I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip. I read ten pages before a business card fell out. I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later. The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc. I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.
In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them. For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine). At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.
That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all. First, formulate a predictive model about how something works. Then, perturb your system. If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong. If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model. Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).
In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show. Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?
(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin. He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose. The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse. He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there. Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)
As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans. He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away. But he was wrong. He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.
He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share. And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs. He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.
Lin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs. If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).
And those business cards? They made convenient bookmarks. Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.
This seemed like a great advertising strategy. Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.
I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.
Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter. I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.
When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring at the camera from atop a camper’s bed. MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.
And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.
But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …
… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.
The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone. When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old. She soon became pregnant. As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs. I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not. Some are quite frequently not sober.
During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to. His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “
Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.
Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore. The murder occurred in August of 2012. Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.
I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation. That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father. That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.
I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.
Most likely, you are being watched. If you spend any time in urban areas, you surely pass by numerous surveillance cameras each day. Recent advances in computational image analysis allow the movements of every person in a crowd to be tracked.
Big Brother has hungry, hungry eyes.
Worse, you’re probably collaborating with the invasion of your own privacy. If you carry a smartphone with a GPS device, you have – according to U.S. legal precedent – consented to be monitored. Your every movement traced, the rhythms of your life documented in exquisite detail. When you sleep, when you eat, where you shop…
In the U.S., many people assume that the police cannot spy on them without probable cause. This is the gist of the Fourth Amendment, after all. We are ostensibly shielded from search and seizure.
Thankfully, my local library bought a copy of Barry Friedman’s excellent Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission, and I learned that this assumption is wrong. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, our courts have issued ruling after ruling that erode Fourth Amendment protections.
If the police are allowed to stop and search people at will, they can apprehend more criminals. As a corollary, huge numbers of innocent people will be treated like criminals. In Friedman’s words:
It is plain from what is happening on the nation’s streets, and in its airports, that Terry’s elimination of the probable cause standard has set the police loose on the rest of us. Not just to stop us, but to place their hands on our bodies and possessions. The police still ostensibly need articulable suspicion to forcibly stop people – that much is clear – but what counts as articulable suspicion is deeply suspect, and the Supreme Court has done virtually nothing to rein in this sort of conduct. The stops occur, the frisks follow almost automatically, and the bodily integrity of millions of people is violated without good cause.
Our courts have ruled in favor of Fourth Amendment violations so many times because they only hear cases in which criminals – or dudes carrying drugs, at least – were caught via illegal police behavior. The “penalty” that courts are supposed to impose on the police in these instances is referred to as the “exclusionary rule.” When the police violate the Fourth Amendment, any evidence they gather is supposed to be ignored during a trial.
But it feels bad to ignore evidence. When somebody has clearly violated the law, judges want to throw that person in jail. No, not the police officer. Violating constitutional law does not merit jail time. But if a person had drugs, and the police found them? Our judges want to put that person in jail.
Do we really want to let drug users or dealers back onto our streets?
(Hint: the correct answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Without even considering the ethical implications of what we’ve been doing, it’s pretty clear that imprisoning them endangers us all. But most judges disagree.)
And so, case by case, our judges have decided that this time, the police did not actually violate the Fourth Amendment. Our judges excel at rhetorical gymnastics. As long as a judge can argue that a particular search was constitutional, then the cops are in the clear. No evidence need be discarded. Another criminal can be locked away. Everyone is happy.
Almost all the rich white people are kept happy, at least. Everyone who counts.
These rulings have been issued by judges considering only a single case at a time, one instance when a police officer’s illegal search found evidence of a crime. Because the “exclusionary rule” is the only penalty the courts are willing to impose on police officers – i.e., it’s exceedingly rare for police officers to be fined for their illegal activities on the job – people who were illegally searched but had not committed a crime have no chance for redress. If you’re already innocent, what good is the exclusionary rule? You don’t need any illegally-obtained evidence to be ignored.
And so it’s worth considering how often innocent people are searched. From Friedman:
… Judge Pratt got a specific answer to Judge Arnold’s question: How often do agents stop suspects and hassle them like this, only to come up with nothing? The agents in the case before him testified they “spend their days approaching potential drug suspects at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.” In 1989 “they detained 600 suspects … yet their hunches that year resulted in only ten arrests.” Ten hits out of six hundred people harassed. Less than a 2 percent hit rate. Judge Pratt concluded, “It appears that they have sacrificed the fourth amendment by detaining 590 innocent people in order to arrest ten who are not – all in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’ “ In other words, it could be you.
