The Room

In addition to violating most of the rules of competent film making, The Room (2003) also violates Aristotle’s law of noncontradiction. It is both really bad and really good at the same time. In fact, the reason why it is so good is because of how really bad it is. Here is a film whose success rests precisely on its failure and whose failure is its success. By ignoring most of the advice for good story telling delineated by Aristotle thousands of years ago in Poetics, writer/director Tommy Wiseau has created an inadvertent masterpiece whose grand achievement is made clear by the effects it produces in audiences. The proof of the film’s worth is in the pudding. Each month hundreds of people repeatedly attend midnight screenings of The Room in order to participate in a ritual of group catharsis that Aristotle would, I think, be forced to admit is a symptom of some sort of aesthetic achievement.

I, my wife and some friends tried to get in to see The Room one Saturday night last month, but were turned away because the show was sold out. This surprised and intrigued me, so I made sure to buy advanced tickets for the next midnight screening the following month.

This time, arriving at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco about 30 minutes early, we encountered a huge mob of people, engulfed in a billowing cloud of marijuana smoke, milling around on the sidewalk socializing. The atmosphere was boisterous but good natured and friendly. Many of the attendees, in addition to being stoned, were obviously also very drunk. When we took our seats in the fully-filled movie theater, a group of young women seated behind us yelled in uninhibited inebriation, their shrieks nearly piercing our eardrums. “I want nachos,” one of them moaned. “This is a Landmark Theater, not Cinemark!” her friend chastised. “They don’t serve nachos.” Yes, this was obviously a classy place. No nachos here.

Before the film, a black-clad, rocker host gave a short introduction, asking that attendees refrain from throwing objects at the screen during the show and warning that there would be no refunds for any reasons whatsoever. He then chose 5 young men from the audience to participate in a contest in which they did their best impressions of Johnny, the main character in The Room. “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” each of them exclaimed in turn, clenching their fists and staring skywards in emulation of Johnny’s wooden acting. Prizes were distributed (a rubber duck, a poster, a small statue) and then the movie began.

In Poetics, Aristotle outlined the necessary elements for successful dramas. According to his account, all dramas are forms of artistic mimicry, with comedies mimicking ridiculous people while tragedy mimics the actions of noble people.  The goal, in both cases, is to produce catharsis in the audience; a purging of emotion that occurs when audiences either laugh or cry. A good comedy causes laughter and a good tragedy provokes tears.

The way that catharsis is produced is through the skillfulness with which the author of a drama balances a number of structural elements. A drama must be well organized, having a beginning, middle and end. Without this, events will be chaotic, the audience will become confused, and thus they will not be emotionally absorbed in the story. The plot should also be of the correct magnitude, not too long or too short, but lengthly enough to be interesting and not so lengthly that it cannot be “taken in by memory” [Poetics 1451a5]. An audience member should be able to hold the entire trajectory of the plot in his or her mind so that it can be appreciated as an entirety. Furthermore, the events in the drama should unfold according to the rules of probability, otherwise things will appear logically implausible and thus fail to evoke an emotional reaction in the audience.

A quick, cursory description of the plot of The Room gives no obvious indication of its incompetence. The movie tells the story of Johnny (Tommy Wiseau), a banker who is engaged to marry Lisa (Juliette Danielle). Lisa, however, does not love Johnny, and so she seduces Johnny’s best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero). Johnny discovers the affair and ends up killing himself. The film appears to be intended as a tragedy, and insofar as it has a clear beginning, middle and end with a magnitude that can easily be encompassed in thought, Aristotle would, on the face of it, have no objections as far as this goes. It is only when trying to describe the film’s chain of events in more specific detail, however, that its sloppiness really starts to become apparent.

Johnny and Lisa live together in a San Francisco apartment, and they are frequently visited by Denny (Phillip Haldiman), a young man who Johnny apparently takes care of. Denny pops in and out of their apartment unexpectedly throughout the film for no apparent reason or purpose. In a sense he seems like the goofy neighbor in a silly TV sit-com; the one who suddenly materializes in order to utter some familiar catch-phrase that the audience chuckles at in knowing recognition. However in this movie, there is no indication that his presence is intended to be humorous. In fact, he doesn’t appear to serve any purpose in the plot at all. His character is superfluous; like a third nipple.  Nevertheless, he is also the central protagonist in another brief subplot involving a drug dealer who threatens to shoot him. This encounter, like Denny himself, appears and then suddenly disappears for no apparent reason. Thankfully – unlike Denny’s character – this story strand never reappears after it is introduced.

Then there is Lisa’s mother, Claudette (Carolyn Minnott). Claudette repeatedly appears and then suddenly disappears from the apartment giving Lisa the opportunity to complain to her again and again and again (and again and again) about how she does not love Johnny. Claudette advises her daughter to go ahead with the marriage anyway, since Johnny is rich. At one point Claudette reveals that she has breast cancer, but no one seems all that concerned. This crisis (like the one involving Denny and the drug dealer) is ignored by the characters and goes nowhere at all.

While these sorts of superfluous elements in The Room violate Aristotle’s demand that a drama be plausible and economical, with no loose ends or unresolved conflicts, it is these same glaring incongruities in the film’s plot that appeal to fans of the movie. When Denny makes his numerous unannounced appearances, veterans of The Room stand up from their seats, yelling “Where the Hell did you come from?” at the screen. When Claudette abruptly leaves after speaking only briefly with her daughter, these same folks scream, “Where are you going?” After announcing her cancer diagnosis, the audience chants, “Cancer, cancer, cancer!” during Claudette’s subsequent appearances. When Lisa confesses, yet again, to her mother that she doesn’t love Johnny, the audience screams, “You already said that!”

