror and sentimentality creates a dreamlike alternate universe in which “the world” seems malign and remote. And Grosse Pointe Blank, with its retro 1980s high school reunion that looks as square as a 1950s cocktail party, and its contract killer whose supposed profession never really materializes as anything more than a high-concept plot point, is even more surreal and detached from anything recognizable as experience.
Where was I when my culture was dwelling in this place?? Eastern Europe was just as bizarre in its way, and far more byzantine—literally, with millennia’s worth of intrigue, intricacy and subtlety that makes everything American look as simple as a handshake—but it was, at least in the 1980s, connected to a rock-bottom reality, which was oppression, stagnation, and hardship. There were the secret police and the long lines for bread and the fear of speaking freely. The actual conditions of existence were the referents of culture, in contrast to the great disconnect between Americans’ actual lives and their hallucinatory entertainment.
So I’m like a visitor from another planet looking at this curious phenomenon. My sister and I were wondering tonight why Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (which she saw back around the time it came out) seemed so much funnier then than it does now—has the culture’s sensibility, and ours with it, changed that much? And, an even more unsettling question: did the entertainment of those years emerge from something about American life, or did it emerge from Hollywood—a place disconnected from reality—to influence American life? Did that sensibility have anything at all to do with “the conditions of existence” (the one phrase I’d like to save from a burning of Marx’s books) for the audience, or was it foisted on us, imposed as a sort of overlay, by a bunch of people who were . . . to put it bluntly . . . on cocaine? If the latter, then maybe it did not help us to think about our actual lives but served as a massive distraction or misdirection, like those tests where you have to name the color of a word on a screen, and the letters are yellow but the word they spell is “red.”
Anyway, I am curious about the relationship between actual American life in the 1980s and 1990s and, specifically, the comedy of those decades, which was so massively influential. Was there any relationship? Is one reason why drugs are so rampant now the self-medicating of cognitive dissonance? Is that where Hollywood’s Pied Piper leads?
Or am I the alien, and there’s something to get that I’m just not getting?
. . . at three a.m. may have been the cats chasing something round and round the house. I didn’t know whether it was a giant roach or a house gecko, and I didn’t want to know, though from the zeal and style of the hunting—a rapid slapping down of paws in which running doubles as serial pouncing—I suspected the latter, having seen Buzzy hunt an anole the same way.* This morning I found the gecko, tailless (the least of its troubles), multiply punctured, and bled-out pale. It was still alive, and it cocked its head and looked up at me, as if to say, “Are you going to torture me now?” When I stroked it with a finger instead and put it on the outside stair landing railing, it closed its eyes wearily. A little later I found tiny ants already probing it. Alive, it had haunted me; almost as soon as it was dead, its little sand-colored scrap of a body merged into the inanimate, and it was of no further separate significance, except as a bonanza to the ants.
That’s how our consciousness has to withstand being hunted and tortured by death until it can’t hold out any longer, too much damage has been done.
The next time I hear such hunting I’m going to get up and gently intervene.
*I did save the anole from Buzzy in time. It appeared dead, but on closer inspection could be seen to be surreptitiously breathing. I laid it in the sun, and when its protective death-mimic shock wore off, it took hold and ran away. I think I have seen it, tailless but robust, going about its lizardly business.
Cosmopolitan universalism (often to the point of no longer regarding oneself as Jewish) and clannish separatism are the extremes. In between is a spectrum of compromises, degrees of more or less permeable participation in the polyglot world while still holding oneself to be Jewish. (It goes without saying that other people who care about such things will regard you as Jewish regardless of how you slice it, as many patriotic, Goethe-revering Germans realized too late. I am grateful to be living in the rare time and place where I can say, “That’s their problem.” I don’t take it for granted. But neither am I persuaded to say “Got the name, might as well have the game.”)
I was the cosmopolitan universalist who no longer identified as Jewish until, as I wrote on Ambivablog, I discovered that . . . nothing could be more Jewish! (Here’s the full George Steiner piece that brought that home. The link to it in the blog post leads to a paywall. And here’s the Hillel Halkin article I quote in the update.) It’s a Moebius strip; there’s no getting off it. OK.
Now, in a Sunday New York Times article about Lab/Shul, a “god-optional” mobile community/performance/ritual thingie comparable to an “emergent church,” its originator, a 44-year-old, gay rabbinical student named Amichai Lau-Lavie, again states the two poles succinctly. Here’s the one I identify with:
What matured in me is the sense that Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line . . . That it is a tool in our toolbox for human well-being and being helpful beings, and that there is a difference between many people who really view Judaism or religion as the end goal: In other words, keep the Sabbath or marry a Jew so the Jewish story continues. That’s of course how I grew up. I realized that that’s missing the point.