That was three decades ago – since then, the situation has gotten worse. Despite the Fourth Amendment, police officers can stop and search you at almost any time, for almost any reason. Especially if you’re driving a car, in which case you’re almost assuredly breaking some law. No matter how minor the infraction, at that point searches become legal.
Most of us should be aware by now that the burden of innocent people being treated like criminals does not fall upon all people equally. Our nation’s poor, as well as anybody with above-average concentrations of skin pigment, are routinely abused. Wealthy white people are free to assume that our constitutional rights are still intact.
The minor consolation? The teensy benefit of all those life-endangering stops and searches? At least people know they’re being searched.
The courts have also ruled that you do not have Fourth Amendment protections when your behavior is visible in public. If a police officer glances at you, notices you’re carrying a jay, and busts you, the officer has done nothing wrong. Which seems sensible enough. But the police are also allowed to augment their natural senses using any tools “commonly available” to the public.
If you have a fenced-in backyard, for instance, the police are allowed to fly over it in a helicopter and take high-resolution photographs with a telephoto lens. After all, any member of the public could’ve done so – lots of people have copters and telephoto spy cameras. Right? So you should have no expectation of privacy. Or, if you’re in your house, the police are allowed to watch you using heat-sensing devices. They can aim infrared cameras at the walls and watch you move from room to room. After all, infrared devices are “commonly available” as well. Many smartphones have some semblance of this functionality.
Of course, anyone who carries a smartphone is even more exposed. You have “voluntarily” given data about your location at every moment of the day to a third party. Whenever you have shared information with others, the police need only present a “reasonable suspicion” to silently siphon it from that third party. They can obtain all your data with a subpoena (a privilege explicitly granted by the 2001 Patriot Act, but already in line with court precedent), and these are invariably granted.
At least the recent bill caused more people to notice how little privacy we have.
I collect pictures of fire hydrants. I travel a fair bit, and walk around a lot when I do, so I have seen many interesting ones.
Also in Mumbai.
But I don’t always have a camera with me. So I thought that today’s essay should be a brief paean to three lovely photographs I didn’t take.
1.) Shortly after I arrived in California, I was walking from Menlo Park to Stanford’s campus. It was, as ever, a gorgeous, sunny day. And then, just after passing the shopping mall, in front of a sparkling green field and a wooden fence, I saw a young woman and her mother standing still ahead of me. The young woman had a camera aimed at a yellow hydrant.
Later, after they’d walked on, I stopped and inspected the hydrant. There was a small anthill in the dirt nearby – presumably this was not visible in the young woman’s picture. There was an ocher stain on the hood where some paint had flaked away, but most of the yellow coat was smooth. It had the same shape and size as the vast majority on campus.
Ah! To have documentation of strangers also collecting fire hydrant photographs!
2.) Between my home and the university library, cattycorner to the bus stop where many music students wait to be ferried to the practice halls, there were two hydrants within two feet of each other for about a week. One was painted a light shade of green, the other gray. The ground around them was patchy with bare earth and course gravel. They were on a slope, the green hydrant slightly above the gray.
I had plenty of time to return home, grab a camera, and hike back to take a photograph. It was splendorous, and mirrored a dream I’d had during college, of hiking through Chicago on a fire hydrant safari and finding a street corner with four hydrants visible together, one at each vertex of the intersection.
But I grew complacent. I thought those hydrants would be paired forever! Each time I saw them, I said to myself tomorrow I’ll remember to bring a camera.
And then, one day, the gray hydrant was gone. I’ve taken people to that intersection to tell them, once, there were two hydrants together. The other was right here, right where I am standing.
If I had a photograph, people would believe me.
3.) Last week, I was driving my spouse home from work amidst a clamorous thunderstorm. It was slightly after eleven a.m. – K left work early for a doctor’s appointment. Four blocks from our house, she spotted a hydrant – with a long metal stem attached – lain supine in the grass.
I circled back so we could see it again. And said, as soon as the rain stops, I’ll jog here with a camera!
The rain stopped during our kids’ nap. K was at the doctor’s. I stayed home, reading while they slept, until she returned.
By then, two hours had passed. I ran to that spot with Uncle Max (our dog) and a camera. But the fallen hydrant was gone, the nearby hole covered up, the metallic corpse carted away.