In addition to superfluous subplots, The Room contains a string of equally superfluous, and incongruous, scenes that follow one after the other with no logic. At one point some of the male characters appear in tuxedoes while tossing a football in a city alleyway. Why they are there is never explained. During a party scene, a character who has not previously been introduced suddenly appears to catch Lisa and Mark kissing. The audience, at this point, yells, “Who the fuck are you!” in mock confusion. Throughout the movie, various characters mysteriously rendezvous on the apartment’s rooftop patio, apparently by coincidence. Johnny, after being addressed by name in a floral shop, is then told by the florist that she didn’t recognize him. The flowers he buys from that florist, incidentally, transform in the next scene into a different bouquet.

Then there is the repetition: of over long, unappealing, unerotic sex scenes; of tracking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge; of bodies of water; of footballs being tossed between characters. The audience knows when these will occur, and they are ready. During the sex scenes, they make loud munching noises – Myowwww, myowww, myowww – mocking the sound of French kissing. During the tracking shots, they yell, “Go, go, go, go!” anticipating the camera’s arrival at the end of the bridge. In scenes where the movement from one end of the bridge to the other is not completed, they moan in disappointment, “Awwwwwww!” When the camera does victoriously reach the end of the bridge they cheer in delight, “Yahhhhhhhhh!” Whenever water appears, they chant, “Water! Water! Water! Water!” When a football appears on screen, groups of movie goers gather in the aisles and throw their own footballs back and forth. At each appearance of an odd, framed picture of a spoon that sits on a table in Johnny and Lisa’s living room, the audience yells, “Spoon!” and then lets loose with hundreds of tossed plastic spoons that fly through the air like a cloud of swarming locusts.

I found myself doubled over in laughter while watching this movie; not so much because of what was transpiring on screen, but because of how passionately members of the audience were interacting with the movie and with one another. The absurdities of The Room are endless, and the creative ways that viewers find to highlight those absurdities are absolutely hysterical. Johnny, who is supposed to be a rich and successful American banker, appears to be nothing of the sort; what with his long greasy hair, ill-fitting suit and unidentifiable Eastern European accent. When Lisa’s mother asks her daughter why she doesn’t discuss her problems with Johnny, one audience member yelled out, “Because he doesn’t speak English!” When Charlotte asks Lisa why she doesn’t listen to her mother’s advice, someone yells, “Because you’re a whore!” At any point that two characters interacted with one another in any way, someone (sometimes more than one person) inevitably yelled out, “Why don’t you just fuck already?!” Yes it was all very juvenile. Yes it was all very crude. But it was also outrageously sidesplitting.

Aristotle was an empiricist, and so he demanded that conclusions about the merits of dramatic art be supported by observable evidence. Since he claimed that the final goal of any drama is to produce a cathartic release of emotion in audiences, to determine whether any particular drama is successful or not he would want us to observe the effects produced before judging it a success or as a failure. In the case of The Room, there is nothing in its objective, formal structure alone that would indicate that it is anything but an atrocious, incompetent, ill-conceived failure. In fact, I would say that there would be very little point to watching The Room at home alone on your DVD player. What makes the film a success is the addition of a stoned, drunken crowd that is familiar with its numerous incongruities, absurdities and lack of logic. It is then that what was intended as a tragedy is transformed by the powers of the audience into a comedy. They are the true authors of this event, and it is their enthusiasm, creativity and passion that makes a midnight screening of The Room so cathartic.

Seattle APA 2017

The 91st annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was once again held in Seattle, Washington this year. I was invited to present a paper, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, which met as a part of the conference.

My last visit to Seattle was also the first time I had ever been to the city. My wife and I had a great time, so we looked forward to seeing the place once again. Deciding to try something new this time around, instead of flying we travelled the 800 miles by car, with stops in Ashland and Portland. After the conference we drove back to the Bay Area in one day; a test of endurance that proved, due to torrential and blinding rain, to be the biggest challenge of the entire journey.

The quickest route from Marin County to Seattle is to get on Interstate Route 5, point the car north, and hit the accelerator while dodging 18 wheel big rigs and Highway Patrol speed traps. Route 5 through California is straight, long and mostly boring, cutting through farmland and rural towns up until you reach the area around Mt. Shasta, near the California/Oregon border. It is here that the road begins to get more interesting and curvy while the scenery becomes more awe-inspiring. As we climbed in elevation through the Cascades, we were treated to beautiful views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and breathtaking vistas from the mountainous pass into Oregon.

Along the way through this region of California, we began to see signs proclaiming that we had entered the State of Jefferson; a proposed 51st US state. The push to carve this state out from Northern California and Southern Oregon dates all the way back to 1941, but recently there has been a renewed burst of enthusiasm, with the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors voting in 2013 for cessation from California. While much of the motivation behind the creation of Jefferson is rooted in the feeling that this area of California is more conservative – more “red” – than the rest of the state, there is, apparently, also an alternative, punk-inspired energy associated with the movement as well. On a recent visit to Yreka, the proposed capital of Jefferson, a friend of mine discovered a flyer authored by “Jefferson Crew,” a coalition that strives to foster a sense of community among small town punk scenes in the area:

Passing through Jefferson, we entered into Oregon and stopped for the night in Ashland. We had visited this destination many times before; both as a convenient stop while on motorcycle rides and as attendees at the town’s famous Shakespeare Festival. This time around we had dinner with a friend who had recently moved here with his wife and his new family. We had pints and mushroom burgers at the Standing Stone Brewing Company before turning in for the night and then continuing our quest.

A short, 300 mile northward jaunt took us to Portland, where we stayed the night at The Kennedy School, an elementary school, first opened in 1915, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. The classrooms (complete with chalk boards) have been converted into rooms, the cafeteria into a restaurant, the offices into bars, and the gymnasium into a movie theatre. The school is located in the middle of a suburban area, and serves as a meeting place for locals, conference goers and travelers. Visitors wander the hallways, sipping beer and wine that has been made on the premises, browsing the restored decorations, antique equipment and old photos, or lounging in the soaking pool. That evening, after a salmon dinner, we went to see Rouge One at the movie theater, relaxing in one of the very comfortable couches that serve as audience seating. The seating was so comfortable, in fact, that I fell asleep halfway through the film.