I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.
(Except that Judaism isn’t even my airline. It’s the one I flew in on, but I fly on a variety of carriers nowadays . . . and sometimes I just flap my arms.) And here’s Lau-Lavie’s (admittedly biased and condescending) take on the other pole:
The pews are filling with people who just want some structure . . . ‘Just tell me what to do. Give me order in the chaos.’ In an age in which we have more and more privileges and choices, the allure of a system that tells you what to do and what not to do, and what to wear and what to eat, and the consequences and limits of your choices, for some mental types, is essential. I get it. It’s a suspension of disbelief in its deepest sense. I’m judgmental of it and I have a lot of respect for it.
We have both poles in my extended family, and a lot of the spectrum in between. We even all get along.
But you have to go over to A Cold Eye to read it.
. . . that even a materialist could love?
I’m not a convinced materialist (that takes belief, and I am not a believer of any kind—I’m as pure an agnostic as you’ll find), but I’m immersed in science all day long and so I am conversant with its core belief, which is—crudely put—that only what has a demonstrable physical, material basis is real. Let’s take that as our premise just for the moment, without taking it as truth or untruth.
We all have odd thoughts sometimes, and what follows was one of mine. It was spurred by hearing about someone who, late in his own life, had quite convincing hallucinatory conversations with his deceased wife. And more than one person my age who has said that it was only when their second parent died that they lost them both. And the truism, maybe especially a secular Jewish one, that memory is our immortality.
What if that’s literally true?
Another ingredient in this thought is having copyedited a book about the Singularity, the techno-geek fantasy that machines will bring us immortality (it’s been called “the Rapture for nerds”). Various mechanisms are imagined, but one of them is transferring our consciousness into a silicon substrate, a deathless machine. I am extremely skeptical of this and think it’s basically a religious hope of escape from death transferred lock, stock, and barrel onto science, but that’s beside my point here.
Which is: What if we actually transfer at least a part of our consciousness into another brain?
That seems less of a stretch than transferring it into the alien medium of silicon. And love is the technology of transfer. Longtime couples, besides sharing a lot of experiences, certainly incorporate parts of each other’s outlook into themselves. “Becoming one flesh” might be a metaphor not only for feeling one another’s joy or pain, but for an identification intimate enough to incorporate some of each other’s cognitive traces. When one dies, then, maybe some aspects of their consciousness literally live on in the other’s brain.
Just putting it out there. When I listen to jazz, it feels like Jacques is listening through me.
Cross-posted on A Cold Eye
Yesterday I read this op-ed by Sherry Turkle about how we can no longer simply think or sense or experience or converse without interrupting ourselves to make a record with a device: we miss the experience in the process of “capturing” it, documenting it.
I don’t really think this is so different from what we’ve always done, either mentally in the form of inner chatter (what meditators try to stop), or externally by keeping journals or sketchbooks. Let’s just say our acquisitiveness has become more visible; in our attempts to grasp elusive experience and compel the moment to seem more real, less dreamlike, we’ve invented a newer, faster, shinier mousetrap. “Better,” well, that can be debated.
In response or no, I left my iPhone behind last night (not for the first time) when I came over to my parents’ house for dinner. The camera is one of the aspects of the gadget I have the least-mixed feelings about. It has enabled me to take some wonderful pictures, and I’m not even a photographer. But I do sometimes get busier capturing the sunset than experiencing it.
After dinner my parents sat down in front of the PBS NewsHour, aptly dubbed “The Snooze” because it’s their excuse for a post-prandial nap. Just as the show rolled into a long feature on whether brain-training videogames can keep you sharp as you age, my mom (90) slumped forward over her baby-blanket knitting (3 more great-grandchildren coming in March!!), and my dad (almost 96) had his head thrown back with his mouth open. The coincidence of sound and scene positively cried out for documentation. (My parents still have their wits in both senses, so I can confidently say that they would find it funnier than we do.)
But I didn’t have my phone. So I decided to do something quaint: try to draw them. (I’m even less of an artist than a photographer.) They did not stir as I tiptoed out of the room and back in with paper and pencil. Long story short, I couldn’t begin to get their faces—it was severely humbling even to try—but I didn’t do too badly with their hands.