If I carried a smartphone, I wouldn’t have this problem. Most newer models have excellent built-in cameras. Whenever I saw a catchy hydrant, I could take a brief break from twiddling with my twitter and snap a photo. (As long as my device left me sufficiently attentive to notice hydrants.)
Instead, I have a seven-year-old flip-phone. Camera-less, text-message-less, often turned off. (And, unlike a smartphone, it actually does turn off.)
Memory is fascinating. It’s incredible that mere patterns of linkages could cause a past experience to overwhelm us. And we remember so much — most people seem able to vividly recall occurrences from a wide variety of times throughout their lives.
I’ve written a few posts about memory previously (here, here, and here), and so was obviously excited when I saw an advertisement for Simon Critchley’s new book Memory Theater. In addition to my fascination with neuroscientists’ efforts to understand memory, futurists’ efforts to reproduce it, and therapists’ efforts to re-color it, I’ve always loved writers’ efforts to understand the workings of their own minds. Because memory is so difficult to appreciate from outside someone’s head, hearing someone’s description of what memory feels like is still one of the best ways to understand the phenomenon. Proust is still mentioned quite frequently in neuroscience reviews.
Critchley’s book also appeared as though it would address the workings of our minds. The basic plot is simple enough. A philosopher receives boxes full of a friend’s old notes after that friend’s death. The notes contain both musings on memory and, alarmingly, a set of charts, one of which predicts the date of the philosopher’s own impending demise.
Reading the description of a box full of occult astrological charts, I couldn’t help but think of the “Jimmerson Spiral” from Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis. A lovely book, Masters of Atlantis, featuring an incredibly unreflective man named Lamar Jimmerson who starts a cult in the United States after being scammed in Europe. A grifter named Robert sold him a specious pamphlet about an exciting new religious order, the Gnomon, and, after failing to find higher leadership in the order, Lamar assumes that he himself might be regent. He returns to the U.S., spreads the order, and embellishes the cult with his own speculations… including the idea that fate can be predicted based on a diagram he deems the “Jimmerson Spiral.” The book is full of wry humor, very understated, like in this early passage:
The Armistice came and many of the doughboys set up a clamor to be sent home at once, though not Corporal Jimmerson, who remained loyally at his switchboard. He even volunteered to stay behind and help with all the administrative mopping-up tasks, so as to replenish his savings. In May 1919, he received his discharge in Paris, and went immediately to Marseilles and got deck passage on a mail boat to the island of Malta.
On arrival in Valletta he took a room at a cheap waterfront hotel called the Gregale. He then set out in search of the Gnomon Temple and his Gnomon brothers. He walked the streets looking at faces, looking for Robert, and clambered about on the rocky slopes surrounding the gray city that sometimes looked brown. He talked to taxicab drivers. They professed to know nothing. No one at the post office could help. He managed to get an appointment with the secretary to the island’s most famous resident, the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but the fellow said he had never heard of Gnomons or Gnomonry and that the Grand Master could not be bothered with casual inquiries.
Lamar found three Rosenbergs and one Pappus in Valletta, none of whom would admit to being Master of Gnomons or Perfect Adept of Hermetical Science. He tried each of them a second time, appearing before them silently on this occasion, wearing his Poma and flashing the Codex. He greeted them with various Gnomon salutes–with his arms crossed, with his right hand grasping his left wrist, with his hands at his sides and the heel of his right foot forming a T against the instep of his left foot. At last in desperation he removed his Poma and clasped both hands atop his head, his arms making a kind of triangle. This was the sign for “Need assistance” and was not to be used lightly, Robert had told him. But Pappus and the Rosenbergs only turned away in fright or disgust.
Was he being too direct? A man who wishes to become a Freemason must himself take the initiative; his membership cannot be solicited. With Gnomonry, as Robert had explained, it was just the reverse. A man must be invited into the order; he must be bidden to approach the Master. Perhaps he was being too pushy. He must be patient. He must wait.
In addition to Masters of Atlantis, I often found myself thinking of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. Sebald’s work came to mind due to the discursive nature of Critchley’s text: in addition to passages describing events as they occur in the narrator’s temporal frame of reference, we read about philosophy, philosophers, musicians, and the narrator’s own past.