The next day we set out on the final leg of our journey, arriving in Seattle after braving our way through a torrential downpour that made things downright terrifying. Visibility was only a few feet, and I spent much of this part of the drive keeping my eyes on the glowing red tail lights of the car in front of me, hoping that they didn’t drift off of the freeway while we played follow the leader. Happily, as the skies cleared, and as we saw signs for Sleater-Kinney Road, we knew that we were getting close to our destination.

The APA Conference was, once again, held at the Westin Hotel, in downtown Seattle. I’ve written in previous postings about how the character of the APA has changed over the years. It has evolved from an organization that was at one time mostly unwelcoming to non-analytic philosophers into one that now seems enthusiastically to embrace a wide range of continental and non-western perspectives. In addition to the session on humor and philosophy that I participated in, I attended a fascinating panel discussion that addressed Hegel’s response to nihilism, another panel on the positive aspects of negative emotions (like envy and disgust), and a really interesting symposium addressing inconsistencies in the arguments of Socrates as he is depicted in the early Platonic dialogues. Conversation was lively and people were friendly.  I had the chance to meet and chat with an advisor of mine who I had not seen in many years, as well as discussing potential book projects with a commissioning editor from Palgrave Macmillan. This felt the way a conference ought to feel. We were able to mix with people of like interests, gaining exposure to new perspectives, and sharing ideas with others. The conference was certainly a success.

On our previous trip, we didn’t explore the downtown sections of Seattle too extensively, but this time we spent more time walking the streets and exploring various neighborhoods. One of the places we visited was  Left Bank Books, an anarchist collective that sits on prime real estate, right in the middle of the tourist area at Pike Place Market. I love the fact that this radical, independent bookseller is nestled among overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, sitting right down the street from the very first Starbucks cafe. It has an amazing selection of literature, ranging from poetry, to philosophy to history to fanzines. While there, I purchased a copy of Beating the Fascists and dropped off a couple of copies of my own book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel. 

Afterwards, we walked up to Belltown, where I dropped off more copies of the novel at Singles Going Steady, an incredible punk rock record/DVD/memorabilia shop. I spent a while talking with the guy working the counter who, as it turns out, originally comes from my own home of Marin County. We reminisced about old times, sharing memories and swapping opinions about our favorite bands. Afterwards, across the street, my wife and I played videogames and pinball at Shortys, a hipster bar with lots of atmosphere, good pints and friendly staff. We also went shopping at Gr8Gear, an old-time, no nonsense army/navy surplus store where we were attended to by a very friendly Sikh man who helped us find the correct sized hats and pants while also recounting his adventures in the navy. We then wrapped things up by joining a street march and protest that was conveniently winding its way through the streets as we emerged from the store. While the protest was no “battle in Seattle,” it was, I think, an appropriate capstone to our visit.

I’m looking forward to seeing Seattle again. After this second visit, I feel as if I’m more familiar with the lay out of the city and the areas that I would like to return to for further exploration. The place feels friendly, and the culture is agreeable to my tastes. If they could just dial the rainfall back a notch and raise the temperature, I could even imagine living here.

 

The Nihilist at College of Marin

COMniihilst

Thanks to Dave Patterson, John Erdmann, Sarah Frye, Joey Della Santina and the rest of the staff at the College of Marin library for hosting my presentation on The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel, March 9th.

The event was well attended by students, faculty and members of the community. A fascinating discussion about nihilism followed the presentation. Thanks to all who attended for their interest and participation!

Agent Orange

Agent OrangeThere are times when I think I’m just too old for this. But I still can’t help myself.

I left the Agent Orange show with a number of bruises, a sprained middle finger, a messed up knee and a new hat. I earned all of these prizes slam dancing.

It had been years since I last jumped into the pit. At some point this particular evening, something in me snapped and I felt the urgent need to join in with the bodies collectively spinning like a whirlpool at the foot of the stage. Arm in arm with two of my 50 year-old friends, we middle-aged hooligans marched in circles until we could hardly breath; stumbling, falling, getting back up, yelling and finally resting against the stage, heaving heavy breaths and sweating buckets.

And then we were off again, running in wide circles, dragging one another around the pit, falling down, getting up, yelling and thrashing about until we were once again too winded to move any further. Besides the members of Agent Orange, we were probably the oldest people in the place. But that was OK. The last time I saw this band I was a teenager and I was doing exactly the same thing; losing myself in a cathartic expression of Dionysian frenzy.

I am unable to offer any subtle aesthetic critique of the music. I don’t know if Agent Orange played well or poorly. All I can say is that the songs were familiar and performed with enough passion and energy that I was moved at some basic, primal level to kinesthetically purge some not too deeply buried emotions. Some people go to church for this feeling. Some people attend sports events. Punk rock works best for me.

The lyrics to one of Agent Orange’s own songs describe it well: “I’ve lost my sense, I’ve lost control, I’ve lost my mind!”

Garden of Memory

ColumbariumIt was a library of death. Corridors leading nowhere were lined with thousands of urns containing human cremains, stacked side-by-side like books on a shelf. Some of the urns were accompanied by portraits: pictures of couples when they were young paired with pictures of the same couples when they had reached old age. In one of the spaces there was a small statue of a boat piloted by the grim reaper. In another there was a Father’s Day tribute to someone’s long dead dad, expressing how much he was missed.

MusiciansAnd then, juxtaposed with all this gloomy seriousness, there were musicians. They were tucked into various nooks and corners within this labyrinth, playing up-beat folk music, experimental electronic music, singing choral pieces. There was a theremin. There were horns and drums. As we rounded each corner, aimlessly wandering and browsing, we would stumble upon yet another performer, surrounded by onlookers, crowded so thick that it was often difficult to even see who was making the music.

Chapel of the ChimesThis was the Garden of Memory, a yearly event held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA in celebration of the Summer Solstice. The Chapel of the Chimes was founded in 1909, and still serves as a crematorium and as a columbarium; a place where the ashes of the dead are housed and memorialized. The idea to use this as a setting for an avant garde musical event was hatched in 1995 by a writer for the East Bay Express newspaper, and now thousands of people flock here to wander the hallways, socialize and listen to strange music each summer.

My wife and I attended this event for the first time this year at the suggestion of a friend. When it was first described it to us, I was a bit dumbfounded. What a strange idea for a concert! I couldn’t image that this would be the sort of thing that would attract many people, given the macabre setting. I supposed that, since most people like to avoid thinking too much about death and mortality, this would be the sort of thing that maybe a handful of folks would find freakishly appealing. But in fact, on this particular day it seems that the living outnumbered the dead at the Chapel of the Chimes.

Crowd2As might be expected, alternative and hipster types were present in large numbers. There was a legion of Dr. Marten boots, lots of unnaturally colored hair, tattoos and piercings. There were big bushy beards on many of the young men, and dreadlocks on many of the young women. But there were also lots of children, senior citizens and just plain normal looking middle-aged folks. It was a far more culturally diverse crowd than I would have expected to find at an experimental music concert held in a crematorium!

ContentmentAs the three of us wandered about the event for two and a half hours, I began to realize that the music all around was acting like a buffer keeping the omnipresent reminders of death comfortably at bay. We would watch some musicians and then peruse some of the urns. Our conversations would turn to the topic of our own deaths, and then we would be distracted by the sounds of a flurry of horns. Wandering down a corridor lined with memorial plaques, we would meditate on human finitude, and then emerge into a crowd of people, appreciatively taking in the sounds of an amplified guitar. This quick and continuing fluctuation between images of death and life ultimately left me with a feeling of calm. Looking around me – at my wife, my friend, the thousands of strangers among whom we were engulfed – I had a sense of how all of us, packed into this building devoted to death, shared the same condition. We all will eventually die, and this might be a something like a preview of what it looks like in the afterlife.

Laibach

ExistenceLaibach played at the Filmore in San Francisco on Saturday May 30th in support of their new album Spectre.

I enjoyed the performance. The music from the new album is not as consistently strident and driving as on some of their other albums (like Wat) but more atmospheric, evoking a kind of controlled force that never quite reaches a full crescendo. Surely, if you came to the show expecting merely energetic dance music, you would have been disappointed. One of my friends, in fact, complained that he felt as if he was being teased; led to the brink but never quite experiencing the “orgasm.”  I, however, was mesmerized, carried along by the sounds, which were at points operatic, at points light-hearted, and at other points pure noise. One “song” simply sounded like the grinding of metal wheels; another sounded like an ominous, melancholy national anthem; another was a happy, whistling tune. The overall mood was the point, however, not particular songs, and in conjuring this mood, Laibach succeeded. Gathered together amongst others in a darkened hall, I felt as if I was in the midst of an authoritarian spectacle of barely restrained power and primal dynamism.

CrowdMuch of Laibach’s success hinges on their intelligent use of totalitarian iconography. Drawing on fascist, communist, islamist and American symbols, Laibach knits together a narrative out of pictures and sounds that depicts our world as a place where power, oppression and domination are the facts that we must contend with. Laibach encourages us to wonder if we should fight against these forces or if we should become allied with them.  If do fight against them, must we ourselves also become brutal and ruthless?  Throughout the course of the show, I felt myself pulled back and forth between these related impulses toward capitulation and opposition. At points I unselfconsciously pumped my fists in the air, feeling part of the mass. At other points I became detached, observing the others around me who were absorbed by enthusiasm and emotion. At points I was part of the group. At others I detested the group.

TanzViking long ships, spinning swords, swastikas, marching boots, the Statue of Liberty; all of these images (and others) flashed across the screen behind the band. Out of context, it might have been mistaken for some sort of right-wing rally. In context, it contributed to a commentary on the totalitarian impulses inside all of us. Slavoj Zizek claims that the genius of Laibach lies in the group’s aspiration to be more fascist than the world’s real fascists. This is precisely how they succeed in revealing the mechanisms of authoritarianism and how it functions to entrap the unwitting masses.

The Angry Samoans @ Gillman Street

imagesIn the late 1970’s I was introduced to the music of new wave and punk rock. My life, after that, changed forever. In high school I was a misfit, spending most of my time in the library, reading books about mercenaries, bigfoot, and spontaneous human combustion. I didn’t really have many friends, and I rarely socialized with people my own age. The only time that I went out in the evenings was to go see a movie.

I first learned about the band DEVO when my sister and her husband brought me to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Before the start of the main feature, a short film of the DEVO song The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise was shown. I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of this bizarre piece of raw, edgy music, but it left an impression on me that I could not shake. This inspired me to seek out other similar artists, and thus I discovered bands like The Suburban Lawns, M, Lene Lovitch, The Stranglers, and Blondie.

Angry Samoans Set ListMy first introduction to hardcore punk came when my neighbor loaned me The Dead Kennedy’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and The Angry Samoan’s Inside My Brain. It was the Angry Samoan’s record in particular that caused a rush of adrenaline to rise in my system with an intensity I had never before experienced. Here was a kind of viceral, angry, wounded yet smart-alicky music that was a direct mirror of my own teenage angst. The band’s bizarre lyrics and raw musical sound were like sonic illustrations of my inner emotional preoccupations, giving an unashamed and sometimes indecent voice to my sense of alienated anger. The snotty, teenage voice of the lead singer, Metal Mike, was matchless, spewing forth venom over a bare basic musical backdrop of guitar, bass and drums. The music, like the album sleeve, was conveyed in a stark, intense, black and white simplicity. The world of the Angry Samoans was not complicated. The world sucked, people sucked, and together we could confidently yell “fuck off!”