Thomas Bernhard’s Correction is alluded to throughout. The protagonist of Correction is similarly tasked with understanding a misguided construction project from the scattered notes remaining after a friend’s suicide. Indeed, both Correction and Memory Theater build toward the idea that perfection and cessation are inextricably linked. And both use interesting stylistic devices to convey a sense of madness to the reader. In Correction, there’s a disorienting propensity for repetition, as though the ideas and even sentences themselves are being worked over again and again in search of some platonic ideal. In Memory Theater, Critchley conveys mental duress through his liberal use of choppy sentence fragments; when these work well, the effect is quite striking:
I went to see a psychiatrist with psychoanalytic sympathies on the Upper East Side. Expensive. Platitudinous. Useless. He suggested hospitalization and prescribed antipsychotic drugs.
The protagonist of Memory Theater becomes obsessed with building an edifice to physically embody his memories. He invents symbols to represent everything he knows and uses these symbols to decorate figurines within a small chapel. Sitting inside, he feels that he can slowly move his gaze through the building and recollect everything he knows.
Clearly a foolhardy proposition. The fascinating thing about how much we remember is that it would take reams and reams of text to describe the same set of information stored by our neurons. In that tiny lump of fatty flesh. The theater built by Critchley’s protagonist obviously can’t convey the contents of his mind to anyone else, and it couldn’t even stir his own remembrance of everything he knows. He only built figurines to represent the memories he was able to consciously recall. If someone gave him a relic from his past, much more might swell forth unbidden. Memories he hadn’t even realized he still had.
Those relics are fascinating. Such small objects. And yet immense, sprawling narratives might be hidden by each.
For instance, a prisoner recently requested that I send a book of photography. I looked through our inventory and pulled The Best of Photojournalism 6 for him. Then began flipping through the pages: the prisoner’s facility, in addition to disallowing hardcover books and anything with spiral bindings, won’t let me send pornography. The Best of Photojournalism 6 certainly didn’t sound pornographic, but I figured a guard might flip through and check for racy photographs, which meant that, if I wanted to make sure the package didn’t get returned, I ought to too.
I didn’t notice anything overly scandalous, just a photograph that’d been used to illustrate a magazine article on peeping toms. This showed a man holding binoculars to his face, and reflected in each eyepiece was the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a diaphanously curtained window. The artist had made the image by cutting out the pictures of the window w/ undressing woman, pasting them into the eyepieces of his binocular image, then re-photographing the entire collage.
As I was flipping through the book, a letter fell out.
Dear Photographer: One or more pictures you submitted is under consideration for “The Best of Photojournalism 8.” Please give me some personal insight into your feelings about this photograph, what you were trying to do, etc. This will give added perspective to the picture as it is used in “The Best of PJ/8.”
The letter was postmarked two months before I was born.
How strange, I thought. This photographer received his acceptance notice, tucked it away into a previous edition of the series, and then, years later, donated that book. Good ol’ PJ/6.
I hope he kept his copy of volume 8, the one in which his own work (presumably) appeared.
And, getting back to Simon Critchley’s work — you can easily imagine that the recollections triggered by holding that envelope again and reading the actual letter inside would be far more vivid than anything the photographer might recall if shown a symbolic representation of that episode from his life. It’s quite possible that if the photographer were building his own memory theater, he wouldn’t even think to include anything related to that picture from over three decades ago. But surely there’s a story.
I suppose Amélie would try to get the letter to him and let him remember.
A recent graduate from our local track & cross country teams is an artist, just now begun his freshman year studying photography in Vermont. Despite being the fifth fastest 800-meter runner in our moderately-sized state, Peter often did his recovery runs with me. A very biphasic runner: extremely fast on his workout days, slower than his teammates on his jogging days.
I’m not certain what it is about running that enriches for math & science people, but artists are often underrepresented on our teams. Naturally, this meant that I would chitter nonstop about art on our jogs together. On one uliginous 89-degree day, air flickering opaque as it threatened to condense (or perhaps that was merely my eyesight flickering due to incipient heatstroke), we ran to the husk of a defunct grocery store so I could show him my favorite graffiti in town.
Bloomington has some decent graffiti, especially considering the town’s small size. It can’t compare to the Mission district of SF, or to any of the hotspots in Miami, but alongside the anarchy symbols and ACABs and YOLOs and whatnot we get some good work.