DSC08587Over the following years, as I became part of a community of like-minded punk rockers, I had the opportunity to see The Angry Samoans play live countless times. I can’t remember the first time that I saw them perform, but the most vivid memories I have are gigs at the I-Beam, in San Francisco, and at Ruthies’ Inn, in Berkeley, where they played to packed houses, provoking the assembled crowds into violent and frenzied slam dancing. The band’s energy was almost overwhelming to the audience, and without participation in the rhythmic marching and aggressive thrashing of bodies in the pit to act as an outlet, it would have been unbearable. There was a power and excitement to these performances that I have never experienced when watching any other band.

Metal Mike

Metal Mike at Gilman Street

That was over 30 years ago, and the Angry Samoans are still around. The band’s lineup has changed, but Metal Mike is still the anchor point; still singing the same songs and still complaining that his “old man is a fatso.” Their latest performance was at the Gilman Street Project in Berkeley, and I went along with my wife and niece. The show was kicked off by the bands Instant Gratification, Cornelius Asperger and the Bi-curious Unicorns, Oppressed Logic, and the Wasted Ones.

Oppressed Logic

Oppressed Logic

I especially enjoyed Oppressed Logic, a band formed in the mid-90’s with members that gleefully try to offend people’s “PC” sensibilities. Their music is unrelenting in its aggressive intensity, and they really whipped the small crowd into quite a frenzy. Afterwards, I bought one of their CDs, which is really good. It ironically contains numerous anti-Gilman Street lyrics. It seems they have a love/hate relationship with the place.

My wife was eager to see the Wasted Ones, which is a reconstituted version of the early 1980’s LA-based band Wasted Youth (along with members of Circle One). In this incarnation of the band, the previous singer’s son took over as front man, belting out a 20 minute set of songs from the band’s only release, Reagan’s In. Unfortunately, the energy just wasn’t quite right, and the crowd remained rather unimpressed and unmoved (literally).

Angry Samoans

The Angry Samoans

When The Angry Samoans came on, I wanted to feel the same excitement and furious energy that I did when I was a teenager. The truth of the matter is that both the band and I have changed, and thus so has the gestalt that results when I listen to them live. While it was comforting to hear all of the familiar songs – Inside My Brain, My Old Man’s a Fatso, You Stupid Asshole, Steak Knife – the vigor and conviction that I recall from all of those shows in the 1980’s was lacking. This time I stood back at a comfortable distance, watching all of the young punks slam dancing while the older punks steered clear of the pit. The songs were raced through in a perfunctory manner, and Metal Mike handed the microphone over to other members in the band at various points, as though he himself was too tired to belt out the lyrics anymore. The show ended abruptly, and there was an awkward lull during which the audience was unsure if that was the end of it all.

ThrashBut there was a saving grace that night, demonstrating that everything depends on one’s perspective. My wife’s teenage niece, who came with us to the show, was swept into the pit for her first time. Standing on the sidelines, a young punk grabbed her arm and pulled her into the melee, where she had her first experience with slam dancing, losing her hat, being trampled and then hoisted back to her feet by the other punks in the pit. Afterwards, she was ecstatic. She had been initiated into something that she would never forget, and both my wife and I were quite excited to be there for this important, transitionary event in her life.

An old tradition has a new recruit.

Yukio Mishima: 1925 – 1970.

imagesI first became acquainted with the works of Yuiko Mishima at around the same time that I started reading Nietzsche. Just out of high school, I was in my first year of college and in a period of life when the issue of nihilism was increasingly becoming of great concern to me. Like many young men in their late teens, I was struggling to overcome various emotional injuries and insults incurred over the course of learning my place in the social pecking order. With high school behind me,  it was time to move forward into a future life and an identity that I had trouble conceptualizing, but which required that I repair my self-esteem, establish some meaningful goals and start working to build a world around myself. I needed guidance, and for better or for worse, I found that guidance in the nihilistic philosophies of authors such as Nietzsche and Mishima.

Nietzsche loomed in my life at that time like a mythic presence from the past. He was long dead; a sage from the 19th century whose respected place in the philosophical cannon was already secure. Mishima, on the other hand, died when I was 6 years old. He had been alive during my own lifetime. People still remembered him and his dramatic suicide, and there continued to be disagreement about how seriously he should be taken as an intellectual figure. As a writer he was obviously talented, but there was much debate about whether or not the content of his philosophy was coherent or simply the product of a perverted and damaged mind. Nietzsche was my respected philosophical guide. Mishima was more like a troubled older friend who fascinated me, but threatened to lead me down a very bad path.

Mishima killed himself when he was 42, and now that I am almost 50 years old, I find myself in the weird position of encountering Mishima as his elder rather than as a young admirer. While for Mishima time stopped in 1970, I’ve continued to grow and develop philosophically, and this puts me in a position to regard my hero from a new perspective. When I was a youngster in my teens, the Mishima I saw was a Nietzschean Übermensch. Though initially a frail child, in adulthood he overcame his weaknesses in order to rebuild himself according to an ideal of his own imagining. His life was his work of art, and my young mind saw in his life project a hopeful path toward the obliteration of regret, embarrassment, and indeed, the complete destruction of an identity rooted in the past. Mishima, to my teenage mind, demonstrated the possibility of creation ex-nihilo. I regarded him as a superman who became what he was by forgetting his past and willing himself to emerge as something completely new. To my younger self, this was hopeful and exhilarating as it suggested that anything was possible and that I also could potentially escape from the fears and wounds of my own history.

From my current perspective as a 50 year old man, I see a different Mishima. To me now, he appears not as someone who has created himself out of nothing by rejecting and overcoming his past, but as someone who is bound to his past, who can’t let go of it, and who has been shaped by the weaknesses that he wanted to leave behind. Nietzsche wrote in various places about the virtue of forgetting, which allows people to free themselves from the chains of resentment. I don’t think Mishima ever mastered this virtue. The fear that gripped him throughout his life was that he would revert back to that scared, fragile, weakling of his early years. Instead of overcoming and leaving this fear behind, it now looks to me as if Mishima’s life consisted of a creative remolding of this fear, which continued to manifest itself in various guises. He resented the world. He thought it was an ugly, awful place because of his own position within it. At birth he had been thrown into a subordinate, “feminized” role as a result of his own frail physical constitution and because of his dependence on a domineering grandmother, a loving but ineffectual mother, and an intellectually superficial father.  His greatest wish was to refashion his reality into something beautiful by turning things upside down and becoming the master, the one who was in control and who could command and rule.

I have known two different Mishimas. When I was young, he was a hero who proved that nihilism could be overcome. Today he appears to me as yet another example that nihilism is never overcome.

Mishima’s life is the subject of two recent critical biographies, proving that he continues to fascinate authors and readers today. The first book, written by the govenor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, is titled Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima. The other, titled simply Yukio Mishima, is by Damian Flanagan, and was published as part of the series Critical Lives from Reaktion Books. Though they contain few new insights into Mishima’s ideas or the details of his life, these works nonetheless are of interest to anyone, like myself, who is continually drawn to revisit Mishima’s story, as if it is some sort of classical mythic drama in which one can find the reflections of one’s own nihilistic struggles.

images-1Naoki Inose’s book is a monumental tome at over 850 pages in length. For a reader beguiled by the details of Mishima’s life, there is, nevertheless, nothing superfluous here. In fact, upon finishing it I was left a bit unsatisfied and disappointed with how little attention was actually paid to the final day of Mishima’s life. I wish that the book had been longer, with more description of the drama that unfolded at the self-defence headquarters on November 25th, 1970.

A notably unique detail about Inose’s account is his willingness to pass an approving judgement on the quality of Mishima’s seppuku. Chapter 31 ends with the following account:

The wound Mishima made by disembowelment started 1.6 inches below his navel, 5.5 inches long from left to right, and 1.6 to 2 inches deep. Twenty inches of his intestines came out.

It was a magnificent seppuku. (p. 729)

This is an unusual, and I think a brave, admission of admiration. Typically, accounts of Mishima’s suicide adopt a tone of disapproval, as though the act clearly was a terrible and twisted thing. This author’s recognition that Mishima’s death lived up to the aesthetic ideals of a noble samurai disembowelment bravely eschews superficial mainstream moralizing and acknowledges the tremendous – and startling – nature of Mishima’s resolve. What he did really was quite amazing. It was not an act of insanity. It was a disciplined and fully thought out act of aesthetic rebellion. Mishima would have liked to live forever. However, this being impossible, he seized the next best alternative: to grab a hold of his finitude and form it into something of his own choosing. Instead of allowing the impersonal and meaningless forces of nature to take their course, Mishima insisted upon a conclusion to his life that would forever shape the world’s understanding of who he was. He was not the same as the average folks of the world who simply grow old, age and die. He was more like Socrates, another man who chose to die as an act of rebellion against the world in which he lived. His death was a fitting conclusion to his life. Just as there would be no Socrates without his death by hemlock, and just as there would be no Jesus without his death on the cross, likewise there would be no Mishima without his death by seppuku.

9781780233451In his book, Damain Flanagan notes that on the day of his death, Mishima left a note on his desk which read:

Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever. (p. 236)

I see this as an indication of Mishima’s unresolved (and unresolvable) nihilism. The truth of the world is that we can never overcome our imperfections, our finitude, or our missteps. We are thrown into a world and we build our identities from the raw material of the past, which forms the foundation upon which we leap into an undetermined future. Mishima recognized the absurd impossibility of living forever, of being perfect, of being a consummate master of life, and yet he also was unable to give up on the desire for immortality, perfection and complete mastery. Part of the issue here rests with the fact that while we can choose our own projects and interpretations of life, the one thing we cannot choose is the facticity, the givenness, of that which has already transpired. Mishima wanted to obliterate his past, first through novelistic reinterpretation, and then finally through bodily discipline. But in the end, he failed. Neither his novels nor his transformation into a body-building samurai make any sense apart from the concrete facts of his early life. Mishima was a man who, like all of us, could not escape the past. He could merely transform it into something bearable.

I like the fact that Flanagan highlights preoccupation with time as a chronic theme in Mishima’s life. As a child, daily imprisoned in his grandmother’s room, the young Mishima became intensely attuned to the passage of minutes. As a young man during World War II, he became intensely aware of the inevitability of death and the shortness of life. After the War, he became preoccupied with leaving a mark on the world. This required quick and determined action against a backdrop of the passage of time and the irreversible aging of the body. Time conspires against us, threatening to undermine and destroy all of our efforts to create something permanent, beautiful and lasting. This was the problem faced by Mishima, but the reason why his art appeals to so many of us is that it is also the problem we all face.

In his cycle of novels, The Sea of Fertility Tetrology, the final volume of which was completed on the very day of his suicide, Mishima integrated Buddhist ideas about the transmigration of the soul. But Mishima was not a Buddhist in his heart. Buddhism teaches that the suffering of life can be overcome by relinquishing desire, and this is something that I believe Mishima never could do. To the Buddhist, the world is fine the way it is. It is our own yearning that makes the world appear substandard. To Mishima – as to all nihilists – the world always falls short of what it should be, and the only recourse that we have as human beings is to mold reality into a form that more closely resembles our own subjective vision of perfection. The tragedy is that wishing does not make it so, and the objective world continues to resist our efforts.

images-2As the anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s death approaches this month, he would no doubt be pleased that we still remember him and his nihilistic efforts to inject some purity into an impure universe.