My recent favorite, the piece that Peter & I stood and drippingly admired for two minutes before turning around and hoofing it back to the high school, is shown below, poorly stitched together using the automated algorithm on Photoshop after I snapped a few pictures with my brother’s phone. I believe credit is due to “II PAS,” wherever you are. Strong work: beautiful interplay between the cement’s topology and the schematized depiction of aging.
A few months before I showed him that graffiti, we arranged for Peter to take an author photograph of me. Midway through a run, I noticed a small pond with a decrepit stairwell descending into the water. It looked straight out of a fantasy novel. Sunlight iridescent across the surface of the pond. Dried plaits of algae dangling over the limestone steps.
My imagination leapt immediately to the bombastic: me emerging from the water, dripping, notebook and pencil in hand, beginning to ascend the stairs. On a bright day my skin would gleam, each bead of water articulate as it fell.
Peter decided we’d do the picture in the middle of the night.
And the nearby retirement community had turned on a pump: that “staircase” was apparently a waterfall. We still attempted a few shots with me walking up or down the waterfall, but soon progressed to a more Swamp Thing aesthetic. I was told, “Okay, duck under, then wait a second before you come up.”
But the oleaginous, unfiltered liquid of a PLEASE NO SWIMMING retirement home water feature is not conducive to good health. The risk to my garb was fine — I was wearing a long green furry bathrobe evocative of a skinned Muppet, a castoff that even Goodwill had shunted to a discount rack — but it’s surprisingly difficult to spring menacingly from a pond while enswathed in many pounds of sodden fabric and an unfortunate quantity of slime.
Also: while splashing through the pond, I tripped on and then excavated a disquietingly large trash can. It was nearly empty, which may have explained some of the rubbish I was flailing theatrically amidst.
Maloderous glop clung to my clothes. Dried cattails pierced my hands. Sludge got into my eyes and up my nose. My skin stained brackish. And dreadlocks are not known for ease of cleaning. For the next two weeks, each time my hair got wet it dripped grey.
A few days later, I found a spray mister of lavendar essential oil while dumpstering (college students pitch such treasures!), but even with compulsive thrice-daily misting until that bottle emptied, I still smelled unmistakably of pond for the entire month.
Peter was happy with some of the photographs, though.
One quick remark before I launch into this essay: I typically type these while N is playing at the YMCA, so I had to take several screenshots of the film before coming here so I could consult them alongside my other notes. But Apple’s built-in screencapture won’t function if the DVD player is open; I’d never realized. I wasn’t pleased. To me, this is analogous to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals with aversive agents. Doing extra work to intentionally reduce the functionality of a product, in the absence of any safety rationale, seems like a waste of time at best.
Sure, pharmaceutical abuse is a huge problem in the U.S. But I don’t think that adulterating painkillers with compounds that can cause suffering is the right solution. If we as a people decided to spend more money on psychiatric interventions, then great! But spending money to add poisons to medicine, in ways that might harm legitimate users, is pretty crummy.
Apple’s attempt to prevent copyright violation is obviously much less bad. Nobody’s going to become physically ill. Just, like me, mildly frustrated.
Luckily the proscription was easy to evade: there’s a brief guide on the website “High School Blows” that explains how to work around this. And, right, that is why I wanted to type this preamble to today’s essay. Because having an active verb that means “to be bad” is great! I love the simplicity of sentences this offers. Noun, verb. Bam! Two words and you’re done. You’ve conveyed “The aforementioned thing is a rotten thing.” And, better yet, you’ve also done it in a way that, linguistically, reveals a measure of political or ideological subversion. I happily used the verbs “suck” and “blow” this way for years.
I don’t anymore, though. Writing a book… well, no… it wasn’t until I was re-writing the book several times over… I had to think carefully about each word I was using. I tried to learn a lot more etymology. And I’m not keen on the idea of using a word that means, roughly, “is bad because it likely performs oral sex on men.” The original etymology (circa 1970) was homophobic, and by now oral sex is sufficiently common amongst heterosexuals in the U.S. that you could reasonably interpret these verbs as having a misogynistic subtext as well. So I no longer use them.
But I really want an action verb that means this! My current fallback is to say “is rotten” in conversation whenever my mind proffers the verb “sucks,” but this is much less powerful. If anybody out there has a good word for “is bad,” I’d love to hear it… my casual banter has been suffering for years now!
Okay. That’s the end of my little diatribe. Now on to your regularly-scheduled essay, a review of eleven seconds from Boyhood.
There’s no dialogue in the segment of Boyhoodthat I’m planning to review. To me, that’s a benefit — I felt that much of the film suffered from the fact that the dialogue was realistic to the point of banality. There are some movies which, by watching them enough times, help you reach a point where you no longer need original thought in order to “converse” with people; you can instead rattle off movie quotes as they seem appropriate (Repo Man comes to mind here, along with several Monty Python movies, several Coen brothers movies). But there are others, including several that have received very good reviews recently, wherein the dialogue never seems to rise above what a compulsive eavesdropper is likely to hear around town on any given day.
Blue Is the Warmest Color, for instance, had few scenes in which the dialogue felt crisp. That’s part of why I couldn’t feel invested, especially because the film mainly seemed to convey braggadocio from the director to his audience as regards his manipulation of Adéle Exarchopoulos. As though the director were saying, this is a human being, sure, but I can make her do whatever I want. If he wanted another close-up of her eating in order to reinforce a message about her voracious appetites, bam!, he got it. A close-up of her crying, snot-snerking face puffy and spasming? Bam! A voyeuristic scene of her naked frame grinding her pubic bone into an S4-symmetry-operated proxy of herself? Bam! And sparkling dialogue only during the scene in which the director refers to his own stand-in as a genius for attempting to depict female desire.
Or, earlier, there was The Dreamers, wherein the dialogue only shimmered when the American exchange student was remarking upon coincidences between the size of a cigarette lighter and the dinner table (which was a great scene, to be fair — “I mean, it really fits anywhere. Look. See? I was noticing that the more you look at everything, this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes” — but I felt that the movie’s dialogue never again rose to those heights).
In Boyhood, the only time I felt the dialogue was even trying to be fancy was at the end, when the psilocin-modulated collegians have a brief conversation that reflects back on the nature of the project: “It’s constant, the moment, it’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”
But even this stab at philosophy falls short of, say, the brief dialogue during the credits of Boxtrolls (which, right, that is a brilliant scene. Definitely worth seventy seconds of your life).
In fact, most pieces of the film seem to have been done better elsewhere. For the father figure providing relationship advice I’d substitute Roger Dodger, for the kid interacting with his mother I’d substitute Transamerica, for a lot of the suburban strife and feeling out of place while a seemingly-ordinary childhood drags on I’d substitute David Sedaris’s earlymemoirs.
The only uniquely memorable set of dialogue, to me, was the speech given by Ethan Hawke in which he admitted that, nope, our world has no elves, but we have other creatures that would sound equally magical and bizarre if not for the fact that we know they exist. That seemed like pretty good fathering and was a catchy set of lines.
And, sure, it was a very cool special effect to have a single actor play this role as the character ages over a decade, but a lot of the press I read about the film lauded it much more than other films with cool special effects. In a way, that makes me think of the Matrix movies. All three of them had cool effects, but I doubt many people ever re-watch the latter two: the cool effects are all those two movies have going for them. Whereas the first actually has a soul beneath its shiny exterior.
With Boyhood, most of the film doesn’t seem impressive if you take away the special effect.
In fact, my favorite review of the movie as a whole was given to me by a running buddy: “While I was watching it, I kept thinking there was about to be a car accident. But the accident never came.” Even though he’d told me that, I too kept expecting a car accident; all those portentous remarks about seatbelts! And drivers were rarely sober.
Immediately after I finished the film, I sent an email back to him: “Maybe the car wreck happens after the credits, when they’re driving back to campus.” From the dialogue, it didn’t seem as though they had a sitter; maybe you’d argue that the woman sitting next to the protagonist at the end was not on psilocin because her eyes weren’t dilated, but the protagonist’s weren’t either for that scene. Doesn’t seem like they loaded up an eyedropper with scopolamine for the verisimilitude.
Still, I was thrilled to be watching the movie for the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22. Those are great. And, you know, maybe that’s enough. Like, the first time I read Jack Kerouack’s On the Road I spent most of the book thinking it was nothing special… and then I reached this passage:
I was getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Denver Doll called me one night and said, “Well, Sal, guess who’s coming to Denver?” I had no idea. “He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine. Dean bought a car and is coming out to join you.” Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again. There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car. Everything was up, the jig and all. Behind him charred ruins smoked. He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive. We made hasty preparations for Dean. News was that he was going to drive me to Mexico.