Cornell West

Cornell WestAs part of the 2014 City Arts and Lectures series, Cornell West spoke at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco on Friday, October 10th. I was excited to finally get the chance to hear him speak and to see him in the flesh. Years ago, when living in Western New York, I drove two hours to see his appearance at SUNY Binghamton, only to find a sold out event and excess throngs of people, both young and old, unable to cram their way into the auditorium. How unusual for a philosopher to attract such crowds, I thought. Could it really be that all of these people are here to listen to a man who writes about nihilism, God and the importance of nurturing the soul? Am I in the wrong place?

I wasn’t in the wrong place. Cornell West excites passionate enthusiasm among a large and wide diversity of readers and admirers; many of them folks who might not otherwise be interested in philosophical thinking or matters of the soul. A good deal of this has to do with his own passion, his authentic spirit and his down-to-earth way of comporting himself. In San Francisco the crowd was large, but not sold out. Nonetheless, it was an adoring audience, filled with young and old people of all colors, many of whom yelled out and muttered appreciatively whenever West made a remark or an observation with which they agreed. One young woman who asked him a question after the end of the talk received a hug from Dr. West, and as we left the auditorium I saw her surrounded by giddy friends, still dreamy-eyed and swooning. This is the sort of adoration normally heaped on music or movie stars.  It was refreshing to see an intellectual figure with the charisma and the power of personality to affect youngsters in this way. Maybe there is still some hope for the future!

West was in conversation with Astra Taylor, director of the excellent philosophical documentaries Zizek! and Examined Life. Ostensibly, the topic of conversation was West’s new book, Black Prophetic Fire, but in fact the conversation flowed from one subject to the next, with Dr. West riffing on subjects the way that a jazz musician riffs on musical themes. His wide-ranging comments jumped from observations about historical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., to a critique of modern technology, to a meditation on the soulfulness of older forms of music and the soul-lessness of contemporary music. On the one hand, it was an invigorating experience to follow along with the free-flowing movement of West’s thought process. On the other, there were points when I found myself wanting to hear clear and distinct answers to the questions posed by the interviewer and by the audience members. I got the sense that Astra Taylor also, at points, was feeling this way, as she repeatedly tried to get West to answer a particular question, which he repeatedly evaded, about the distinctively “prophetic” nature of the thinkers in his latest book. Nothing ever really came of this, as every time she posed the question West would launch into a passionate monologue about the importance of being soulful that inevitably ended up as a discourse on the topic of music.

But in order to fully appreciate a speaker like Cornell West, I started to realize that I needed to let go and stop expecting clear and systematic answers to the issues and questions, and rather just follow along with the ebb and flow of thought. As his frequent forays into the topic of jazz should have alerted me, West’s thought is more musical than it is argumentative. He picks up on themes and feelings, then runs with whatever connections rush into his mind. And at times these connections bring incredibly provocative insight. For instance, when asked about the power of social media to help bring people together and to move revolutionary movements forward, West suggested that we be careful not to mistake mere “astroturf” for true “grassroots” organizing. The danger of social media, he cautioned is that people become addicted to instant gratification and short, small bits of information. Like an addiction, this can result in the drive for short term pleasure at the expense of the more difficult drive for long-term joy. True joy does not come quickly and easily. It can only be found by being patient, digging deep and nurturing the soul. Social media is superficial, operating at a surface level. The depths of the soul must be plumbed in a different manner; a manner that is found in the music of people like John Coltrane or Billie Holliday. It is here that pain and suffering is transformed into something transcendent and spiritual. But this sort of expression is only made possible by living through the pain of life, meditating deeply on its meaning and significance, and then transforming that suffering into an art form that speaks to others on a fundamental, human level.

Even though I am not a big fan of Colltrane or Holliday, I couldn’t agree more with West’s sentiment. It is a sentiment that I have expressed to students who sometimes dismiss me as an old fuddy-duddy. However, when Cornell West expressed this idea, there was something about him that resonated even with the youngsters sitting in front of us who were fiddling with their I phones. They paused and took notice, somehow being touched by the truth of what was being said.

Most of my life I have had a problem with idealizing the people I admire. Upon meeting my idols, or encountering them in the flesh, they have normally failed to live up to my expectations and hopes. This is my own “twilight of the idols,” my own everyday experience of nihilism. What I am beginning to learn, however, is that this is not really a failing of those that I admire from afar. Rather, it is the result of my own way of thinking. I’m the one who builds up unrealistic expectations by looking for perfection in mere human beings. Listening to speakers like Cornell West in some ways helps me to moderate this tendency in my own thinking by encouraging me to be more patient and to strive harder to understand others on their own terms, rather than on the terms that I myself have established for them. His message that evening at the Nourse Theater – that we should avoid the temptation to seek quick fixes and superficial answers to questions – was not lost on me.

Film-Philosophy Conference 2014

homepageImage_en_USAfter returning from a month and a half long visit to Scotland at the beginning of the year, I was back on the plane to Glasgow for the 2014 Film-Philosophy Conference, held during the first week of July.

Jet lag hit me hard this time around. I arrived the day before the start of the conference, not anticipating the adverse effect such an abrupt interruption in my normal rhythms would have. I was unable to sleep my first night in Scotland, and as a result I operated in a haze the following day until I was able to slip back to my accommodations out in the suburbs (a subway and a train ride away) to catch up on my sleep that afternoon. Over the course of the week, I struggled with a disrupted sleep cycle that only settled down once the weekend commenced and the talks had come to an end. In the future I’ll try to arrive a few days early to ensure that my old bones can cope with this sort of annoying reality about international travel.