“Do you think he’ll let me come along?” asked Stan in awe.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said grimly. We didn’t know what to expect. “Where will he sleep? What’s he going to eat? Are there any girls for him?” It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.
That last sentence is so incandescently beautiful that I forgave all the excesses that had come prior to it in the book: this beautiful sentence needed the book’s shambling heft to exist. Without context it looses some of their power; I’m not even sure that passage will seem appropriately beautiful when slapped up on a website like this. Likewise, it’s possible that the eleven seconds I loved of Boyhood could not have existed without the rest of the movie.
At this point in the film, the protagonist is driving across Texas to attend college: despite anything you may have read about the infantilization of modern college students, this marks his transition from boyhood into adulthood. The song “Hero” by Family of the Year is playing. Seems like an excellent choice of music; especially the line “…holding down a job to keep my girl around and maybe buy me some new strings…” just before he opens the passenger side door to his truck in order to retrieve his camera. Indeed, it’s a scuffless Canon EOS in stark contrast to the battered Toyota he’s driving. I think the combination of hearing that line and seeing his camera reveals a lot about the kid’s: like the singer, he’s been working in order to afford the tools needed to pursue his art.
In fact, this scene does more to reveal his personality than the vast bulk of the movie. Lots of kids drink beers when their friends are drinking, lots of people rant about the way modern technology exploits evolutionary quirks of our brains, lots of people (unfortunately) are put in a position of rebelling against too-strict father figures while failing to make a real connection with a yearned-for, insufficiently-strict biological father. But this scene displays a measure of loneliness and solitude in his pursuit of art, and it changes the way a viewer interprets his earlier dark room conversation when he claimed that he often spent whole weekends out shooting pictures. This scene lends that statement credibility, and demonstrates what those weekends might have been like.
I do wish, if the kid was meant to be shown developing into an artist, that we’d more often seen him viewing photographs, rather than taking them. To the best of my recollection, the only photographs taken by other people that he looks at are lingerie advertisements when he’s six, online pornography when he’s nine or ten, and then a picture of a cute pig on Facebook when he’s seventeen. I think it sends a bad message about what the process of making art is like to exclusively show him producing art, never viewing it. In my own life, I’d bet that I spend some seventy percent of my work time reading, at least two-fold more time than I spent writing. And, sure, it’s unrealistic to expect a bildungsroman to serve as an instructional guide, but I still dream (I should probably be using the word bildungsfilm here instead, but to my anglicized ears that sounds less cool).
The protagonist begins his photography session by taking a picture of a perfectly boring rusted lamp, but by the time Family of the Year are singing about “secrets from our American dreams” he has moved on to a loftier goal: snapping a picture of the fire hydrant standing outside the Roadrunner Deli.
This hydrant is red, with a chipping coat of paint and some yellow flecks vaguely reminiscent of scattered pollen covering its domed bonnet. It’s a dry barrel hydrant, which surprised me; although I’ve never been to Texas, the impression I have is that the place is hot enough that it would freeze rarely, if at all. The barrel itself is also much more slender than the squat, round hydrants present in most of the urban and suburban places I’ve lived. I’m not sure if that is in any way related to the potential flow-rate of the hydrant; to the best of my knowledge, a solid-red hydrant with a coat of paint as old as this one’s appears to be does not indicate a sub-500 gallon per minute flow rate. Modern hydrants, especially in more populated areas, generally have a bonnet color that doesn’t match the rest of the hydrant and signifies the water pressure it has access to.
And then, after Family of the Year portentously sings “baby needs some protection,” we see the image of the hydrant from the protagonist’s perspective. It’s a fine image: the hydrant is posed at a jaunty angle in the center of the frame, as though it were ready to stroll forward along the path between scruffy cacti and desiccated tree stump. The outlet cap is facing the viewer at an angle, the lower standpipe juts up out of the ground, the chain dangles down out of the viewer’s sight. Its surroundings also give a sense of the loneliness of this place, although fire hydrant photographs can be deceptive that way: because most people capture hydrants in close-ups, they often appear removed from the bustle of life.
Then he leaves, off to college, and we next see him pulling into the parking lot of his dorm. Walks through the hallway, the song fades into humming, ambient noise of incipient freshman gabbing rises and takes over the audio.
So, really, it’s only the eleven seconds when he was actively photographing a fire hydrant that filled me with joy. But I think it’s fair to ask, is that enough? Does one beautiful passage justify a book? One beautiful scene justify an entire movie?