The atmosphere at the Film-Philosophy meeting was different from most US philosophy conferences I have attended. First of all, as might be expected in Europe, the vast majority of presentations were in the Continental tradition, with the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche and Badiou playing the most prominent roles. While I admit that it is precisely with such thinkers that my greatest interests lie, I must also confess that there were points at which I began to sympathize with some of the complaints voiced by my Anglo-American/Analytic friends concerning the obscurity of much Continental thought. At some of the talks I wasn’t sure if the effects of jet lag were interfering with my comprehension, if I was stupid, if the presenters were being unclear, or if the ideas being discussed were just very difficult. There was probably a bit of all four of these things going on, to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it was good to feel like I was being challenged with new and sometimes unfamiliar ideas.

A welcome surprise was how polite the attendees were with one another. Every comment made by audience members was prefaced with thanks and appreciative remarks to the speakers. There were no personal attacks or hostilities at any of the sessions I attended; things which are, unfortunately, not uncommon at many US philosophy conferences. Hostile verbal abuse became so bad at US conferences that at one point there was an official plea from the offices of the American Philosophical Association imploring its members to remain civil and tolerant with one another at meetings! In fact, the first time that I myself ever delivered a paper in the US, I was angrily attacked by a couple of men in the audience who heartily agreed with one another that I was both a racist and a sexist due to my interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Ironically, it was a group of women philosophers who came to my defense during that episode. (A funny side note is that the following year I was on a panel with one of my attackers who did not even remember me!) In any case, there was none of that sort of nonsense at the Film-Philosophy conference, where the atmosphere was quite friendly and welcoming.

One criticism I have concerns a number of the speakers, some of whom should have been more organized and prepared to operate in the time-frame scheduled for them. Most of the panel participants had 20 minutes for the reading of their papers while the various keynote speakers had over an hour to deliver their addresses. It was unfortunate that quite a few of the participants tried to cram too much information into their talks and thus found themselves editing their presentations as they went along. This was complicated by the fact that a lot of them also wanted to show film clips; something that was not always possible within the time constraints. The chairmen and chairwomen of the sessions were pretty good at enforcing time limits; however this resulted in presentations that sometimes ended up a bit fragmented and rushed.

I was part of a panel titled “Globalized Myths of Anywhere and Elsewhere.” Lucy Bolton, from the Queen Mary University of London, was the session chair, and Tiago De Luca, from the University of Liverpool, kicked things off with his paper “Humanity as Allegory in the Multi-Narrative Film.” His presentation analyzed films such as Babel, The Edge of Heaven and Amores Perros, all of which contain multiple, parallel, but only loosely connected narratives. His argument was that this sort of narrative structure reflects current trends in globalization in which people worldwide find their lives intertwined in ways that can lead both to meaningful connection and to a sense of passive fatalism. Andre Fischer, from Stanford University, continued the session with his paper “Mythic Thinking in Werner Herzog’s new grammar of images,” in which he drew on the ideas of Nietzsche to suggest that Herzog’s films express a Dionysian leap into the abyss, and the attempt to create a “grammar of images” that offers a mythic response to our modern malaise. I concluded the session with my paper “The Myth of Scotland as Nowhere in Particular,” in which I applied Heideggerian insights concerning art to an analysis of movies filmed in Scotland. I argued that there is currently an emerging cinematic countermovement against past Scottish mythologizing that I call “the myth of Scotland as nowhere in particular.” In this new “myth,” Scotland is used as a setting for dramas that downplay traditional Scottish stereotypes, evoking worlds that could be anywhere at any time.

Our session went well, and afterwards there was an interesting, friendly conversation among the participants and the audience. I had a really good time and met some very interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.

A particularly interesting session was conducted later that afternoon by Laura U. Marks, from Simon Fraser University. Her keynote speech, “A World of Flowing, Intensifying Images: Mulla Sadra Meets Cinema Studies,” addressed issues in Islamic philosophy and applied them to film analysis. Marks focused on the idea of the “imaginal realm,” which is developed in the works of the Persian philosopher Mulla Sadra. Islam is often thought to be hostile to the use of images and representations, but Marks argued that this is not always the case. In Shi’ite Islam there is a great degree of tolerance for the use of images that are believed (in a Platonic way) to be capable of functioning as conduits for the Truth. In the writings of Mulla Sadra, the concept of the “imaginal realm” – a realm of imagery existing halfway between the illusions of  the senses and the absolute Truths of the eternal Forms – offers a way of thinking about filmic representations that grants them a role in the human aspiration toward ultimate reality. This was fascinating stuff.

DARK-LIGHT-SCREENING_Poster2-160x160I began the last day of the conference by attending a screening of the film Dark Light, at which the filmmaker, Maria O’Connor, was present to discuss her work. The film consists of a 70 minute montage of horse imagery overlayed with an audio track in German, French and Italian. The audio consists of enigmatic utterances referencing thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Badiou, provoking viewers to consider the relationship between humanity and animality. Alongside images of horses being groomed and galluping we hear about Nietzsche’s collapse as he protectively threw his arms around a horse that was being beaten by its owner. There are references to Heidegger’s views on how animals don’t “die,” but simply “expire.” All of this raises questions in the viewers mind: What is the difference between how a human and a horse experiences the world? Are horses aware of death? What sort of spiritual bond exists between horses and humans? I found myself a bit befuddled by the film, and I confessed to O’Connor that I felt “discombobulated” after watching it. She laughed and seemed to be pleased with this reaction. On the first day of the conference she had been on a panel where she made comments about how her film experiments with ideas about the withdrawl of Being, and with ideas about how Being is revealed through the lives of children. As I later reflected on these thoughts it shed some light – even if it was a dark light – on the significance of her work. In any case, I enjoyed the opportunity to see her film and to hear her speak about it.

Over the course of the three day schedule I attended a number of other notable sessions dealing with the ideas of Deleuze, the politics of film, and the nature of remakes. By the time the conference concluded, my jet lag had passed, and once again it was time for me to hop on a plane and head back home to the US, away from the grey, cloudy, wet Glaswegian summer.